An American Baby Shower

Earlier this year, while it was still winter, I went to a close friend’s baby shower. It was her and her husband’s first baby, and my first time attending a baby shower.

The weekend included:

  • A hawk killing one of their chickens… while my pregnant friend was trying to chase it away… and the eight of us at her party sat around the table inside, chatting without a care in the world. Some friends we are, I know.
  • Detailed discussion about how to pump and store breastmilk and assemble reusable diapers
  • A list of due date guesses- one woman declared that the winner would get to name the second child
  • Love- it’s lovely to see someone surrounded by people who love them
  • Lots of food
  • Dog cuddles
  • Post-shower, a cold but refreshing walk with just my friend and her other friend who like me, wasn’t local and was staying overnight

It did not include:

  • A game where we smelled different kinds of chocolate in diapers and guessed what kind they were
  • A game where we tasted baby food, including meat-flavored ones, and guessed what flavors they were
  • Tossing a baby bouquet to predict who would be next to have a baby

The first two are real games that my friend witnessed at other baby showers and that initially made her not want to have one. It was her husband who ultimately convinced her to take her sister and friends up on their offers to throw one (though she ended up doing the hosting and organizing, really). The third does not exist, as far as I know, but please give me credit if you incorporate it in the next baby shower you attend.

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Staying Sweet

Today I was thinking about how easy it could be to become cynical. I think I tend towards a positive outlook here, but that doesn’t mean I see the world as rosy. I see that people around me are in pain, and I think about it. People have experienced struggles and somehow continue.

In the past few days I heard and saw on the subway:

– 3 young gay guys, maybe teenagers, talking about their past drug use and how they started. Two of them said that their boyfriends at the time, who were seven to nine years older than them, introduced them to cocaine. The three friends agreed that they might have been offered drugs, but it was their choice to take it, and they could have said no. One of them referenced the “Shame on you, shame on me” quote, saying that the first time, shame on the other person, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth times, shame on you. I was struck by how young they were and yet how they had been through things and come out the other side already. Kind of heartening. I also thought about how great it was that they could talk about their experiences with each other and reflect on them. They may have had bad influences, but they are good influences on each other.

– An adult man telling a woman who was a bit older than him that his first memory of his dad was his dad throwing his mom on the kitchen floor. As their conversation continued, the woman told him about how her brother was committed to the state. I just thought, geez, everyone has something! We just don’t talk about it with everyone.

– Heavily armed police with black helmets in the station, and not far from them, a young Asian man singing and playing peaceful songs on his guitar with a handwritten sign in front of him that read, “Music is my passion.” He is there often, and I find his presence encouraging for multiple reasons—he is a young person pursuing his dream; he is an Asian person performing in public, a public that is not exposed to enough Asian artists; and his music is nice. As for the police, there are usually police in this main subway and bus station, but not outfitted in such gear. I wondered if it had to do with…

– A white powder scare in the bus station the other day. I arrived at the station in the morning, and a large area leading to the main exit was blocked off with yellow caution tape and four military men standing in a line. (Military personnel are usually present, but they always stand on the side.) I later learned that an unknown substance found in the station was the reason for the investigation. The powder was a cleaning agent, non-hazardous.

This is life. This is a normal day.

“J’ai tant d’admiration pour ceux qui se relèvent. …la plupart des hommes et des femmes que je croisais dans la rue me semblaient admirables… je ne les connaissais pas mais je devinais en eux des blessures, une fatigue, des failles qui me bouleversaient. Leur capacité de résistance m’épatait… »
– Olivier Adam, Le cœur régulier

This morning I was thinking about how in spite of all this, I am glad I am not cynical. I hope it never happens. You get older, you get hurt, you see how awful people can act. It will happen again and again. Yet I believe most people are good and are trying their best. They’re also utterly surprising in the best way.

Sunset

Sunset in summer in Paris was late, at 9 or 10 sometimes. On nice days, I stay out as long as possible (I think this comes from growing up in a place where the cold months outnumber the warm). However, in Paris if I aimed to be outside as long as it was light outside, it meant that I went home quite late.

It’s like that in other parts of the world too, of course, even in my own country, like in Chicago. Paris was the first time I had lived somewhere where the sun set so late, though, and so the first summer I was there, I was surprised. It was easy to lose track of time in the evening. Not for too long, though—I could always count on the guard at Luxembourg Gardens to jolt me out of my reverie with a whistle blow and a bellowed “Ferrrrrrmature!”

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Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 9:15pm

via Photo Challenge: Rise/Set

Italian with Français

This winter I had lunch with a new French friend (my dad met her during a plane ride last fall) and her husband at Il Cantinori during Restaurant Week, a period that, contrary to its name, takes place over two weeks. Oodles of pricey restaurants offer prix fixe menus, making it more affordable for those who wouldn’t usually dine there. Restaurants of all cuisines offer several choices of appetizer, entrée, and dessert. (After several years of eating in France, I still sometimes confuse what an ‘entrée’ is.)

She and her husband had been to New York many times on vacation, but this was their first time living in this region, and they were about a month into their three-month stay.

Highlights of our lunch:

– Telling them that Carrie Bradshaw had her 30th birthday dinner there. You feel for her in that scene. She sits at a large table, and one by one her friends call the restaurant (there were no cell phones) and say they’re running late or ran into some problem preventing them from getting there, but they cheerily wish her a happy birthday.

– Watching the Italian waiter’s face when my friend asked what a cannoli was (and she is of Italian descent). Are they less common in France? Do I only know them because there were so many Italian Americans where I grew up?

– She and her husband lamenting that they couldn’t watch Jimmy Kimmel live like the rest of Americans because they don’t have a TV. I explained that it’s taped in the afternoon, so no one but the studio audience is watching it live, and also that many Americans, at least in the city, don’t have TVs and so watch it online anyway. They were surprised. Also, did you know Kimmel is popular in France? Several French people have mentioned him to me; I would have thought Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon would be the most well-known American talk show hosts abroad.

– She said a lot of people react when they hear they have foreign accents, or don’t understand what she and husband are saying, which I found weird since everyone has an accent here. Plus, her English is really good. I thought all of us in New York were used to hearing accents all the time. However, she also said the people were friendly and interested in where they came from.

– In her experience, people are very nice—a stranger took initiative to help them when they were confused on the bus in New Jersey, for example.

– She and their daughter visited Santa Claus in December (he lives in Finland, apparently). She asked if I had received gifts, and when I said yes, she leaned over and said she knew that because she had reminded him to deliver them to me.

When I spend time with newcomers in my region, it feels like I’m still traveling.

“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?

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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