Lotus Flowers, A Snake, Gospel

A few weeks ago I met up with a couple of friends in the Bronx to have lunch on Arthur Avenue and visit the New York Botanical Gardens. Since a friend organized this pairing of activities over two years ago, I’ve continued to suggest it to other friends since we don’t go up to the Bronx that often. It’s an opportunity to have Italian food and see an amazing variety of flowers and plants.

My friend was a little late meeting me at the subway stop in the Bronx (due to the eternal subway issues), and was I glad she was. First, while waiting I saw a man with a huge snake draped over his shoulders and curled around his waist. I followed him for a little while. He went into a pet store.

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Then I walked a little more and saw a small church with open doors.

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When my French friends came in February, one of them wanted to go to a service at a Baptist church. I’ve found that this is a common item on French tourists’ lists in New York, which surprised me when I first learned it. As far as I know, American tourists don’t seek this out, and I would not have thought of attending a service. I thought I would feel conspicuous since I didn’t belong to that denomination and would stick out. When I asked my French friend why he wanted to go to one, he explained that he wanted to experience Gospel music and that it was an especially American thing.

Before my French friends came, I did some asking around and research online. It seemed that some big churches were indeed used to receiving tourists and even had a different section for them. A friend advised me to show up early because from her experience (with her French visitor), the line to enter could be long. In the end, we didn’t end up going, but years of hearing of French friends and acquaintances interested in Baptist services peaked my curiosity when I saw this little church in the Bronx.

Inside, the service was in full swing and most of the members of the congregation were standing in song. An usher standing by the back door welcomed me warmly, and when I said I would stand at the back instead of sitting in the pews, she insisted I sit in her chair. She gave me a program. One woman in the church was standing and swaying back and forth with her arms in the air, singing along with the song “My Soul Says Yes,” which I had never heard before and was indeed moving. In the song, for a long time you sing, “My soul says yes” over and over again. There are other lyrics, but when I walked in they were in the full refrain.

I couldn’t believe after all that research I just stumbled upon this church. There were no crowds of tourists, and there was plenty of seating available.

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After the song, there was a reading. The usher went to a shelf to get me a Bible in case I wanted to follow along. She was so kind.

After listening for a while, I went back out into the summer heat to meet my friend. We walked to the Italian neighborhood and had a lunch of fresh pasta on the backyard patio of a restaurant, then walked to a nearby bakery to get an iced coffee and a tiramisu (her) and a black and white cookie (me) to go. We walked to the botanical gardens to meet another friend.

In the gardens, we chatted at the café for a bit, then headed to the Haupt Conservatory to see the flower show “Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i.” Signs described her stay in Hawaii and how she was inspired by the flowers there. The flowers in the conservatory were varied and beautiful, and the water lilies and lotus flowers outside were amazing and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Also, it was just our luck that hula dancers of a hula school in New York were performing when we arrived at the conservatory.

After getting our fill of the flowers, we took the garden tram, which was a hilarious experience. Because it made multiple stops in the gardens but was at full capacity, thus not having room for passengers wanting to get on unless some got off, the driver loudly tried to sell each stop. “This library is very historical…” “It’s only a 2-minute walk to the Rose Garden from here… you can get off here for the Rose Garden instead of going to the Rose Garden stop.” Translation: Get off! Get off!

It was one friend’s first time to Arthur Avenue, and the other’s first time to both the gardens and Arthur Avenue. It was my third time, but first time in the summer. I love summer in the city. In the summer I never remember what it is I did for fun in the winter.

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Pas de panique

In the past month:

– I was on the subway on the way to work, and when I got on, it smelled like smoke. I only had four stops to go, and at every stop I wondered if something was wrong. At the third station, with only one station to my destination, we finally stopped for longer than usual. I stepped out of the train, and upon standing further back, I saw that it was smoking out the top. None of the other cars were. Eventually, a subway employee announced that the train wouldn’t be running further and that all passengers should get off and take another train. There was no urgency to the announcement. I checked the local news and the subway web site later but didn’t find anything of note.

– I was walking outside after work, and I suddenly heard a ‘boom’ and halfway down the block, then saw a big burst of flames. I stopped where I was, unsure what had happened, if anyone was hurt, and if I should go around the other block in order to get to the subway. I observed the people who were across the street from the fire was in order to observe whether they were moving away or continuing on their way. At first, people had stopped, but then I saw that they were continuing on, which told me that they didn’t deem that there was danger. So I crossed over to that side, and as I passed where the flames had been, I saw a work truck. The small explosion must have happened on that truck, but what was odd is that the workers didn’t seem panicked. I don’t know whether they had quickly extinguished the fire or if something else had happened. Anyone walking by at that moment wouldn’t have known that there had been a tall fire five minutes earlier. A few minutes later, from down in the subway station, I heard a siren and wondered if it was coming to check on the situation, but it could have been heading elsewhere.

– During my morning commute, my bus broke down on the highway. The driver was able to slowly drive it over to a middle strip of grass. He radioed out to his fellow buses, and within ten minutes another bus pulled up to accept the passengers it could, i.e. the first nine in the front seats of the bus, which included me. I’m sure the rest were picked up by other express buses soon after. It was amazing how little the incident affected our commute.

It’s weird how much goes on around us and how quickly we can move on if we’re lucky.

We All Got Our Own Thing Going On (And We Find People to Share Them With)

A few weeks ago I saw in the morning on my way to work:

A bunch of people in the bus station looking up, mouths slightly agape. They were watching a huge TV screen that had been temporarily set up in the bus station to show the World Cup. A guy energetically said to people who passed by, “Koozie koozie koozie,” offering free foam cup holders from the TV channel that sponsored the viewing.

A large group of people in the park listening to someone praying over a microphone. People were dressed up, milling around, and some were carrying platters of food. They were Muslims celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan.

A woman walking two dogs whose back halves were paralyzed and were walking with dog wheelchairs. An older man bent down to pet them. A woman with two dogs of her own stopped to talk to her, and they chatted about their dogs. The first woman described the disabled dogs’ different personalities.

Glimpses of different worlds and the important things happening in each of them. I loved coming in contact with them in the span of twenty minutes.

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Nature’s Sparkles

A few months ago a friend and I went to the Museum of the City of New York, which is on the northeast edge of the vast Central Park. Since I was early, I took my time walking through the park to the museum. It was cold—cold enough that there was still ice on the lake. Part of it had melted to create these shapes of water with sparkling edges from the bright sun. I realized that whomever invented glitter must have taken his or her inspiration from nature.

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I came across a garden that I don’t remember having visited before—the Conservatory Garden. It was bare, but I could see how regal and beautiful it must be in the springtime. Time to go back. And the gate to enter it was surprising, almost random next to the New York city street, yet I can see how it matched the garden.

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Right next to the museum was this tree. Do you have yarnbombing where you live?

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The foyer of the museum was cool.

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We visited the exhibit on Martin Luther King, Jr., which was a small gallery but jam-packed with interesting photos and captions. It brought up conversation about what’s going on today.

The exhibit “Mod New York” featured over seventy outfits from the 1960s. It was groovy.

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Lastly, we looked at a room of items about the history of ice skating, fitting since the last time we were in this neighborhood together was when we went ice skating in Central Park last year, on what must have been the last weekend one could skate outside—the rink was covered with a layer of water. Obviously it was much warmer than today.

I like museums and have spent a lot of time in New York, and still sometimes a museum that is new to me will come up on my radar, like the Museum of the City of New York. Many times, I discover a place and love it and think, So this has always been here.

After, we took the subway down to the East Village where she got a bite to eat and I bought a hot chocolate from next door to bring over and sip while she ate and we talked.

Our next stop was a café where she bought two macarons and I got a doughnut. There was no seating, and it was too cold outside to linger, so we went to another café, where she got a drink and we sat and chatted some more over our sweets.

When the weather is beautiful outside, sometimes I forget what I ever did during the cold months. Here’s one example—hopping from place to place on a Saturday afternoon into the evening.

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.

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.

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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I See, Oui

Earlier this summer, I took advantage of a slower work schedule to catch up with my doctors’ appointments, some of whom I hadn’t been to for years due to living in France.

I crossed two rivers, Hudson and East, to see my ophthalmologist in Brooklyn. On the way, I wondered why I didn’t find someone closer to my home or work. Once I had my appointment, I was reminded why—my doctor is great.

Stepping out into the bright sunlight post-appointment, I set off in the direction of the subway station to go to work. Through my blurry vision from the eye drops, I wondered if I was really seeing these quirky storefronts.

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Coffee, hookah, gelato, wifi, bubble tea… how did they come up with this combination? It sounds like a list of someone’s favorite things.

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Cheerful knives sale.

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Rainbow teapots.

Human beings come up with creative things.