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13 Things I Had (Almost) Forgotten About New York City in December

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Only one city on Earth makes me feel like a country cousin. I’ve been traveling all my life but each year, when I visit New York City in December, I’m still awed by the bright lights of the city. Literally.

I’m overwhelmed by first impressions, as though I had never been here before. I must be caught in the movie Groundhog Day, where everything happens over and over, for the first time, because I forget

1. …The suicidal taxi drivers

New York City has more than 13,000 taxis but I usually choose the one that wants to take my life. Drivers reach aircraft takeoff speeds on straight stretches of street as they try to catch traffic lights while they’re still green. If a light were to suddenly turn red I’d surely be bisected by the seat belt.

New York City - taxis on Times Square

2. The fact that streets are numbered

Living in Europe means my streets have names, not numbers. No matter how many times I visit New York City I get lost. Yet absolutely everyone seems to concur: it is easy to get around precisely because of the numbers. Please tell me that again as I run around in the cold looking for a restaurant on 18th and Sixth. Except that it’s actually on 16th and Eighth. What’s wrong with Main and Elm?

In fact all this numbering came about by design in a plan – called the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 – by the New York State Legislature, bless them. It has been called “far-reaching” and “visionary” and is excruciatingly precise: avenues 100ft/30m wide and streets 60ft/18m, with a few wider cross-streets, and the distance between avenues irregular but still decreed.

The plan has changed only slightly over the years, with a few avenues renamed (from Fourth to Park, for example) and some added streets. It might be brilliant for residents, but take me outside and turn me around twice and I won’t know if I’m headed East or West – unless I walk a block and read the next street sign. 

New York City - numbered streets

3. I’d rather untangle a plate of spaghetti than a subway map

Like the street grid, the subway system is a perfectly sensible invention, with color coding and a clear pattern. Which doesn’t quite explain how I came to be crossing the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn while trying to get to Chinatown. If you’re not familiar with New York, all you need to know is that I was seriously heading away from my destination, circling the city underground. It must be me.

The subway is certainly impressive, with more than 400 stations, 1.65 billion yearly riders, and a system older than 100 years (some of the clanking and rattling subway cars sound like they might be originals). But what with numbered and lettered lines, downtown and uptown directions and express versus local lines, my unplanned detour to Brooklyn is understandable.

Subway NYC

4. The bitter morning cold of New York City in December

When I lived in Montreal I would expect my frozen breath to curl up into my equally frozen nostrils, my eyes to water, my nose to run and my lungs constrict in winter. Years in Europe have softened me and returning to the bitter North American December is always a bit of a shock. This time though, I came prepared, with the requisite coat, winter boots, scarves and gloves – everything I needed for the snowstorms I expected but hoped wouldn’t happen while I was there. (They did.)

Freezing in NYC Chinatown

5. The utterly staggering number of decisions I might be required to make

When a menu has 16 pages and each page dozens of items, that almost ends it for me.

Take the simple salad. “Of course Ma’m. Will that be blue cheese, French, Italian, Thousand Island or balsamic dressing?”

Right. “And would you like some bread with that? White, whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel, bagel, or the Special House Poppy Seed Pomegranate Honey Scallion and Garlic?” Shops. Brands. Restaurants. Shows. Even a quick trip to the drugstore to buy breakfast cereals (where else would you buy them?) yields a moment of panic.

Drugstore shelf in NYC

There’s something about having too many choices that makes it more difficult to choose. In The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz says limiting choices can actually reduce consumer anxiety. And that would explain why my blood pressure rises when my choices expand. Whatever I choose, there’s a niggling suspicion the other choice might have been better. And then there’s the famous jam experiment, in which buyers chose from large and small assortments. Amazingly, 30% of people who tasted from the smaller selection actually bought some jam, while only 3% who tasted from the larger selection bought any. In other words, fewer choices meant ten times more sales. I rest my case.

6. The garbage trucks, car alarms… and fish horns?

This time it’s not just me. In 2012 New Yorkers called in more than 40,000 noise complaints! And you know what kinds of noise they hated the most? Garbage trucks. Car horns and alarms. A vague banging/pounding.

If you’d lived in 1905, here’s how the New York Times would have described city noises: “Trolley cars, boiler making, elevated roads, Subway trains, harbor sirens, and various steam whistles, riveting machines, trucks laden with slabs of iron and rails of steel, milk wagons banging over the pavements in the small morning hours, hand organs, phonographs with megaphone attachment, fish horns, knife-grinding serenades, yelling junkmen, hucksters and peddlers with cowbell distractions, cracked bells ringing day and night in churches and chapels.”

A few days ago it was early evening on the corner of something and something (see numerically challenged #2 above). I closed my eyes for no more than a couple of minutes to really ‘hear’ New York City: three piercing sirens, half a dozen honking horns, one busker (sound drifting out of subway), one preacher with a megaphone (I am saved. Really!), one angry woman breaking up with significant other on the phone…

New Yorkers’ coping strategy? Wear earbuds or headphones and lock yourself away from the noise. That said, once those earbuds come off, New Yorkers are among the friendliest people on earth. 

Police cars and noise in New York City

7. Its super-size

New York City is the largest city in the US. Towering. Immense. Monumental. Magnificent. The long streets, the proportions of Central Park, the buildings so tall I walk staring skyward (with predictable results).

This is a city defined by its size. Just look at some of these numbers: 8.3 million people, nearly one million companies (a third of them women-owned), and nearly 30,000 people per square mile. One World Trade Center, which replaces the Twin Towers destroyed by terrorists in 2001, is the world’s tallest skyscraper.

It’s not just physical size – it’s mental too. This is the city of giant aspirations, immeasurable ambitions, colossal fortunes. It is also the city of huge hearts and huge smiles. Huge.

Tall buildings in New York City

8. The diversity

As someone said to me, it’s not a melting pot, it’s a stew! And so it is. During a ten-minute walk I heard English, two different kinds of Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Cantonese, Thai, Hungarian, a Nordic language, Turkish, Finnish and two I couldn’t decipher. Apparently more than 800 languages are spoken here.

New York City celebrates 16 different religious holidays representing six different faiths; more than a third of the population was born abroad; and it is the most ethnically diverse city in the US, a title once held by Los Angeles.

If I ever wanted to travel without going anywhere I’d park myself on a busy New York street corner and look and listen.

Food cart in New York City

9. How extraordinarily delicious the food can be

Living in rural France means having access to some superb food – most of it French. New York City, with its waves of immigrants, excels in every culinary tradition. I can easily find delectable Chinese or Thai or Mexican food, or drop-dead fancy home cooking like Prune, where this quail with parsley sauce came from…

Delicious quail at Prune, NYC

…and cheesecake and pastrami sandwiches and old-fashioned diners and BBQ ribs and steak and soup dumplings and… Many of New York’s immigrants first settled on the Lower East Side, where the foods still mirror the city’s complex history.

10. The double-takes

No comment. Welcome to New York City. In December!

New York City Times Square

11. The energy!

It’s speedy, it’s intense, it’s blood-pumping – in New York I feel as though someone is pressing a palm against my back and propelling me forward. I walk more quickly, my brain is more engaged, and I can fit twice as much into a single day. Perhaps it’s because there is so much more to do but in New York, my sense of purpose and drive are stronger than anywhere else, that adrenaline pumping, proof that I’m going places.

Crowds at Grand Central Station, New York City

12. They’ll deliver anything – even breakfast

Where I live, take-out pizza is still a novelty. In New York City everything is available at the end of the phone line, often 24 hours a day – even breakfast. I wonder if I’d cook as much if I could just pick up the phone when hungry?

Breakfast delivery in Brooklyn

13. New Yorkers believe in Christmas

New York City at Christmas is special, with first snows and Christmas trees and staggering holiday displays on streets and in stores. What December visitor hasn’t seen the skating rink or the tree at Rockefeller Center or Macy’s decorated windows? Visiting FAO Schwarz, the legendary toy store, is like being six again.

New York City ChristmasChristmas in New York

While New Yorkers may travel to Paris or the pyramids to find something exotic, the rest of us come to New York to feel transported, energized, renewed.

What I don’t forget about New York City between visits is the city’s sense of promise, that feeling that something, anything, is about to happen, and it will be good.

Embrace it if it’s on your doorstep. I often wish it were on mine.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • New York City for years had a reputation for crime. If you’ve stayed away because of it think again. It’s one of the safest cities I know. I took the subway solo at night, walked home in Harlem in the dark, and never got mugged. Not once (which is more than I can say about Beijing, for example).
  • Don’t leave home without a map – of Manhattan, of course, but of the subway as well.
  • Get a Metrocard for the week if you’re staying that long – believe me, you’ll use it. And you won’t care if you get lost.
  • New York doesn’t have to be expensive – although it can be if you don’t watch what you do. Everything is tempting so unless you’re swimming in money, make a daily budget beforehand or you’ll spend a lot more than you planned.

10 Comments

  1. Rita on December 21, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    I love NYC in December. The energy, the Christmas pageant (and I’m not Christian….), and the ice skating at Rockefeller Center.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 21, 2013 at 10:44 pm

      I’ve been in other seasons as well but for the past 8 years or so I’ve had a recurrent meeting each December so I really look forward to it – and usually I bring snow, which doesn’t amuse my New York friends.

  2. Sheila Archer on December 24, 2013 at 1:09 am

    Wonderful reading. You’ve captured it perfectly! Happy Holidays.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 24, 2013 at 9:24 am

      Thank you Sheila! It’s always a challenge to write an overview piece about such a huge and diverse place – I’m happy a ‘real New Yorker’ liked it.

  3. Suzanne Fluhr on December 25, 2013 at 7:04 am

    I live 100 miles south of NYC, in Philadelphia, a city and metro area of 3 million people, wedged between New York and the nation’s capital, that national weather maps often don’t show. I’m an urban dweller. Both my parents grew up in NYC. I live in Center City Philadelphia BUT, visiting NYC, still overwhelms me. I feel like I must have hayseed in my hair as I walk along the sidewalk (hopefully ON the sidewalk), looking up at the canyons of skyscrapers, mouth agape. I find most of the things you mentioned more unsettling than fun. I keep meaning to get to know NYC better, but I’ll be in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore and Honolulu before I next have the opportunity 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 25, 2013 at 9:22 am

      I have to admit I love New York – it may intimidate me and have me running in circles but when I get it right it’s divine. But mentioning three of my favorite cities (I don’t know Honolulu) is making me dream. They are also incredibly sophisticated, and Hong Kong is every bit as intimidating as New York. It’s the only city in which I’ve ever got lost indoors, in a shopping mall!

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  5. Michele Peterson on December 29, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    I haven’t been to NYC in December but it sounds crazy enough that I’d love it. That photo of the bikini-wearing cyclist is priceless!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 29, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      I can’t imagine not loving NYC – at least for short periods. And yes, that guy was superb – I never even saw his face! It was one of those where-is-my-iphone rush moments, couldn’t resist.

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