Years ago, when my mother took her sister to Venice for the first time, as the boat from the airport turned into the Grand Canal she put her hands over her sister’s eyes.
“Don’t look yet,” my mother said.
My mother had been before. She was waiting for that moment when the lagoon comes in sight of the canal. When, especially at dusk, Venice resembles a Turner or a Canaletto. I’ve been there a dozen times now; it never changes, that moment when you feel the sheer shock of the arrival. When you’re swept over the water, in this city mirrored in water, into the iconic Venice.
So my mother waited. Then, the Campanile soaring overhead on her left, the Santa Maria della Salute with its great gray dome on her right, she took her hands from her sister’s eyes and said, “Now.”
Of the great cities, only a few give you this jolt when you arrive, this sense that you are both approaching someplace amazing and already in it, as if the arrival itself were part of the quintessential experience of being there. Others—London, Paris, Buenos Aires—are fabulous in themselves, but access to them is through a sprawl of dreary suburbs.
When I think of the great points of arrival, I mostly think of coming to them by car or boat or even on foot, when you get the real feel of the scale of the place, feel yourself a part of its life. You fly in; for the most part you’re disengaged. Even when the landscape below is spectacular, you’re above it, apart from it, a spectator in a metal tube at 35,000 feet.
There are those startling arrivals that, almost without warning, reveal a place like a brilliant cut in a film, drawing you inexorably to it—remember that first sight of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia?
You drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, along endless freeways that dribble into the desert. Inevitably you need gas around Barstow, one of the most depressing towns on earth, a town without pity, where balls of old newspaper always seem to roll down the empty streets like tumbleweed. After that: nothing.
The known world gives way to primeval cliffs of sand and ancient rock with nothing here to suggest the dazzle of Vegas. But arrive at night and, about 10 miles out of town, the desert suddenly ignites, as if some wizard had flipped a cosmic switch. You’re already in Vegas—you feel the seductions of this theme park carved out of raw desert, this oasis of neon and money and make-believe. I have a love-hate relationship with Las Vegas. I see those lights; I can’t wait to get there. Once I’m gone—and I’m always ready to go—it seems to have all been a mirage.
Your relationship to a place affects your arrival, of course. On a first visit there is always the expectation. So long had I wanted to visit Oustau de Baumanière, the legendary hotel in Provence, that when I set out I felt almost burdened by the anticipation of something wonderful.
I arrived with a friend by car on the first day of spring. The mistral had blown through, washing the sky an improbable, heartrending blue. We skirted the village of Les Baux, carved out of rock. Surrounded by raw gray peaks, we drove down into a valley lush with orchards and vines, dotted with the buildings and gardens of the hotel. I thought of Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel where the hero, wandering in the Himalayas, suddenly arrives in a fertile valley where nobody ever gets old. I let out my breath.
There’s a different kind of suspense when you arrive at a much-loved place, hoping everything will be the same. It’s a childish longing, but I feel it every year now as we head for Chico Hot Springs, an inn in Montana. We drive out of the town of Livingston, cross the little bridge over the Yellowstone—yes, that’s the same fisherman at the river’s edge, isn’t it?—and then turn onto East River Road.
This is Paradise Valley. The country opens up. The river, like a silver snake, is on the right. Along its banks are narrow green trees. Beyond, the cultivated fields, then the hills, covered with dark pines, rise into the naked blue Absaroka mountains, their peaks still covered with snow in June.
There’s something about this arrangement of the parts—river, field, hills, mountains, sky—that all at once, around that bend, provokes in me a kind of insane happiness. It’s here that I throw off the rest of the year, here in this open place where the sky really is as big as the cliché, the mountains as wild.
So thrilling is this arrival, we look worriedly even for minute signs of change. There must be none. And, every year, at exactly the same moment, after we pass the little one-room schoolhouse, we put on Stan Getz playing “Spring Is Here.”
And then there is Manhattan. No other place on earth gives you as visceral a sense of arrival as New York City. You head into the city, you see it before you’re there, the skyline shimmering on the horizon, elusive, lyrical, boastful, exultant, that unmistakable city of dreams, the sound track, for me, always Frank Sinatra.
My friend Vladimir Pozner, a Russian journalist, lived in New York as a child. He was then banned by the Soviets from visiting it for nearly 40 years. In 1987, he returned. Arriving by way of the Queensboro Bridge, he glimpsed the city first through the struts of the bridge, like frames in a movie. A moment later, though, he knew it was real, that he had really arrived. Seeing the city, he felt then, he says, “As if my heart would actually stop.”
Like Venice, New York is entirely man-made, a work of human endeavor. Both are monuments to art, ambition, commerce, both fabulous, desperate, vain, sexy. Like Venice, New York is an island city, mostly water, and terribly fragile.
After 9/11, after the attack, after the Twin Towers came down, the gap was the first thing you noticed. I arrived back from London a few days later and I looked, as I always had, for the first glimpse of the skyline. And there it was, but with the hole in it, the hole in the middle of the world. In this way, too, the moment of arrival hit me, told me about the emptiness of the city, about something missing.
Like the city, I’ve almost recovered. I’ve recovered my joy in arriving, that heart-stopping sense that New York has me in its grasp as soon as I see it. I can hear Sinatra singing again.
Reggie Nadelson’s latest novel, Blood Count, is being published this month by Walker & Co. Jazz, a collection of photographs by Herman Leonard with text from Nadelson, will be published next month by Bloomsbury USA.