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New York City, 2

I was amazed by the first 24 hours of this New York trip. Now that I'm back in Belgium, I might as well mention a couple of the moderately interesting events of the next three days.

On the subway I sat next to a perfect John Kerry-look wearing a kippah. At Brooklyn's Prospect park, a smaller version of Saddam Hussein was playing soccer against two girls. He looked about 7 years old so hopefully his mustache was fake. A few minutes later an elderly Hassidic Jew came towards me and asked, "Are you Jewish?". I said I wasn't. He had the vacant expression of those who devote their life to events that reportedly happened five thousand years ago, and his grasp on 21st century reality was obviously tenuous. Three minutes later he came back to me and asked, as if for the first time, "Are you Jewish?" I confirmed I wasn't and he walked away. Not five minutes later I noticed him edging back towards me and ran for cover. I wonder what he'd said had I said yes.

After about an hour working inside a Starbucks in Brooklyn, I got up and started packing. As I made my way for the door, one of the waitresses waved at me: "Bye Serge! Have an nice evening!" I had never been there before. Even though that was a Starbucks, no one had asked my name when I ordered. She got it off my credit card when I paid, remembered it for the next 50 minutes, and pronounced it right, just to be friendly to a client.

As I was sitting in the metro, a young woman, obviously not a tourist, sat next to me to study the system map on the train wall. During the next five minutes she asked me where we were, what stop that just was, what was the next one and what train we were on. She wouldn't tell me where she wanted to go, but her face turned increasingly confused and uncertain. At the third stop she muttered a small "damn" and crossed the platform to the train headed the other way.

As I left the subway, the guy next to me walked straight for the wall, lavishly vomited, then walked on as if he was perfectly fine and just going through his usual morning routine.

Later in the day I drifted towards Washington Square, where a rag-tag band of musicians were playing. They were maybe six acoustic guitars, four djembes and four singers, one of them with a stentorian voice and heaps of charisma. They just finished "On the road again" and launched into "Hotel California". Well I'll be damned if that wasn't the best cover of Hotel California I've ever heard. And they weren't even a band. Just a couple people with instruments who gravitated towards the Square because that's the kind of thing they do on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

As awesome as the show was, I was famished so I repaired to a Pakistani restaurant on a side street. As I emerged an hour later, the impromptu band was gone, but a bit farther down the square was a trio playing what I can only describe as atonal jazz fusion. Let me repeat that: atonal jazz fusion. On a city square. And people were watching, often with interest. (The band was good. Of course.) At some point they took a break and started talking about interesting prog-electronica bands with a couple of passersby.

I can't get it into my head that, in New York, there is nothing at all remarkable about any of these stories. That this is a city where there are plenty of bands playing everywhere, nearly all of them really good, some happening to be into atonal jazz. Bill Bryson says about the beautiful Flemish city of Bruges that he can barely believe actual people live there, see those buildings and walk those streets everyday. I feel something like that about New York. There's something unreal about this place, which makes it hard to picture people merely living there, having breakfast and then walking these streets, every single day. I wonder how long it takes for them to get used to it and stop being excited about taking a walk. I have to say that after ten years in Brussels, my excitement factor there is running pretty low. And Brussels is still a far more exciting place than, say, Bloomington, Indiana. Only last decade I saw a good street band in the Sacred Isle.

And I guess that's the main reason I love New York: things happen there. Everybody knows why New York is a great global city: most populous urban centre outside Asia, setting for Friends and Seinfeld and 30 Rock, birthplace of hip hop, punk, disco, home to the most respected journal in the world, the biggest financial hub on earth and the siege of the United Nations… you know, those little things. New York also has a number of perks that make it especially appealing to me personally. A great subway system, cheap Japanese food, polite waiters who can pronounce my name and the ability to purchase a MacBook at four in the morning are only the first that come to mind.

And yet you could remove all of that, take away all the cultural grandeur and global influence, and then turn the convenience dial all the way down to, well, "France" I guess, and New York would still be an unbelievably awesome city. Because, well, lots of interesting things happen there. And for my money's worth, that's the highest ideal a city should aim for.

More photos here.

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