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.

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Bridge

On the outer edge of the George Washington Bridge from New York to New Jersey is a pedestrian path. Rather than driving or taking the bus across, you can walk between the two states with the cars rushing on one side and the vast Hudson River on the other. Earlier this year, a date and I did this, our destination being the park on the other side. The park turned out to be huge, and over a few hours we only explored the southern part of it. Though it was a beautiful day, we came across few people (score!). It was quiet and peaceful. The part we explored wasn’t quite hiking—there were paths and a couple of steep staircases—but around those paths it was definitely wild, plants and trees growing where they may. We saw chipmunks and deer, both of which were very exciting for me. Sometimes the animals were right next to the path where we were walking. Clearly I am not used to seeing wildlife on a daily basis, though there do seem to be more and more raccoons in Central Park, and it wasn’t a pigeon that nipped into the pumpkin outside where I live.

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Bonne Année

Towards the end of December I sent out Christmas and holiday greetings to friends, family, and acquaintances, which included many Frenchies. Their responses reminded me of the differences between French and English greetings and how much I love noticing them:

– All the responses wishing me “de très belles fêtes de fin d’année” (very happy end-of-the-year holidays). Not that one can’t say “Joyeuses fêtes” (Happy Holidays), but I think that the fact that the former is even used reveals the specificity of the French language. No wonder non-native English speakers don’t get why we use the word “get” for everything, from “get groceries” and “get ready” to “get up” and “get down.”

– A French friend who responded to my “Merry Christmas” on December 23rd with “Thanks! Although Christmas is in 2 days!” It reminded me of my first year in France, when a friend admonished me for wishing him “Bonne Année” (Happy New Year) before the end of the year, which I had done because we wouldn’t see each other until after the holidays.

– The “bizzz” at the end of some friends’ emails, not to indicate a bee buzzing, but rather a friendly way of signing off. Not to mention the bisous and je t’embrasse and so on depending on the sender’s personality and how they view our relationship.

I hope you enjoyed the holidays. Bonne Année!

A French colleague told me I can say that until January 20th.

Bizzz

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Wondrous Worlds

How about traveling without traveling?

The Newark Museum in New Jersey currently has an exhibit up called “Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam through Time & Place.”

I am drawn to art that combines image and word. These two blue beauties are by Hassan Massoudy, who was born in Najaf, Iraq and now lives in Paris. They feature poems from centuries ago and bright wide strokes of paint.
165.newarkmuseum.2016a“Travel, if you aspire to certain renown, it is in roaming the heavens that the crescent becomes the full moon.”
– Ibn Qalaqis, an 11th century Egyptian poet

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“Oh friend, don’t go to the flower garden. The flower garden is within you.”
– Kabir, a 15th century Indian poet

This prayer cloth from Iran has mihrab, gate, and flower motifs.

100_9965Some of the museum’s permanent collection amused me, such as this “teapot goblet” from 1989 by Richard Marquis.

100_9971This glass and metal sculpture is called “Firebringer” and was made by Jon Kuhn in the early 2000s.100_9973

And the teapots, the teapots, the teapots!

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The Ballantine House is a section of the museum that features American period rooms. This dining room had so many pieces on the table, from silverware (three forks for each setting), plates, and goblets to cherubic figures and tiny fancy salt shakers.

100_9976100_9978100_9979I have a time and space machine in driving distance from my house. The Islamic world and Victorian America can be done in an afternoon.

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?

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!

Stranger Talk

A conversation I had at a recently opened British café chain in Paris, with my internal commentary (translated from French):

Barista: Bonjour.

Me: Bonjour.

Barista: How are you?

(I am thrown off because shopkeepers and cashiers in Paris almost never ask how you are unless they know you. This cafe’s employees must have different training due to its British origins.)

Me: Fine, how are you?

Barista: Fine. Of what descent are you? I’m just curious.

(??? Really, you are asking me this? This is an acceptable question in the context of a conversation but not as an opener by someone I don’t know. Nowadays I find this as a first question by a stranger odd or amusing, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. Before I can decide which pastry to order, I debate whether to answer “Chinese” or “American.” Asking what of what descent (de quelle origine) I am would indicate that you want to know what kind of Asian I am. And yet just saying “Chinese” with my American accent seems like an incomplete answer.)

Me: Chinese. Well, Chinese American.

Barista: Ni hao.

Me: Well, I’m American.

Barista [in English]: How are you?

Me: And what ethnicity are you?

Barista: French. Well, French of Portuguese descent.

I find a nice, brightly lit table in the corner and leave my coat there, then go back to the counter to wait for my order.

Same barista: What state are you from?

Me: New Jersey.

Barista: I heard a story about New Jersey.

(My interest is peaked. New Jersey is little-known enough abroad that I sometimes have to give a summary of it and place it “near New York,” but it’s also mentioned enough in popular American TV shows and books that sometimes people know snippets about it, sometimes true, sometimes wacky.)

Barista: There are forests in New Jersey where people get attacked.

(That’s the first time anyone has ever made that reference to my state. Even fellow Americans have never given me that association with New Jersey. I quickly scan my brain. He must be referring to the Jersey Devil. I would bet that most Jersey residents don’t even know the details of that story. I certainly don’t. Suddenly I realize why our hockey team is called the Jersey Devils, though.)

Me: I don’t often go to the forest in New Jersey…

Barista: It’s a legend, of course.

Me: Well, yeah.

He proceeds to tell me that he’s been everywhere in the world but the United States. He said he wants to go but also kind of doesn’t because then he’d probably want to stay there.

I don’t know if I’m ready for this kind of hyped-up Anglophone service in Paris. The “How are you?” was like being in the States but the inquiring about my ethnicity was not. Ah well, I’ll take the smile.

Wintry Walks

If you are seeking peace, go to the park when it is 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside and covered with snow.

Note: 20 degrees Fahrenheit = -7 degrees Celsius37.njpark.2014a37.njpark.2014b37.njpark.2014c 37.njpark.2014dDid you ever read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger? In it, Holden Caufield asks where all the ducks go when the pond freezes over. His question is never answered, and I always wondered why.

Well, I’ll tell you that in New Jersey, the ducks stay in the park even in the dead of winter.37.njpark.2014eDo you think this white goose is lost or adopted?37.njpark.2014f

There’s This Event Called the Super Bowl

For the past week, the front page of my local paper has been featuring: the Super Bowl.
The local section has been featuring: the Super Bowl.
The sports section: you guess.

In New Jersey and New York, billboards have been reminding us that the Super Bowl would take place on February 2nd. Store windows and kiosks have been displaying game merchandise with the Super Bowl logo and jerseys for the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.ImageYou might be wondering why two states hosted the Super Bowl this year. In fact, MetLife Stadium where the game was held is home to the New York Giants and New York Jets, New York’s football teams, but it’s actually located in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

It was the first time that the Super Bowl was held outdoors in cold weather. Back in mid-December, Super Bowl and state officials announced their plan to deal with potential snowstorms. Thousands of people and trucks would be ready to make sure a blizzard didn’t stop the game.

Luckily, Super Bowl Sunday was mild compared to some of the snowy and freezing cold days that preceded it.

Last Wednesday, Broadway, the main avenue in Times Square, closed off thirteen blocks to traffic for several days of events open to the public.

The night before the beginning of the events, I happened to be in the area around midnight. Event staff and security were out in full swing.ImageImageImageOn Saturday, some friends and I checked out what all the hullaballoo was about.

First of all, that stretch of Broadway was temporarily renamed to “Super Bowl Boulevard.”ImageThis is the back of a 60-foot high toboggan ride that was set up in the middle of the city. Yep, people sled down a 7-story ramp in the middle of the city with high-rises on both sides.ImageFans sported jerseys and caps of their preferred team.ImageImagePersonally, my favorite part of the Boulevard was a truck giving out free ice cream.

As you can see, the Super Bowl is a big deal in the U.S. When I was in college, one of my male classmates cried over the outcome one year. However, not everyone cares about it—I know a fair share of people who don’t know who’s playing or who only watch the game for the commercials and the half-time show. If you’re not familiar with American culture, it probably sounds strange to view the pauses during the sporting event as the main attraction.

Advertising during the Super Bowl has become a huge production—companies pay millions of dollars to show their ads, which are generally of high production quality and almost like short films that go for an inspiring or humorous message.

As for the halftime show, this year’s featured popular singer Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Though it only lasts half an hour, the show has all the trappings of a high-profile concert. Mars’s performance featured a dramatic entrance, a full set of backup singers, glittering gold suit jackets and black ties, and an element that even most big-name concerts do not have: fireworks.

So that’s that. Now what will local journalists write about?

I Like Being a Tourist

This past week a friend and his son came for a visit from France. Not only was it their first time in the States, but also it has been my friend’s dream to come to New York for a few years, so it was an epic trip. We were in full tourist mode from morning till night, hence my absence from my electronic quill and ink. 

One thing I have realized by hosting visitors in Paris and in the States is that being with a group of tourists opens up the city for you in a different way. Some people think that natives get annoyed by tourists because they invade the city, stop in the middle of the sidewalk and take pictures, and don’t know how to speak the language. There is definitely truth to this. At the same time, when you’re tourists you attract positive attention and interest that you don’t as a resident.

In downtown Manhattan, my friend’s son struck a dramatic pose outside the subway station while his dad took a picture of him. A woman on her way to the metro belted out a big laugh and said, “Where y’all from?” These kinds of interactions don’t happen to me on a daily basis.

Near the World Trade Center site, we asked a group of burly construction guys with sticker-plastered work helmets if we could take a picture with them. One of them struggled to take a photo with my friend’s sleek phone, and his comrades teased him and told us that he still uses a rotary phone. If I were walking past these men on their break, I wouldn’t have guessed that they’d be so funny and easy to interact with, nor would I have had a reason to stop and find out.

At a global American fast-food hamburger chain that shall remain unnamed (know that I wasn’t the one who suggested having our first lunch in the United States there), the cashier wore a slight smile as my friend perused the menu, ordered a couple of items, bent down to his son to translate the ice cream toppings in French and ask him which one he wanted, communicated this to the cashier, asked me if I wanted anything else, and finally finished his order. Who can blame her for being amused?  The French accent is cute!

Surely the world isn’t a rosy perfect place. There are people in the United States, France, and all over the world who dislike foreigners. I’ve had negative experiences as a foreigner in France and have seen that ugly side in the U.S. too. When you travel in a foreign country, you risk encountering people who will not like you just because you’re from a different place, and they may even talk about you to your face because they assume you don’t understand them.

In my experience, though, the positive interactions far outweigh the negative. Strolling around the Big Apple and its neighboring regions with two Frenchies showed me the patient, friendly, and welcoming side of a city that is known for constant movement and a rushing stream of commuters, lights, and sounds. Sometimes it’s a good thing that tourists who stop in the middle of the sidewalk make residents stop too.