Taking a bite of the Big Apple: Maeve Higgins tells us about life in New York

COMEDIENNE Maeve Higgins decamped to New York at the end of January, having spent the previous year living in London, and the dozen before that in Dublin.

“I always wanted to live in New York,” says Higgins, returning to Ireland next week for gigs at the Vodafone Comedy Festival in Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens. “It was a dream of mine to be a writer in New York city. I didn’t really have concrete plans coming over. I still don’t, really, but I’m having a really good time, doing loads of gigs and loving the city.”

Higgins got into the United States on a performer’s visa. “It’s funny — when I moved here I met up with a friend of a friend of mine. We went for coffee, and he was like, ‘Congratulations — you got to America.’ I mean, oh, God — I would never say that to somebody who had arrived in Ireland from somewhere terrible. But, to be honest, I do feel very lucky to be here.”

Higgins had vivid preconceptions from TV shows and movies of what the city would be like. She was surprised by how ramshackle the city was from a planning perspective.

“I thought, you know, ‘New York — busy, huge, efficient’, but it’s kind of just pulled together. It is not well-organised.

“Small things, like in London, for example, in the Tube, it has times on it, so you know when the next train is coming. Here, you don’t, and loads of the subway carriages are from the 1970s.

“It’s quite grimy. Parts of it, of course, you can tell are so wealthy. In the Upper West Side and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for example, you can feel that there’s a ton of money around, but the rest of it is very normal. I wasn’t expecting that it would feel like home — so grubby in parts,” she says.

The city is very accessible — a weekly $30 subway-and-bus pass gets her anywhere she chooses to go in the city and its hinterland — and the people are friendly.

“I find the people unbelievably sound, and curious about each other in a different way than Irish people are curious. I find people aren’t as judgemental here as they are in other places I’ve lived.

“People are in a rush — and all that — but they’re used to living jammed up against loads of other people. You have to be polite in that scenario.

“You know, in those situations, if there is somebody cutting in when queuing or pushing on the subway, it’s usually a tourist or somebody from another part of America. New Yorkers tend to be very open, very friendly, and quite considerate of each other’s space.

“Definitely, people are loud here and open about their feelings more than in, say, Ireland. They’re not afraid to say what they think. People tell you anything. It’s hilarious. ‘How’s your sex life? Is it as good as mine?’. They’ve no qualms. I’m generalising, of course — New York is full of all different sorts of people — but I do think they have greater access to the vocabulary about how they’re feeling.”

This has repercussions for dating. Americans have a more civilised, business-like approach to the search for love.

“Dating here is more straightforward than it is in Ireland,” she says. “I used to do jokes about this in Ireland — how you never know how you stand. ‘Are we on a date? Is this a work meeting? Are you gay?’ You never know what’s happening with a guy. The only way you find out if you’re going out with somebody is if you buy a house together,” she says.

“Here, it’s very much: ‘Do you want to go for coffee, and we can talk and see if we get along?’. It’s very straightforward and open. I still see Irish people, in the Irish community, still doing it the old-fashioned way, where they go out and get wasted and then figure it all out in the morning.”

When Higgins, who is from Cobh, Co Cork, misses Ireland and the carry-on, she listens to the Joe Duffy phone-in chat show.

“Something I didn’t expect to happen is that I’ve been listening to Liveline here. It’s usually on in the morning, when I’m having my breakfast. I put it on, and I just love it. I never used to listen to it when I lived in Ireland.

“Something I miss, too, are the markets back at home. Honestly. I haven’t found anything like them here. The fruit here is great, because it’s from California, but you can’t beat Mahon Point Market, the English Market in Cork — I just love the food from those places. Butter, basically — I just miss butter.”

Higgins has teamed up with the British investigative journalist, Jon Ronson, for a monthly night in which they harvest stories about newcomers’ experiences in the city. It’s called ‘I’m New Here — Can You Show Me Around?’

Higgins has a keen ear for good stories. A radio documentary she made with RTÉ’s Documentary on One team won a prize in June at the prestigious New York Festivals’ Awards.

Entitled ‘Valentine’s Bones’, it’s about Whitefriar Street Church in Dublin, which houses relics of Saint Valentine. Visitors write prayers to the saint in a notebook at the shrine.

The documentary seems like whimsy, as she examines why — and what — people write to the saint, as well as touching on her own quest for love, but it makes a surprising tonal shift midway through.

“What I took from making the documentary was that cynicism doesn’t serve me,” she says. “That was my own personal realisation. I went into it — cynical is too strong a word — I was obviously interested in it, because I’d been following the book for over a decade, but I was quite reserved about the whole thing. “The main question of the documentary was ‘Why are you writing to a dead man that may or may not have existed? Why are you telling him all your personal things?’ I asked people and they told me, and it blew my mind.”

Higgins hopes to have a similar effect on her audience next week.

Maeve Higgins performs at the Vodafone Comedy Festival on Thursday and Sunday

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

THURSDAY: Russell Howard Al Murray

FRIDAY: Dara O’Briain (right) Ed Byrne

SATURDAY: Milton Jones Stewart Francis

SUNDAY: Rhys Darby Jason Byrne

Vodafone Comedy Festival, Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, July 24-27. vodafonecomedy.com


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