Saturday Night Work in the City

Yesterday evening beau and I saw behind the scenes work on full display in Manhattan. We were walking in midtown, going south on 6th Ave. Right after passing a grand doorway with two suited men standing in front, we saw a brightly lit window with a man slicing cake inside. I stopped, and we watched him steadily and quickly slice cake and place them on individual plates. The flavor appeared to be funfetti– fun. Behind him, there were staff in black filling the kitchen, walking in a slow line with dirty plates in hand—toward a dishwasher, I presume. Taking it all in, I saw that there were two tiers of cake right by the window, with the top layer missing. It was a wedding! 

When the man was done slicing the top tier, he expertly removed the next layer with his bare hands and moved it to the counter. I was amazed. Those cakes always look so delicate, but he was obviously used to this and was talking with his colleagues while he worked. After carving up the second layer, he walked over to the bottom tier and pulled out little wooden sticks. Who knew there was so much non-cake in the cake.

Walking on, we ended up in Herald Square, where the famous Macy’s department store is. The normally lavish windows were empty. In them instead were men measuring and figuring out how to set up the next display. I’ve walked past Macy’s at night many times (notably when I had a Spanish class on the east side and would walk across town to the bus station afterward), and this was the first time I had happened upon what happens between displays. 

I’ve always loved seeing what happens behind the scenes. It’s what I’ve enjoyed about working in different industries. And sometimes all you have to do is look through a window.

Day Off in January

This time last year, I had some time off on a weekday and was looking for a nearby place to explore on my own. On Google Maps, I zoomed out of my area to see green spots that I had not been to before. 

I drove to a park that was only ten minutes away. After walking past an empty playground and track, I found a more wild-looking area covered in dead leaves. At first it was unclear where the trail was, so I stomped around trying to figure out how to get on a small bridge to the other side. From the broken bench, these trails were clearly not well maintained, and under the bleak January sky the quiet area seemed even more grim. I did see a young couple walking their dog, which was encouraging. I looped around until I found a way onto the bridge.

The other side was weirder. After walking along a few paths, I came to a clearing on the edge of a lake where hundreds of Canadian geese floated. Clearly this was their home. I imagined what it would be like if they all flew up at the same time.

Backing away from the lake slowly, I walked further down another path. I came upon a huge sports field and saw a school across from it, in the distance. After the untouched natural areas I had seen, it felt both anticlimactic and reassuring.

Re-entering the woods, I came across a tire swing and a bunch of boards nailed to a tree. I realized the planks formed a sort of a ladder, which was somewhat charming, and I wondered who had added them. They seemed sturdy, but I only tried the first plank– just in case.

There were also wooden planks and ropes draped around the area. They were left with some purpose but were also random enough to seem strange.

Back at home, I continued my afternoon off by opening this bubble tea kit. I will admit that it was the packaging that enticed me. It was… okay. I will return to the bubble tea shop.

Galettes Inspire Me to Write

It’s been a year! I’ve sometimes thought about writing, but my personal laptop is on its last legs, and then you know how it is. Month after month passes, and then suddenly you have not seen your friend for two years even though you’ve both gotten the Covid vaccination and booster and you used to see each other every week for lunch, and then another variant arrives on the scene and it’s below freezing outside and you’re working from home and go out much less frequently in the evenings and you video chat once in a while instead.. 

But I seem to have gotten off track.

Maybe today was the day I came back to write because I bought a galette des rois, and my last post was a year ago, about my research and purchase of galette des rois in the U.S. The price at the bakery I bought it at last year went up– like many food items and services have since the pandemic started– so I called my second choice. They are operating on limited staff and limited hours and were closed until later this week. Their galette is only a dollar less, so I bit the bullet and went to the same bakery I went to last year.

Oh, those Januarys in Paris when I ate galettes all month, from all over the city, for several euros each. They were abundant. 

But I’m glad I had those adventures when I did, and that I was closer to my original home during the pandemic. Last year my adventures were more local, and all road trips. I had a few moments of that feeling I get when wandering a new city while traveling. Sometimes that feeling wasn’t even in a new city, but on streets I had never been before. I felt it when walking from Cambridge to Harvard Square with my bf and coming across a purple house with painted signs all over the fence and building and strange sounds coming out of it. And when I was delighted by a simple cheese tasting at a goat farm in upstate New York. And when my mom and I happened to be at the right place at the right time for a kite festival at the beach.

Like most people who blog, writing helps me see things in new ways, weave a tale from a specific angle, and reflect on experiences in a clearer way than in my mind, which sometimes goes in many directions at once. I love reading others’ writings too. All that has given me a yearning to come back. With additional inspiration from the galette des rois!

Going for the Galette des rois

After five Januarys thinking about the galette des rois, I bit the fève and splurged on one. Do you ever once in a while do something to make yourself happy? That’s what it felt like. So satisfying.

When I moved back to the States from France several years ago, the first January I called different French bakeries in Manhattan to compare their galettes: size, price. Learning that they were usually around $30, I blanched after having gotten used to picking up galettes all over Paris, from bakeries and supermarkets, for a few euros. All month I would have one or two in my apartment and liberally eat them as a snack. In the States, they are considered specialty items, like most French goods.

Another year, through one of the e-lists I was on I found out about an event by a French group. If I remember correctly, admission was $10 to attend a reception with galettes from various bakeries in NYC. I invited a francophile friend, and we sat at one of the cafeteria-like tables in a room that resembled an after-school space; perhaps it was. There seemed to be mostly French expats, many with their kids. The atmosphere was casual. Not shy, I tasted the different galettes being circulated.

This year I realized it was time. How could I go five years without buying a galette des rois when there are actually French bakeries all over my region and I love its almond flavor so? I searched online and called and messaged bakeries to find out sizes and prices, as I did several years ago. But this time, I chose one to take home. It was about a half hour drive away, the best price, and located in my hometown of Jersey City. My dad parked on a corner (street parking can be a hassle there) while I ran down and fulfilled my dream. I had even called that morning to make sure one would be waiting for me. The box was warm on my lap. It smelled like pastry goodness.

Upon opening the box, I was amused to see the fève in a little plastic bag. Does the U.S. have a safety rule against placing objects in food? Probably. I thought it was funny that the bakery bothered to include the token, which was a plastic toucan. I wondered how they imagined people would use it because it would make the slice fall apart if you tried to insert it. Perhaps one person slices up the galette first and hides the fève under a slice while making sure no one looks? For us this was a moot point, as this particular galette was not for a party, but purely for consumption.

If you are not familiar with the galette des rois, it is associated with the Epiphany, the Catholic holiday on January 6 that celebrates the Three Kings visiting baby Jesus.

The sweet pastry is round and filled with frangipane, or almond paste, and can be in different sizes, from individual to large (although it seems that in the U.S. only larger ones are sold, at least 6″-10″). By tradition, the youngest person at a gathering– who might be a child, but not always– gets under the dining table while another person slices the galette. Without looking, the youngest person says who the first slice goes to, and so on until everyone has a slice. Then everyone can start eating. One slice has a small object inside– the fève, which is often a plastic figurine. That person is crowned king or queen with the gold crown that accompanies the galette, and he or she chooses his or her king or queen.

I have been to gatherings where we did this tradition, one of the first being during my study abroad program in Paris. But during the more recent time I lived there, most of the galettes I ate were individual sized ones with no fève or crown– just delicious almond paste that I alone ate and felt like the queen every time.

Yesterday I recounted my exciting galette purchase during a spontaneous video chat with my friend and his ten-year-old daughter who live in Marseilles. My friend informed me of a regional rendition I had never heard of– the gâteau des rois. I was flabbergasted. What is it like? I wanted to know. He said it was like the galette des rois, but it was a cake. I asked him which one they had this year. He said both (of course– that is the correct answer). I guess I now have my next pastry to pursue, or should I say cake. I suspect it will be harder to find in the States.

Eating Out in NYC (Literally)

Six weeks ago I walked past this VIP outdoor seating at a Thai place I used to meet beau at sometimes. No longer offering indoor dining due to the pandemic, they had set up a single table on the sidewalk. The velvety red rope stood in contrast to the nearby stack of carrots and parked school buses across the street.

New York has been very creative with its outdoor dining. To make up for the fact that customers are seated on sidewalks next to traffic, they have enclosed the small areas in festive colored walls, plants, and decorations.

Since mid-March, I have only had one meal at a restaurant with table service in New York City. One September weekend, I met up with a friend and her boyfriend at a Thai place in midtown. The tables, rather than being placed on the sidewalk, were on the road, separated from the restaurant facade by a bike lane. When we arrived, the server looked left and right, then led us across the bike lane to our table. I was tickled by this. There was even a sign warning customers to be aware of passing bikes.

Luckily, 9th Avenue is actually pretty quiet traffic-wise.

As we waited for our dinner to be served, my friend pointed out “The Edge,” a new viewpoint at the top of a skyscraper nearby. They had just come from there before meeting me. Because she is a doctor, she had received a free ticket during that period when many businesses were offering perks and discounts to first-responders.

At one point, I crossed the bike lane to enter the restaurant to go to the bathroom. As I stepped through the door, an employee held a temperature gun to my head, which surprised me since he didn’t audibly say anything before doing so.

After dinner, we donned our masks and walked to the Hudson River, something I have done many times in previous summers but was the first (and last) time this season.

Near the river, people were lounging on the grass and sitting at the chairs and tables. I saw one woman lovingly brushing her dog and another two people trying to get their dogs to pose for pictures. I wondered whether the months of quarantine had made dogs’ importance loom all the more large in people’s lives, or whether I had forgotten what New York City pet owners are like. Given the number of pet strollers in Manhattan (not many, but more than you might think), it was probably a bit of both.

Going “Down the Shore”

When I started this blog, I was living in Paris and posted pretty regularly. Eventually, I posted less often, but for all these years I’ve kept up my goal to post at least once a month, save for once. There were times it was on the last day of the month (and then often again within a few days because one post creates momentum). I knew that if I didn’t have this concrete benchmark, I would likely fall off the wagon. And that’s what’s happened! I have not posted here all autumn.

Tonight I opened up my laptop to write, and I realized that I had written the post below on August 4th! So a few days before the start of winter, here is an account from the dog days of summer.


The first summer after I returned from France several years ago, I concentrated on learning my responsibilities at my new job and generally enjoyed a wealth of outdoor activities in New York City. Since then, every summer I have used the majority of my year’s vacation days on a trip abroad for two plus weeks. Theoretically, I see the value in taking a day off to rest and relax, but after getting to travelling all the time in Europe, I felt the need to accumulate my days in the States in order to be able to leave it—for a short bit.

This summer, of course, was different due to Covid. No international travel. At the beginning of summer, I thought that maybe eventually I’d do a road trip domestically, but that has not happened. What that means, however, is that I suddenly for the first time have all these vacation days that I am not using in one swoop. And I am discovering the joy in taking a day off here and there.

The first day I took off since January was in the beginning of June. A friend and I took a virtual trip to Italy, which is a story for another day. In mid-June I took a Wednesday off for my mom’s birthday, which I had not done before.

The past few Fridays, beau (who is not French but I will refer to him thus, as it comes naturally to me) and I have headed down to the beach, which we have taken to pairing with a hike beforehand. I now understand the appeal of taking an extra day off without jetting or bussing off to a destination for a few nights. It’s relaxed. In general, I am a night packer because I like to have everything prepared the day before a long trip, but now I can pull out my big sturdy tote bag the morning of and easily toss in a towel, suntan lotion, herbal bug repellent, water, and snacks. There was a time I thought I wasn’t a “beach person,” but these quarantine times have expanded my definition of myself, for the better. I like taking out one of my two bathing suits every week.

No dogs and kites.

Convento do Carmo, Seafood, and Slipping on the Sidewalks of Lisbon

After a nap at our hotel, my friend and I ventured out to visit the ruins of Convento do Carmo, which dates from the fourteenth century. Artifacts from different time periods were scattered in abundance outside and inside. We were amazed to see ancient pieces were exposed to the elements.

Our self-guided tour concluded, we wandered nearby in search of dinner and were pleasantly surprised that the restaurant right on the square in front of the convento was reasonably priced. People who told me Portugal would be inexpensive weren’t kidding. I began my seafood spree of Lisbon.

Next we meandered in direction of the Rio Tejo, or Tagus River. On the way, we saw quiet streets and rumbling trams.

To our surprise, a number of tiled sidewalks were exceedingly slippery, not to mention sloping. In my chunky sandals in which I have easily walked for miles in urban environments, I held onto building walls and metal fences several times while gingerly inching down a sidewalk. After that first evening, I wore sneakers and was fine, so I don’t know if that particular neighborhood just happened to have extra polished sidewalks, but I wouldn’t take my chances.

The tiles on the ground were nice to look at. We even saw this sidewalk with curving steps around a building (in the background is the barrier that I gripped as I walked down that incline).

The blue evening sky by the rio was strikingly beautiful. We saw people sitting on the steps by the water, which reminded me of similar scenes by the Seine in Paris.

Close to our hotel, I marveled at the golden tiles under the streetlights. Truly a magical city for a first-time visitor.

Back in our room, we leaned out the window and enjoyed the view before getting ready for an actual slumber.

Portugal

Around this time last year a friend and I were preparing to go to Portugal. We had travelled together once before, seven years earlier, and had been bringing up the idea from time to time ever since. The stars finally aligned, and we compared our travel wish lists. She was interested in some northern European countries. I was interested in South America. We both wanted to go somewhere new to us. We settled on Portugal and agreed to travel for one and a half weeks.

Leading up to our trip, my friend read Rick Steves, and I asked a work acquaintance of Portuguese descent what he recommended.

I flew from New York to Boston to meet my friend, and we took the next leg to Lisbon. I remember little of the plane ride. Was it then or another trip that I watched the “2 Dope Queens” HBO specials?

At the Lisbon airport, we first headed to a phone boutique to buy Portuguese sim cards. There was a panicked moment when we thought the sim card had caused her phone to malfunction, but fortunately that was not the case. We hadn’t even gotten out of the airport yet, and already the adventure was beginning.

On the way to the subway, which is connected to the airport, my friend started snapping photos. The subway art was fun and funky.

As we stepped out of the metro and into the neighborhood where we would be staying, our enchantment with Portugal started. The sloping street with colorful buildings told us that we were truly on a trip.

We navigated to the hotel where my friend had scored us a good deal. We couldn’t check in yet, so we sat in the lobby and transferred some of our items into our purses and took turns changing in the bathroom. I accidentally used the men’s room, not realizing that one door led to common sinks and then there were two separate individual bathrooms, one for men and one for women. This usually wouldn’t have mattered, but if I remember correctly, the men’s room had a toilet in a small room with a door and then a urinal right outside it. That meant that when a man came in and used the urinal, I would have had to walk right past him to get to the sinks. By the time I realize this, it was too late. I waited until he was finished to exit. When traveling, I find that bathrooms are always a source of cultural surprises.

We went back out and found an eating place with outdoor seating on a pedestrian street. I ordered a bit randomly, not knowing what the various pastries were. I had studied coffee drinks in Portuguese and knew to order a galão, which is a café crème, which is a latte (I mention the French name first because I knew what a café crème long before I knew what a latte was). With more time to kill, we walked around the area and came upon a plaza and a tuna store with a carnival theme. It was hot outside.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to check out a nearby church, the first of many we would visit. It was not representative of the gilded churches we would see.

Upon going up to our room, which was a few floors up and had a nice view of the street, we lay down to take a nap after the fiddling with the thermostat’s Celsius reading, another sign that we were far from home.

Recognizing Where the Needle Is

At a weekly (virtual) meditation group I attend, the guide said today, “It feels like the world has changed since last week. But it’s not that it’s changed, it’s that we have become enlightened to it.”

I think that’s right. Yes, the world changes, but not overnight in either direction. I think if we’re doing it right, we’re constantly awakening. Awakening and expanding our perception to include more and more realities of others in this world. That might be through getting to know the stories of people around us. It could be through reading. It could be through research. It could be through podcasts. It always means having an open mind.

This week, like many in the United States, I was searching. Dejected, I signed on to the vast e-book collection of my region’s library network. In searching for a number of titles on race, I was heartened to see that all of them had a waitlist. Other people were looking to educate themselves.

The internet is now flooded with reading recommendations, but for those who might want a glimpse into what I’ve read in my corner over the past few years, here is a selection. They range from humorous, irreverent memoirs by Black comedians, to fiction that takes the reader through real neighborhoods, to thought-provoking nonfiction.

Memoirs
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama

Essays
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now by Maya Angelou
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Humor
Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish

Fiction
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Queen of Harlem by Brian Keith Jackson
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Nonfiction
Tell Me Who You Are by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi
Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time by James Kilgore

A couple of quotes from these books that struck a chord with me:

“It does not matter that the “intentions” of individual educators were noble. Forget about intentions. What any institution, or its agents, “intend” for you is secondary. Our world is physical.”
– Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

“But no matter how it panned out, I knew I’d at least done something good for myself in speaking up about my needs. There was power, I felt, in just saying it out loud.”
– Michelle Obama, Becoming

Sugar, Butter, Flour

IMG_20200321-carrot-cake

I have rarely baked, but since being home practically all the time, I have taken it up. So far I’ve made:

A carrot cake. Before I recount, please, don’t ever try to shred carrots with a cheese grater. I repeat, do not shred carrots with a cheese grater.

I had made this carrot cake once before, several years ago at a friend’s house for her birthday. She had invited another friend and me over for the weekend, and we each made a cake. This time around, I had no recollection of how I had shredded the carrots. When I went to the supermarket several weeks ago, it was when people were stocking up and supermarkets hadn’t put limits on items yet, so the produce (and every) section was quite lacking if you were looking for a specific item. The only carrots I saw were two measly bunches of skinny little organic carrots at a premium price. I got them.

Grating them was a battle. I did over half of each carrot with a cheese grater, then chopped the rest into small pieces. Rubbing my hurting hands, I swore to buy shredded carrots next time.

All that said, the carrot cake was delicious. I made two loaves and forewent icing (yes, the word ‘forewent’ exists, apparently). Later, I spoke with my friend, asking, Did we buy shredded carrots that time I made it?? She had a food processor, she said. Oh.

A honey and apple cake. It contained three and a half apples. It was pretty, but I would turn down the oven down five degrees next time. I discovered my mom’s old springform pan, as well as what a springform pan is.

A half-pound cake (meaning a half portion of a pound cake recipe because the original called for SIX eggs and FOUR sticks of butter. In my area households are limited to one carton of eggs right now!!). My friend in Florida had told me that she and her friend would be making it at the same time while over the phone and invited me to join them. It was called the million dollar pound cake. I ended up making mine later and told her it was a 500 thou.

White chocolate chip cookies. I think it was my first time making cookies from scratch. They are white chocolate chip because that’s what I found in the pantry. I have no idea why we have white chocolate chips. I did learn that flour lasts forever and brown sugar kept in the freezer will thaw and soften, whereas brown sugar kept at room temperature will become a rock.

I hand mixed for the first two cakes and switched to an electric beater for the third one and for the cookies. I am wide open for recipe suggestions.

P.S. You may have noticed that sometimes my post titles refer to songs. This one is from the musical Waitress, written by one of my favorite singers, Sara Bareilles.

“What’s Inside”

Sugar, sugar, sugar, butter
Sugar, butter, flour
Sugar, butter, flour
Sugar, butter, flour

My hands pluck the things I know that I’ll need
I’ll take the sugar and butter from the pantry
I add the flour to begin what I am hoping to start
And then it’s down with the recipe and bake from the heart

What’s inside, everyone wants to know what’s inside
And I’ve always told them, but I feel something needs to change

You wanna know what’s inside?
I could tell you if I wasn’t hiding
My whole life is in here
In this kitchen, baking
What a mess I’m making