20 things a Londoner needs to know to survive in New York

Ok, well I wanted to write something of my year in New York especially as quite a few people do ask about it, but thought a travel blog would be too boring.  You would probably fall asleep just reading about how many different homeless bums accosted me in the street. I haven’t written anything on NY since my first serious and reflective post here: New York: the Beautiful Struggle. So instead here is my complete rip off of something Buzzfeed would do. Enjoy!
ps. Major credit to Amandip Panesar for taking the awesome photo above.

1) Manhattan is smaller than you think!

12 avenues across and 215 streets up. (2.3miles x 13miles). If you superimposed that onto Central London, the total width is Bank to Leicester Square. How big that makes London compared to New York! They also have just 5 ‘boros’ (Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island) rather than 32 boroughs like we do. In fact, geographically and in terms of population, New York City is smaller than London. Bet you didn’t know that!

2) Gratuity is not very gratuitous.

Tip jar I saw on the highline
Tip jar I saw on the highline

A customary 18% tip is necessary for everything from restaurants to ordering a drink at a bar to haircuts to cabs.
Once upon a time it was for encouraging good service. Now it’s a must if you do not want to be chased by the chef out of a restaurant with his rolling pin (which happened to us at least twice). Just implement a minimum wage for hospitality, government!
And not to forget the sales tax added on afterwards (rather than before in UK) so you never know how much you are paying. Oh and remember there’s something called a service tax in addition to the food tax as well. Sometimes there’s a drinks one too. Ah and state tax is important. How about a sitting down tax? Breathing our air tax is yet to be implemented however. Did I also mention there’s a space for gratuity again on the second receipt?

3) The city does in fact sleep!

Yes it’s true. You were probably told that NY was the city that never sleeps in Home Alone 2 to build up the suspense. But in actual fact only a half mile radius from Times Square is pretty much dark and empty by 11pm.

4) You will actually bump into a real celebrity and not just the cast of Made in Chelsea or a Bhangra artist.

Now I don’t mean to gloat but I will – I bumped into Jake Gyllenhaal milling around on Broadway, I was sitting opposite Ben Stiller, John Legend, Patrick Ewing and Spike Lee at a Knicks game. Harry Styles of One Direction was eating at the restaurant next to mine, most of the WWE wrestlers were staying in the Westin opposite my office when Wrestlemania came to town (my entire floor spent most of the time glued to the window). Not to forget when I went to President Obama’s inauguration and Jay Z & Beyonce decided to show up.
Then I came back to London and saw Jay from Eastenders yakking up outside Faces in Ilford. Glamorous!

UPDATE: One of my readers pointed out Anna Wintour, Editor-in-chief of Vogue on the third row in sunglasses. Thank you!

Courtside at the Knicks vs Lakers (Madison Square Garden). Patrick Ewing, Ben Stiller, John Legend.  Credit: Amandip Panesar
Courtside at the Knicks vs Lakers (Madison Square Garden). Patrick Ewing, Ben Stiller, John Legend. Anna Wintour in sunglasses on Third row.
Credit: Amandip Panesar

5) There is an alcohol curfew at 10pm, but it does come big!

So you actually have to go to a designated ‘Liquor Store’ to buy alcohol rather than throwing it in with your Tomato Ketchup and Free-range Eggs at Sainsbury’s. They also mostly shut by 10pm where many supermarkets/off-licences serve all hours in UK.
Liquor (spirits) is usually referred to as ‘Hard Liquor’ in NY whereas in England, we just call it simply ‘drinks.’ I think this stems from a general attitude to drinking which is not as casual as the Brits. Drinking in public (incl the subway/parks) is also an actual civil offence. Not like the Central Line on a Friday night then.
However, like all big things in the US, the bottles do come huge. For example, the local store sold a 1.75 litre bottle of Smirnoff. It was so big it was made out of plastic rather than glass. Oh yeah and it cost $23 (£15) too- less than a .70 litre bottle in UK. Crazy.

The local liquor store.
The local liquor store.

6) Student Clubbing is a no-go!

As 21 is the legal age to drink (the highest in the world), a student/young clubbing scene is fairly redundant. Instead you are expected to ‘pop bottles.’ Yes, you are expected to ball so very hard indeed. And unless you are dressed like the remnants of Lady Gaga’s recycling bin or Willy Wonka don’t expect to get into any clubs in the Meatpacking District. (I’m still trying to work out how the Mayfair equivalent of clubbing can be used as a meat market in the daytime).

7) Hip Hop is becoming the universal language.

hip hop black
The local Doctor Jays clothing store.

Like we have Shakespeare and the Globe theatre, they have Jay Z and the Brooklyn Barclays Centre. Yes, high culture at its finest.  I asked my 40-something colleague in my office what Staten Island was famous for expecting him to talk about some historic landmark. Instead he took great pride in telling me the Wu-Tang Clan and its roots came from there. The motto for ensuring accuracy on my US Treasuries team (where the average age was 40) was ‘check yourself before you wreck yourself’ in tribute to Ice Cube. Love it!
Not to forget one of my other 50-something colleagues who would constantly recite the lyrics to ‘Juicy’ by Notorious BIG every time we made some money on the federal bonds exchange at work. If you don’t know, now you know!

8) Time is not done in 24 hours!

Several people asked me why after noon, my watch turned into ‘military timing.’ (13:00, 14:00 …).. Eh?

9) People are friendly and genuinely interested in your life.

Americans would say New Yorkers are the least friendliest. That might be true compared to the rest of the US, but compared to London they are very polite. If there’s a door you better wait as long as possible- even if she’s 50 yards away- to let a lady pass first, if there’s not enough money to tip don’t even bother ordering pizza, and don’t even think about letting someone sneeze without saying ‘bless you’.
I also liked that people would strike up a conversation no matter where you were and that they are happy to even maintain a superficial relationship such as cracking jokes with the printer guy in the elevator (lift). Unlike tight-lipped London, everyone is quite happy to hear and mock your life story. It’s all a part of the New York jibber jabber.

10) There is no Chip + Pin, Cheques (Checks) are still accepted, and Cash machines (ATMs) charge you!

Credit cards only operate on a swipe and sign, and rarely are you asked for your PIN – fraud galore! Also, you can only go to ATMs of the bank you are a part of to withdraw money. If you are a part of Citibank and go to a Chase ATM- expect to be charged $2+ ! Ridiculous!

11) Being gay is not just universally accepted, but also quite fashionable!

"Are you my husband?" Gay Pride Parade, Christopher Street, Manhattan
“Are you my husband?”
Gay Pride Parade, Christopher Street, Manhattan

Times Square
Making friends in Times Square

I just so happened to stumble into the Gay Pride parade and it really was an all-out celebration for people of all cultures and colours. There was even an African-American church group float. They were really making a point that they are here and here to stay. One of the most interesting moments was when I overheard a couple of fathers saying to their (adpoted) children: ‘How do you feel about having 2 daddies?’ NY has certainly embraced all walks of life.
Someone also came up to me and said I looked really cute in my Timberland boots. It’s a shame it was a guy though lol.

12) They are aware of Thomas the Tank Engine, and more importantly Mr. Bean.

That is all.

13) They actually have real weather issues there.

Flooding outside my apartment/local pharmacy during Hurricane Sandy
Flooding outside my apartment/local pharmacy during Hurricane Sandy

I will never forget living and working through Hurricane Sandy. The whole skyline of New York blacked out and the hurricane tore through our town. I was still asked to trek it into work (on foot) where we worked in a skeleton office. All supermarkets and pharmacies were closed for the whole week bar one due to the destruction and flooding meaning food was pretty much rationed. It was crazy seeing people charge their phones using street lights and the supermarket plugs. I remember when I ran outdoors during the eye of the storm and saw an entire billboard collapse onto one of the parked cars… AND we complain about the fog and cold in England!
I also experienced a heatwave in the Summer at 35c and a blizzard storm in Winter at -10c!

14) Nothing is local!

In East London we consider Essex fairly local and Slough local to West London. In NY, the following places are considered fairly ‘local’:

Before jumping into our car to go down to Atlantic City, New Jersey
Before jumping into our whip to go down to Atlantic City, New Jersey

Boston, Washington DC, Atlantic City, Toronto. Going to uni ‘not far from home’ would be going to one of these places. I drove to all of these places on the weekends which is considered normal (clocking in 1300 miles on the Canada road trip)…and we fuss about driving from London to Birmingham in UK!

15) There is a parade for every holiday.

New Years parade, Memorial day parade, Labour day parade (rest in peace Bob Marley), Columbus Day parade, The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, Halloween parade, even Indian independence day parade!
Every day off work is a reason to celebrate…which is warranted considering statutory holiday is only 15 days.

16) Haircuts really aren’t the same.

I went to the shopping mall to get my hair cut and the lady was incredibly skilled at doing exactly what I told her not to. I felt like an awkward 16 year old who had got a first special haircut before the school prom. All combed forward with some ikky wet look watery gel- with an abrupt quiff at the front. I won’t post a picture.

17) Indians are not Asians.

They are ‘South-Asians’ to differentiate from Oriental people. Not like in the UK where we just call all Japanese, Thai and Chinese people simply ‘Chinese.’ And anyone with brown skin is ‘Asian.’ ..And where in London, Asians are congregated in East London, and North London, oh and West London. Ah yeah and a fair bit in South London now too, in NY they are all bunched in the borough of Queens- Richmond Hill and Jackson Heights to be precise.

With fellow NY indians as part of the NYU Bhangra team. We were about to perform on the court at the Brooklyn Nets basketball game.
With fellow NY indians as part of the NYU Bhangra team. We were about to perform on the court at the Brooklyn Nets basketball game, at the newly built Barclays Center Arena in Brooklyn, NY. Throwing up the ROC sign in tribute to the team’s owner, Jay Z.

18) Chinatown is actually a Chinese Town.

Unlike Chinatown London which is a street of Chinese restaurants interspersed with bars and a Pizza Express, the NY one is literally like you are in China. It is complete with Chinese therapy centres, food markets and gucci bag wheelers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have their own local government and mafia too.

19) The Subway is not as dangerous as you might think but is hard to use!

Waiting for the train at Penn Station (Madison Square Garden)
Waiting for the train at Penn Station (Madison Square Garden)

It’s not rough and full of hoodlums as you might think. In fact it’s really just about as unfriendly and full of weirdos as the London Underground. It is definitely dirty but is spacious and air-conditioned. AND 24 HOURS TOO! You never have to worry about getting home.
However, it is hard navigating the stations and lines. In London, you turn left for Eastbound and right for West. You have to be an idiot to get lost. The Subway is more like a labyrinth of different entrances, levels and different platforms with terrible signage, and few maps. Sort it out Bloomberg!

20) Last but definitely not least, it is just as beautiful as you always imagined.

On my last day before I went to the airport, I went up to the Top of the Rock, to soak it in one last time…

Capturing the city one last time. (Rockefeller Center, NY)
Capturing the city one last time. (Rockefeller Center, NY)


  1. paul greco

    we miss you Varun….hope you weren’t too hungry during the storm since food was rationed….i bet you didn’t have a problem finding the booze.

  2. Mustafa Pali

    Varun. Nice job. After working with you for almost a year and you did not understand what you were doing, are you sure you wrote that by yourself?

  3. Pam

    Hey, great post – came across your blog via the MB newsletter (I’m an ex-Mountie too, Sept ’04!) So many things I recognise: brunches, being chased for not tipping (it’s real!), the subway, friendly (yet abrupt) New Yorkers, parades, holidays and proper weather (wtf is “drizzle” London??). Still hold that year and that city dear to my heart, great to read your take on it (your Beautiful Struggle piece was great too).

    One observation though, how the hell did you not spot Anna Wintour in your Knicks picture! (3rd row massive shades)…

    1. varunbhanot1

      Hi Pam! Thanks a lot for reading and nice to meet you!
      Yes I don’t think much changes in the city and it will certainly be a year will never forget. What have you done since you left MB? Always interesting to see what people got up to afterwards.
      As for Anna Wintour, you will have to excuse my ignorance. I looked her up and was shocked I missed that one! Thank you for pointing that out! I guess the experience is still revealing new things to me!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s