Of all of my friends I think I am the most enthusiastic about visitors; this is probably because of my vast enthusiasm for New York. It is tremendously exciting to show newcomers all the things I love in NYC and to find things that they will love as well. Having visitors gives me an excuse to see places I have not been to recently and motivates me to discover new restaurants and entertainments. At the same time moving around and interacting with the city is fundamentally harder with non-New Yorkers, especially if they hail from any part of the U.S. other than San Francisco (the only other city with decent Public Transit). Visitors have many challenges in New York, from food issues to noise levels, fear of the subway, fear of unknown food, and most of all the amount of walking. We walk a lot here. Most New Yorkers are likely to walk at least two miles a day, not to mention all the stairs we climb in and out of the subway. Even the most fit visitors are likely to find this challenging, and the less fit visitors may find it next to impossible. I recently hosted my father and his wife for a weekend. This is an account of the highs and lows of their visit.
They slept in after arriving late the night before and we made breakfast in my apartment. It was wet but not actively raining. We took the subway from my apartment in Brooklyn up to the Museum of the City of New York. I actually hadn’t been there before and I was very impressed. They currently have an exhibit of photographs by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao that are really stunning (it’s just opened; you should definitely go!). He uses a process that combines many photographs digitally to create one final image. This video shows his process:
The photographs on display are all of NYC and it was fun to point out places I had been and give further information about different places in the city.
We also looked at the ‘Activist New York’ exhibit, which is very text heavy. This was a bit challenging for my visitors because they found the amount of information hard to take in and they soon tired of reading large blocks of text standing up. I thought some of the information was interesting, and in some cases new to me, but it was hard to retain much. My favorite new factoid is that one of the largest suffragette rallies took place in Union Square. I actually lived right on Union Square in an NYU dorm for two years and it was odd to think that I was living in such an important historical space without being aware of its history.
After a couple of hours in the museum my father requested that we see a movie for our next activity, since this would involve lots of sitting. They wanted to see something that they wouldn’t be able to see in their hometown so I looked at the listings for the various artsy theaters. I generally look up the Landmark Sunshine, the Anjelika and the IFC. Finding something they will like but will also qualify as something they can only see in NYC is not easy. My father tends towards action films and his wife is more interested in romance. In the end I decided to hope something dark and funny would be unusual enough to be enjoyable and we saw My Old Lady (I really love Maggie Smith). They were both a bit neutral on this but at least they weren’t adamantly dissatisfied. With other guests I often try to get tickets to a dance performance or a concert but these are not art forms that particularly interest this pair. If they were more willing to experiment with questionable theater I would have taken them to this crazy Shakespeare thing at BAM that I was actually very sorry to miss. The New Wave Festival at BAM is always full of totally ridiculous gems like that. Ah well. Visitors often require somewhat more normal entertainment.
I finished up Day 1 with dinner at Katz’s Delicatessen. I figured this was a real New York experience worth having- a mountain of deli meat and a plate of sour pickles. Now if your visitors have dietary restrictions, and this pair does have some, this experience might not be the best. My visitors did fairly well, surviving the ordering experience and managing to eat their enormous sandwiches, but they complained about the noise and ended up with half sour pickles. The cost was also a bit upsetting. Everything costs more in New York and the sticker shock can be very difficult for visitors. Best to warn them in advance I think. The subway ride back was long and they both fell asleep on the D as we crossed over the Manhattan Bridge; it was pretty cute.
We ate breakfast at home again (I was missing the bloody mary brunch experience but since they don’t drink breakfast at home seemed just as well) and then went into the city to the start of the High Line. I was very excited to show them the length of the park and the new section that I had not yet visited. It was crowded, which made them nervous and uncomfortable. My stepmother had no concept of how to get out of the way while taking pictures and I often felt like I was herding sheep. We scored one of the lounge chairs and they were able to rest for awhile in the sunshine. I think this was probably their favorite part of the whole day. Pressing northward again through the crowds they were tired and had trouble appreciating the interesting landscaping details and artwork. When you don’t live in a big city, surrounded most of the time by steel and concrete, you are less likely to be impressed by a handful of reeds and wildflowers. Something to remember when bringing visitors around- you and your visitors may find different things novel. However we all agreed that the final section, which has been left very wild, was beautiful in its openness and connection with the past.
By the time we completed our walk (the High Line is about one and a half miles in total) my visitors were completely exhausted. The High Line ends far on the west side, nowhere near public transit. The final trek eastward felt like a forced march. It was almost impossible for me to move slowly enough for them. New Yorkers walk fast and tend to move in competition with other pedestrians so that if you’re walking slower you feel like you’re losing. Keeping at a pace they could handle was super aggravating. Playing tour guide requires patience. We finally reached the train and once again they fell asleep on the trip home. This time I left them to finish the trip without me while I bought groceries for us to cook together. They were very nervous about this and I had to give them directions several times although we had already done this together. Anyone who does not take public transit on a daily basis is likely to find it confusing and at times unnerving. I frequently give directions to strangers in subway stations who appear lost or helpless. The service changes on the weekends always seem a bit sadistic towards tourists; if New Yorkers can’t figure them out how do you expect Midwesterners to manage?
I am lucky enough to have an honest to goodness kitchen in my New York apartment. It doesn’t have a dishwasher of course but the stove is full sized and there’s plenty of counter space and even room for a table. This means I can actually make lasagna with my father without us stepping on each other. For those of you who are not so lucky I recommend introducing your houseguests to the joys of Seamless Web (as per the ubiquitous subway advertisements).
On their final day my stepmother requested that we revisit “that restaurant you took us to once with your boyfriend at the time that was very good.” Hmm. Luckily I have introduced them to only three boyfriends so this was not too hard to figure out. In the future I may make a note to either document restaurants with pictures or keep some sort of list. If you’re likely to have repeat visitors it may be useful to keep notes on what they liked and didn’t like to avoid similar errors in the future. The restaurant in question, Miriam’s, is a lovely Israeli place in Park Slope. My father poked at the labneh cheese suspiciously and they both complained about the inattentive waitress, but on the whole it was a successful restaurant experience (very rare for this pair in NYC).
For our last activity I took them to MOMA to see the Matisse Cut-Outs. If you frequently have visitors in NYC it is well worthwhile to be a member of MOMA. You can get in free and you can bring your guests in for only $5/each. MOMA is such a standard part of the NYC tour that anyone who has guests a few times a year will make the $80 individual membership more than worthwhile. I was not expecting to be a big fan of the Matisse but I was pleasantly surprised. It is a riot of color with many pieces full of shapes reminiscent of sea creatures. It’s fun and bright and a pleasure to walk through.
After many art exhibits that seem draining or require a great deal of careful examination, this one felt very accessible and positive. I left feeling full of energy and enthusiasm. After feeling quite exhausted by playing tour guide it was refreshing. The best experiences with visitors are always those that both you and they really enjoy; I was glad that this visit ended with such an experience. The Matisse exhibit has only just opened so you should certainly make time to check it out (with or without visitors).
I am on the whole looking forward to my next visitors but I am also looking forward to attending events I love without feeling the need to care for someone else. Independent exploration can also be rewarding.