Snowshoeing without Snowshoes

I skipped out of work a couple of hours early (having worked late several evenings this month) and hopped on the Metro-North train to visit a friend who got married last summer. A few weeks prior, I was sitting in a restaurant next to three young women, one of whom was espousing the line to her two friends: “The Metro-North is the way to travel. It is like, so sweet.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does tend to be on time (great if you’re early, out of luck if you’re running late).

My friend and her husband picked me up from the train station in New Haven, Connecticut. Along for the ride was their big Doberman puppy, who jumped all over me as soon as I got in the back. She alternated between being very conspicuous—bounding on me and chewing the crocheted lanyard on my bag—and almost invisible, as she is black as that Friday night.

In their town about half an hour’s drive away, they had left their door unlocked for the other friend who would be joining us for the weekend and had arrived shortly before. We certainly weren’t in Kansas anywhere—or maybe we were closer to Kansas? In the Jersey suburb where I’m from, we wouldn’t leave the door unlocked if we weren’t home.

Here were wide open spaces. A long, wide driveway leading up the house. Peaceful, snowy trees out back. Birds flitting around a feeder on the deck. A kitchen that could fit two, perhaps three Parisian studios.

The weekend was a lovely one, with a BIG pancake (to quote the menu), laughter and talks, the making of not one but two cakes, music and movies, cuddling with the two dogs, and a hike up snowy hills and along a frozen reservoir.

In Paris I used to visit a friend in Marseille every few months. Since coming back to the States, I’ve done the same with my friend in Connecticut. The Metro-North is not quite the same as the TGV, but it’s still “like, so sweet” since it takes me to scattered parts of my heart.dsc00223dsc00224dsc00226dsc00229dsc00234dsc00235dsc00237dsc00240dsc00242

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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.

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.

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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.

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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!

Toto, I Think We’re Not in Paris Anymore

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

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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?

Christmas Market-ing is not an Obsession

My first winter in Paris, I made it my mission to visit as many of the Christmas markets in the city as possible. They ranged from the most frequented one on the Champs-Elysées to the tiny bundle of stands in front of the Bercy 2 mall. I went to most of them, and the funny thing is that they all have similar products—delicate cut-out Christmas cards, big chocolate-covered marshmallows sold by the piece, painted ornaments, scarves fluffy and fine, mulled wine, churros. Each one has its own atmosphere, however, which is why I enjoyed walking through all of them. In my travels with friends, I also saw the marchés de Noël in Strasbourg, Lille, Marseille, and Nice.

What I almost forgot is that my love of Christmas markets was born in New York. During my first year of work after college, in December I walked through the Christmas market near my office almost every day during lunch break. Even on the very cold days, I ducked out for a few minutes for a quick walk past the stands selling jewelry, spices, puppets, and chocolate.

The markets in Manhattan were and still are located at Bryant Park, Grand Central Station, Union Square, and Columbus Circle. All are outdoors except Grand Central’s. This year I noticed a small line of stands forming a new (to me) holiday market in Times Square (there’s room for a market on the crowded sidewalks of Times Square, you ask? Yes, I was amazed too. This city can squeeze in skyscrapers in small spaces).

It wasn’t until spending a few years in France and then coming back to the States that I realized that New York actually has “holiday” markets, not “Christmas” markets. This is not to say that they’re less Christmassy than France’s marchés de Noël, they’re just more politically correct. Their signs call them holiday markets and holiday fairs. Which is funny, because all the pine and red and white stripes clearly point to a specific holiday.

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Happy Holidays!

Home Away From Home

The night after the recent attacks in Paris, I attended a concert with two friends in New York. The performer, Jon McLaughlin, is one of my favorite artists, so when he is on tour, I am there (except when I am not. I still haven’t done the whole groupie thing for anyone). This was my fourth time around.

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During the concert, I felt a sadness and happiness. If you have been moved by music, you will understand what I mean by happiness; it rises up within me sometimes when a voice, an instrument, words fill the room. It happens most often with live music. Murmured recognition and delight as a song begins, the feeling of being encapsulated in the sound, remembering each time why live music is delicious.

The sadness I felt during the concert was ever-present, not one that I could shake off or forget for more than a moment.

The conflicting feelings didn’t compete with each other but rather, filled me right up. I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular. I had done that the previous night and during the day. There is a lot to think about if one starts: the attacks in Paris, the bloodshed, the individual stories, the aftermath, attacks in other countries, other types of killings all over the world, what individuals can do, what governments can do. One can’t think about all the problems at once. It becomes too much for one person that way, but no one said that one person has to carry the burden.

I remember what it was like to walk outside in Paris after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo and before the hostage taking in Vincennes. Exposed. And the following week, when for those who did not know someone killed, the physical motions of life had returned to normal, and yet my perspective on daily life had changed.

Surely when the shooting on the train from Amsterdam to Paris happened, I thought about how a friend and I had not long before taken that train, peacefully sleeping side by side in the early hours.

This time, I was not in Paris, but rather following the news from afar and checking in with friends. The next evening, I was going to a restaurant with friends, attending a concert with no more security than having my last name checked against a list, and walking to the subway nearing midnight while people spilled out of bars. Activities that many of us expect to do without wondering whether we’d be better off staying at home.

Unfortunately, I’m sure we’ve all had moments when a horrible event shifted how we saw the world. We witness violence in its different forms in every country. The world is still beautiful, but frightening as well and terribly sad.

One question now is what we can do going forward. I’m going to think about that.

Stags and Hens

The first time I saw a young man dressed up in a rabbit suit surrounded by peers in broad daylight in Montmartre, I didn’t know what was going on. They were not performers. And why was everyone but one poor guy in regular clothing?

By the time I saw this penguin fishing under impassive eyes a couple of years later, I knew that he had found his mate.

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In France a man or woman who is engaged to be married may be made to wear a costume or embarrassing outfit while accompanied by his or her friends in daytime or nighttime activities, often involving the public. Once, a group of girls approached my companion and me and asked us to sign the bride-to-be’s notebook with a message to wish her well.

If not in costume, the bride-to-be may be wearing one color (for example, a white t-shirt) while her following of friends all wear another (likely pink).

In the U.S. grooms and brides-to-be often have bachelor and bachelorette parties, but they usually take place in the evening. A typical one will be at a bar or someone’s home or if it is an overnight trip, Las Vegas. The friends of the star of the party may try to make them engage with strangers, but it will be in an enclosed space, as opposed to in the street. While it is often obvious who in the group is engaged to be married, because they will be wearing a sash or tiara or other indicator, animal costumes are not a tradition. Alternatively, some people opt for tamer celebrations, like a dinner with their friends of the same sex, a spa day, or another group activity. I am sure this is true in France as well, that some people prefer to have a meal instead of pretending to fish for one in the Seine as their friends look on.

Bref, that is all to say that I’ve seen many costumed characters in the streets of New York City, but I’m pretty sure that none of them were getting married.

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.

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City Citrouilles

Pumpkins are ubiquitous in the U.S. during the fall season. They certainly are cute as vegetables come. One Saturday in Boston some years ago, I came upon a massive tower of pumpkins by city hall.

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They were trying to achieve the Guinness World Record for number of jack-o-lanterns, which are carved pumpkins.

129.pumpkinsboston.2015bOn the steps and ground in the plaza were hundreds of pumpkins, all sporting carved faces.

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Notice that the pumpkin in the top left of the picture above says “SOX.” For those unfamiliar with American sports, the Red Sox are Boston’s baseball team. From a young age, people from the Boston area are raised to be avid sports fans. I learned this when I was a high school senior staying overnight at a Boston area school that I had been accepted to. When the students hosting me learned I was from New Jersey, they asked, “Are you a Yankees fan?” A New York Yankees fan was apparently an undesirable thing to be, as the Red Sox and the Yankees are fierce rivals. I actually hadn’t heard this when I was in the New York area, but I sure did when I was in Boston.

In the plaza, action was still happening; children and adults carved pumpkins to add to the assembly.

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Do you see the lights strung through these love pumpkins? As evening fell, they lit up the jack-o-lanterns, which I caught a glimpse of before heading home.

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