Love, Actually

I know I’m not the only one who feels like the world is going down the tubes. I can’t even keep up with all the bad news. Pain and violence rule the news, and it’s not sensationalism, it’s what’s really happening.

In spite of it all, I’ve had some happy events in my own life in the past couple of months, and I hope you have too. To celebrate a recent achievement, I ventured out into the summer heat to treat myself to a bottle of perfume I have had my eye on for a while (i.e. years). It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have money in the bank to purchase it. It’s just not in my habit to buy luxury items. Plane tickets are different—I expect them to be expensive and have naturally incorporated travel into the purchases that I consider “essential.”

As I stood in front of the counter at Jo Malone and watched the employee pull a long piece of ribbon from a roll and snip it to tie up the classy cream and black box, I was reminded of the scene in “Love Actually” where Alan Rickman agitatedly watches Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) take eons to wrap up an expensive piece of jewelry. After placing it in a box and tying it up in ribbon, he puts it in a clear bag, bends down to scoop up small roses from the drawer behind the counter and drop them into the bag with a flourish (twice), adds some lavender sprigs, and crushes some of the lavender over the whole mix. The final touch is a cinnamon stick. Well, almost final. When Atkinson takes out a big “Christmas box” to place the whole thing in and puts on a yellow glove to prepare the holly, Rickman flips out and rushes away, having to get back to his wife who cannot find out about this gift not meant for her.

Unlike Rickman’s character, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the wrapping process, as the perfume was not meant for a secret lover, but for myself. Nothing like celebrating guilt-free.

On my walk to the boutique, I chose a path that would lead me by Stonewall Inn, which two weeks prior President Obama had designated a new national monument after the shootings in Orlando. There were police officers standing across the street—more than usual—and people sitting the small, quiet intersection park nearby.

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A block or two away, a billboard above an old-fashioned storefront promoted a message of harmony and diversity. What a simple concept that seems so hard to practice universally.

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Make Music New York

Fête de la Musique was my favorite day of the year in Paris. Last month I made it a point to seek out events in the States. It was nothing like dancing like crazy in the Marais with a good friend, but I made do.

Here it was called Make Music New York. None of my friends knew it existed, but it is a legit event all over the city. There was a web site listing lots of outdoor concerts in numerous neighborhoods, and you could filter by area, time, and genre of music.

I invited a friend to check out an experimental piano concert in Greenwich Village during lunchtime. Unlike in Paris, we didn’t run into musical performances along the way, but we did find the pianos set up in the middle of the street. It definitely was experimental, not at all classical pieces or contemporary songs. Not necessarily my cup of tea, but it was nice to sit on a ledge on the sidewalk in the summer weather. That is kind of how Fête de la Musique can be anyway, hit or miss, though ideally you see enough performances that some of them are awesomely soul-filling.

That evening, I handpicked an a cappella group to continue the Fête and cobbled together a group of three friends, old and new, who had never met each other. We joined the small audience sitting in front the group. I have a feeling that I enjoyed the performance the most, although they did make positive remarks afterward. I just really think there are few things better than live music outdoors. We were surrounded by tall buildings and a sky that began to pinken.

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Poetry in Motion

If you step on the New York subway, you may notice the Poetry in Motion series. Generally a subway ride is not very poetic, so all the more I appreciate a piece that makes me cock my head and feel something.

What Do You Believe A Poem Shd Do?

by Ntozake Shange  b. 1948

quite simply a
poem shd fill you
up with something/
cd make you swoon,
stop in yr tracks,
change yr mind,
or make it up.
a poem shd happen
to you like cold
water or a kiss.

Park Vignettes

I was sitting in a city park doing the metro newspaper crossword puzzle when three Asian girls approached my bench. One sat down to my right, while the other two stood to my left. I thought it was a bit strange since the seated girl still had space next to her for the other two to sit, but I looked up anyway to see if they were hoping I’d shift over. The girl seated next to me held up a half-finished Sudoku. She pointed to it, nodded her head, and said, “Yeaaah” while smiling a cheesy grin. I gave her the kind of tentative smile and wide-eyed glance you reserve for strangers who may be a little off their rocker. Odd, but okay, perhaps she wanted to celebrate our mutual success, however incomplete it was. She said, “Picture?” and gestured to her companion standing to my left. I turned and saw the friend’s camera phone pointed at us. I looked back to the girl who had spoken to me and asked, “Is this for a scavenger hunt?” “Huh?” she responded. They didn’t speak English. “For fun?” I tried again. “For fun,” she parroted, nodding, though it wasn’t clear that she actually understood what I had asked. Giving up, I did the only remaining thing to do– smile for the camera while we both held up our puzzles. They went away happily while I was left wondering what had just happened.

~ ~ ~

A week later, in the park again, I chose a shady bench to read my book. In spite of its position under a towering tree, the bench was spotless. I wasn’t reading for very long when I heard a splat. One foot away from my foot, there was a fresh splotch of bird poop. While slightly perturbed, I delighted at my luck to have avoided it. If I had sat just slightly to the right, I would have been running to wash my foot at that moment. I’m not naive, though, bird poop can come in a series. I ran my hand over my hair and, finding it untouched, again congratulated myself on my narrow escape.

Half an hour later, I was sitting at my desk, happened to look down, and what did I see but… bird poop near the bottom of my skirt. I ran to the bathroom and frantically grabbed paper towels and repeatedly scrubbed my skirt with soap and water. Satisfied, I returned to my office with a big water stain my skirt. No matter. I had planned to go see a colleague with a question, but it could wait half an hour while the water dissipated.

~ ~ ~

Sometimes even I marvel at my glamorous life.

Bordeaux

Around this time last year I took a weekend trip to the city of Bordeaux with five friends. I had just come back to Paris from attending my sister’s graduation in the States, and it was the perfect way to mitigate the sadness of leaving my American home. One friend had found cheap train tickets weeks earlier and in her knack for organizing groups, gotten four of us to commit to a specific weekend and a rental apartment she had found online.

After four and a half hours on the train, we arrived in Bordeaux midday. During our relatively quiet walk from the train station to the apartment, a French man on a scooter zoomed up from the opposite direction and stopped next to us. He said my friend’s name in the form of a question. She answered in the affirmative, and we quickly realized that he was not a stalker who had followed her from Paris, but the owner of the apartment. He was afraid we would get lost on the way to his place and so had come to look for us (clearly this was not Paris, where looking for five girls with suitcases would have yielded too many results).

He needn’t have feared because we were just fine. Realizing this, he said, “Ok, à tout de suite !” and turned around to drive back to his apartment and wait for us.

Upon our arrival at the apartment, we were greeted by him and his partner (wife?), who each made their rounds with the five of us to faire la bise. That out of the way, they gave us a tour and chatted with us a bit. Of course, we didn’t know them personally, but without knowing their real life problems, we could have easily believed they were living the dream life. They were both tall, good-looking, had a child, owned a beautiful, beautiful apartment with a backyard deck, and were off to Paris for the weekend to celebrate his brother’s birthday. They were like those magazine feature articles of celebrities. Like those stars who are interviewed at home, they were not wearing fancy clothes, but casual clothes that still made them look effortlessly chic. Good grief.

After cool couple relinquished the keys, we were free to let the excitement bubble over at our place for the weekend. As the weather was warm, we shed our Parisian scarves and sweaters before heading out into the sunshine.

On our way to the center, I was charmed by this small lending library. I have seen one of these in New Jersey too, in exactly the same type of enclosed shelf.
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The main streets were animated, with a multitude of restaurants, bars, and shops (including a shoe store with the amusing English name of “Size?”). After an unfortunately mediocre lunch, we continued our exploration of the city. 100_8254100_8256100_8259100_8263100_8264100_8266100_8268100_8270100_8272100_8273100_8275

Our day closed with a dinner that made up for our midday meal. Triple threat: the service, food, and ambiance were all good. My positive opinion was clinched by a dish featuring duck served three ways. I never said I believe in restraint when it comes to food. Moderation, yes, but decadence too.

We took a nighttime walk and had a quick drink at a high table outside a bar before calling it a day. Day one of a luxuriously lovely yet inexpensive weekend with four fun girls, pas mal.

People sometimes ask me where I would like to live in France if not Paris. I love getting acquainted with different regions but never had a desire to live in another French city. However, since visiting southwestern France I usually have to add, “But… I could maybe see myself in Bordeaux.” The main streets were lively and the weather was amazing. Sure part of the reason why we were so relaxed was that we were on a brief getaway from daily life, but it was also that Bordeaux had a laidback vibe that was conducive to loosened muscles and sandals flapping against the sidewalk.

What is Finished?

Recently a friend and I met up a week after my oral surgery (three wisdom teeth extracted, story for another day) to have lunch and visit the new Met Breuer Museum in Manhattan. The Breuer resides in the building that used to house the Whitney Museum of American Art, which moved downtown. A new space of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Breuer is described as “Modern and contemporary art through the lens of history” on its brochure. From scanning an article online about it beforehand, I didn’t pick up on the “through the lens of history” aspect, so I was surprised when their exhibits displayed works by the likes of Michelangelo (who lived from 1475 to 1564).

The exhibit “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” was fascinating; it featured works, mostly paintings, that were unfinished. Some were studies deliberately incomplete, some were unfinished due to the artist’s poor health or death, and some we do not know why they were never done.

We are used to modern and contemporary paintings looking “unfinished” even when they are finished due to their often abstract and conceptual nature. However, perceiving roughness and a sketched quality in paintings from periods such as the Renaissance was like seeing a model without makeup. How surprising to see the inner workings of a piece that are usually covered up and invisible to the eye.

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Attributed to Gonzales Coques, possibly 1640s

 

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Anton Raphael Mengs, 1775

 

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Sir Thomas Lawrence, circa 1803-5

 

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Gustav Klimt, 1917-18

The Breuer has three floors of exhibits and a coffee bar on the fifth floor, which we stopped at for a sit before walking to Grand Central. I toted my leftovers from the Thai restaurant we had eaten lunch at earlier that day, whose ceiling was adorned by colored lamps. 101_0208

Museums, unlike the ever-changing restaurants and cafes in the city, often seem like permanent fixtures. In fact they are like other businesses in that they were once established and can change hands and move to another neighborhood altogether. How funny that years from now I can say we visited the Breuer’s first exhibit.

Park Here

Recently I had a meandering afternoon with a friend that reminded me of some of my favorite days in Paris—not particular memories or people, but collectively, as I spent many a nice day meeting up with a companion and taking a long walk with pauses in between to sit or lie in a park. There was the luxurious sense of having time and not having to take the most efficient way to the next destination. Sometimes while experiencing those days I recognized them for the treasures they were and was grateful for the pleasure.

This past time, I was in Manhattan, sitting at the southeast corner of Central Park waiting for a friend around 5:30 pm while horses and carriages stood nearby and tourists hovered over maps. I had become acquainted with this friend last year. We had both arrived in the U.S. around the same time, the difference of course being that I was returning home to New Jersey after having lived in Paris, and he had just embarked on a year of travel from his home country of France (he is from Bourgogne and had been living in Montpellier). He had initially planned to stay in New York for three weeks and ended up staying double that, not wanting to leave. He eventually did go on to travel elsewhere in the U.S. before going back to France for a few months. Now he was back for another three months in New York.

He texted me to let me know that he had arrived across the street from Central Park. I found him sitting at the base of a statue, his skateboard in tow. He asked if I wanted to sit down for a while. Sure, I agreed, though I wondered why we wouldn’t just walk the few steps into the park and find a nice bench in there instead. He lit a cigarette and said, I can’t smoke in the park, can I?

Ohhh, I said, That’s right. I wouldn’t have even thought of that even though I knew smoking hasn’t been allowed in New York City parks for five years. That’s because none of your friends smoke, he said. This is true—most of my friends in the States don’t smoke. This was definitely not the case in France. I used to come home smelling of cigarette smoke from spending the evening with a smoker. Sometimes I would even delay washing my hair if I knew that night my clean and shampoo-scented cheveux was going to be cancelled out by second-hand smoke anyway.

As you can see my thoughts are as meandering as my day spent with my friend. We headed into Central Park and followed different paths around ponds and up and down paved slopes flanked by grass where birds and squirrels hopped. I was again reminded how amusing it is to hear a French person say ‘squirrel.’ It is a joy that I sadly forgot until this day that he stopped to take a picture of two écureuils. I brightly said, “What do you call that animal in English?”

We saw a ballerina near the Bethesda Terrace, watched boaters on the lake, and walked along the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. As the sun set, joggers and bikers were out in full force. 101_0176101_0178101_0180

We headed down into the 86th Street subway station. My friend realized that he had to refill his metro card. He only had cash and all of the machines were temporarily not accepting bills (though I can tell you this happens often). While he lined up to pay at the booth, I decided to test a function I don’t usually use at the machine even though I didn’t need to refill my card. A worker cleaning the station immediately came over and tried to help me, telling me how to refill my metro card. Oh my goodness, here I was, passing for a tourist! He asked me if I had studied Egypt. This seemed out of left field until I realized he was referring to my tote bag, which sported the image of an ancient Egyptian woman in profile. Oh, no, I replied, without going into how I won this bag as a child one summer for reading the most books at the Bookmobile my mother took us to. If you like Egypt you should go see the pyramids, he told me. This friendly Asian man, obviously a true New Yorker from his New York accent, reminded me why I like being a tourist, albeit a false one.

My friend and I got off at 42nd Street to walk west towards Bryant Park. As we passed Grand Central Station on foot, he said, “What’s this building?” “You’ve never been to Grand Central??” I asked. Somehow I had assumed that during his last stay in New York, which lasted a month and a half, he would have visited the iconic station. It was a reasonable supposition considering that he had done random things like go to an Irish music session I recommended to him and a barbecue restaurant in Brooklyn that another acquaintance had mentioned. 101_0181

We entered the central part of the station and soaked in the grand hall and humming atmosphere. He took pictures as he had all day.

Unexpected mission accomplished, we then continued on to Bryant Park, where the lawn had opened after weeks of being prohibited to the public in order to ready itself for the spring and summer. My friend oohed and aahed over how green and fluffy it looked. We lay down on it, and it was even softer and more luxurious than I had imagined. I don’t remember ever having felt such nice grass.

I later saw a blog post on Bryant Park’s web site announcing that the lawn had just opened that day at noon. We stretched out on it a mere nine hours later. No wonder it felt so new. I hope it will still be as soft next week.

The Sunday Roast Mystery

On the last day of my long weekend in Yorkshire, my friend took me on an amble through the Shambles, a charming historic street of shops in the city of York. 100_6738100_6736

We saw the York Minster cathedral exterior, the Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, which are now part of a public park, and other sights in the area.

It’s good to know that kids are still interested in magic. 100_6735

I could have stayed and wandered in and out of little shops for hours, but we had to get on to experience my first Sunday roast. I remember when a British friend from Birmingham first described the concept of Sunday roast to me. “It’s a big meal with meat, potato, and some kind of veg…” You mean like a normal meal!? I did not really get it. Meat, veg… this is what I’d usually eat for lunch or dinner, except that I’d call them “vegetables.”

At the restaurant, the server went around our table of eight or ten people to take our orders of appetizers and entrees. I was the last one.

“I’d like the summer tart,” I said.
“The what?”
“The summer tart,” I said a little louder.
The waitress paused uncomprehendingly. I was equally confused, as others had ordered the same appetizer before me.
“The summah taht,” the native Yorkshireman sitting to my left repeated.
“Oh, the summah taht,” the server noted.

I couldn’t believe it. I felt like English wasn’t my native language. The disbelief on both of our faces leading up to the clarification still gives me a laugh today.

I also saw for myself what makes a Sunday roast different from any other meal with meat and veg. My roast beef and gravy was topped by a huge Yorkshire pudding made from eggs, flour, and milk or water. Quite a sight to behold. 100_6744

Yorkshire was a lovely peek into a different lifestyle and landscape (and accent). I now understood why during my hostess’s visit to Paris, she remarked that we walked a lot, more than she was used to, that Parisian parks were small, and that she’d be more comfortable taking a taxi from Montmartre to her lodging even after I assured her that it would be simple to take the metro, just one switch involved. In Yorkshire she has to drive to get anywhere from her village home. She walks her dog in a vast, wild field rather than on a busy city sidewalk. Her furthest immediate family member lives only an hour away. Her wonderful swinging bench on her back patio negates the need to seek out restaurant terrasses. I certainly fell in love with her backyard features that she designed herself. Ain’t nothing like jumping into someone else’s pond for a few days, especially a saucy British lady’s.

A Day at the Races

During my trip to Yorkshire a while back, I went along for a day at the York Races with my host, one of her daughters, and her daughter’s fiancé and friend. I had brought my bright coral dress to England expressly for this event. That morning, my friend tried on several of her long summery dresses, asking for all of our opinions before settling on her red flowery maxi dress.

Everything about that day was a welcome bombardment to my senses. It was hot, the British girls were out in their colored printed dresses and showing skin, and excitement surrounded each horse race. I saw a grown man dressed as a baby surrounded by his pals who were in button-down shirts, ties, and trousers. It was prime time for people watching.

Everything about that day was a welcome bombardment to my senses. It was hot, the British girls were out in their colored printed dresses and showing skin, and excitement surrounded each horse race. I saw a grown man dressed as a baby surrounded by his pals who were in button-down shirts, ties, and trousers. It was prime time for people watching.

Can you find the former jockey below?

And the baby-man?

At the end of the day, the Scottish band Wet Wet Wet gave a concert. It was fun to see my friend singing along and swaying to the music. She was in heaven. If you don’t know this group that was especially popular in the 1980s and 90s, like me you may at least have heard the song “Love is all around.” “I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes…”

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Afterward, we stopped in the pub where my friend’s other daughter worked.

Pubs. British fashion. The York Races. Wet Wet Wet. Everything about the day was out of the ordinary for me. Americans share many similarities with the British, but we still have our distinct cultural characteristics.

A Castle and a White Horse

As my guide to Yorkshire, my friend decided to take me to Castle Howard, whose construction began in 1699 and was completed over 100 years later. The exhibits inside included one dedicated to the adaptions of “Brideshead Revisited” that were filmed there. The movies and TV series are based on the 1945 book by English writer Evelyn Waugh.

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I enjoyed exploring the grounds and gardens. 100_6658100_6663100_6669100_6666100_6668100_6671100_6670

On the drive home, my friend pointed out “the white horse” to me. She told me that a teacher created it in the mid-1800s. How funny. Can you imagine saying to yourself one day, “I think I’m going to etch a horse at the top of that hill.” Why not? 100_6675100_6674

We had time to drive to Kilburn village and walk along a trail to catch a view that was hazy but somewhat romantic because of it.

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