The plane stood motionless on the tarmac for five hours as I sat in seat 26A, staring out the window at the blanket of black ice, remembering a silvery New Year’s holiday in New York.
It felt as if I was leaving a lover, not a town.
My trip had begun perfectly. Shortly after arriving, I raced to a Bikram yoga studio to unbend after a 21-hour flight and encountered a Manhattan unicorn: a man both sensitive and brawny, a fireman who was a yoga instructor in his spare time.
Instead of savaging us, Hot Yoga Man soothed us: “It’s O.K. You’re doing great! We can’t all be stars!” When we lay on our backs, roasting in the heat, he opened a window, and fog slid across the room; the cold ushered in a cloud.
New York never fails to deliver. Like many who fall in love with another country, with escape and exploration and the exotic, I cannot forget New York, where I have lived as both a child and an adult, where I got engaged and had my second baby. I have pined for it ever since I reluctantly left and returned home to Australia, in a way I can barely explain; if I were your friend, and New York were a man, you would slap me and stage an intervention.
Australia is sunny, certain, prosperous and beautiful. Dolphins and turtles swim in the bay at the bottom of my street.
But New York is a lover that has never betrayed me, constant in its promise, in its enduring embrace and unerring belief that my plodding self could do or be anything. Stepping out of a cab in Manhattan is like licking your finger and sticking it in an electrical socket, or, as Alicia Keys sings, “There’s nothing you can’t do, these streets will make you feel brand-new.”
New Yorkers are usually fired by an infectious sense of eternal possibility. When I tell American friends I am writing a biography of Queen Victoria, for example, they invariably beam: “Wow, great subject! Perfect for you!” Australian acquaintances crinkle their noses: “What? Why? That is going to be So. Much. Work.”
New York is a stoker of dreams, a disreputable, charming, buoyant rake.
Australia is easier; the fit, strong, stable man you know you should commit to.
When I lived in Manhattan, I longed for my small children to be able to run barefoot in summer, not to fry like eggs on dirty, steaming sidewalks in the heat, nor see rats coughing up poison on our street corner, nor suffer the round of inexplicable flus that plague kids in New York City. I wanted them to know a country of endless waves, broad skies and red dirt.
But I also want my children — now 4 and 7 — to know Christmas in New York, to walk past rows of pine trees for sale, leaning against lampposts, and wander Fifth Avenue, bug-eyed, faces lit by lights sparkling from the glowing panther crawling up the Cartier store. I want them to see the rows of trees wrapped with tiny, twinkling globes, and to know snow, the pounding rush of sleds on dirty white hills, the sudden hush of blizzards, Central Park laced with ice.
I will always be torn. There is a word for the pain of homesickness in German, “Sehnsucht,” which is a certain longing, a pining that is both pleasurable and difficult. Some, like C.S. Lewis, understand it to mean a deep craving for perfection, or the divine.
New York is the crack of the Northern Hemisphere. Australian designers push their wares in SoHo, and our actors tend bar. We have even — grudgingly — given you Hugh Jackman, who used to pump gas at my local station when I was a teenager (oddly enough, I never ran out of gas that year). There is competition in expat communities over who’s been there longest, who’s cracked the codes, climbed the furthest, who’s most like a local. Many write gloating Facebook updates about a reportedly elevated Manhattan existence and scorn Australia — our culture, distance and insular prosperity. This affectation is maddening.
What struck me on this trip was that the streets I walked daily as a local were still shiny, dirty and busy, but many stores had changed. The turnover was remarkable, but the awnings and lighting were often the same. This is what New York does, for all its flaws: It models reinvention, motion and constancy all at once. New York perseveres through everything.
And this is what lures so many of us back: the idea that we can simultaneously grow, transform and be our better selves. As E.B. White wrote, “the city is buoyed by the hopes and ferments of so many awakening millions rising — this vigorous spear that presses heaven hard.” This is the core of the expat experience — we seek to shed duller skins and find new ones. Our new countries do not just lend us fresh coats; they scrub the patina off old dreams.
Just as Paris is a city where you go to lose yourself, and Sydney is a city where you go to enjoy yourself, New York is a city where you go to remember yourself.