Those fluffy skies that always reminded me of cotton candy when I was a kid, those fluffy skies I still dream of taking a bath or a bounce in – as if that child is still hiding inside me, holding on, refusing to grow up – those fluffy skies are staring at me through the window. Symbolising dreams, hopes and all the wonder that carry close to your heart when travelling. Even though I’m travelling to what has become a familiar landscape over the course of just a few years, New York New York, I am still filled with wonder at what this trip will bring. I mean: It’s New York, goddammit. The place I feel more free than anywhere else in the world, the place where anything can happen. And does. New York.
Still, I have this nagging thought at the back of my mind that won’t seem to let go, rather growing stronger, adding more meat to the bone, is this really where I should be travelling? I, who pride myself upon seeing the world, have yet not experienced Africa beyond Morocco, already an embarrassing sixteen summers ago, and what about my love of South East Asia? Isn’t it time to return to Buddhist temples and fragrant curries? And when did I last reignite my decade-old dream of trekking up to Machu Picchu in Peru or eating tacos in Mexico?
My heart is still a wandering nomad, but no longer an adventurous one. Wherever I go, I tend to seek out the speciality coffee shops, the natural wine bars, the speakeasy’s and the independent boutiques stocking small designer labels you may find in any major Western city. I feel my heart sink as I realise what this means, I could just as well have stayed at home. Prague, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Tokyo, Berlin, Copenhagen or Oslo, at the end of the day, it’s all pretty much the same.
Because the fact is, when sipping my cortado at Two Hands in New York, I feel much different than when grabbing a take away cappuccino at Oslo’s Supreme Roastworks. And it has nothing to do with the coffee itself. Doing the same things in different cities, might be ways to ensure that you keep your personality in shifting landscapes, a way of feeling at home in unfamiliar places, a way of holding on to your sense of self when most things around you feel like a sensory stranger. And after all, isn’t it a good thing to know oneself, to know what you like, and to seek out those things even when not at home?
But back to my point, kind of. Drinking the same coffee in New York and Oslo, is not the same. Not really. Because places are not manifested in what you drink or what you eat, or even what you do. They come to life through their specific energy, that distinct feeling that is only present in that one city, neighbourhood or street-corner. And that’s the energy that makes everything different – that makes you different – even when drinking the same glass of Sicilian wine tasting of volcanic terroir silently resting far, far away.
So what’s this electric energy so specific to New York, which makes me return instead of travelling to exotic places, which would teach me more about the world? Describing it would sound so cliché you’d just flip to the next page without blinking, so I am not even going to try. Nor am I going to make you cringe at a tale of how I am being adventurous in staying in a not yet, but soon to be, gentrified area of Brooklyn, which makes Oslo’s own multicultural hub, Grønland, seem like a bland joke.
What I am going to do is walk the streets until my feet bleed, be constantly surprised at the below par coffee, be open to new adventures around every street corner and every Tinder swipe, laugh with old friends, spend too many hours playing Two Dots on the M train (keeping all thoughts of Patti Smith a bay: why, oh why, did I not embrace the opportunity to interview her when I had the chance?), smile to a stranger, almost break with a friend over a heated discussion about the upcoming election, basically live the life of a local while shedding all shame and embrace my inner tourist, which to me means instagramming the hell out of the Manhattan skyline and riding the Jane Carousel in Dumbo with as much excitement as my inner child fantasize of bouncing in those fluffy skies resting beautifully outside the airplane window.
I am going to be grateful that I am so privileged I can stay here for a month, that I am so privileged that I even get to problematize my choice of traveling here rather than elsewhere. Oh, she feels bad about not going to Africa. Oh, she feels bad about not going to South-America. Because she is only going to New York. What an idiot!
But wether it’s cause for concern or not, it is true that certain parts of the world are becoming more and more alike in a certain hipstery manner, and it’s ok to reflect upon it. In a recent essay in The Guardian, Kyle Chayka stroke a cord labelling this phenomenon for which I’ve previously had no name. He calls it AirSpace, or:
…familiar, comforting surroundings for a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere “authentic” while they travel, but who actually just crave more of the same: more rustic interiors and sans-serif logos and splashes of cliche accent colours on rugs and walls.
These are places made for Instagram fame and a sense of superficial belonging. And it might not come as a shock that the king of airspace is in fact Airbnb. So, of course, I am sitting in my Bushwick Airbnb-abode writing this as we speak. Or whatever it is that we’re doing, making magazines and reading them.
But is it really all about aesthetics? In a way, for sure, but as I noted earlier, the feeling of a place is quite unique wether or not you are placing your bum on the same mass-produced, looks designer cool, About a Chair from HAY. Somehow New York makes me feel different than Oslo, do London. But more importantly, and perhaps more discouragingly, what does it say about me that I find comfort in this point, how I feel it legitimises my concerns regarding the way I travel. As Chayka goes on to say: It’s not just boring aesthetics, however. AirSpace creates a division between those who belong in the slick, interchangeable places and those who don’t. The platforms that enable this geography are themselves biased: a Harvard Business School study showed that Airbnb hosts are less likely to accept guests with stereotypically African-American names.
I am not going to address the obvious problem of exclusion, simply because I wouldn’t be the right spokesperson to address such an important concern. So I rather choose to acknowledge it and move on. My point is that when I travel in this airspace, no matter where I go in a world that has adopted it, or parts of it, I belong. And if there’s one thing I crave in my travels, it is not to belong, to have to face myself as an outsider. What that experience will eventually teach me about myself and about others, not just people, but cultures.
And as African-Americans are often excluded from Airbnb, and we are living in a time where refugees are figuratively spat on in every way thinkable; I realize how wanting to be an outsider, to not belong, might seem like privileged ignorance. It does to me too. Because there’s no denying that even if I were to go to Mozambique or Peru, I would take on the role of a privileged kind of outsider. A “rich”, white, western kind of outsider, who will always be able to rent a room, and only to be spat at behind her back (if at all).
Maybe that’s why New York is the perfect place for me, because here I can belong and not belong at the same time. Millions of people make me unnoticeable, I drown in the sea of faces, I am the outsider no one sees. There’s liberation in that paradox. I can anonymously walk around in a familiar space that still reeks of new possibility, it’s like the best of all worlds. Fluff and all.