It doesn’t matter where you travel. There is going to be a couple of cool parks, maybe a museum or two, a handful of historical statues, and generic city tourist attractions. All these things fail to capture what travel is really all about. Travel isn’t about checklisting a bunch of boxes of things you once saw from a travel mag, but rather getting a cultural feel for the spirit that resonates with the local inhabitants. What I would dub as the soul of the city.
The true essence of any city is only felt by getting yourself out there and mixing with inhabitants–sharing the tips and trades of life, directions to the nearest gas station, or asking your fellow bus passanger at 4am the evolutionary advantages of grape jelly vs strawberry. A matrix-like energy blankets the city in what seemingly dictates the cities pace of life, customary greetings, proper space distancing, etiquette, and length of eye contact.
I spent the last year in Spain living in both Barcelona and Madrid, and really immersed myself by living among the locals (none of which spoke English) and working for awesome tech startup, Fever. During this time, I got to empirically experience the Spanish mentality and way of life. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City in April that I really saw these culturally customs come to light.
A primal soup of cultural backgrounds and a montage mix of personalities, New York is unique in the sense that everyone feels like they have a shot at becoming the next iconic figure in their particular trade. An aire of opportunity and personal achievement is breathed; with the stratosphere set as the limit.
Having conversed with different people throughout the city on their favorite Burroughs and neighborhoods, you’ll come to find that nearly everything is up and coming. Oh, you live in the Eastern boonies of Queens? I heard it’s up and coming. Literally every single person I have talked to has told me that their neighborhood is on the verge from being the cool hip place in town. I think this speaks accolades to the New York state of mind as far as possibilities go. The iconic American spirit of pulling yourself from your bootstraps and rags to riches mentality lies heavily prevalent in the conversations struck up throughout the day.
Spain, however, is in a situation quite different.
Unemployment in Spain for people under the age of 30 is something close to 50%. Unheard of by American standards. You’ll find it not uncommon to see many college grads living with their parents late into their 20’s, and even some in their 30’s. A sense of passiveness is felt, as many strive away from their career aspirations in favor for residual work. This isn’t to say that the people are lazy. There are plenty of political factors at hand that help guide this mentality. The entrepreneurial sense of opportunity nevertheless, isn’t ingrained in the same societal fabric that you would see in New York.
That isn’t to say New York is better, however; they’re only different. With that everything’s up and coming mentality comes an ill-equipped sense of individualism as well. A strong sense of community becomes lost in favor for reaching for the stars, because believe me, you’re two steps away from being the next big shot in town.
Meanwhile, the Spanish on-goers huddle in the street pouring of rain, gathering around the coffee shop window to catch the latest of the night’s fútbol game. Sundays are spent at a café round table, equipped with cool crystal glasses of sangrias and tapas to pick at. Lunches are two hour breaks, a scheduled pause throughout the day to sit and relish in each others company.
Again, the point to take isn’t which one is better or more ‘correct.’ They are merely different. Only to be enjoyed in filling sense of the sensory experience they bring. The soul of the city isn’t necessarily a tangible property of the city. Rest assured, though, it’s presence is felt. As I sit here enjoying having recovered from an afternoon nap, and buzzling off to my next entrepreneurial move, I can’t help but feel a gilded smile of content.