That is how long I had made my home in New York City — only in Manhattan, from Washington Heights to Greenwich Village — in two long periods before moving to Phnom Penh toward the end of 2013.
How I loved New York over any other place I had lived such as Boston, San Francisco, Hartford and the Washington, D.C. area, where I went in my relative youth to work in the Pentagon and again, in 1995. At that time, I worked in the U.S. Treasury Department before heading back to Manhattan in 2006 after having transitioned to real estate sales.
To my mind, Manhattan’s highlights run the gamut of the many clichés that you know as well as I do — energy, diversity, cultural opportunities, Central Park and, among so many other attributes, paradise for a food lover.
I had avidly followed reviews of the performing arts, visual arts and films in the hope of catching the most promising ones, contemplated restaurant reviews and evaluated criticism of new TV programs.
Like many New Yorkers (as opposed to the majority of Washingtonians I encountered), I was proud of seeking out the newest of the new and having an insider’s view of the most distinctive merchants whether they sold cheese or tchotckes. I had a typical New Yorker’s mastery of which end of a subway car was best for the destination, where to get the best dim sum and how to find a bargain.
Yet, as I have posted here, I left more than four years ago because I ultimately believed that necessity would entail denying myself too much in the face of everything becoming so expensive — theater tickets, tasting menus in new restaurants (as opposed to excellent ethnic outposts), music, dance and so on.
Because I was too frugal to indulge myself in all that I wanted to experience, I basically felt like an outsider looking in.
What heightened my discontent was the cost of housing.
Our apartment could hardly be called luxury, though it was more than adequate. Unfortunately, the continuing and rising expense would have exhausted my savings in fewer years than I intend to live.
Doing the math, I made the difficult decision, still correct in hindsight, to discard anything that would not fit into our four large suitcases and move to Cambodia. Here, I live very well and save enough dough on housing alone to travel often, far and wide.
On my most recent visit back to New York, in March 2017, I was surprised to find that I barely missed it (in part because of mostly lousy weather). Like a country bumpkin, I felt the city closing in on me — all those high buildings, onrushing pedestrians with stress painted on their faces, the jammed subway, the crush of humanity, the grey confining environment, stuff that puts off folks who don’t live there.
Even though I managed in 13 days, including an overnight to Florida for a family visit, to connect with dear friends, check out two museum shows and score a ticket to Hello Dolly with Bette Midler on Broadway, what I found myself missing most were two things: 1. face-to-face interactions with my friends and 2. food that is generally unavailable to me in Cambodia such as a mountainous corned beef sandwich.
It is more than a little unsettling to have felt disconnected from the city that had so enraptured me, and perhaps that is a natural function of having been an expat for a while. That I have visited so many other cities of late may also be a factor.
Maybe because of jet lag or the replacement of landmark shopfronts by skyscrapers on the Upper West Side, where I last resided in the Big Apple, I was rather troubled to have forgotten on a couple of occasions which avenue followed another when walking crosstown, the stations where the trains on a subway line would stop and the most efficient way to get from one side of Central Park to the other. So yes, I felt a bit lost and not a little bit older in more than one way.
Although being in New York again had renewed my proximity to the political process, I was aware of little distinction between my being in New York again and the only involvement I had been able to experience via online and TV media. Living in Cambodia, I share with residents of the U.S.A. a feeling of powerlessness (or nearly so) to influence events. Still, one thing they can do and I cannot is put pressure on a member of the House of Representatives: Without a U.S. residence, I have no representation.
As I wrote and have updated this post slightly, I remain disconcerted by my evolving reaction to New York City and nostalgic for my previous affection for the place, though I am content with the new psychological distance that now characterizes my experience of the Big Apple. Still, I know that I will need a fix from time to time.
My most recent visit was 16 months after the previous one. Should there be no pressing reason to return sooner next time, possibly around Thanksgiving this year, I’m okay with long absences sprinkled with Skype.
Might I live there again? I can imagine so if, for example, I develop long-term health needs best handled in the States; not incidentally, Medicare covers me there and not here, where all my medical care comes out of my pocket. (Minor issues are well handled in Phnom Penh; for example, a brief bout of pneumonia was easily treated a couple of years ago as the result of a $30 office visit, and somewhat bigger ones could be addressed in Singapore or Bangkok, the latter an hour’s flight from Cambodia.)
No other city in the U.S. appeals to me at the moment, and I am aware that I’d have to make compromises that I never would have accepted in the past.
It is perhaps meaningful that I drafted this post more than a year ago, and it has been sitting in my blog “bank” all this time. That I finally am ready to publish it may well be confirmation of the perceptions expressed here.
Not only is my home in a country half a world a way right now, I sense no urgency to bridge the gap. For now, that’s fine with me.