There was a time when visitors to the New World would get their first glimpse of New York from the deck of a sumptuous cruise liner. After days at sea, these weary travellers would look out to the horizon and spot the distant silhouette of the Statue of Liberty, or perhaps even the Elephantine Colossus — the huge elephant-shaped hotel that stood for a short time on Coney Island. Whichever it was, it would have made quite an impression.
My own introduction to the city was less memorable. I’d flown into JFK, where the usual airport queues were followed by a tiresome coach journey through unremarkable suburbs, before we clawed our way through traffic into Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. It might well be trendy, but the Meatpacking District failed to offer me the cinematic New York welcome I’d been craving. It reminded me of the East London of my childhood — a clump of empty streets and unfinished buildings far removed from the gilded boulevards I’d been expecting.
When I arrived at my hotel, my room wasn’t ready, so to kill time before check-in, I decided to walk The High Line — a former elevated railroad, now a pedestrian walkway that eventually deposited me in what I can only describe as the middle of bloody nowhere. It was a frustrating start.
Sometimes, if you’ve got off on the wrong foot with a new city, you can quickly become intolerant of its foibles. And so it was over the next 48 hours, I found myself focusing on the things I didn’t like about the Big Apple — like the abruptness of its shop workers or the inflexibility of its cab drivers.
Meanwhile, as all this was going on, my friend Pat was across town having a whale of a time. Having spent a few days in Washington DC, he’d taken the train to Penn Station and emerged into the heart of Manhattan, mouth agape as a majestic sweep of New York’s biggest icons assembled before him. Whereas my first taste of the city had been congestion and dereliction, his had been the Empire State Building and Macy’s.
From then on Pat was in understandably high spirits and, after spending some time with him, his good mood even rubbed off on me, and I finally started to see New York’s charm for myself. But by then my trip was nearly over, and I’d spent most of it being grumpy and underwhelmed.
Looking back, I can’t help but think I wasted a great opportunity. My experience fits neatly with Bill Bryson’s theory that one’s impressions of a place are often deeply coloured by the route taken into it. ‘Enter London by way of the leafy suburbs of Richmond, Barnes and Putney and alight at, say, Kensington Gardens or Green Park and you would think that you were in the midst of some vast, well-tended Arcadia,’ he wrote in Notes from a Small Island. ‘Enter it by way of Southend, Romford and Liverpool Street and you would perceive it in another way altogether.’
And what’s true of New York and London is true of countless other famous cities, especially in these days of budget flights to out-of-town airports. Take the train to Venice’s Santa Lucia station and you’ll be greeted with a watery picture-postcard panorama. But take a no-frills flight to Treviso airport and then a coach to the multi-storey car parks of Tronchetto Island, and you might start to wonder whether you’ve ended up in the wrong place.
So think about that big, famous city that left you cold and grumpy. Could it be you just approached it from the wrong direction? I suppose we all like to trust our first impressions, but sometimes it’s worth going back on yourself, to make sure you’ve not got it wrong.
After all, I’ve clearly got New York wrong. The sheer weight of other people’s reactions to it tells me this. And now I simply must return — because I refuse to be the only man on Earth who just doesn’t get it.
It’s always worth giving the world a second chance. Just make sure that when you do, you think carefully about your entrance. Always try to arrive via the elephant-shaped hotel. And never via Southend or Romford.
Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)