It was 30 years ago this month — January 9th, 1983. I landed in Miami for what was supposed to be a three-week stay in the U.S. before returning to Milan, where I was living at the time. Little did I know then that three weeks would turn into 30 years.
It all started with a trip to Nicaragua. I left Italy on Christmas Day and reached Costa Rica by way of Amsterdam.
Once in San Jose I traveled by bus to Managua where I spent the following two weeks traveling around the country, which at the time was on the fence between becoming a tourist destination and becoming the center of a Central American revolution. Even though I was there on vacation, it was a pretty exciting place to be for a young journalist still struggling to get his byline in print.
The route of the return ticket was different than the outbound flight. I was going to go from San Jose to Miami before another stopover in Amsterdam and back to Milan. I contacted KLM and managed to change the return and add a stop in New York. The rules of the ticket allowed for a maximum stay of three weeks.
It was almost the end of January when I took the subway from Manhattan to JFK with a friend of a friend of a friend. His name was Marcello and I had never met him before. I went to the KLM counter, checked in with my Italian passport, gave Marcello my boarding pass, and then he paid me for the return portion of my ticket and left.
In a post-9/11 world it is hard — no, make that impossible — to imagine selling a portion of an airplane ticket and getting onboard under someone else’s name. In 1983 we were all living in a much different world, and for someone in his twenties the world is always very different from the real one.
I took the subway back to Manhattan. I found myself in New York with no return ticket, no money, no work.
Thirty years later I am still here, and life couldn’t be sweeter. I spend my time between my beloved house on the outskirts of East Hampton Village and my cheery co-op apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
But 30 years ago life was hardly this sweet. My first accommodation in New York was a couch on West 64th Street. A few weeks into my staying there I graduated to the bed.
No, it was not a budding love affair with Ilona, my hostess. It was the convenience of her night shift as a journalist. I used the bedroom at night, she would use it during the day at the end of her night shift at the Associated Press.
Within a few months I moved to a shared apartment in the West Village. Then it came time to move into a short-term sublet on the Upper West Side. Upon leaving the sublet I landed the real estate break that any young person needs in order to get established in New York — a small but charming one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a steep walk-up. Rent was less than $500 a month. Already back then I knew that I had been kissed by good fortune, possibly the first indication that my three weeks in New York were truly meant to be much longer. Several years later I bought my first apartment and I still remember vividly the feeling: “I’ve entered the New York real estate market. I’ve made it.”
Some people might wonder whether I feel that time flew by in a flash. I don’t. The past 30 years feel like . . . 30 years. Maybe more. It is remarkable how many things have happened during the past three decades. How many changes, adventures, new experiences. How many people I have met, friends I have made, people I have encountered.
So many exciting memories and the certainty of more to come. There have been some sad moments, as well, most of them linked to someone’s passing. Myra committed suicide; Michael died of AIDS; Eva was killed on board Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.
But more than sadness it has been joy, excitement, and marvel that have marked the past three decades for me. And by far what has been most extraordinary is the number of people from around the world with whom I have become friends. Marta and Tomas in Brazil, MyAn and Ricardo in Vietnam, and Omarito in Mexico. Vinod in India, Katarina and David in Germany, Lion in Gabon. They are all people who live in New York or often visit New York, one of the most multinational cities in the world.
Together we share an unabated enthusiasm for life in New York and everlasting curiosity for this city. Most of them have visited me in East Hampton, as well, and have marveled at how beautiful and different this place is from where they live. With all of them I manage to stay in touch and cultivate a long-distance friendship because of the marvels of technology.
It is stunning how much technology has changed the way we communicate. Thirty years ago I phased out my Olivetti typewriter and made the transition to my first computer, a Kaypro the size of a sewing machine.
Thirty years ago I bought one of the first fax machines on the market, the sort that required a thermal paper roll and could connect only with the matching “comm 1” or “comm 2” systems. Thirty years ago a phone call to Italy was almost $4 for the first three minutes. I remember writing notes down before each call home to make sure I said everything I had to say within 179 seconds. I did not have $1.83 to invest for each additional minute.
Now I use Skype for free video chats, and when I call mother in Italy (she doesn’t do Skype) it costs me 2 cents a minute. Nowadays, I hardly use my fax machine with the exception of the occasional insurance document that still needs to be faxed. And my “computer” has shrunk from the boxy size of a sewing machine to the pocket size of an iPhone.
Stay put for another update on January 9th, 2023. By then, Facebook is going to be obsolete, Skype will be for the old generation, and Apple only knows how we will communicate then.
Andrew Visconti is a journalist from Italy who has spent most of his professional career working as a foreign correspondent based in New York. Since 1995 he has been a resident of East Hampton, as well as New York City.