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  • David Sunderland

New York Blog 1: Musings over the Atlantic

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

Between worlds

I am driven to reflect upon things on either side of the north Atlantic, similar and yet so different. One month living in New York for the first time, following being in the Geneva region for nine years, has been a blast for the senses and the spirit. I share my reflections on New York, the USA, and then Switzerland. Previously, my experience of the USA was three business trips and one fortnight's holiday, complemented by the daily in-your-face and more subtle ingestion of US culture and bric-a-brac that we all accumulate during our lives. To avoid any conflict of interest, I openly declare my heritage and situation: British born, disgusted with most things about Brexit and recently additionally French, with a fifteen-year relationship to a Brazilian (who remains tending her legal firm in Geneva and my plants in Ferney-Voltaire, just over the border in France). I have worked for several organizations of a well-known global institution for the last fourteen years. It is this that has brought me to live in New York, and my work has typically been the centre and focus for most of my writing, both professionally and satirically.

The capital of the world?

New York, at least Manhattan where I have been most of the time since moving, is disproportionate and paradoxical. In the city where someone is always awake, and sirens scream incessantly, one is constantly assaulted by reminders: everything is possible and failure is merely another step to success, within a tsunami of diversity. Like the steam periodically oozing up from grills in the roads, one cannot ignore The Dream, messaging non-stop like the giant screens of Times Square beaming down to the bustle below.

There is speed upon speed, a crazed conjunction of avenues announcing success criss-crossed by streets paved with steroids. Tall buildings have bastions of lifts that ping and come to your service up and down with only a few seconds' delay. Almost everything you want around the clock, when you have the means. Walk out anytime, and within a block or two some of the finest cuisine of the world is at your fingertips, ready to be dispensed with a deluge of plastic for degustation. Zipping straight or criss-crossing in the grid, it's difficult to get physically lost but easy to get diverted. Meanwhile, one way or another, most hope to find or get found. Ambling is nigh impossible: the pace of the city acts as an incessant accelerator, driving you from one place to another, enticing you to cut and nip this or that way at an intersection. Bearing onward on the titanic treadmill, it is hard to struggle consciously or subconsciously against the wave of other souls around you, models and accelerators, with whom you are in crazy cahoots pulling and pushing onward, somewhere. All the while, the smell of sewers is never far off, the delays in the metro and traffic jams persist, unfortunate people are begging, and plugholes of shiny bathrooms are kept closed to stop vermin crawling in.

Nationally myopic, global reach

So this is America, and yet it is not, stuffed with icons and a playground for anonymity, the epitome being the way in which 'how are you?' can be delivered in a manner so meaningfully meaningless.

We see the hint and glint of the hemispheric, nay global, aspirations each time the adjective or noun 'American' is employed to describe that of the United States of America. Yet two, or one depending on your point of view, continents were named after Amerigo Vespucci, and with this continental abbreviation to describe everything from the USA, we forget the other populations in the western hemisphere that are also American, and indeed share many traits. However, as we are acclimatized and acculturated from an early age to bathe in and recognize the exports of culture from the USA, we usually accept this label without a second thought. The marketing of the country works well, above all the never-ending Dream on the rolling horizon, teasing so many sisyphylans forward with their hard work and persistence. And all is whipped along in the language of the previous colonial power, proudly retaining its global imperiousness.

There is thus irony by saying 'America First', in the country of the still-mighty USD, even though this may be lost on many. The USA reaches out, economically, culturally, its people confident and positive, boisterous and warm. It is the individual, not the state, which calls the tune. So many of the global brands that reign over us do so from companies with headquarters in the USA; not without a price, they make our lives better, gift us with a moment of glamour, and give us much to mull over in terms of the implications of their global dominance and machinations. Then there is the other inward-looking side, the superficiality, the hollowness, the selfishness, the fear of being alone. But when you start tasting in the USA, things are different, like a good hamburger: the stereotypical and most visible top and bottom bits of bread sandwiching and occluding the incredible diversity in the middle.

In an era of nationalism, regrettably often bigoted and aggressive, where non-stop non-news focuses us on the twigs rather than the forest, it is easy to get lost in soundbites and conspiracy theories. We whet ourselves in the endless stream of stories about shootings and crime, so much sharper and glittery than the humdrumness of most of our daily existence. But fireworks do not endure: at the same time there is tolerant coexistence, profound intellectual and spiritual depth, and social concern and care.

Nevertheless, the one thing constant in the world is that there is change. It is not difficult to hear how Spanish may become the dominant spoken language in the USA, and New York has a strong claim to be the cosmopolitan capital of the world. Perhaps in no other place is it possible to encounter so many different languages and see so many different communities. Everyone has come to search for opportunity, to fill the gap left by those before, and many do make it in New York, continuing to act as a beacon for others.

Different sides of the pond

Doing the splits with one foot on either side of the Atlantic, it is difficult not to compare the similarities and differences between Swiss and US culture.

Starting with the similarities. The discipline and culture of hard work. The love of money and a prosperous, stable climate for business. People can be hard to get to know, but when you get to know them well they can be firm friends. A reverence for cows and beef products. Two currencies in virtual parity. The fact that New York and Geneva are not capitals, but both host the two de facto UN capitals. The geographical and economic centrality in the continent. The federal nature.

Then there are the differences. The size of the countries (New York alone having a bigger population than New York). How political consensus is found and embedded. The level and treatment of inequality. The efficiency and cover of the healthcare system. The political system. The humour.

Musings over the Atlantic

So here I am: seated in a airtight fibreglass tube and heading west by north west then west by south west at 755 kilometres an hour at an altitude of 8,839 metres, exactly a month on from when I started living in New York. Looking back, looking forward, imagining down. I simultaneously sip water from a plastic cup, incrementally expand my carbon footprint, and tap to transmit my thoughts to text that take form on the screen in front of me.

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