Life Beneath New York’s Sidewalks

Over the past four years Finnair’s in-flight magazine Blue Wings has been one of my main clients. I’ve written all kinds of articles for them, ranging from monthly travel news blurbs to longer features. Thus I thought I’d share one of my favorite articles that I have ever written for them. (To see the original layout, go here and scroll to page 20.) This is is about all the subway artists that are working so hard in the tunnels of New York, and are making commuting more fun for others in the process. 🙂 (And sure, there are always some people who are annoyed at these musicians and dancers as they bring noise to the subway car. But you can’t deny that some of these guys are crazy talented!)



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Five Reasons Why Digital Nomads Should Live in New York

You may have heard the term “digital nomad” before. Basically a digital nomad is a 21st Century creature much like myself: a person who is highly mobile and makes a living through working remotely. With no physical office to trek to every morning, I can choose to live anywhere – or nowhere, if I feel like it.

Out of all the world’s cities, I have selected New York as my base.

Times Square

I first moved here in 2004, and altogether have spent about six years in the City of all Cities since then. The rest of the time I’ve been roaming around the world: Australia, Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa. My trips away from NYC have varied from a couple of months to even a year at a time. But no matter how far I’ve ventured, I’ve always found myself back in NYC sooner or later. It truly is the best place in the world to call home! I am always excited to come back here, so homecoming blues is a foreign concept to me nowadays.

nightsky

But despite what you might think, there aren’t a whole lot of other digital nomads using this megalopolis as their home base. Most seem to set up their mobile offices in places like Chiang Mai, Thailand, or Playa del Carmen, Mexico. I suppose that is mostly because of the lower living costs of developing countries (and the eternal sunshine of these spots…).

Well, I can’t blame these kids, but I sure can think of multiple reasons why more digital nomads should live in New York City instead. (Not counting the obvious: New York is the center of the world’s media and definitely one of the most exciting cities in the world.)

Here are my TOP 5 reasons.

1. New York just might be the most multicultural place on this earth

As a globetrotter with precious memories from 60+ countries, I tend to get nostalgic for at least five countries/cultures per day. I may simultaneously miss Bolivia, Laos, Korea, Nicaragua and Senegal. Luckily New York has people from all over the world who have formed lively communities here – some 110 different languages are spoken in the borough of Queens alone. So whenever the mood strikes, I can head over to Korea Town, Little Ecuador or Little Senegal to ease up my reverse-homesickness. Easy peacy! A normal New York day for me is one where I use 3-4 languages, hear music ranging from reggaeton to Irish folk tunes, wander from a Latin area to a Chinatown (of which there are three in New York) and chat up some strangers from exotic lands. I often feel like I’m traveling, even when I haven’t left the city borders. Amazing.

2. You can get all your favorite foods in New York

pupusaEvery country I’ve traveled to has left some kind of a mark on my culinary palate: it’s because of my recent trip to El Salvador that I now love pupusas, both home made and those from street stalls (pictured above), and I still yearn for Mexico City’s tacos that I tasted in 2009. My Korean trip would not have been complete without daily helpings of kimchi and bibimpab, and the Senegalese yassa sauce was so delicious I want to learn to make it. The good news is most of these foods can be bought in New York. All it takes is a trip to some far-flung ethnic neighborhood, and you’ll get all your favorite cuisines from the world over. No passport needed.

3. New York is inspirational

A few months ago I attended the Social Good Summit and the Global Citizen Festival in Manhattan and learned a ton about the problems plaguing the world today. More importantly, I learned about the solutions. That’s the beauty of the city: whenever I have extra time on my hands, there’s no shortage of lectures and networking events to attend, and most are free of charge. My favorites are the speeches organized by the Open Society Foundations, as you also get served a tasty lunch. Can’t beat that, free nourishment for both the body and the mind. In my spare time I also attend lectures about the future of journalism and the art of travel writing. I meet other writers, get inspiration for new stories and improve my craft. Love it!

4. New York is affordable

Sunset Park

I know what you are thinking – “what is this girl talking about? New York is the most expensive city in the US!” Sure, the city is pricey based on the statistics, but make no mistake – there are always deals to be had in this town. I might even go so far as to suggest that New York has more deals than any other place in the world. In midtown Manhattan there’s always a $1 pizza slice war going on, and in Brooklyn you can find neighborhoods where beauty salons charge $12 total for a manicure and pedicure. Happy hours are abundant, as are $10-15 three-course dinner specials in Thai restaurants. Taxis cost a fraction of those in Europe. Even rent gets down to affordable levels once you leave Manhattan. Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and New Jersey just across the East River all have affordable housing options and fast public transportation into Manhattan. Plus with all the free events going on, who has time to spend money in this city? I find that I spend relatively little money in New York, considering how much fun I have here every week.

5. New York has great flight connections

Digital nomads need good flight connections and many airports options – and New York City has three airports in its proximity. Bargain hunters can score roundtrips to Europe for $400-500, and one-ways to Central America can be bought for as low as $150 on Spirit Airlines. And getting to the airport doesn’t break the bank either: New York has the world’s only 24-hour subway system (as far as I know), so you can take the train to the airport at all hours of the day.

Convinced yet? Let me know if you are a digital nomad contemplating moving here! It would be great to have more world traveler friends in New York. 🙂

It’s been a year since Sandy turned me into a breaking news reporter

Today it has been exactly a year since Super Storm Sandy ravished the lives of New Yorkers and many others on the Eastern Seaboard. My Facebook feed has been full of commemorative status updates and links. I checked out a few of the articles and photos, including this story of a man who lost his life partner and every photo of him in the storm. Heartbreaking.

I was lucky last year in that my part of Brooklyn wasn’t really affected by the storm. Instead, I experienced Sandy from a different standpoint – I was covering it for Finnish media. The stories I wrote were published in Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s biggest newspaper for whom I’ve written a number of travel stories, such as this one about the Trans-Siberian vs. The Indian Pacific.

The first call from the newspaper came on Monday morning, and the storm was due to hit that night. The paper had already found a photographer for me to work with, and they said they’d need a story about how New Yorkers were preparing for Sandy. And they would need it in about three hours. On top of that, they wanted me to find some Finns to interview, if possible.

Not going to happen, I thought – what are the odds I would find Finnish people wandering the streets of downtown on such short notice? The times I run into Finns in New York are few and far between anyway.

But the universe was on our side: as soon as photographer Kaisa Rautaheimo and I arrived downtown in our prospective cabs, we bumped into a Finnish couple! It truly felt like a small miracle. The couple, consisting of a Finnair pilot and his common-law wife, agreed to be interviewed. We got some great quotes from them about how they were stranded in New York as the airport was closed.

“Overall the feeling is peaceful, there’s no panic,” they said at the time. “We’re taking this as an adventure.”

We also found a number of other New Yorkers willing to give us a quick quote, and I rushed home to type up the story. Mission accomplished! For the rest of the night I huddled in a friend’s apartment, anxiously waiting for the storm of the century. The next day the newspaper in Finland ran three different versions of my story in their various print editions.

Picture 10

Tuesday morning I woke up to another call from Helsingin Sanomat. They updated me on what the storm had done while I had been asleep – hundreds of thousands of people were without power in Manhattan, the bridges were closed. They asked me to go out to find three people affected by the storm and to interview them for a post-storm article. Again, they needed the story in 3-4 hours.

The morning was super chaotic as I was trying to figure out if there was a way for me to get to Manhattan to do the interviews. If the bridges were closed, there was no public transport and the cabs were all taken, what could I do? Magically a friend just happened to be driving into Manhattan, and had heard rumors about Brooklyn Bridge being open to private vehicles. It was and I got a ride – phew.

I met up with Kaisa at Times Square and we spent the next few hours taking cabs around Manhattan in search of people to interview. On 14th street and 8th Avenue we saw a crowd had gathered around an apartment whose front wall had fallen down. Very few restaurants were open, and the lines were long. Finally we interviewed a woman who had huddled all night in her dark apartment downtown, a man who had ridden his bicycle from Brooklyn to Manhattan to see the damage and a Lower East Side family whose whole building had lost power.

As Kaisa also didn’t have electricity in her downtown apartment, we rushed back to Brooklyn to get online to send our stories and photos to the paper. We called the editor as we were on our way back. I started writing the article in the cab but had to change it midway after getting more instructions from the editor. Yikes.

I remember sitting down at the desk to write and looking at the clock: the story is due in 45 minutes! The pressure was building but I knew I couldn’t let that get to me. Whenever I got too self-critical, I remembered the advice of Anthony Mancini, my features professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” So I just typed as fast as I could and told the stories exactly how they had been told to me. And phew, I finished the article right on deadline. That story, too, made the front page of the foreign section the next day.

Picture 12

It was only at that point, almost 20 hours after Sandy had hit, that I actually had time to start learning about what had happened. I felt fortunate that I had gotten away with hearing a few howling winds outside my window and seeing a few overturned trees.

And I felt really lucky I had been around to deliver the stories to Helsingin Sanomat. It was my first real foray into breaking news reporting and was great practice for what was to come about a month later – the Connecticut elementary school shootings. I covered that for another Finnish paper, Iltalehti. That to this day remains the hardest reporting assignment I have ever done for multiple reasons.I’m sure it would have been even more challenging, had I not had the Sandy experience fresh in my mind.

As terrible as the storm was for many people, it taught me that reporting breaking news is not as scary as I had imagined, and it’s something I actually enjoy. The feeling of having finished an article right before deadline is an endorphin high like no other.  And it felt great to be writing about something that actually mattered, rather than doing yet another hotel review (as fun as those are). By all account, Sandy was a big deal, and I’m happy to have written up a tiny piece of history.

Were you affected by Sandy in some shape or form?