Discover New York City – through the eyes of great poets – and Anna. She visited the city that never sleeps with Thomas Austenfeld, Professor of American Literature, and 26 other students of his class. Poems like „The Subway Platform“ by Sheck, Lorde’s „A Trip on the Staten Island Ferry“ and „Mannahatta“ by Whitman guided the class through their big city adventure. Read more about the unique experience of Student Anna Vestermark Caccia, who tells us about 9/11, Central Park and a lot more in her four essays.
Being from a small village, and never having been to the United States, I didn’t really know what to expect from this trip. I have always loved travelling and planning activities while on vacation. For this reason, I thought I was prepared for New York City, as I had bought three guides two months prior to the trip. I had read about the best restaurants (…which we definitely didn’t find), the neighborhoods, the skyscrapers, and even had a subway map. Well, none of this was enough. I can’t say that New York is totally different from what I expected, but I can’t say that it is as I imagined it to be either. What I can say for sure is that this trip changed me.
I have lived my whole life in a small valley village of 650 people, most of whom are old and pretty conservative. If something happens (he cheated! She’s pregnant! And oh my God have you seen that awful house?), everyone finds out in less than a week. This is something I definitely don’t miss in New York, where everyone seems to live their life without caring too much about other people. I deeply enjoy this sense of freedom, and find it comforting.
Inspired and a little scared
As I make my way down the city street, I feel overwhelmed by people walking and talking in unknown languages. People with looks that I have never seen before, totally different from what I am used to. People that look bizarre to me, to say the least. Everyone looks strong, and confident about their appearance. They seem to say, «this is me, this is the way I live, and I am not going to change to please you». I feel inspired by these New Yorkers, or foreigners who have perfectly adapted to this lifestyle, so full of life and passion. They feel comfortable dressing and acting anyway that they care to, and I envy them. I soon find out that New Yorkers can either give you no attention, or too much attention. As a small town girl, I quickly have to get used to some «damn girl!», «hey beautiful how are you doing?», «how old are you girls?» and a shop owner saying «muy carina! Sexy looking! Very sexy looking!», which is something to laugh about with friends, but it would have been totally different had I been on my own.
The not so bright side
Of course, not everyone in New York is so unfiltered. Quiet, discrete – almost invisible, I dare say – people can be found sitting at every corner, with a cardboard and a paper cup. «I need money for weed – hey, why should I lie?», «My wife needs a transplant», «Anything helps – God bless you!», «Give me $1 or I’m voting for Trump» (very clever, I must admit) are just some of the sentences I read on cardboards. But there is one I will never forget: «So many people walk by me, I feel like a ghost». New York is a city of contrasts: people stop to buy coffee or ice cream but are too busy to throw a couple of coins inside a paper cup, and they can afford to spend the night in a luxury hotel but suddenly don’t have anything on them when it comes to helping someone else. Having rarely seen any homeless people in Switzerland, seeing dozens every day in New York is undeniably shocking. After a couple of days, though, I am already used to it, and this is the sad thing about big cities: you get used to anything, and unconsciously accept everything you see, as it has become normal. Turning a blind eye to someone desperately in need simply becomes a part of the daily routine. I clearly didn’t change New York City, and the people I gave money to are still living – or rather, surviving – on the same street. But at least I can say I made an effort. I don’t know anything about them and will never know if they are telling the truth (in fact, it seems like everyone needs a transplant or is a military veteran). To be honest, I don’t really care. Will this person use my money in a decent way? And, actually, what is a decent way? Truthfully, it doesn’t matter to me what they are going to use my money for – for once in my life, I try not to be so judgmental. If a homeless person wants to buy a drink with my dollar (especially in expensive New York City, where one dollar is not enough for anything), let them buy a drink with it. I find myself in a particular situation one evening: while at a grocery store, I see a man quietly asking everyone to pay for his two items, and I see the shame on his face. I decide to help him, and spend $10 on his ice cream and cookies. At first I am annoyed – I don’t say anything, but think: «Seriously? Ice cream and cookies? He should have bought bread, or anything else». After the trip, I kept thinking about this. I have come to the conclusion that I shouldn’t care about what this man wanted me to buy for him – if I made his life a little easier with some vanilla ice cream and chocolate chip cookies, I’m all for it.
My visit to New York City was a life changing experience. For the first time in my life, I was exposed to a little taste of what the real world is like. A far from perfect world, very different from what I am used to in Switzerland. And, in my opinion, a way more interesting world.
- Photos: Domitilla Cerclé