People watching is the greatest show you’ll ever see, says Susan Devaney.
There’s so much to see in New York City.
There’s the man, who silently appeared at my side in Washington Square Park, with a giant homemade bubble-making net on an idle Sunday afternoon. While listening to music through his headphones, he blew bubbles (in one slow sweep) the size of my head for children everywhere. To catch. To run through. To burst with excitement.
You can, of course, go and see the iconic Chrysler Building and the Statue of Liberty.
But what about the man who whizzed by me on a skateboard with a large, bright yellow python wrapped around his neck like a statement-making necklace? Or the woman who looked so beautifully put together, like a Greta Garbo character, perched next to her trolley stacked high with everything that she owned? Or the couple who salsa-danced on Coney Island pier like they were the only living souls in the world?
Sure, I saw celebrities, too, on my recent trip to New York. I watched as DJ Khalid literally stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue as he emerged from the sunroof of his Bentley, recording every screaming fan on Instagram Stories while promoting his new single. And I didn’t bat an eyelid when actress Karen Gillian casually walked by me as I looked up at Carrie Bradshaw’s fictional apartment on Perry Street.
But if I hadn’t intentionally stopped on my travels, I wouldn’t have seen ordinary people, living ordinary lives, who are in fact upon closer inspection, not ordinary at all.
And as I learned this summer, there’s so much to see in the romantic city of Paris, too.
There were the two female professors who sat and spoke about the fascinating differences between French and American cultures – while a dog lay below their feet, sprawled out and soaking up the sun. And then there were the artists who filled the square in Montmartre, trying to capture passers-by with paint, pencils and poise.
Of course, there were the couples on the bridge locking their padlocks together. And the tourists waiting patiently to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle, on the hour, every hour.
But what about the trend I noticed for couples opting to wear matching outfits? Like the duo, who wore complementary head-to-toe grey outfits as they sauntered along the Champs-Élysées? And the elderly couple who looked impeccably chic with co-ordinating boat hats, thick-framed glasses and navy blue ensembles?
My near-obsession with people watching has reached such great heights that I now intentionally schedule time to sit and observe the world around me wherever I go on holiday. I’ve been fascinated with people watching for as long as I can remember; even as I child, I would scream bloody murder until I was taken outside to see things, see people.
But it was only during my recent trips this summer that it dawned on me just how much value I place on the activity. I spent half a day people watching in each destination – either on my own or with a friend in tow. For some, going to the gym is a form of therapy. But for me, people watching is both therapeutic and idyllic. Not only does it make me feel calm, but it’s fascinating to see how other people dress and go about their everyday business within a new space.
In the words of Charles Bukowski: who wouldn’t want a free ticket to the greatest show in the world? Think of the late fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. He used his free ticket every day for 50 years as he scouted the streets of New York, capturing the most interesting people through his camera lens. During New York Fashion Week 2015, while reporting for a publication, I watched him perfect his craft. Fixated, I stood on the sideline at each and every show, watching him snap away with pure interest, never missing a moment.
But, unlike Bill, I never take photos. Not only is people watching an enjoyable experience, but it’s also valuable time away from my phone and all that goes with it – from social media to work emails and constant notifications. It’s when I truly switch off. Without my phone in my hand, I can just be.
In short: I’m sitting doing nothing, a true luxury in today’s fast-paced world. A study, carried out in 2017, found that people experienced withdrawal symptoms when they had their phones physically removed from them. As a result, they performed badly on mental health tasks and experienced physiological symptoms, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. If ever there was a reason for us to learn to be without our phones, surely this is it.
When it comes down to it, we all indulge in people watching, whether we care to admit it or not. Instagram acts as an everyday window into other people’s lives; often people we follow, but have never had an actual conversation with. We see them snapped on the street in front of their favourite new hotspot in London. And we see them exploring the Maldives or Morocco.
Still, we don’t know them – and nor do we want to. We simply want to watch them from afar, through our screens.
People watching is an activity that’s best kept to cities: this is where you truly see all kinds of people. But I don’t set aside time to sit and watch everyone who passes me by on any given day in London. I just treasure the activity while I’m on a city break and surrounded by a new place, because it’s really the people who live there that tell you everything you need to know about life in that city.
But there’s so much to see in the City of Light when you have a bottle of wine, a soft cheese, a crusty baguette and a good spot on the River Seine to people watch without any interruptions.
And there’s so much to see in the City That Never Sleeps, especially if you plonk yourself down on a breakfast bar – with a $2 slice of pizza in one hand and a coke in another – just watching people walk on by.