If an alien landed in New York, would he know where he is?

Mary Jones, poet in New York

Listen to Brenda read the story

“What’s the difference between Munich and New York?” my brother asked while we strolled down a street in the Big Apple. “If someone from outer space landed here, how would he recognize that it was New York and not Munich?”

That struck me as an odd question. He may as well have asked me about the difference between a pumpkin and a grape.

Odd, yet intriguing. And thus began a list.

New York streets aren’t just wider, they are enlivened by a non-stop chorus of honks, beeps, and roars from construction that seems to be happening everywhere. The grid system divides the city into neat blocks and unlike nearly all other American cities, New York is pedestrian friendly. And since people on foot are equal in number to cars, they are emboldened to constantly jaywalk.

This is in direct contradiction to my daughter’s German upbringing, characterized by signs at crosswalks admonishing people to “Stop! Don’t walk on red! Set a good example for the children!” The result: we all stand patiently at New York crosswalks waiting for green while everyone else rushes past us on red. 

Munich has a law that no building can be higher than its landmark Frauenkirche, the city’s 99-meter-high cathedral. The old city consists to a great extent of former monasteries. After all, the name “Munich” derives from “Mönchen”, the monks who first settled there in the 13th century. Many surviving monasteries have since been turned into office buildings, department stores, and police stations, but even in their modern, renovated form, they bear little resemblance to the skyscrapers of New York.

What a difference a square makes. In this case, a Mexican restaurant near Union Square and another one near Times Square. Mexican restaurants in Germany are scarce and even when you find one, it’s more German than Mexican, so every visit to the U.S. is an opportunity to indulge in Mexican food. At the first one near Union Square, I discovered huitlacoche. Something with such a bewitching name must be tried, I thought. If I had known the English translation I might not have been so inclined: corn smut. This sounds more like a dirty magazine found in a field in Northern Illinois. But whatever the name, it was a delicious mushroom dish with black beans and cheese piled up generously on a tortilla.

Two days later, I ordered exactly the same meal near Times Square, where dozens of theaters draw visitors from around the world. This time I was served a mini-tortilla smeared with black bean paste, a few huitlacoche mushrooms, and a sprinkling of cheese. A classic tourist rip-off.

No trip to New York is complete without a ride on the subway. More accurately, a trip within New York is only possible with the subway. While the streets have a grid system, the traffic operates on a gridlock system. Gazing at the subway tracks on one of our trips, a small movement caught my eye. Looking more closely, I saw a rat scurrying alongside a rail.

Munich also has a resident population of rodents in the train system, but they’re mice. So it isn’t just the buildings, streets, and noise level that are writ large in New York – even the subway critters are bigger.

But the biggest difference between the two cities is the people.

The former meatpacking district on the banks of the Hudson River has long since been replaced by trendy shops and the modern art of the Whitney Museum. Bending over a sandcastle exhibit to confirm that it really was made of sand, my husband was approached by a museum guard.

“Tempting, isn’t it,” he said.

An unthinkable reaction for one of the surly museum guards in any historic place in Munich – or Germany.

Sitting in the café of the museum – of course, I went to the café – I spotted a woman standing on the street looking at me through the glass. She waved and smiled. A tote bag at her feet bore a handwritten sign reading “Poems.”

Poems? Like the ones Bert spontaneously composes for ladies in long dresses and wide-brimmed hats in the park in the movie “Mary Poppins”? Do such people still exist?

They do.

Mary Jones, poet at large, gave us three prompts: what woman inspires you (it was International Women’s Day), what woman do you admire, and fill in the blank for “I wish that I could just…..!” She then composed three beautiful poems on the spot. No, she enacted them, swaying and gesturing while delivering stirring lines that rhymed. Mary then shared with us that she has been writing poetry since the age of five, inspired by Dr. Seuss.

Mary inspired us that day. We all gave her a big hug and left with a deep appreciation for the space that New York offers for joy and creativity.

Brenda Arnold

3 thoughts on “If an alien landed in New York, would he know where he is?

    • Expat chatter says:

      New York is definitely not for the faint of heart, Sylvia. But there are indeed hidden gems 🙂 Happy to provide more info!

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