New York v Norwich: what my move across the Atlantic taught me | Moving overseas

A guttural scream exploded from somewhere deep inside me as I stepped out of the car in New York City on my first visit back there since moving to the UK a year ago. I’d nearly planted my foot on two rats embroiled in a grudge-match over the right to eat the chunks out of a pile of vomit. I then spent the next hour pressed against the front of a building, because our Airbnb host had neglected to leave us the key. So we dodged Saturday late-night drunks until he finally arrived at 1am. Within 30 seconds, he and I were fighting.

Any New Yorker will tell you to stay away during the dog days of summer, because the garbage-strewn streets will have reached maximum, eye-watering pungency. But my son’s UK school schedule dictated the timing. So this past August, I found myself touching down at JFK, terrified I’d feel remorseful about having left and pleasantly surprised to feel only a gentle tingling of familiarity as the glittering skyline came into view.

An hour of inhaling fumes in aggressive traffic later, we pulled up to East 5th Street on the Lower East Side, just two doors from where I once lived in a minuscule apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen. A few more doors down was Sophie’s, where I bartended in the mid-90s, therapist to old men on the day shift, bouncer to junkies at night. Across the street was a fancy new restaurant that used to be the apartment where Bob Ross (not the TV painter) lovingly crafted guitars on a lathe up until I watched him die of Aids in a bed at St Vincent’s hospital. Twenty years later, my son was born at that same hospital before it was shut and converted into luxury apartments. The memories rushed in, like restless phantoms elbowing each other for my headspace.

‘The memories rushed in’: Ali Smith on the Lower East Side, Manhattan, 2017. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Observer

The next morning, determined to slide seamlessly back into New York life, I stumbled outside to grab coffees and croissants. A burned-out carcass of a motorcycle had a parking ticket on it. At the end of the block, my son’s former school was still encased, coffin-like, in netting and scaffolding. “Why do you need to do non-emergency brick work during a pandemic?” we parents had argued, desperately, predicting the construction would block circulating air and light. The Department of Education swore it would only take six months. Two years later the scaffolding is still up, rusting to the building – underneath it were scattered liquor bottles and hypodermic needles.

How did I manage to pull off the Herculean task of relocating my family from my hometown of New York – the city that never sleeps – to my husband’s hometown of Norwich, a city where I may finally be able to get some rest. It was way harder than I’d imagined, dense with bureaucratic red tape even though I entered on what I thought would be a warm and fuzzy family visa. I muse on the incredible changes of the past year, while nibbling my usual (fruit scone with oat flat white) at my new favourite Norwich coffee shop (Bread Source). Out on Upper St Giles Street, the grey drizzle plays into a weather stereotype even the Brits love to lean into as two mums laugh, pushing prams. A young person, stunning in a floral dress, high-heels and beard, smiles broadly as they hold the door for an elderly woman who smiles back.

The barista walks by and places an unsolicited glass of water on my table with her tattooed arm. She smiles, a diamond stud glittering in her lip, and for a moment I see my teenage self: two nose rings, six earrings, studded belt, hair so hardened with Stiff Stuff hairspray you could pop off a beer bottle top on a lock of it. In those days, growing up in New York City, Tompkins Square Park in the East Village was the centre of my misspent youth and it’s where I turned, that first morning back, to get to the coffee shop.

The neighbourhood was where punk kids ran wild, drug dealers helped old ladies across the street, and Glamazons like RuPaul sashayed out of the nearby Pyramid Club at 6am wearing 7in heels and little else. Most early immigrants got their first glimpse of Lady Liberty on their way to these streets, where you can still dine on the pierogies and other delicious foods they brought with them. Diversity is the shining jewel in the crown of New York’s greatest attributes. Which is easy to forget when you hear, like I suddenly did, a booming, aggressive voice shouting into a phone about the bitcoin market. Where have all the artists and anarchists gone?

I glared at the unapologetic capitalist on my way inside, where I ordered three cappuccinos and four croissants. The barista was immediately bored with me, and when he gave me the total – $41 – I shrieked: “ARE YOU KIDDING?” He smirked. Dazed, I forgot I was back in the land of overtipping even for terrible service. So as I turned away in my post-mugging haze, he called after: “People who don’t tip die alone!” Outside, I grumpily sipped a cappuccino which tasted… fine. The loud bitcoin enthusiast saw me and asserted: “This place is the best!”

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‘Some things make me an outsider in my new hometown’: Ali Smith at the market on Gentleman’s Walk, Norwich. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The Observer

Post-pandemic, New York reverted to the way it was in the 90s. Open drug use and violence exploded, and mentally unstable people were left, unhoused and unsupported, to “work it out” on the streets. Where that once seemed part of the wonderful tapestry of life, keeping the worst of it away from my son became a full-time job. By the time I was punched in a packed subway car and nobody helped me, I had to admit I couldn’t/didn’t want to handle it any more.

At Bread Sourcewhen the barista kindly removes my empty cup (flat white, £3.50, delicious), she cocks her head. “Where’s your accent from?” When I tell her “New York” she raises both eyebrows. “New York to Norwich. That’s quite a change.” To which I say the same thing I always do: “I certainly hope so!”

Her expression seems vaguely apologetic for what must certainly be my deep, inevitable disappointment. It’s the same line and look almost everyone I’ve met in the past year has given me. I’m starting to understand the implied apology is “a cultural thing”: like listing the reasons a meal you’ve lovingly prepared for someone will fall short of their expectations as you place it in front of them; or warning that “Norwich is where ambition comes to die.” It’s just something they’re constitutionally bound to do.

When I leave Bread Source, I’ll walk through the centre of town, in among the rainbow colours of the awnings that cover the historical Norwich Market. That’s where I often buy bao buns at the Bun Box, the delicate little cacti I love at Planted, and where the Cheeseman sells my son’s favourite pickled eggs. By the time I reach the majestic Norwich cathedral, it will be dark, but I’ll feel secure walking to my “coven meeting”. Four friends and I meet monthly for dinner, proudly reclaiming the tired old trope that conflates women our age with “witches”. Each of them spent childhoods in Norwich and went on to live in places as close as London and as far as Uganda. In the end, they all came back. “Everybody comes back to Norwich,” they tell me.

Why did I leave? Maybe it’s like Ada Calhoun suggests in her book, St Mark’s is Deada gritty history of the now gentrified part of the East Village. We each get a special, romantic time with New York. It’s a torrid affair, but once it’s over, each of us thinks whatever comes afterwards pales in comparison to the only time that mattered: ours. I’ve seen people cling by their fingertips for too long – as to an abusive lover. Watched the city’s intensity torment some and kill others. It’s a fantastic place when you’re “winning” and ruthless when you’re not. I didn’t want to find out what it had in store for me.

Some things make me an outsider in my new hometown. Like when I’m being what I would call “straightforward” – maybe asking a waiter to replace my salad with one that doesn’t have a long hair in it – and I can feel the people I’m with cringing. Or when shoppers stand in a line that isn’t moving for ages without ever asking why, and I want to scream.

“Native New Yorker” is a title I’ve worn proudly my whole life and it’s served me well. But now, busting out of my exoskeleton and emerging with transparent wings, I’m taking flight through the storied and intimate streets of Norwich.

The Ballad of Speedball Baby by Ali Smith is published by Blackstone at £14.99. Buy a copy for £13.19 at

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