Harriet Walker: 'New York is the pretty girl at school'

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The Independent Online

Turns out that Billy Joel wasn't wrong: there is such a thing as a New York state of mind, as I discovered when I was there last week on holiday. My boyfriend and I met up with some expat friends and some natives, in part because we wanted to see them, butalso so we could feel slightly superior to all the other tourists we saw shivering in Central Park buggies and taking pictures of office blocks with their cameras pointing to the sky.

In fact, our holiday was so subconsciously – eventually self-consciously – geared towards fitting in and acting as though we lived there that we ended up doing mostly what we do at home: eating, sitting around, eating again, then picking on each other for minute conversational slip-ups and teasing each other about our faces.

In London, there's an instinctive reaction whenever anyone compliments the city to immediately huff about how rubbish it is. It's a way of making people who don't live in London feel better about themselves. "Oh, but it's so expensive!" we cry, shaking our trendy haircuts. "It's so dirty. And everything smells of wee."

(I think I'm supposed to say at this point that we secretly do yearn for a garden, and for monthly rent that isn't the same amount as buying a house anywhere else in the country outright; that secretly we'd like to live on a cul-de-sac rather than a main road in a red-light district. But I'm afraid it isn't really true.)

However, when you murmur to a New Yorker that their city is astounding, awesome, cool, chic and wondrous, not to mention fragrant, they smile and shrug magnanimously. Because they think it too. Because they know it's true.

"Oh, you know," they clarify, "Manhattan can be a little... intense..." (by this, I assume they mean "absolutely batshit crazy") "but it's a great place to end up." They all live in Brooklyn, of course, so they're relatively normal – albeit slightly tainted by the invariable smugness that comes of living in a suburb that has a home-grown chain of vegan nursery schools called "Beansprouts".

But it sums up both cities quite well, I think, that the Big Apple has this upright sort of bravura, while London is the shabby kid who smells funny and forgets to wipe his feet at his friend's house. New York is the pretty girl at primary school whom everyone had a crush on: it ignores the dweebs, lavishing devotion on the hip, the hot and the happening. My boyfriend and I fitted in perfectly when we were with our NY pals, but when we were on our own, it felt as if the city had swished her ponytail in our faces and run off to hang out with the cool crowd.

It happens whenever you travel somewhere: that terrible fear of being a bit of a loser, of not doing the right thing or going to the right places. Some people enjoy this aspect of a holiday and see it as exploring or striking out alone. I don't: I worry constantly that I'm going to end up eating in the international version of the Aberdeen Angus Steak House in Leicester Square, where I assume that every dish is served with a patronising smirk and eaten with the rising sense of having made a terrible mistake. (I don't even like changing Tube lines at Piccadilly Circus after 7pm in case anyone should think I might be having a night out round there. Not for me the lure of Eros and the fast-food detritus around the bottom of his plinth. I'll be going to a house that is significantly less comfortable than any swanky, touristy hotel. But at least it's real.)

Nowhere did I feel the swish of the city's ponytail more keenly than in the Midtown gay bar we ended up in one night. The night was themed Latin boys and their lovers, although I can't imagine the minimal costumes are any different on, say, a Thursday. I didn't have any ID, so had to use my crow's feet as proof of age, and within 10 minutes of arriving, someone had called me "Big Momma". Finally, acceptance! The proof of it was in subsequently having my phone stolen.

But perhaps it's because Manhattan – and all of its associated idiosyncrasies (such as steaming potholes in the roads and tall, brisk and thin-faced women with pebbles for eyes) – is so filmic that you feel such a sore thumb. Like those dreams where you wander into a scenario mid-action and everyone else expects you to know what happens next. By the end of our week, my boyfriend was hailing cabs with a Donnie Brasco "Tax-OI" and I was clunkily depositing "Riiiiight?" all over the ends of sentences that weren't even questions. What can I say? We were in a New York state of mind.