GAP and I spent the weekend in Manhattan. He had business there on Sunday and Monday, so I tagged along and we made a weekend of it. This being our fourth or fifth trip to the city together, we’d covered most of the “must see” tourist destinations, and were able to spend a decent chunk of time wandering the streets of Manhattan aimlessly.
This kind of aimless wandering is one of our favorite ways to experience almost any vacation spot. Not only does it grant us the opportunity to get familiar with the character of a place, it provides the opportunity for us to exhaust all sorts of topics of conversation that get sidelined in a home life that is filled (happily) with our careers and children.
So as we wandered up Second Avenue on Saturday afternoon I think I asked him, “If we were to move here tomorrow – with the kids – which part of the city would you want to live in?” This gave way to the clarification “Are we moving there just for a year to have the experience, or are we moving permanently?” The answer, of course, changes in each context. (One year? The Village. Permanently? Upper East Side.) The introduction of finite timing then led to the next version. “If you were going to pick any city in the world to live in for one year, which would you pick? What about three years? What about five?” There were more complicated and contingent versions of the question that followed these.
The answers to these questions* matter less than the exercise of asking them, I think. It’s the conversation that comes from asking the “what if” questions that makes them interesting, and gives us insight into both ourselves and into the people talking with us. We might surprise ourselves, as I did with my one-year answer. We are forced to think about the calculus that factors into such decisions. We come face to face with the very nature of our character and values: Do we favor adventure or predictability? Do we crave a challenge or something more relaxing? What would we find exciting or stifling or alienating or fun? How do our answers to these questions change when we consider making such jumps with our kids in tow versus without?
In some way the answers to these questions serve as proxies for greater statements about us. The choices we make in our external lives are often quite crystalline reflections of what we believe and value internally. Asking someone, “What do you value most in your life?” is bound to produce broad (and likely uninteresting) answers. But more specific questions that might be the manifestation of those values can be much more telling.
For two working parents with two young children finding the time to get lost in conversation is sometimes hard to do. But in my experience walking aimlessly through a city is almost always the right backdrop for just that.
*One year = Shanghai. Three years = London (although Barcelona was a strong contender). Five years = New York.