As the name of this column suggests, one of my favorite things about New York City is the ability to experience so much from the world within the borders of our five boroughs. But more than exploring a neighborhood or eating in a restaurant, just living and breathing (or visiting) New York can take you on an international journey.
Unlike most vacations during which I visit one country or region, in New York I travel the world every day. Even in my neighborhood, the fairly bland Murray Hill, I experience cultural exchanges daily. Some days, I wake up and head around the corner to Aussie chain Pie Face, where a fresh faced import greets me with her delightful Australian accent and cajoles me into buying a savory spinach roll for breakfast. From that 34th Street corner where I’m transported, momentarily, to Australia, even if just for a few bites, I typically head over to the nail salon. Inside Buddha Nails, it’s as if I’ve made the journey to Nepal. The lighting fast sounds of foreign tongues echoes throughout the small establishment. Whenever I sit down in the chair, I am happy to learn about Diwali, henna or one of the country’s other religious festivals or traditions. I often talk with the owner and his wife, Kala, about their homeland, learning much about the work they do to help those at home, and about the customs that differentiate Nepal. Though I’ve never actually been, through my interactions at Buddha Nails, I feel as if I know Nepal on some level.
If it’s one of New York’s bright summer days, wandering the streets with no particular agenda is one of my favorite things to do. Sometimes I run into the popular summer street fairs that in one stretch of an avenue take you on a veritable world food tour. From South American arepas to spanikopita or pad thai, the summer fairs in the city let you taste the world, one street side bite at a time.
If I’m really in the mood for a cultural adventure, I head to the Russian baths on the Lower East Side. The old school “spa” is more pragmatic than luxurious, just the way I imagine Moscow’s baths. The structure that houses the baths today has been servicing New York’s immigrant Russian community since 1892. The receptionist at the front desk, a beautiful young Russian woman with a heavy accent, certainly seems Soviet in style. She’s always to the point, hesitating to elaborate in any way.
If shopping is more what I happen to be in the mood for, the streets of South America and Europe are available at my Manhattan doorstop. In Soho, bohemian Puro Chile sells the finest crafts, clothing and wares straight from the stores namesake country and is staffed by jovial quick-tongued Chileans. Just across the way, Fjallraven sells the Swedish utilitarian backpacks popularized in the Scandinavian country back in 1978.
Often, I meander, letting the streets, stores and people define my journey. The people in New York are just as much a part of the cultural exchange as the places. The friends I’ve made in NYC hail from across the world. In a few weeks, I’ll visit my friend from graduate school, Cristian, in his hometown of Santiago, Chile. Dinner with my friends from grad school is always a cultural affair, in fact. Within our small group, New York, Chile, Bolivia, Japan, France, Argentina, Sweden and the Philippines are all represented. When we get together, it can feel like a meeting of the United Nations.
The city is a bridge connecting people from different destinations across the globe. As long as you are open to the trip, almost all the interactions and experiences you have in New York City can be seen as a cultural journey. New York is not just about one place or people; it’s about various traditions, ideologies and cultures mixing together to create New York City’s distinctive personality.
Featured image courtesy of Viator