Nirvana

Lunchtime in the park in Manhattan. On the next bench over from me, a man sits and chats with his friend who has rolled up and parked her wheelchair next to him. I’ve seen her in the park before; she has some kind of handwritten sign affixed to her chair. They seem to be regulars who linger in the park without anywhere to rush back to. A girl comes by and greets them. She is a student, perhaps in college. I wonder how they know each other. They talk about her classes a bit. In the course of their conversation, she mentions Nirvana.

Man: Nirvana? Is that a white girl? She won a Grammy, right?
Girl: It’s a band.
Man: It’s a band? It sounds like a girl’s name.
Woman: You’re thinking of Rihanna.

An old man approaches. I scoot over a bit to make room for him. He obviously knows the rest of the group, but they merely tolerate him. He is very drunk and has a small bottle of alcohol with him. His manner is subdued, not raging, though he’s definitely out of it. He tries to talk to me about his travels during his time in the service and his anxiety these days, but he has trouble completing his sentences, so his thoughts taper off as quickly as they begin. However unfinished, his brief mumblings reveal more in a flash than decades of greeting a distant neighbor or colleague in passing.

People in the park.

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The Cloisters

Earlier this summer, a friend was in New York for a business trip, and I jumped on the chance to hang out with her. She came up a day early on a sunny, hot Sunday. We agreed to meet at her hotel with another college friend.

First to arrive, I sat in the snazzy hotel lobby. A bit later, I received a text from my friend saying that she had arrived and how about we meet in ten minutes? I looked up and saw her checking in at the reception desk. Not wanting to scare her or interrupt her conversation with the receptionist, I creepily stood behind her at the distance you’d stand behind the customer at a post office counter when you’re next in line (in the U.S. I mean… in France mosey on right up behind that stranger).

We went up to put her bag in her hotel room, which to her surprise was stylishly decorated but did not feature a desk. Considering she was there for work and would need to use her laptop several hours a day, she called reception to inquire about it. They responded that she hadn’t requested one. We were baffled. Even in low-cost motel rooms, I have always seen a bed and a table.

Our friend joined us, and after a leisurely lunch and animated chat at a restaurant in the neighborhood, we took the subway up to the Cloisters, which is built from stone and materials from four French medieval abbeys. It contains art, objects, and tapestry from the Middle Ages. There was a surprising lack of signage leading to its location in Fort Tryon Park. We followed somewhat inclined paths surrounded by trees and plants before reaching the fortified structure. 101_1003

You may recognize “The Unicorn in Captivity” (1495–1505).

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You’ve probably never seen this guy, though. He is an aquamanile from Germany (ca. 1425-50), used for handwashing at the table.

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This stained glass window from the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Rouen (ca. 1200-10) depicts a scene from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

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The gardens were lovely. 101_1009101_1010

There was an entertaining garden of plants grouped by use in medieval times: magic and ceremony, arts and crafts, brewing, medicine, vegetables and salads. Plants had funny names like wallflower, scarlet pimpernel, mandrake, common foxglove, catnip, and butcher’s broom.

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A couple of trees reminiscent of pipes or menorahs stood against a wall. 101_1050

Our visiting friend had chosen the perfect museum for her trip because she spent time looking at every object and artwork in the building. Meanwhile, our other friend and I sat in one of the peaceful gardens for a while after looking through the Cloisters until she joined us.

On our walk out of Fort Tryon Park, we took a different meandering path and found a small cave.

101_1055We topped off our day with dinner at an airy restaurant near our friend’s hotel. Old friends and the even older Cloisters, a delicious Sunday indeed.

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.

Powdered Sugar

Last week there was a very, very light dusting of snow, perfect for a walk through the south side of Central Park on the way to Grand Central Station. You’ll notice a lot of buildings in the background because I stayed on the outskirts of the park rather than venturing further in. I was on my way to catch a train, but it was a no-brainer that a walk in the park would add to my day. 101_0022101_0024101_0025101_0026

I later saw this snowy bear, below whom someone had locked a bike and and intentionally or not, given a ride.101_0042.JPG

Fallin’

Fall: a season that I built up every year that I was in France. Not because it is my favorite season there—that would be summer—but because I missed the autumn of my native Northeastern United States. Changing red and yellow leaves, pumpkins, apple cider and doughnuts, Halloween decorations.

This year for the first time in a little while, I walked through those crispy leaves and rolling acorns.

130.fall.2015aI looked up at these leaves and in my mind’s eye they transformed into butterflies flitting up a tree.

130.fall.2015b 130.fall.2015c 130.fall.2015d 130.fall.2015e 130.fall.2015f 130.fall.2015g 130.fall.2015hHappy Halloween!

A Sunday Stroll in Parc de Bercy

After a crepe lunch in Montparnasse with a friend and her partner, I called another friend to meet up. After hemming and hawing for a few minutes about where to go, I apologized for not having thought beforehand. I hung up, and after a quick look my Paris map, called right back. Often a quick reflection alone is all it takes.

What about Parc de Bercy? I asked. I hadn’t been there in a long time, and it would be convenient for him to get to.

We met by the Bercy Arena, where I used to ice skate with a friend who would speed skate around the rink ahead of me. We would go on weekend nights, when the rink turned into a sort of club, with loud music, darkness, and buckets of teens on ice skates, plus us.

My friend and I spent a moment at the ledge overlooking the adjacent outdoor skate park, where skateboarders, bikers, and rollerbladers attempted tricks on the ramps. They’re just okay, huh? my friend said.

Continuing on, we reminisced about our previous rendez-vous in the area. Passing the quaint shopping strip Bercy Village, I remembered one of our outings early on in our friendship.

Crossing a bridge above the park, we stopped and looked on both sides; one showed the Seine and a shopping mall, and the other was this road of zigzags and a green city bus and bikers and still-summer trees.

125.parcdebercy.2015aMy friend vowed to show me the best place to draguer (hit on) someone.

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I am still not sure why the pedestrian bridge Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir would be appropriate to bring one’s would-be beau, but I was delighted to walk on it for the first time. Somehow, in all my park and river wanderings, I had never ascended and descended the wooden waves of this bridge bearing the name of my beloved Simone.

On a related note, I once crossed the bridge Pont des Arts with someone who told me that it was known as being a place where men draguent women. I had never heard that before and was skeptical. Where do French guys get their information on bridge drague-ing? And here I am, perpetuating what is probably a myth.

We made our way back through the park to meet a friend who was joining us. On the way, I stopped to giggle at this large bunny that bounded next to the smaller carousel horses.

125.parcdebercy.2015cThe three of us were out of place at Parc de Bercy, as many of the young people walking around seemed to have just come from an anime convention.

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We strolled in a garden within the park that housed a brick structure that made me feel we were far from the city of Paris.

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Our afternoon in the park ended with us around a checkerboard table with stone seats and grass underfoot.

Thank You, French Cell Phone Plan

The other Saturday I took advantage of the sunshine that made it just warm enough to sit outside, a rare winter treat.

I chose a quiet spot in the Luxembourg Gardens and called my dad. Cell phone plans have made leaps and bounds here within the past five to ten years. All the major competitors offer calls to the United States at no extra charge, which means that with a regular cell phone I can walk next to the Seine and speak with my sister, who is in the States. My plan costs twenty euros a month and includes unlimited calls and texts in France, unlimited calls to all phones in the United States, Canada, and China and to landlines in many other countries, and data. It is amazing.

About a month ago a friend and I spoke about what happened to our relationships when we left our respective countries and came to Paris. She said that she cut off her ties there, not because she had any animosity towards her circle, but because she wanted to be fully present here. She was actually quite happy before she left, but now she is immersed in her Parisian life. Our conversation made me think of a fellow college student I knew when I studied abroad here; he was adventurous and liked Paris, but he spent a lot of time Skyping with his girlfriend in the States, whom he missed a lot.

I think it’s hard to have strong ties in your home country when you live abroad because you will feel a part of you is missing. On the other hand, I value those ties. As I told my friend, although my close friends and family are not physically in Paris, they are present in my life. At one point I realized that much of my emotional support circle is not here. However, I don’t think that depending on them prevents me from forming liens in my current adopted country. I have some close friends here and am always open to meeting new people and potential “kindred spirits,” as my friend Donna would say. At the same time, I don’t consider people replaceable. I’m of the mindset that once you find a good friend, you better hold on to them.

Certainly, I am not still in contact with every friend who has ever entered my life. Sometimes people are there for a specific period, even a very short one. Sometimes people are not good at keeping in touch or drop out of sight with no warning. I’ve learned to let those go. It’s precisely for that reason that the people who stick around are all the more important.

Later that day, after my foray in the Luxembourg Gardens, I took a long walk with a friend in her neighborhood. Then I had dinner with two other friends, the couple that hosted me during my first week in Paris while I looked for an apartment.

I leave you with a photo of the Luxembourg Gardens on a cold, clear day with an uncommonly blue sky for Paris.106.luxembourg