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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Arthur Avenue and Blossoms in the Bronx

Recently three new friends and I ventured up to the Bronx to check out Arthur Avenue, the “real” Little Italy in New York. Our day got off to a delayed start due to half the group confusing which subway line they were supposed to take. To their credit, it is confusing that the subway stop “125th Street” is in fact four different stops across the city that ten lines pass through. Both people are also not long-time residents of this region.

Having shown up early to our meeting place in the subway station, I acted as an unofficial informational point for tourists who wandered in and wondered which direction to go, as there were two platforms, one for trains going uptown and the other for downtown. The answer was always: head downtown. You want to go to Columbus Circle? Washington Square Park? Downtown. Do you realize how far up north you are? Most of the island is south from where you are right now.

I can only assume they were coming from attending a Gospel Baptist service in Harlem, as many non-American tourists to New York seem to be interested in doing. Most Americans I know, including myself, have never attended one unless they are part of the church or were invited to a service by a friend for a special event.

Almost an hour after our originally scheduled meeting time, our group of four was complete. We started by having lunch at an Italian restaurant (on the back patio! It is spring!!). Before digging into our meat and pasta dishes, we split a plate of arancini, a Sicilian dish of fried rice-stuffed meatballs. Everything was delicious. The restaurant, quiet when we had entered around 1:30, was full of long tables of families chatting and having their Sunday lunch when we left.

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We stopped at an indoor market and a deli, purchasing cannoli, fresh mozzarella, truffle lemon zest, tiramisu, ham, and uncooked pasta. We watched an older man at a cigar stand hand roll cigars.

Toting our little plastic bags of goods, we walked to the New York Botanical Gardens for our very first visit. At least I think it was my first visit—sometimes I can’t remember if I’ve been somewhere when I was a kid. It was lovely. The cherry blossom and flowering crabapple trees were in full bloom. Slopes covered by innumerable daffodils celebrated the gardens’ 125th anniversary. Maples from all over the world lined walking paths.

Funnily enough, we spoke in French the whole day (to each other, not to all the Italian servers and sellers). Even though none of us was French, it seemed natural because we had met in a French setting in New York and I was the only one in the group whose native language was English, so it was not as if English would have made communication easier. I thought about how in France if I was in a group of French people, we of course spoke French, but if I was in a group of expats, we spoke English even though usually everyone knew French. I think this is because although many of the expats I knew whose native language was not English spoke French very well, they spoke English almost flawlessly, plus there were usually at least two native English speakers in the group, whether from the U.S. or United Kingdom.

When I initially moved to France, I thought I might meet some expats where our only common language would be French. As it turns out, although there are many monolingual people in the world, a non-French person who moves to France to study or work for a company often speaks English, whether they come from Asia, Africa, Europe, or South America. Many others don’t—I knew a Peruvian and a Russian in Paris who didn’t know any English—but a lot do.

How funny that what I imagined I would live in France—going out with a group of international people and speaking in our second language, French—instead happened in the States, in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, nonetheless.