Tale as Old as Time

Why do fairy tales possess such enduring popularity? I think it’s the element of fantasy, of neat division between good and evil, of dreaming of that happy ending. For me they have more of a nostalgic appeal. I grew up on Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” and their songs unfailingly make some kind of feeling swell up within me. I haven’t seen the more recent animated films such as “Brave,” “The Princess and the Frog,” and “Frozen,” though many of my peers have enjoyed them. I did recently read a collection of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, which like the Grimms Brothers’, are usually darker than their Disney renditions. In any case, fairy tales old and new take us to places where odd and extraordinary things happen.

High fashion has that same fantastical allure. Everyday clothing’s primary function is to cover us per societal convention, but sweeping skirts add drama and architectural lines turn fabric into sculpture.

The current exhibit “Fairy Tale Fashion” at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York combines story with finely draped mannequins. The outfits, some darkly elegant, some whimsical, are each footed by a concisely told fairy tale.

Sleeping Beauty’s dresses were dreamy. The beautiful piece on the right fluffs out on top, then perfectly hugs the body before fluting out like an inverted daffodil. As for the Marchesa gown on the left, I usually prefer cinched waists, but even I was taken by the soft uninterrupted layers of what I imagined to be moonlit fabric as Briar Rose made her way through the forest. 100_9838

This intricate dress and headpiece by Dolce and Gabbana had a harder edge. I think I’d enjoy wearing this armor of tough femininity while stomping through the hectic subway environment in New York. Who would get in my way?

100_9835

This gold and black dress in the Alice in Wonderland set shone under the muted light. I see it at an evening version of the Mad Tea Party. 100_9845In the Beauty and the Beast group, I honed in on two pieces: a pretty, printed long-sleeved dress with heaps of material suspended in the air from designer Mary Katrantzou’s fall 2012 collection, and a white dress from Rodarte’s 2007 spring collection that would have been prim if not for the bold roses down the front. Both are not over the top but inch right to the edge.

How about these dark Little Red Riding Hoods?100_9857

And then you’ve got the wolf in his nightgown…

100_9859

These three dresses were paired with a disturbing story by the Brothers Grimm about a girl whose father wants to marry her after her mother’s death. From left to right, they embody the stars, moon, and sun.

100_9860

A literal representation can be too much, but I found this dress littered with stars quite lovely with just the right amount of clustered and scattered stars. It was designed around 1930 by Mary Liotta, on whom a brief internet search yielded nothing.

100_9861

Cinderella’s dresses of gold and silver were accompanied by shoes that included a subtly-colored, butterfly-adorned pair by Christian Louboutin.

100_9866

This is just a taste of the exhibit, which is up until April 16 and free to the public. I highly recommend it if you happen to be in New York and seek a little enchantment.

Side by Side

In New York recently, I looked skyward before crossing the street, and I saw an old and new building side by side that reminded me of two buildings I snapped a photo of years ago in Paris.

I love the long boulevards of Haussmanian buildings in Paris. I find them intricate and beautiful and harmonious. I am struck by the towering skyscrapers in New York that seem part of the same animal when night falls. People, places, and things have a large impact when they are uniform and numerous, as demonstrated by the Santa Clauses I saw near the Eiffel Tower and the Rockettes, known for their Christmas spectacular where a long line of identically dressed female dancers kick their legs in unison.

And yet diversity draws the eye as well. It’s why we may look a little longer at couples who seem mismatched to our perspective, at a tall man riding a small bicycle, or at a woman wearing clashing prints. I find it fascinating to observe older and newer buildings that exist next to each other on the same city block. A common sight in New York is a small church smack up against a soaring office building that was obviously built years after the church, which must have once been surrounded by structures that resembled its proportions more closely.

Diversity makes the world go round, I say.

Red Nose Day, The Big Pit, and More Tesco in Wales

My last day in Wales happened to be Red Nose Day, an annual day where all over the U.K. money is raised for a charity.

We headed over to the school where my friend’s mom worked to watch the school program for Red Nose Day. There were several performances by teachers, which were hilarious. The kids especially enjoyed three male teachers dressed as superheroes in tutus.

My friend, her parents, and I then took a guided tour of the Big Pit, a former coal mine. The tours are all given by former coal miners. We each put on a protective white helmet with a headlight wrapped around it and a belt snug around our winter jackets. After leaving behind our electronics and metal jewelry, we shuffled into a shaft elevator and descended 300 feet. The guide led us through the dim passages. What a hard life those miners had. 100_2797

Spending time with my friend and her parents made me realize that when they were all talking, I understood about 98% of their conversation, but once in a while I had no idea what they just said. So much for traveling to a country that shares my native language. At least I was already used to my friend saying “ta, babe.” Ta means thanks, and babe is a friendly term of endearment. What’s funny is that none of my other friends from the U.K. say this.

In the early evening, my friend and went back to Tesco’s. I bought sparkly dark blue ballet flats for five pounds. It figures that I would walk and in out of many shoe stores in Wales, spend two hours in Primark, and end up finding shoes at an extension of a supermarket. At the time, I didn’t know where to buy inexpensive, comfortable shoes in Paris.

I also picked up my food loot to bring back to Paris. In France I hadn’t craved American food, but somehow seeing familiar items in the supermarket in Wales made me miss even things I don’t buy often in the States. That’s how I ended up bringing raisin bread back in my carry-on bag.

I purchased some sultana scones and learned from my friend that sultanas are simply raisins. I somehow thought they had something to do with sultans. Apparently the sultana is a type of grape.

In Wales, all stores charge a few cents for plastic bags, no exception. My friend told me that the money is donated to environmental charities. In France, large supermarkets charge a few centimes for plastic bags, while small groceries often provide them for free. Department stores usually give them as well. In the U.S., it varies by city; some charge for plastic bags and some don’t. Food and beverage sellers in Washington D.C., for example, must charge five cents per bag. In my area, there are people who bring reusable bags to the supermarket, but you can also have your groceries bagged (by a bagger!) in paper or plastic. Some retail stores ask you if you need a bag as opposed to automatically giving you one. On most plastic bags is the text “Please reuse” or “Please recycle.” My local supermarket has a bin where one can discard plastic bags to be recycled.

In between the recycling bins at Tesco, this shiny red mailbox of course delighted me. 100_2801

Back at my friend’s house, I marveled not for the first time in my life at how photogenic cats are. If asked whether I’m a dog or cat person, I would say dog, but if I see a cat framed by a window, I feel inspired.

I’ve been lucky to be welcomed into friends’ homes in places previously unknown to me. Prior to my trip to Wales, in the U.K. I had visited London and Edinburgh. They’re great cities that many tourists flock to. But if I hadn’t been invited to Wales, it would have been a while before I made it there, even though it is lovely. There are many beautiful places in the world. Thanks to an invitation from a different friend, one closer to my mom’s age than mine, my next voyage from Paris to the U.K. would be to a village in Yorkshire, England.

Castles and Dragons in Wales

My second full day in Wales, my friend and her mom took me to Castell Coch, which means Red Castle in Welsh. As we approached the edifice, I snapped a picture of a daffodil, the symbol of Wales. 100_2758

We explored the castle. My friend and her mom told me that they hadn’t been there in a long time.

We had lunch at the castle café, where I tried Welsh rarebit, which is like a croque monsieur with vegetables, radish, and celery. A croque monsieur is like a grilled cheese sandwich with ham in the middle and cheese on top. A grilled cheese sandwich is melted cheese on toast. I seem to have gotten off track.146.wales.i

At the bookshop, my friend convinced me that we should get matching mood rings.

Our next stop was Cardiff Bay, which was lovely. 146.wales.j146.wales.k

We popped in a little museum explaining the history of the area. At a nearby shop called Fabulous Welshcakes, I bought three Welshcakes of different flavors. Welshcakes are sweet flat cakes that may have raisins, nuts, or chocolate chips. They were warm and delicious. I ate them out of the paper bag as we strolled along the breezy bay.

We stopped back at my friends’ house. 146.wales.l

As we approached their steps, I peered at two empty glass bottles sitting there. They have milk delivered! Afterward, they set out the bottles to be picked up and replaced. I did not know that some places still do that. 146.wales.mIn the evening my friend and I drove to The Riverfront, a theatre where she worked when she came back to Wales on breaks from Paris. While she went to work, I took a walk outside and then explored the theatre a bit.

Images and sculptures of dragons can be found everywhere in Wales, most notably on the Welsh flag. 146.wales.n

I followed signs to the downstairs “art gallery,” which was a dim basement with weird props for rehearsals and some art on the walls.

The show, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, was put on by kids from The Children’s Academy of Stage Training. It was enjoyable. Some singers were better than others. One girl played Joseph for the first act, and another girl during the second act. My friend and I kept joking afterward that Joseph 1 was much better than Joseph 2.

We picked up huge portions of fish and chips from a local joint and brought them home. The guy working there called me “love,” which tickles me as an American.

People in Wales, for the most part, were so friendly and funny. People tended to make conversation and joke a lot. It was refreshing. I had come from spending months in Paris, where I felt at home. Even far from family and my oldest friends and in my second language, in France I was comfortable. It wasn’t until I visited Wales, speaking English and surrounded by people who laughed easily, that I realized that I was more relaxed in Wales. It’s not that I was tense in my daily French life. But perhaps I had gotten used to what ‘relaxed’ means in Paris, and Wales was the first time in a while that I had the opportunity to compare what it means elsewhere.

An Ordinary Day in Cardiff

The morning after my arrival in Wales, my friend drove us to Cardiff, where we went to a mall. This may sound like a generic activity (plus I’m from New Jersey, the capital of malls), but since we were in the U.K., I found a number of novelties.

Outside, I exclaimed at this billboard. Are there any John Malkovich fans out there? He is my favorite actor. 100_2737

Why he has his own hotel suite in the capital of Wales, I do not know.

At the mall, for the first time I had a pretzel from the chain Auntie Anne’s and entered the clothing store Hollister. Both are American brands. I suppose it’s not any stranger than the fact that I tried Kraft macaroni and cheese for the first time in Paris, in spite of the fact that many American kids grew up on it.

At a discount store, I went a little nuts buying cute greeting cards that were as low as 29 pence. Can you blame me? I had just come from Paris, where 5 centimes is considered a discount.

At Marks & Spencer, my friend showed me food items I was unfamiliar with, such as Madeira cake and Victoria sponge. I was also charmed by cakes in the shape of characters named Harry Hedgehog and Percy Pig.

100_2742100_2741

“Percy Pig flavoured icing”… whatever can that mean?

We paused at Marks & Spencer’s upstairs café to share a slice of Victoria sponge, which is a vanilla sponge cake with cream and strawberry jam filling. My friend also had tea, of course.100_2745

We strolled on High Street, a cute pedestrian street that reminded me of Dublin, before going to Primark, a huge inexpensive department store that I first encountered on Oxford Street in London some years ago. In my memory, cute tank tops for four pounds, bathing suits, pajamas, and all types of clothing abounded, and I didn’t even in make it upstairs to look at shoes and bags. Unfortunately, the line to the fitting rooms was so long that I ended up just getting pajamas for my sister and booking it. Since then, I had been dreaming of Primark. This is before they opened in a suburb of Paris.

Perhaps I had built it up too much in my mind, or my style had changed or Primark’s selection had, because my friend and I spent a long time in the Cardiff location, and we only walked away with socks and a couple of other ordinary sundry items.

Outside, we saw Cardiff Castle as the sun was setting. 100_2749

After dinner, we went grocery shopping at Tesco for my friend’s granddad. I was excited to go, as I had good memories of browsing there when I visited a good friend in Edinburgh, Scotland a few years earlier. 100_2752

I was shocked to notice a sack of 480 bags of Yorkshire tea. Why would anyone ever need that much of the same kind of tea?? A couple of months later, I mentioned this to a British acquaintance, who didn’t think it was a big deal and said that it can go fast if you drink it regularly. Still, I can only imagine buying this if I had a family of ten or hosted a tea party for the block. 100_2756

Perhaps these tea drinkers have the same appetite for their national drink that I have for sweets. I went for the bourbon creams and custard creams. Funnily enough, I hardly ever bought packaged cookies in Paris, choosing the fresh pastries instead, but in the U.K. the biscuits appeal to me. I think the cookie itself is softer—not like the chewy American cookie, but not as crunchy as the chocolate-topped French biscuit.

My friend and I said “Hwyl Fawr” to Tesco for the night. I found it interesting that their sign was in Welsh, then English underneath in slightly smaller letters. English and Welsh are the country’s official languages.100_2755

We headed to her granddad’s house and unloaded the groceries and sat with him for a little while. He was very sweet. He wore a dark pompom topped bonnet and tartan scarf. He was hard of hearing, so we yelled to have a conversation. I later learned that he tells the same stories over and over again, but since it was my first time hearing them, I found it novel when he told me that he had built houses in the neighborhood. By the fireplace was a black and white picture of him and his late wife as young people.

That night, my friend and I had planned to watch “Gavin and Stacey,” a Welsh British comedy, but we ended up Skyping with my her long-distance boyfriend and friends instead. We left the DVD on the main menu. Her poor mom, or should I say mum, told us the next morning that the continuous loop of the show’s theme music drove her crazy.

A Short Flight but a Long Journey to Wales

Two years ago around this time, two friends from France visited me while I was in New Jersey for a while. The day they were to return to Marseille via Paris, a blizzard hit this area. As we ate lunch in a burger joint (their choice of meal most days, although I emphasized several times that Americans do not eat burgers every day), the TV screens around us showed the snowy landscapes and reported that all domestic flights out of New Jersey and New York were cancelled. A few hours later, as we drove to the airport, the snow kept falling and traffic moved at a snail’s pace. We half-believed that we would arrive at the airport only to find out that their flight was cancelled. Guess we’ll just have to stay here then! my friend’s son said hopefully.

The airport was empty. Only three flights were taking off, all international. Thus, in spite of the traffic delay, everything was speedy at the airport with no other passengers competing for the check-in desk.

Contrast this with my trip from Paris to Bristol, England a few years ago to visit my friend and her family in Wales. I woke up the morning of my departure to find it snowing. Anticipating possible flight delays, I walked to the library to borrow an extra book to bring.

I arrived to the airport early, as I usually do, and read and watched people and ate a fruit. It was still snowing—not much accumulation, but constant falling. I was sitting pretty at the gate at the scheduled time of my flight’s departure, but there still weren’t any employees at the Easyjet counter.

A couple of airline staff finally appeared. The plane we were to take actually arrived in Paris only about half an hour late, and we boarded a mere fifteen minutes later. We were mistaken if we thought we were off to England, however. This was when the real wait started.

First we waited for a vehicle to arrive to refuel the plane. Then for another vehicle to come de-ice it. I’m not sure where it was coming from, but it took its time.

There was an inch of snow on the ground. 100_2730

I looked out the window and saw two employees with a shovel. I thought, We’re not now going to wait for them to shovel the whole area by hand, are we? 100_2733

We took off close to midnight. I had left my apartment over seven hours prior. And to think that the flight was less than an hour!

My poor friend and her dad had been waiting for me at the Bristol airport for about two hours. Because the delays were announced in small chunks, they could not have known when we were actually going to take off from Paris.

We drove to their home in Newport, Wales. When we arrived at their cute brick house, my friend’s mom padded down the carpeted staircase barefoot in a long leopard-print bathrobe and enveloped me in a tight hug. “I’m not in France anymore,” I thought.

I had been in France long enough to be surprised that a woman I had never met could warmly hug me as if we had known each other all our lives. It was nice. Everything was so cozy, in fact—it had been a long time since I had been in a carpeted home, since French homes usually aren’t (I say ‘usually,’ since ‘never’ seems like it must be false, but I have not actually seen one with carpeting). The large bed in the guest room where I slept was covered with pillows. A claw foot bathtub stood in the middle of their bathroom.

It was my first time to Wales, and I did not know what to expect beyond the stories of my Welsh hostess and friend, whom I had always known in the context of our life in Paris and its environs.

St. Patrick’s Got a Makeover and Park is Gotham City

A few days ago I finally made it inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. Longtime renovations were completed in September, and since I’ve been back in the States, I’ve been in the area several times but for one reason or another was not able to go in to see the shiny new interior. It is not a regular stop of mine, but I’ve visited it over the years. I couldn’t remember how it is decorated for Christmas, so it was a pleasant surprise to be in the Rockefeller area again this week, just in time before the end of the Christmas season.

143.nyc.2015a

The cathedral was built from 1858 to 1879 in the Neo-Gothic style, according to the official web site.

The majority of the renovations were finished before the pope’s visit in September, but as you can see, there are still finishing touches being done. 143.nyc.2015d

The nativity scene was very large. For those unfamiliar with a typical set, animals commonly present are sheep, donkeys, and camels. That’s why I had to peer closer to make sure that what I saw next to Mary was not a strange-looking sheep. 143.nyc.2015e

Nope, it was indeed a golden retriever. 143.nyc.2015f

A couple of hours later, after my meeting nearby, I wandered along Park Avenue. For the first time I popped into St. Bart’s, an Episcopal church designed by James Renwick, the architect of St. Patrick’s. Unintentionally, my walk had turned into a Renwick tour.

I thought these huddled trees were funny. In the foreground is a contemporary sculpture. A security guard paced in the vicinity; I think he guards the sculpture, even though the area isn’t very touristy.

143.nyc.2015i

I think I know Manhattan pretty well, but I must not have walked on this stretch of Park Avenue very often because that night, I was struck by the dark towering rectangular buildings lit by pale yellow squares of light. 143.nyc.2015l143.nyc.2015m143.nyc.2015n143.nyc.2015o143.nyc.2015p143.nyc.2015q

I walked southwestward to Bryant Park, my wide dark brown scarf wrapped around the lower half of my face. After a mild New Year’s, winter had arrived with below freezing temperatures. I looked across the park and noticed that the Christmas aliens seemed to have beamed down and chosen this spot as their landing place. 143.nyc.2015r

 I hope your year is off to a good start!

French Kissing

When I first started communicating with French friends in written form some years ago, I did not understand the subtleties among the possible closings of a message:

Bisous
Bises
Gros bisous
Grosses bises
Biz
Je t’embrasse or Je vous embrasse

One easy possibility was to use whatever they had written in their email or letter. If they signed off with bises, I could do the same. But I felt awkward—it didn’t feel like me since I wasn’t used to doing it. I think I subconsciously also felt weird writing “kisses,” even though these sign-offs aren’t really kisses in the way that an English-speaker thinks of kisses. So I often just typed my name after the body of the letter. It floated there all alone.

The exception was when I wrote my former host mom, who always ends her emails to me with “Je t’embrasse.” I thus ended mine with “Je vous embrasse” (yes, I use the formal ‘vous’ with her, which she established with me when we first met).

With more time in France and more emails and texts with French friends, I eventually got used to writing “bises” or “bisous” before my name according to my relationship with the recipient.

I once asked a French friend how she perceived the differences among the variations and which she chose for whom. She said that she uses “bisous” with close girl friends and “bises” with all other friends and acquaintances. She would never use “bisous” with a male friend, only with her boyfriend. However, she cautioned me that she was conservative with her bisous, whereas some of her female officemates gave written bisous left and right to fellow colleagues.

Basically, one person’s bisou is another person’s bise.

Then, of course, there was the day that a friend signed off his text with “biz,” and I thought, “business?” No, biz is a shortened form of bises. The ultimate in casual kissing. I will admit that it still tickles me when I use it occasionally.

I knew I had adapted to life in France when I found myself analyzing a guy’s chosen sign-off and wondering whether it meant anything that he had switched from using one to another.

Now I so fully embrace (or embrasser, ha ha) the use of bisous and bises that I even write them at the end of messages to non-French friends who know French because it is just a nice way to close out a letter. I refrain from but instinctively want to use them with friends who only speak English too. There is no equivalent in English, which was a problem at the beginning in terms of comprehension, but now it is it the reverse: I want an equivalent in English so I can add it to my daily usage.

There is the solution of simply following what one of my French friends does: writing “kisses” at the end of his emails to me. He doesn’t actually know that you can’t translate “bisous” into “kisses.” I am certainly not going to be the one to tell him since I get a big kick out of reading it.

Grosses bises !

Toto, I Think We’re Not in Paris Anymore

There is a huge Christmas tree, lighted angels, and a menorah on a football field.

141.christmas.2015a141.christmas

We must be in a New Jersey suburb!

Next stop is Macy’s.

This is the most iconic store in the city of New York, and there are fake squirrels with swishing tails on tree trunks as Christmas decorations. And yet it makes so much sense. Everyone, most especially tourists, is regularly surprised and delighted by the city squirrels in spite of the fact that they sometimes perch on trash cans. As I was taking these pictures, a boy excitedly pointed out the furry creatures to his parents.

What could the main department store in Paris, or any other city, do as an equivalent? Maybe a line of bateaux mouches chugging up the tree under the extravagant dome in Galeries Lafayette?