I’m often asked: Isn’t Paris romantic and New York tough, even brutal? As I divide my time between the two cities, I’m in a good position to compare them. But their differences are more complicated than their reputations suggest.
Living in Paris requires an advanced knowledge of the Parisian way of doing things, particularly when it comes to language. If you prove unable to pronounce the word “croissant” correctly, you will not get your croissant: you’ll be nudged away from the counter by impatient customers. Learn French or starve!
New York, by contrast, is easy for foreigners, as they are not expected to speak English. Any Chinese or Urdu speaker can survive, and not just by staying within his tribe; shopkeepers will figure out what he wants. In the part of Manhattan where I live, in fact, my knowledge of English doesn’t prove that helpful: the dry cleaner is Chinese, the newspaper seller is from Pakistan, the corner grocery is owned by Koreans, and so on. (No doubt their children will be perfectly American and forget their parents’ idiom. The assimilation process, which required two generations for early-twentieth-century Italians and Germans, is often now completed in one, thanks to mass media.)
Compared with Paris, New York is easy to navigate. One does not need to have been born in New York to find his way around; Manhattan’s street grid is made for ignorant strangers. Once you know that Avenue of the Americas is Sixth Avenue, you are on your way. The same goes for the subway, which is essentially the underground reproduction of the street grid, and far more manageable for newcomers than the Paris Métro or the London Underground. New York’s transportation is also highly democratic. In Paris, you would never meet a banker on the Métro. In New York, Wall Street traders share the Number 6 subway line with blue-collar Bronxites. True, they have not stepped onto the train at the same station, but they mingle without visible prejudice.
New York is delivery heaven, too: anything can be brought for a price, which is convenient in case of emergency or a bout of laziness. Some years ago, a New Yorker journalist had everything she dreamed of delivered to her place, including a new mattress and a cat to be petted—on lease! In France, it’s forbidden to work more than 35 hours a week, the legal minimum wage is high, and wages are taxed at 50 percent. Those who work legally, suffocated by state regulations and high taxes, prefer not to make deliveries. The result is that it would be easier to have an escort delivered to your Paris apartment than a mattress, since the escort doesn’t need to follow regulations or pay taxes.
Paris is nostalgia; New York is energy. In Paris, you are what you are; in New York, you are what you do. For those who prefer to be rather than do, I recommend Paris over New York. Why are New Yorkers so energetic, anyway? The immigrant culture, I imagine: migration brings the city the most adventurous people from more conservative traditions. New York’s ethnic groups compete to outpace one another. What might spark tribal warfare back home provokes healthy competition in New York. The city may seem overregulated and overtaxed to native New Yorkers (and it is), but for ambitious newcomers, it remains the land of opportunity. In such a competitive climate, nothing but the best is tolerated by customers, readers, audiences. To live in New York, you must be good at it.
Such nonstop energy can eventually, of course, be exhausting. But I’m fortunate, since I live in both worlds. Whenever I’m worn out by New York’s hectic rhythm, I’ll always have Paris.