Pedro Ávila

The trees lining the icy pavement on the avenue two floors below are frozen limbs in the dead of night. A stray pair of feet here and there walk the new streets and do little else but cast shadows over the cold. A new window looms before me; a new unknown. Unfamiliar street names and a horizon that I’ve only recently met as the sun went down on another chapter of my life.

I’ve been away a long time, haven’t I?

So it seems, to me anyway. But this is the new scene, the new vantage for my viewing, the new base for my wanderings. There are no horse hooves clipping and clopping on the cobblestones; there are no cobblestones at all, actually. Just headlights and tires rolling over the thick ice that covers everything. Yes. There is asphalt and there is ice, and over these two layers a fool tries to make his way; tries to find his footing.

Jesus. Over the past two years I’ve been everywhere, man. From Tangier to Prague and from Oslo to Riyadh, I’ve covered Europe and the Middle East. Covered it. Hit the sweet spots, find the juice, move along. That’s been the motto, the driving force. And what a rush. What a mad, fulfilling, fast rush. Like crack but with more airline miles and hotel points.

So I was a bit surprised when I found myself overwhelmed by the buroughs of New York. The whole move started to hit me – the fact that it was happening, that is – much like it hit me when I’d moved to Amsterdam: later than it should have. In Amsterdam it wasn’t until the plane hit the ground that I realized I had no idea what was going to happen next when I got out of my seat and headed out the jet way. For New York at least, it was sometime halfway into the flight from Germany though it only occurred to me because of a situation on board.

Careening over the north Atlantic at 35,000 ft is no place to have a maniac on your hands. The third time she yelled “DON’T TOUCH ME! DON’T TOUCH ME!!” to the flight attendant, I checked the flight monitor and sure enough, flight 4677 out of Frankfurt was somewhere between Ireland and Iceland.

That is a bad place for violence.

I leaned my head back on my seat and turned so my cranium rolled up and out on the headrest to more discreetly look at the large woman in the rear corner of the 777 who was sitting a few rows behind me. She was clearly having a fit of some kind but it seemed there was nothing that could be done but clear the area and give her room to flail around and yell at people. The flight attendants seemed to know enough to form a perimeter around the woman and just hang back until the episode passed and then give her peanuts or something.

“Wow,” I said to the empty seat next to me, “it’s a good thing the professionals know what they’re doing.”

And just as suddenly, I caught myself, realizing how ridiculous that sounded coming from a guy who knows that the only thing that makes an expert is that he know more than the person next to him.

What the hell am I doing?, I thought. I haven’t the foggiest reference for how to make this work.

I thought about this for a while. I might have dozed off for a bit, or maybe just had too much scotch, but the next thing I knew I saw the city come into view from behind the wing.

“Ok, New York,” I said, “here I come…”

A small child walking up the aisle with daddy in tow stopped at my seat and gave me a serene look. I had a moment of thinking that the innocence of that child, that smooth face and soft hair would be symbolic of the city showing me that no matter what tribulations I might pass, what doubts I might have, there was a side of the city that had good intentions, that would put a smile on my face, even if eventually.

Then the kid threw up on the seat next to me.

“Too soon?” I asked the kid.

“Dah!” it said, though I think it meant ‘duh’.__

Thanks, New York. I’m coming anyway.

Even having studied satellite images of New York on Google Maps, I was surprised at the spread of the thing. Another scar on the surface, I had to keep reminding myself that I’d seen bigger, lived through tougher. New York has nothing on São Paulo and Bangkok, even if only for the sheer savageness of those places. But New York has a way of making you forget all that and focus on that Apple. Maybe it’s something in that awesome tap water they have.

Yeah. Unfortunately, I think this is what happens to people who move to New York for the ‘New York experience’. If you’re from a small town or haven’t traveled much, you’re doomed to be eaten alive by the city. Everyone knows that. But even for those who’ve been around, whom come from large cosmopolitan places, who’ve seen the dark corners of the asphalted world, even for them New York offers a unique challenge.

It’s a problem of expectations. People are told that the city will toss them around if they’re not careful. But what’s missing from that is that it’s not a question of being careful. The city will toss you around no matter what. You’ve just got to stay afloat, hang on, get up again.

That’s one of the things about New York. When you live in New York, you’re not in control. The city is in control. Its traffic and its subways are in control. Its crazies and its people are in control. Its size and its attitudes are in control and you are along for the ride. Like the rivers that split it, New York has a current, and if you’re going to use the river to get somewhere, you can’t fight that current. You have to go with it, be prepared to take it and stand up again.

If you haven’t caught on yet, I’d missed a crucial step in preparing for the situation of finding a flat in New York.

Sure, I’m familiar with the housing markets of San Francisco and Amsterdam and have done well in finding housing and good flatmates in both places, but those are villages compared to New York City. Those are straw and mud communes next to the steel and concrete that litters the grid of Manhattan, the industrial complexes of Brooklyn, the immigrant populations of Queens, the ghetto of the Bronx and the trashiness of Staten Island. To say nothing of the other areas around the city.

And if you thought that working in Paris, Istanbul, Oslo, Riyadh, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Budapest all in a matter of a month was a trying thing on the body, you should try to find a flat in New York in 5 days.

Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.

Pedro Ávila Pedro Ávila

For a reasonably sane & productive member of society (arguable, but let’s not complicate things), I’m far too mobile and unrooted. I travel quite a bit for a job that is simultaneously my greatest privilege and my worst burden.

So I write. And I write. Travel pieces, political journalism (a stretch from ranting but, still), short stories, poetry and other such riff-raff. I contribute to a handful of publications and will probably just keep going until something gives out, or someone gives in.


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Of smiles and roars