A Taste of New York: Sampling an International City
By: Victoria H. '22
There is nothing quite like a tour of the flashing lights and bustling streets of New York to tilt familiar sights just slightly on their axis.
After the end of a grueling series of IB exams several weeks ago, sixteen Grade 12 students and three teacher supervisors (Mr. Bennett, Mr. Boulianne, and Ms. Grant-Watt) flew off to New York City to cram as much culture into a two-and-a-half-day period as possible. We saw the MET, an off-Broadway comedy called The Play That Goes Wrong, the New York Stock Exchange, the UN headquarters, the 9/11 memorial, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building, Time Square, Fifth Avenue, and more. All the while taking breaks to eat at some of the most amazing food I have ever tasted, no matter if it was pasta in Little Italy or Texas-style family barbeque. It was a hectic rollercoaster, but even if our abused feet would say differently, none of us would have traded a single moment.
There are hundreds of little anecdotes from our trip that I could talk about, from our first rat sighting on dirty subway rails to the boys’ crowing in the midnight streets of the Five Points as the Oilers won the battle of Alberta, but those will all fade into nothing but wistful smiles in time. It would also be deceptive not to mention the rough side of New York we brushed against, but again those are just shadows that wisp away next to the brilliant impression of everything else we saw. I cannot speak for everyone, but I want to recount the parts of the trip that changed the way I look at the world. Even if it is just a little shift, this trip to New York re-contextualized my home in the light of the broader globe. In that vein, here are some of the places which left their mark on me.
Sunday morning, Ellis Island was the first surprise. After the American hagiography of the Statue of Liberty, our boat pulled up to the squat monolith that used to welcome immigrants into the United States of America. Over 12 million immigrants crammed themselves through those tired halls from 1892 to 1954 before the building was abruptly abandoned due to the waning popularity of sea travel in the mid twentieth century. It is a strange museum where one is never quite sure if it is a celebration of the American dream’s international attraction or a tourist trap capitalizing on the same horrified fascination that attracts crowds to huddle around a car accident. You pass room after room showing the unfair and uncaring tests that barred anyone sick, mentally or physically, from entry, showing the inhuman conditions that jammed masses of people into rooms like sardines or how women were treated essentially like children without the escort of a man. I walked through in silence, as most museum goers listened to audio tours, humming under my breath the lyrics from Hamilton song Hurricane “raised enough for me to book passage on a/ Ship that was New York bound,” and the first inkling of New York’s role as an international connection point began to trickle through my thoughts, but I’ll get to that later. Our next stop was even more tragic.
In grade ten, my class studied the War on Terror, but I cannot say I ever understood the reverberating effect of September 11, 2001, until I saw the events of that day at the memorial. As we first entered the museum, the security checked our bags and made us traipse through metal detectors like we had at what seemed like every building we visited, and there was a part of me that thought their rigor in expecting the worst exceeded any necessary precaution. It was just a museum. By the time I exited the building, I had changed my mind. The experience begun as we followed Mr. Bennett around dark corners as he led us to the best part of the museum due to a lack of time, and even before I read any of the plaques, tears pressed against the back of my eyes for no reason I could discern. Then we entered the timeline. This exhibit is set up to mimic the experience of the actual day. It begins with newspaper articles showing the mundane concerns that September morning, and then you reach the part of the museum where the first plane crashes into World Trade Tower One. Suddenly, frantic news reports of deaths counts and fire fighter’s scorched helmets surround you in the shocking horror of which this is only the beginning. The horrific day stretches out before you in a medley of visual and auditory stimulation as you experience the second plane crash, the buildings’ collapses, the destruction of the Pentagon, and the panic as news of even more plane hijackings strangles everything but the immediate fear. One tragedy after another seemed to pile on top of each other all in the heart of the strongest nation in the world, but when it truly became real to me was listening to a voicemail from a woman on the plane meant for the White House. She called her husband to tell him she loved him and that everything was fine, only minutes before the plane ran into the ground leaving no survivors. Something about this individual’s woman death amidst all the events I had just walked past made me actually feel the magnitude of the destruction wrought this day. Immersed in the unfolding events as if they were occurring in real time around me, it suddenly made sense why panic gripped the entire world, why a single day could change the course of history when in hindsight it seems like craziness. None of this would be news to the people who experienced it themselves, but to teenagers without our own experience of how the myriad elements pilled on top of each other into a terrified fervor, this museum brought to life how a single attack piercing the very heart of people’s sense of safety could alter the mindset of the entire world.
Finally, our last visit saw another world changing location, though this one for the better: the United Nations (UN) headquarters. We trickled into the complex through another security check, jokingly warning Mr. Boulianne against provoking an international incident, but when we entered those hushed halls, a silence fell over us. Our tour of the UN was amazing: we saw three of the four chambers, marveled at art donated from foreign countries, and walked through exhibits detailing worldwide plans for climate change, disarmament, and human rights. More than any of that though, there are two moments that stuck with me from the UN. The first is the statue of Sputnik which stands proudly immediately to the right of the UN’s main entrance. It jarred me to see the celebration of a Russian accomplishment when my perspective has always been that of the West. Sputnik was an American loss in the space race, and I have only ever seen the event maligned. Yet in the UN, the launch of the first satellite is just a technological advancement of humanity no matter whose accomplishment. It hit home that I was standing in a truly international space where more often than not the names of people in power were unpronounceable for me. To be neutral on the world stage seems such a strange and counterintuitive task, but how else could an organization function transnationally? Which leads to the second element of our UN visit which remains with me: the story of Dag Hammarskjold, a former Secretary-General of the UN. He was by all accounts an amazing diplomat, working for peace in Egypt and the Congo, as well as strengthening the UN internally enough to make it a force with some weight behind it. Hammarskjold died, however, when his plane was shot down over the Congo. Historians think that he may have been killed by Congolese insurgents because there was a chance that when he landed, he might have succeeded in brokering peace in the region. Somehow, the idea that I was standing in the space where a man was so adept at creating positive change that he was killed for it, struck me. The UN, for all its faults is an organization that exist on altruistic principles and effects changes all over the world in light of those goals. Even surrounded by American soil, this place had achieved an international neutrality that gave it a global reach I could not help but be in awe of. Here was a room where decisions were made and rippled over the entire world, and I stood there with wide eyes.
Those three places left an indelible impression of New York, namely that it is a city of the globalized world. From the gateway of immigration to the tragedy that rocked the world to the forces trying to pull the entire globe together again, these three momentous locations made New York feel like a city that is a part of the globe, not just a country. What happens in New York City (NYC) ripples through the international fabric. Conversely, events all over the world have tangible effects on the people in NYC, whether that’s immigration in the late 1800s or sudden chaos in the New York Stock Exchange. The strangest realization though was how much of a contrast this is to home. The more I compared the two places, Calgary seemed like a city focused on local, whether it is pride in our mountains, our industry, or on local authors, and coming home felt like stepping back into a bubble. We are an inland province just wealthy enough that we have some pride, but obscure enough we have to focus on the local to maintain that pride. When a catastrophe occurs somewhere in the world, maybe the price of groceries goes up, but overall, it feels more like a story on the television. I have talked about globalization in History, but I do not think I have ever actually felt like a part of the world at large until I was in New York, meeting people whose lives actually change based on events around the world. It is an odd realization to look at your home from another perspective, but I suppose this is proves all those wellness tips right. Apparently, travel really does broaden your horizons, who would have thought?