We left for New York City in January 2021. The world was in turmoil. The coronavirus was still wreaking havoc across the globe, and a few days before our departure, an angry mob had stormed the US Capitol. Due to a US entry ban for EU citizens, our paperwork had not been approved until the very last minute. Moving across the ocean seemed more daunting than ever. And so, finally being able to set foot on American soil, not as a tourist but as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar, almost felt surreal.
For the first three months, my husband and I lived in a small one-bedroom in the heart of FiDi, Manhattan’s financial district. Ironically, since all the bankers were working from home because of the global pandemic, FiDi had become one of Manhattan’s more affordable neighbourhoods in which to rent an apartment. At first, New York felt like a ghost town. We got lost in its mostly empty streets and had dinner in what was perhaps the city’s most creative response to COVID-19: heated streetside vestibules, bubbles, and greenhouses.
In the first few weeks of us being in the US, two big nor’easter storms hit Manhattan and brought heavy snowfall and strong gusty winds, causing blizzard-like weather conditions. This cold weather stood in strong contrast with the welcoming warmth of many of the people we met. The faculty, administrative staff, and students at my host institution Columbia University, and especially my faculty host Seth Cluett, were supportive and kind throughout my stay. So were the artists I interviewed for my research — people like sound artist and composer Marina Rosenfeld, who welcomed me into her Brooklyn studio and brewed up an excellent cup of coffee. At Columbia, I fulfilled one of my musicological dreams of seeing the mythical RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer with my own eyes. This massive machine, which takes up an entire room in Columbia’s Computer Music Center, made music history as the first programmable electronic synthesizer.
After what several New Yorkers told us had been “the coldest winter in eighteen years”, spring finally arrived. Thanks to its widespread vaccination campaign, and along with Central Park’s world-famous cherry-blossom trees, the city was back in full bloom by April 2021. We spent our weekends eating bagels in New York’s many parks, strolling down the world’s finest museums, biking through Brooklyn, and hiking along the US East Coast.
There’s a line in a Baz Luhrmann song that reads: ‘live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard’. New York did not make me hard, though it did make me strong. While daily life in New York City may be noisy, competitive, and relentlessly quick-paced, sharing the city with eight million others implies a thorough celebration of diversity as well as a deep-rooted sense of mutual respect; a willingness to care for one another and the spaces that we share. If there is one thing I learned from my time in New York City, it is to be “New York strong”: to be resilient, open-minded, creative, and kind — always and in all ways. Now, being back home, I find that this mindset shimmers through not only in my personal life but also (and perhaps most prominently) in my work as an academic. Of course, we also brought back a souvenir. In late July, we welcomed Jarl into our family — our four-legged friend and our daily reminder of the beautiful memories we made in the US.
Dr. Christine Dysers is a Belgian 2020-2021 Fulbright Scholar in Musicology at Columbia University. Christine’s research is broadly concerned with 20th- and 21st-century music and is particularly attentive to contemporary composition and the aesthetics of repetition. Her research interests include music and the political, musical borrowing, and the notion of the uncanny. Methodologically, her work occupies the spaces between musicology and philosophy. Christine holds a PhD in Music from City, University of London. She also holds a PGCert in Academic Practice and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.