"These are the times that try men's souls ... Tyranny like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value." Thomas Paine, COMMON SENSE, December 23, 1776
I can speak a little French after studying adult conversation for two years at the Alliance Française. My high school Spanish teacher, Mrs Rubenstein, dubbed me 'Carlota' and encouraged me towards Advanced Placement in the language. As a result, I can make myself understood when conversing with Latin and Central Americans in their native tongue. Spanish travelers often mistake me for one of their own because of my olive skin and thick, dark curly hair and it doesn't matter that I can't speak Italian because I have sung opera all my adult life and I can articulate with my hands as well as any native Sicilian.
As long as I don't have to employ bureaucratic compound German nouns, I can hold a conversation in Deutsch because I studied it for a year in graduate school and was raised speaking and singing in its step-child, Yiddish, which also helped me learn Hebrew which I studied in college as well as in a Tel Aviv University ULPAN, or Hebrew immersion course, which is useful when attempting to understand what the Orthodox salesmen at the B&H photography department store are saying to one another when negotiating the price of a CANON lens.
Portuguese sounds to me like Spanish olives splashed in Russian vodka, and Brazilian Portuguese sounds like its European counterpart except SEXIER with football swoosh. Dutch and Flemish seem like softer, chewier versions of their Germanic relation and all the Nordic languages sound to me like I'm watching Ingmar Bergman films with blanched subtitles. My grandmother taught me how to curse in Polish while my mother's caretaker instructed me in the intricacies of ordering pierogi pizza in Warsaw. Russian sounds to me like Polish spoken through a saber and bass drum, while I don't even worry about Hungarian because the only people who understand Hungarian are the Hungarians themselves.
If it's not Arabic, it's probably Turkish and if it makes me want to dance in a circle and eat feta, it's probably Greek. I'm clueless in Japanese, which is OK because the Japanese are painfully polite and will never make you feel stupid, even when they have no idea what you are talking about just to avoid an awkward altercation. For the most part, Chinese speak perfect English or else they don't care because they know that the rest of the world is gradually coming to the realization of what they have known all along, which is that their nation is the center of the universe.
I'm fluent in Australian slang and Kiwi idioms because I'm married to a New Zealander. This gives me the unique ability to speak CRICKET and RUGBY with all Pakistanis, Indians, Welshmen, Scots, Caribbean natives and New York City taxi drivers. This Babelian fluency has become increasingly important to my daily activities as the foreigners are coming in droves to New York City, sustaining my habitat while the rest of my remarkably pedestrian country sinks beneath the weight of mortgage foreclosures, soaring gas prices, a sinking dollar, grocery inflation, war debt and simple national malaise.
Recently the New York Times reported that while New York City "has started to slide into the economic downturn enveloping much of the country....the city has a counterbalance against recession that few other American cities share: A RISING TIDE OF FREE-SPENDING FOREIGN VISITORS. While the City experienced a record year of tourism in 2007, "About one milion more visitors came to the city - more than one-fifth of them foreigners - in the first three months of 2008 than in the first quarter of last year."
I could have told you that.
The foreigners are coming, the foreigners are coming!!! They are filling the sidewalks and the subways, clumsily unfolding their city maps as they navigate the underground tunnels in their search for the nearest Best Buy, Circuit City, H & M and the GAP. They bring their families to see Ground Zero and Mary Poppins, the musical, then go out to eat at Tom Collichio's latest culinary outpost. Dressed in safari jackets, they fill their pockets with $50 and $100 bills which they toss about like Monopoly money. As the value of the American dollar descends into the sphere of silliness, their spending power increases so that they can buy that pair of Christian Loubon stilettos that seemed beyond affordability across the Atlantic. Hearing Renee Fleming sing Desdemona at the Metropolitan Opera is a bargain compared to what it would cost to see her at La Scala or the Royal Opera House, and DVDs are dirt cheap.
Half the week I work in a boutique bookstore in Nolita, and though we sell books primarily in English, our customer base is one-third foreign tourist. I've learned how to distinguish Mexicans from Chileans and can greet nearly all our customers in their native languages. Joyfully, our foreign customers purchase encyclopedic Taschen photographic retrospectives as well as elegant European cookbooks, fashion tomes, style handbooks, design monikers and typographic reference texts. They don't worry about cost but they are concerned about tax, as in the rest of the world you get tax back when you go through customs, while here they are above the written cost which makes no sense to the rest of the world which includes taxes in the advertised price of individual items.
Brushing up on their fluent English, the foreigners purchase classic and contemporary English novels as well as political critiques that explain to them why Americans are so daft that they still believe that they are living in the time of American Imperial domination. Most chuckle when hearing the words 'George Bush' and his partner in decline, Lon, no I meant Dick, Cheney. Some come into the store to ask for directions to Rem Koolhaus' signature Prada boutique (turn left and keep on going to Broadway, it's diagonally across from Dean and DeLuca) while most want to know where they can find the Apple store (make a left and keep on going past Broadway, it's on the right in what used to be the post office.)
Many foreigners purchase stationery and post cards from our stylish racks, and are aghast when they realize that we don't sell postage stamps like the tabacs they are accustomed to frequenting. A few weeks ago, a number of strappy Greek boys, on the verge of becoming men, came into our store to purchase architectural books. At the counter, one boldly asked, "We were told by our consulate that we would get a discount if we said that we were tourists." I couldn't help but laugh. Trying not to sound rude, I said, "It certainly doesn't hurt to ask, but don't you think that you're getting enough of a discount by shopping over here?" They modestly agreed, then shoved off, laden down with their shopping bags and packages.
It's hard to walk on Broadway or get a seat on the subway for all the tourists carrying their stuffed shopping bags. The other day I walked for 10 blocks behind two English girls who were each holding at least five shopping bags from five luxury boutiques while holding a conversation amongst themselves and talking on their I-phones. It was mind-boggling.
Recently, my husband and I discussed selling our condominium apartment in order to buy one in a newer building to lower our monthly expenses, as new construction in New York City is often buffered by ten-year tax abatements. I called my friendly real-estate broker to ask her about the market, expecting to hear that there was a downturn. "One bedrooms and apartments of five million and over are HOT," she proclaimed as if I'd mentioned that I'd had sold-out tickets to a REM concert. When she told me what my apartment was likely to get in today's market, I was gobsmacked. It was 20 percent MORE than that last time we seriously considered selling over two years ago. While property in the rest of the country languishes, Manhattan real estate is booming.
Not only are the foreigners shopping, they are BUYING. In my building, all the new tenants seem to be Indian or recent exiles from the Eastern bloc. They're coming in droves - their pockets lined with Euros and Rubles and Drachmas and Pesos. Compared to real estate properties in London, Tokyo, Moscow and Paris, New York apartments are a bargain. And so they are buying them up. What's left, the apartments over five million, are probably being sold to the billionaire managers of hedge funds.
Meanwhile, all my friends who are artists are contemplating moving to depressed American cities, or to Europe, where artists are valued. Everyone asks me about New Zealand's immigration policy. In the meantime, I'm considering studying Gaelic, Sanskrit, Korean and Mandarin. Enough to be conversational. Otherwise, how will I be able to get around New York?