“Norm!”

Recently a friend in New York City told me that for ten years, almost every Friday night she would have mussels, raw oysters, strawberries, and champagne at the same restaurant. That was thirty years ago.

It sounded like the kind of ritual the word ‘fabulous’ was invented for.

I’ve always liked the idea of being a regular at a place, but there are only a couple of times I’ve had that experience, usually associated with activity groups that meet at the same bar weekly. Food-wise, I love variety and so don’t frequent the same place every week. Same goes for ambiance—during lunch I sit at different spots in the park.

But I remember, one evening, walking into the bar in Paris that my fellow volunteers and I gathered at every week after serving meals outside, and the bartender said to me, “Thé au vert?” It felt like I had arrived.

We just want to be known, don’t we?

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Happy ______ Day

I am a big fan of ceremony and tradition—this is what happens when you have a Catholic and Chinese upbringing—they are so steeped in both that even if you don’t observe all practices or hold all beliefs, you end up absorbing some of their essence.

I don’t speak for everyone; some people reject or simply aren’t interested in the faith or the culture they were brought up with. I know people who would say that that aspect, though ingrained in them as children, no longer has a place within them. I perhaps have just come to my roots as a reason for why I gain fulfillment from celebrating every holiday, observing birthdays and anniversaries, and continuing traditions universal, familial, and individual. That is an age-old aspect of humanity as a whole, but I know a number of people who don’t value any of that.

I think I just love an excuse to celebrate. Sure, we should give thanks outside of Thanksgiving, express our love outside of Valentine’s Day, and renew outside of New Year’s. But there are a lot of things we should do every day. Humans are always trying to simultaneously balance difference priorities and aspects of life.

Holidays and anniversaries serve as reminders to focus on one of these things.

It also adds novelty to a day. I remember hearing about someone who liked to dress in the theme of the movie he was going to watch in the theater. I am that way with holidays. A few years ago I wore bunny ears to a picnic with friends during Easter weekend in Paris. Yes, I am a grown woman who acts seriously at work and pays her taxes on time.

Holidays and events have the value that we assign to them. I choose to value a number of them. Two birthdays, two New Years. Christmas, Halloween. And if a person in my life celebrates a holiday that I do not and invites me to their gathering, all the better to observe someone else’s traditions. Passover, Galentine’s Day, Armenian Easter. I say oui.

Note: I wrote the first half of this post a full two years ago. It sat patiently in my drafts until the day I’d be “unblocked” and find the rest. It must have flowed out today because it’s Valentine’s Day, a holiday beloved, reviled, and dismissed. You can guess where I stand on this.

What Up

When I take a walk during my lunch break, in the span of two minutes I might see:
– painted people holding hands
– an old-timey clock inserted in a corner
– a rooftop garden

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I’ve been looking up since childhood. Nowadays, mostly only at night, when I look up at the moon and stars on my way home or out and about, but once in a I while  remember during the day too. Highly recommended.

We Celebrate the Liquefaction of San Gennaro’s Blood with Zeppoles

How do you fit a Ferris wheel into a tiny city street? Ask a New Yorker.

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As you can tell, I post out of chronological order, hence this photo of a summer festival. Recently it has been below freezing here (and don’t get me started about how we didn’t have heat for a couple of weeks at work), so I might as well dream of warm days strolling through the city.

I read about the San Gennaro festival a few years ago. It’s quite a fascinating story—San Gennaro, or Saint Januarius, is the patron saint of Naples, Italy. Legend has it that his blood, kept as a relic in the Naples Cathedral, liquefies three times a year. I know, right!?

I grew up in parts of New Jersey that had a lot of Italian immigrants and their American-born kids and grandkids, so I’ve been to my fair share of Italian-American festivals with my family. If you’ve never been to one, it’s stands of zeppoles and Italian sausage and pepper subs, games like knocking down objects to win stuffed animals, and rides like the Ferris wheel and rotating teacups. It’s people walking around in their shorts. Festivals are usually organized by local Catholic churches, but they’re open to everyone.

For almost 90 years New York’s Little Italy neighborhood has held an annual festival in September, at the end of summer and around the date of San Gennaro’s feast day, September 19th. A friend suggested we check it out. The atmosphere was the same as the Italian festivals I had been to in northern New Jersey—lights, groups of people, the smell of fried food—but I couldn’t believe how huge it was. We walked down street after street of stands and kept turning corners expecting it to be done, but there was more in all directions. Most of the stands were food or goods. I was delighted and surprised to come upon one selling cute dresses with prints. There was no fitting room, and the seller said someone had just stolen his mirror the day before, so I tried on a short-sleeved dress over the dress I was wearing and skedaddled away with it (after paying, of course). No fitting room and no mirror, but I could pay via credit card and have the receipt emailed to me.

When we came upon the Ferris wheel, I couldn’t believe someone had the idea to jam it into the little Little Italy street. It made me think of the city citrouilles. Ferris wheel or bust.

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George Nakashima Woodworking Studio

I was looking through some old books at home and found a paperback collection of American poetry for students. There were a few poems that spoke to me, including:

I May, I Might, I Must

By Marianne Moore

If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across if I try.

Earlier this year a friend and I visited the George Nakashima furniture studio complex in New Hope, which is literally the first town we entered in Pennsylvania when coming from New Jersey. We had invited a couple of others along, but it ended up being the two of us, a nice girls’ trip. She picked me up in the morning, and we drove along highways and across the Delaware River to arrive at the peaceful grounds.

Funnily enough, only a week or so before I had become aware of Nakashima (1905-90), whose low, wooden table and wide-seated chairs were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. My museum date had wanted to show me them at the Arts of Japan temporary exhibit before it closed. We sat around the table with other visitors. I found the hidden wall label that spoke about Nakashima’s intention to honor the tree.

Now I was seeing the distinctive wooden bow on chairs in his studio miles from the city. My friend and I wandered around the finishing department, the chair shop, and the showroom; took a peek into the main shop; and lingered by a small pond surrounded by a structure that made me feel like we were in Japan.

While my friend and I love nature, we don’t possess the instincts of country girls—at one point, I thought that an alarm was going off and tried to figure out where it was coming from. Then I realized it was the sound of… frogs.

It so happened that a Pride festival was going on in New Hope. We drove on the main street decorated with rainbow flags and found an Irish restaurant for lunch. After, we popped in a few boutiques and a coffee and doughnut shop before driving back.

I’ve mentioned the woodworking studio to friends, and no one has known about it. It was an easy, relaxing getaway for a few hours.

Bridge

On the outer edge of the George Washington Bridge from New York to New Jersey is a pedestrian path. Rather than driving or taking the bus across, you can walk between the two states with the cars rushing on one side and the vast Hudson River on the other. Earlier this year, a date and I did this, our destination being the park on the other side. The park turned out to be huge, and over a few hours we only explored the southern part of it. Though it was a beautiful day, we came across few people (score!). It was quiet and peaceful. The part we explored wasn’t quite hiking—there were paths and a couple of steep staircases—but around those paths it was definitely wild, plants and trees growing where they may. We saw chipmunks and deer, both of which were very exciting for me. Sometimes the animals were right next to the path where we were walking. Clearly I am not used to seeing wildlife on a daily basis, though there do seem to be more and more raccoons in Central Park, and it wasn’t a pigeon that nipped into the pumpkin outside where I live.

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Frenchies in New York

My first year in Paris, I had a group of American girl friends. We had dinner at each other’s apartments every Tuesday and shared ups and downs and a ton of fun in the city. Amazingly, years later, we keep in touch online and see each other when we can, sometimes in our respective cities and sometimes in a different country altogether. I was one friend’s conference spouse in Liège, Belgium and we made a side trip to Aachen, Germany after. Another girl saw the other during a long stopover in New York. Three got together in Greece. Once, four of us managed to reunite for a weekday lunch in New York.

This week a friend from the group forwarded us an email thread from over four years ago. I didn’t understand half the references we made in them (I would say you had to be there, but I was…), and there was some embarrassing stuff that reminded me why I should save some stories for oral telling and my diary. The excerpt below, however, is appropriate for sharing with you. I wrote it after spending a summer day with a friend and her boyfriend and their three friends, all Frenchies.

Today I hung out with French people visiting NY, and here were their observations:
No one smokes.
There are a lot of ads for storage space.
It is shocking that at a bar the server takes one person’s credit card to open a tab and doesn’t give it back till the end.
It is surprising that they could wear shorts to go to a fancy rooftop bar. (Most of the people at the bar were dressed up, but my friends were in shorts.)
It is freakin’ humid.
The subway stations are HOT.
They were surprised at how many people were wearing warm clothing like jeans and boots when it’s so warm today. (This really amused me, because this is what we always say about the French.)
The Nespresso boutique doesn’t have George Clooney’s face.

Two other things that happened that day:

My friend and I agreed to meet on Broadway in Soho. On the phone, I described to her where I was and couldn’t understand why she didn’t see the same stores. Turns out she didn’t realize that the little ‘W’ on the Broadway street sign she was looking at meant that she was on West Broadway, a different, but nearby street. And yes, it is confusing.

The six of us went to a rooftop bar, the first they had ever been to. We sat down and looked at the view of the city. One of the guys said he would go up to the bar to ask if we should order there or if we would be served at our table. He came back, a baffled look on his face. “According to the sign, you have to be a group of 21 to be served,” he said. That’s strange, I thought, until I started laughing. “Must be 21 to be served means you have to be at least 21 years old,” I explained. Understandably, this meaning wouldn’t necessarily occur to someone who is from a country where the drinking age is 18.

Hello Again, Marseille

After just one full day in Paris, I took the train down to Marseille (I’d be back in Paris for the latter part of my France trip). I’ve been to Marseille a number of times, but there is, refreshingly, always something new to discover.

Like the nice man who struck up a conversation with me as I ate sweet, smushed wild strawberries while sitting on a ledge across from a café a ways down from the train station.

Like this giraffe.

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Like this church with Joan of Arc rising in front of it.

Like these whimsical umbrellas.

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Like this shopping street (yes, I deliberately timed my vacation to coincide with the biannual soldes).

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Like this view that reminded me of San Francisco.

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And a rediscovery of Le Vieux Port.

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And an exploration of its environs.

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And an intriguing alley.

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And a huge inflatable duck to ponder while perching myself on a cement block and waiting for my friend to pick me up. Trying to discreetly peer at every male driver with sunglasses to see if he was my ride. Hint: One cannot both be discreet and peer at the same time.

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Another discovery: My friend’s son, the kid I once bent down to to faire la bise, is now taller than me. His daughter, thankfully, had not lost the excitement she had for things like sitting next to me at dinner.

Taking Off the Rose-Colored Glasses

I arrived in Paris on a weekday afternoon. This time I was here on vacation, my first trip back after having moved my life and luggage out of the City of Lights.

Excuse me while I râle:

I was sorely disappointed by almost no one offering to help me with the suitcase I was clearly struggling with up and down the many metro staircases. So many able jeunes français passed me by. Only one man helped me, at the end of my trajet. And no, I did not have the closed off, unapproachable face we sometimes make on public transportation. I was sending out the open-faced, help me vibes of someone who hadn’t realized how difficult lugging around a suitcase and full hand carry would be.

It made me think: Should I have been surprised or not? I didn’t remember this from my previous years in Paris. On the other hand, I lived on the train line that went straight to the airport, so I only had to go down one escalator and never needed help. Second question: Were people in the NY subway any more helpful? Is that why I expected aid? Well, not necessarily—at home I offer to help people with big suitcases or strollers, but that is because I notice that often no one else around is making a move to offer assistance. And what is true is that we don’t notice whether people have a tendency to help if we don’t need it. It’s when we need it that we realize whether people offer it.

When I told friends who live in Paris about my experience in the metro, one said, What do you expect, that’s the way Parisians are! Another was more surprised and said that people offer to help her. I don’t know. To people who have called Parisians rude or cold, I have always insisted that they are not so bad. I still stand by my statement that there are some really nice, warm people there, but my defense of the general population will be less staunch next time. I was tempted to give them a second chance, but after my experience the first day, I unhesitatingly booked a SuperShuttle to the airport for my departure day from Paris.

On the people who volunteer to help:

That same day, after getting through the metro; rendering speechless the young man at Orange with my ability to speak French after he had gone on his spiel in English about their “holiday” phone plan (while his colleague who could tell I spoke French chuckled the whole time and finally burst out laughing when I responded in French); meeting the friend I was going to stay with outside his building and catching up in his apartment—after all that—I headed out into the early evening to the soup kitchen I used to volunteer at every week.

I had told one of the volunteers there that I was planning on coming, but I still surprised her by sneaking up on her and exclaiming, “Hello!” in English. She made all the fuss we make when seeing a friend after a long time, then asked about my trip over. I started telling her about it in French, to which she responded with a big smile that my accent “New Jersey” had come back since my time away. Gee, thanks! She is one of the warmest people of the group and a wonderful presence for both the volunteers and the people who come to eat, so I knew her ribbing was good-natured even though I think she was serious about my American accent being more pronounced than before (though I can’t explain that?? I still speak French daily in my current life!).

I did the ‘bise’ with the other volunteers, who greeted me in slightly wide-eyed recognition. I didn’t chat with them that much, save for a woman with whom I had kept in touch after moving to the States. I had always enjoyed the work itself; after the repas came the socializing.

I made a beeline to claim what used to be my usual post—the table with hot food. Donning one pair of latex gloves and sticking a pair in my back pocket for later, stacking plastic bowls, breaking open the packet of spoons, deciding with the volunteer next to me who would serve the protein and/or vegetable and who would serve the grain. Gladly letting her choose the bulgur because she wanted to avoid the smell and splash of fish sauce because it meant I didn’t have to say bulgur (there ain’t no persnickety French ‘r’s in poisson). Saying “Bonsoir” and smiling hundreds of times. Once in a while, telling someone who tried to cut the line that “Il faut faire la file d’attente.” Responding in English to the occasional immigrant who didn’t speak French. Directing people to where they could find soup and coffee. It felt like home.

After serving the food and picking up trash, there was always a lull before the nearby boulangerie’s unsold bread, pastries, and sandwiches were picked up and distributed. This was the time that I loved shooting the breeze with the people who came to eat. A main reason I had come was actually to see how one of the bénéficiares was doing. I sidled up next to a volunteer who was still serving cereal and asked her, “Where is he??” As I scanned the area and felt dismayed over missing him, she pointed him out. He had just arrived. Of course. I forgot that he usually showed up late, after the main meal had been served. It seemed like he came more to chat than to get food.

I greeted him, and we had an enthusiastic reunion. “How is California?” he exclaimed. I laughed. “Wrong coast.” No offense taken. In the beginning of our friendship, it had taken him weeks to remember my name, though he associated me with Mickey Mouse. He also asked me multiple weeks in a row if I was Chinese and then asked me if I knew anything about qi (he sure did). There were key identifiers that somehow took a long time to imprint on his brain, so I was tickled but not shocked that he had missed by a long shot where in the United States I had moved to. And yet, on this night, he asked, “Où est ton pantalon rose?” I was surprised. I had completely forgotten that I used to wear my pink pants a lot to the soup kitchen during a period of time.

What I did remember was that for the first weeks that I knew him, I assumed that he was from a foreign country because of his accent when speaking French. I was taken aback when I finally asked him where he from and he responded “Toulouse.” I guess I had never heard a toulousain accent before. And I remember periodically moving a few inches away from him while we talked because he was taller than me and my neck was strained from looking up at him, and not understanding why he kept moving closer, until one day I realized that his eyesight was very poor.

I remember never questioning why some days, his hair was disheveled and his clothes were scrappy, and then once or twice he came wearing a suit and his hair neatly tied back.

I clearly remember opening up about my own stresses while I was looking for a job and seeing him really thinking about how to help and suggesting ideas. For the first months we had known each other, I had let him do most of the talking because I figured that was what I was there for. To be a listening ear, not even about his problems, just about whatever he wanted to talk about—tai chi, how food is cooked, cultures, what was going on in the city, anything. He is a very smart person and often knew things that were new to me.

It was only when I started talking more about what was going on in my own life that I realized how good it felt to talk to someone who really cared and who would ruminate over how I might solve a problem I had. Where I didn’t feel like we had to move on from the topic because it was a downer, but that he was completely engaged in the conversation and came up with ideas specific to my situation.

I remember the last night I had volunteered there before moving back to the States. I spent longer than usual chatting with him after the other volunteers had moved on to the nearby bar we frequented every week. Then we parted and I was completely touched again as I arrived at the bar and the volunteer organizer presented the tarte aux pommes he had been waiting to take out, along with a thank you card for me.

You can see why I have a soft spot for the residents of Paris, who are human, after all.

Another person who greeted me warmly for my return was the long-haired, gentle Peruvian man who regularly came to eat. On my last day volunteering a couple of years ago, we somehow struck up a conversation for the first time after having seen each other for about a year. I told him that I was actually leaving France soon, and surprised by the timing, he said he was glad that he had talked to me then, that he had wanted to say hi for a while but somehow was timide to approach me (as someone who in some situations can be timide myself, I have never understood that someone might see me as in any way intimidating).

I’m not sure there is anything better in life than being embraced by good people. You can see why I fought back my travel fatigue to go dish up some fish and conversation.

Airport Shapes

In the Madrid airport I found myself looking at geometry.

DSC00716Trippy. I don’t remember this from my previous two times at this airport.

DSC00720I loved these stacks of luggage.

DSC00722Huge ceiling fan. I hope it’s well affixed, I thought.

DSC00723Why? Must be a minimalist decorator.

The airport was quiet. It was a little past 9 in the morning, so not an unholy hour. Hardly anyone was in line for passport control or security. It was a far cry from my memory of my family running through the airport, dodging people and smokers (yes, smokers!) to make our flight to Rome in 2001.

I didn’t realize that I would have to go through security during this stopover on the way to Paris, so I had a bottle of water in my bag. I asked the security employee if I could empty my beloved Parisian flask, and without saying anything, he took it and put it in an opaque container that was on a table against the wall, slid the door closed, slid it back open, and handed the bottle back to me. No nonsense, which was perfectly fine with me.

I felt a little thrill saying “Hola” to the border agent and shopkeepers. Nothing like a foreign language to make you realize that you are traveling.