According to renowned New Yorker writer E.B. White, there are three New Yorks: that of native New Yorkers, that of commuters and “the greatest” [New York, that of]
...the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.”
That third group—that’s you and me. Well, most of us here at least. Modern settlers… We make New York what it is. I thought I should remind you, in case you’d forgotten.
New York is my hometown—not my birthplace, not even my present domicile, but forever my hometown. It’s nobody’s home, yet home to everyone.
I landed here like so many others, enthralled by the bright lights, big city. My first visit was at age 15. We came into Manhattan via Belt Parkway, and I remember everything clearly: big cars, big clean cars with lots and lots of chrome. The Verazzano Narrows Bridge and then—the view! The best view ever of Manhattan (if you’ve been there, you know), is right after Bay Ridge just before entering the slope leading into Battery Tunnel. I think my whole body sung that first time. It was definitely a physical reaction. Start spreading the news. I had arrived. This was my hometown. This was it.
It took another fifteen years for me to get properly involved in some—any—kind of business that would enable me to “go home” to New York more frequently, and almost ten more to settle for good. As it turned out, my wife and I felt the familiar tug of suburbia after the arrival our second child. We now live in no less convenient, no less beautiful Fairfield County, Connecticut. And every chance we get, we’re back in Manhattan, visiting friends, attending receptions or simply enjoying the enormous offerings of entertainment in the capital of the world.
So are we American or Scandinavian?
My wife and I are both originally from Scandinavia. People sometimes ask us whether we will ever move back there or whether we will stay here, in America, forever.
First of all, no one can ever really go back. You are what you are where you are; change locations and you change forever. Go back, and you are a different person, with new perspectives and a new outlook on life. So you don’t actually go back; you simply change location yet again. Mind you, as a born Scandinavian you’ll notice how troublesome it is to discuss your New York or American experiences with your more natively oriented peers.
So, the question is moot: We are as American as we are Swedish, as Swedish as we are American. And since Americans are the coalescence of many nationalities from all corners of the world, I would like to think we’re at home everywhere, not least where we are right now.
And let’s make it clear, once and for all, that Scandinavia is not America, even though they all may watch Seinfeld and David Letterman, eat Big Macs and pizza, drink Coke and wear Levis, boots and a shirt from Perry Ellis or Polo. The most popular words in the young Scandinavian’s vocabulary right now may be “cool,” “heavy,” “chill” or something along those lines, but Sweden is still not America.
Americans tend to think Scandinavia is a satellite of the U.S. when they go to visit. Similarly, Scandinavians come to America thinking they understand what Americans are all about. They are mistaken, of course—in some ways, Americans are as different from native Scandinavians as both groups are to, say, the Japanese. I won’t even try to disclose the differences here. Find out on your own and have fun while you do it.
Now, some words of advice—not from me; with my meager experience, I wouldn’t even begin to offer advice—from someone I first met in 1985. I had just realized what I’d gotten myself into with a Swedish immigrant newspaper, Nordstjernan, and I went to the New York office of the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce for some words of wisdom.
There, Magnus Molitéus, then SACC chairman and CEO of Pharmacia U.S., told me, “It took about a year after my arrival to think I had America figured out. Easy. It took another three years to realize I hadn’t really understood anything at all about this country.”
He was right. So many of us are too quick to judge, too early to draw conclusions. This is still the land of opportunities, if we are willing (or, if you’re Scandinavian, naive enough) to see them. And that brings us back to E.B. White, on New York: “It can destroy an individual or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky."
I’m proud—and lucky—to call this country and this city my home.
Ulf Barslund Martensson
Editor & Publisher
This column, which has been slightly re-formatted, originally ran as a guest column in the newsletter of the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce, New York.