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.
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.
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.