Over the Moon

Last week I took myself to a French restaurant for dessert during my lunch break to celebrate my lunar birthday. I had only been there twice.

The first was for lunch with my boss over a year ago, and while I don’t remember what I ate, the warm madeleines she and I shared were divine.

The second was around this time last year. I went for dessert with the person I was dating at the time to celebrate my birthday. We ordered some kind of chocolate decadence to share, and it was so good that when we were done, he asked me, “Should we get a second one?” in a way that said, “We should get a second one.” So we did and got to experience it all over again.

It crossed my mind that going there this year might make me sad since we’re no longer together, but the dessert was tempting enough, and I’m one to want to make new experiences in old places. I went in, glanced at the little table where we had sat, and was glad to be seated in another spot, a cozy booth with a view of the room. People around me sat in pairs or groups, eating and chatting.

The server came around and asked “Sparkling or still?” Of course, it was the same server we had had almost one year ago. I responded, “Still,” hoping that it would be tap water (it was).

One thing had changed since last year—the menu. It’s just as well that the chocolate dessert was not there. I ordered the lemon tart, which had preserved lemon chunks and a shock of black and white sesame seeds. It was delectable.

I found I was able to sit there and look around the restaurant and remember being there before and wholly savor being there at that moment. Alternating between a bite of the tart lemon tart and the warm decaf coffee in a tasse whose handle was too tiny to fit a finger through, I wondered if they purposely chose those cups so you had to use both hands, thereby preventing you from eating with one hand and drinking with the other and effectively slowing down the process. In any case, it surely extended mine, as I had a taste of lemony goodness and then had to put down my fork to pick up the cup. I did this many, many times, and I was glad I had come.

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We Traveled to ’80s France

So, I played with a Minitel.

The Mintel, invented by the French in the 1980s, was a precursor to the internet as we know it. Shipped to you by the government, it was a little computer that hooked up to your phone line. You could chat with strangers, play games, search the phone directory, make online purchases…

It also became popular for steamy chatting, referred to as Minitel rose. Not long ago, the podcast Reply All interviewed a man who for a while posed as a girl and instant messaged with men as his job.

There were “racy” images online that were pixelated and hardly very enticing by today’s standards (it makes me think of the how at the Musée de l’Erotisme in Paris my friends and I saw an old black and white video of two women in bathing suits playing volleyball). Apparently there were poster advertisements in France that showed scantily clad women and directed people to the Minitel, whose images on the screen were a far cry from the quality of a photographic image.

Anyway, why was I, an American in the U.S. in 2018, hunched over a Minitel with a platter of charcuterie and cheese in the vicinity?

The author of a recently published book on the Minitel held an event in a hotel bar/café in New York. Three Minitels sat on a coffee table, available for public use. One appeared to be off, but the author explained to me that there was no backlight in the machine and therefore the screen was not visible in the dim light of the hotel lobby. He had asked hotel staff to bring a lamp, which they were now in search of. A young man sat in front of one of the other Minitels, whose chat feature appeared to be working, as my friend and I saw text appear on the third Minitel in front of us. She and I tried to type a response, but every time we hit “envoi” (“send”), the machine rebooted.

After the young man left momentarily, I moved to the working Minitel. With a lamp now shining on the previously dark Minitel, my friend and I were able to write to each other in the chatroom. What was funny is that users were displayed in numbered order of their arrival to the chatroom with what they had typed beneath their name, and the order didn’t change. Therefore, you might see a conversation that appeared thus:

  1. Michel:
    I’m fine.
  2. Jeanne:
    How are you?

If you were more than two people and looked away from the screen for a moment, when you returned it would not be obvious in what order you should read the conversation.

At one point, at the top of the screen appeared, “Les préservatifs préservent de tout, sauf de l’amour.” It seemed funny to see that all of a sudden since it was unrelated to what was on the screen, but the former co-founder and coder of the site Minitel rose 3615 SM who was present explained to me that it was a message from the French government. The Minitel was invented in the 80s, when AIDS was a huge issue, so they included public announcements to promote protection.

There were seven options on the home screen, which included chat, games, humeur, and annonces, but only the chatroom and games seemed to work.

The keyboard was interesting—it had all the letters and numbers and some punctuation options, but I couldn’t find an exclamation point.

The Minitels kept malfunctioning, which was all part of the experience, in my opinion. The organizers of the event were a bit dismayed and would come around and try to fix them, but my friend and I thought it was hilarious. This is why I invite her to weird happenings like this—she is a good sport.

What amazed me is that the Minitel was only officially shut down in 2012. The telephone provider France Télécom no longer wanted to support it. My question was, who was still using the Minitel in 2012?

The coder told me that up till then, there were farmers who checked prices on it and elderly people who used it.

Hunched over the Minitel and typing “Ce truc est marrant,” I thought, my life is weird and wonderful.

The next day, a French friend who is in his mid-40s told me during a phone chat that even he had never used one. He was a kid when his parents had a Minitel at their house. It tickled me to tell him I had spent the previous evening tinkering with this French throwback.

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The guys around me who chose the user names had some kind of sense of humor

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Pas de panique

In the past month:

– I was on the subway on the way to work, and when I got on, it smelled like smoke. I only had four stops to go, and at every stop I wondered if something was wrong. At the third station, with only one station to my destination, we finally stopped for longer than usual. I stepped out of the train, and upon standing further back, I saw that it was smoking out the top. None of the other cars were. Eventually, a subway employee announced that the train wouldn’t be running further and that all passengers should get off and take another train. There was no urgency to the announcement. I checked the local news and the subway web site later but didn’t find anything of note.

– I was walking outside after work, and I suddenly heard a ‘boom’ and halfway down the block, then saw a big burst of flames. I stopped where I was, unsure what had happened, if anyone was hurt, and if I should go around the other block in order to get to the subway. I observed the people who were across the street from the fire was in order to observe whether they were moving away or continuing on their way. At first, people had stopped, but then I saw that they were continuing on, which told me that they didn’t deem that there was danger. So I crossed over to that side, and as I passed where the flames had been, I saw a work truck. The small explosion must have happened on that truck, but what was odd is that the workers didn’t seem panicked. I don’t know whether they had quickly extinguished the fire or if something else had happened. Anyone walking by at that moment wouldn’t have known that there had been a tall fire five minutes earlier. A few minutes later, from down in the subway station, I heard a siren and wondered if it was coming to check on the situation, but it could have been heading elsewhere.

– During my morning commute, my bus broke down on the highway. The driver was able to slowly drive it over to a middle strip of grass. He radioed out to his fellow buses, and within ten minutes another bus pulled up to accept the passengers it could, i.e. the first nine in the front seats of the bus, which included me. I’m sure the rest were picked up by other express buses soon after. It was amazing how little the incident affected our commute.

It’s weird how much goes on around us and how quickly we can move on if we’re lucky.

Call Me Old-Fashioned

This week an acquaintance called me a throwback. I think I will adopt this moniker.

My mom calls herself a dinosaur because she doesn’t know how to use technology (which is not really true. She discovered search engines recently. And when texting was new to our family over ten years ago, she figured out how to type the upside down exclamation mark used in Spanish faster than any of us. Her texts are well-written, correctly punctuated, and rarely contain typos. She takes and sends pictures with her phone).

I wouldn’t call myself a dinosaur. I can speak knowledgeably about technology, social media, and popular apps. I’m surrounded by people who use them, and I read articles and listen to podcasts about latest trends. I can talk about a range of online dating apps as if I’ve tried them. Social media is even one of my responsibilities at work. But when my acquaintance called me a throwback, I readily acknowledged its verity:

– My cell phone isn’t a smartphone.
– I borrow books from the library.
– I write postcards, cards, and letters.
– I don’t have Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat.
– I take pictures on my digital camera.
– I write my rendez-vous in my planner.
– Gmail isn’t my primary email provider.
– Oh yeah, I still use email.

While the majority of my peers aren’t to that extent, thankfully I still have my share of friends who use AOL addresses and have Paypal instead of Venmo. And I do have friends younger than me who use planners rather than syncing everything in the cloud. Postcards still arrive in my mailbox—once in a while.

My acquaintance’s comment was actually prompted by his observation that I wear a watch. A lot of people now wear Fitbits or check the time on their phone.

I wouldn’t say that I’m proud to be using a basic phone or wearing a watch; this is just normal life for me. It’s other people (even strangers!) who comment on it. One time I was sitting at a table in Bryant Park, and a man walking by said, “Be careful, someone might steal your phone!” The joke being, I suppose, that no one would steal it.

On the other hand, I must admit that my two college friends and I probably get too much pleasure from not having Venmo.

It’s funny how something is considered normal if everyone else is doing it, yet quirky if you’re in the minority.

A Waste of Time

Recently I heard a conversation that made me think, Aaggghhhh.

Man to woman as they both came out of the subway station: “Tests are set up for you to fail. That’s why studying for it is a waste of time.”

Woman: “Not if it’s something I want to do.”

She changed the subject and said she was tired, and he tried to get her to go to Starbucks with him.

I thought, at least she sounded resolute. But I hope she has other people around her who encourage her and motivate her. Who is this guy, and why is she spending time with him?

I had written down their conversation on a scrap of paper, as I sometimes do when I see or hear something that strikes me. I realized that while my parents would not have made all the choices I’ve made, they never told me I couldn’t do something. People around me didn’t actively discourage from pursuing my goals (or if they did, I didn’t hear them).

A few days later, I came across my note, which I happened to be using as a bookmark in the latest book I was reading, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem should acknowledge that.

How easy it is to believe certain false ideas if it’s all you hear. People who care about you should want you to succeed.

Maybe the guy I overheard puts down everyone around him, not only women. In any case, clearly he’s not someone who strives or works hard to go farther and thus belittled this woman’s efforts instead of being motivated by her ambition. I hope she finds better company.

Nature’s Sparkles

A few months ago a friend and I went to the Museum of the City of New York, which is on the northeast edge of the vast Central Park. Since I was early, I took my time walking through the park to the museum. It was cold—cold enough that there was still ice on the lake. Part of it had melted to create these shapes of water with sparkling edges from the bright sun. I realized that whomever invented glitter must have taken his or her inspiration from nature.

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I came across a garden that I don’t remember having visited before—the Conservatory Garden. It was bare, but I could see how regal and beautiful it must be in the springtime. Time to go back. And the gate to enter it was surprising, almost random next to the New York city street, yet I can see how it matched the garden.

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Right next to the museum was this tree. Do you have yarnbombing where you live?

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The foyer of the museum was cool.

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We visited the exhibit on Martin Luther King, Jr., which was a small gallery but jam-packed with interesting photos and captions. It brought up conversation about what’s going on today.

The exhibit “Mod New York” featured over seventy outfits from the 1960s. It was groovy.

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Lastly, we looked at a room of items about the history of ice skating, fitting since the last time we were in this neighborhood together was when we went ice skating in Central Park last year, on what must have been the last weekend one could skate outside—the rink was covered with a layer of water. Obviously it was much warmer than today.

I like museums and have spent a lot of time in New York, and still sometimes a museum that is new to me will come up on my radar, like the Museum of the City of New York. Many times, I discover a place and love it and think, So this has always been here.

After, we took the subway down to the East Village where she got a bite to eat and I bought a hot chocolate from next door to bring over and sip while she ate and we talked.

Our next stop was a café where she bought two macarons and I got a doughnut. There was no seating, and it was too cold outside to linger, so we went to another café, where she got a drink and we sat and chatted some more over our sweets.

When the weather is beautiful outside, sometimes I forget what I ever did during the cold months. Here’s one example—hopping from place to place on a Saturday afternoon into the evening.

Staying Sweet

Today I was thinking about how easy it could be to become cynical. I think I tend towards a positive outlook here, but that doesn’t mean I see the world as rosy. I see that people around me are in pain, and I think about it. People have experienced struggles and somehow continue.

In the past few days I heard and saw on the subway:

– 3 young gay guys, maybe teenagers, talking about their past drug use and how they started. Two of them said that their boyfriends at the time, who were seven to nine years older than them, introduced them to cocaine. The three friends agreed that they might have been offered drugs, but it was their choice to take it, and they could have said no. One of them referenced the “Shame on you, shame on me” quote, saying that the first time, shame on the other person, but the second, third, fourth, and fifth times, shame on you. I was struck by how young they were and yet how they had been through things and come out the other side already. Kind of heartening. I also thought about how great it was that they could talk about their experiences with each other and reflect on them. They may have had bad influences, but they are good influences on each other.

– An adult man telling a woman who was a bit older than him that his first memory of his dad was his dad throwing his mom on the kitchen floor. As their conversation continued, the woman told him about how her brother was committed to the state. I just thought, geez, everyone has something! We just don’t talk about it with everyone.

– Heavily armed police with black helmets in the station, and not far from them, a young Asian man singing and playing peaceful songs on his guitar with a handwritten sign in front of him that read, “Music is my passion.” He is there often, and I find his presence encouraging for multiple reasons—he is a young person pursuing his dream; he is an Asian person performing in public, a public that is not exposed to enough Asian artists; and his music is nice. As for the police, there are usually police in this main subway and bus station, but not outfitted in such gear. I wondered if it had to do with…

– A white powder scare in the bus station the other day. I arrived at the station in the morning, and a large area leading to the main exit was blocked off with yellow caution tape and four military men standing in a line. (Military personnel are usually present, but they always stand on the side.) I later learned that an unknown substance found in the station was the reason for the investigation. The powder was a cleaning agent, non-hazardous.

This is life. This is a normal day.

“J’ai tant d’admiration pour ceux qui se relèvent. …la plupart des hommes et des femmes que je croisais dans la rue me semblaient admirables… je ne les connaissais pas mais je devinais en eux des blessures, une fatigue, des failles qui me bouleversaient. Leur capacité de résistance m’épatait… »
– Olivier Adam, Le cœur régulier

This morning I was thinking about how in spite of all this, I am glad I am not cynical. I hope it never happens. You get older, you get hurt, you see how awful people can act. It will happen again and again. Yet I believe most people are good and are trying their best. They’re also utterly surprising in the best way.

“Norm!”

Recently a friend in New York City told me that for ten years, almost every Friday night she would have mussels, raw oysters, strawberries, and champagne at the same restaurant. That was thirty years ago.

It sounded like the kind of ritual the word ‘fabulous’ was invented for.

I’ve always liked the idea of being a regular at a place, but there are only a couple of times I’ve had that experience, usually associated with activity groups that meet at the same bar weekly. Food-wise, I love variety and so don’t frequent the same place every week. Same goes for ambiance—during lunch I sit at different spots in the park.

But I remember, one evening, walking into the bar in Paris that my fellow volunteers and I gathered at every week after serving meals outside, and the bartender said to me, “Thé au vert?” It felt like I had arrived.

We just want to be known, don’t we?

What Up

When I take a walk during my lunch break, in the span of two minutes I might see:
– painted people holding hands
– an old-timey clock inserted in a corner
– a rooftop garden

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I’ve been looking up since childhood. Nowadays, mostly only at night, when I look up at the moon and stars on my way home or out and about, but once in a I while  remember during the day too. Highly recommended.

We Celebrate the Liquefaction of San Gennaro’s Blood with Zeppoles

How do you fit a Ferris wheel into a tiny city street? Ask a New Yorker.

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As you can tell, I post out of chronological order, hence this photo of a summer festival. Recently it has been below freezing here (and don’t get me started about how we didn’t have heat for a couple of weeks at work), so I might as well dream of warm days strolling through the city.

I read about the San Gennaro festival a few years ago. It’s quite a fascinating story—San Gennaro, or Saint Januarius, is the patron saint of Naples, Italy. Legend has it that his blood, kept as a relic in the Naples Cathedral, liquefies three times a year. I know, right!?

I grew up in parts of New Jersey that had a lot of Italian immigrants and their American-born kids and grandkids, so I’ve been to my fair share of Italian-American festivals with my family. If you’ve never been to one, it’s stands of zeppoles and Italian sausage and pepper subs, games like knocking down objects to win stuffed animals, and rides like the Ferris wheel and rotating teacups. It’s people walking around in their shorts. Festivals are usually organized by local Catholic churches, but they’re open to everyone.

For almost 90 years New York’s Little Italy neighborhood has held an annual festival in September, at the end of summer and around the date of San Gennaro’s feast day, September 19th. A friend suggested we check it out. The atmosphere was the same as the Italian festivals I had been to in northern New Jersey—lights, groups of people, the smell of fried food—but I couldn’t believe how huge it was. We walked down street after street of stands and kept turning corners expecting it to be done, but there was more in all directions. Most of the stands were food or goods. I was delighted and surprised to come upon one selling cute dresses with prints. There was no fitting room, and the seller said someone had just stolen his mirror the day before, so I tried on a short-sleeved dress over the dress I was wearing and skedaddled away with it (after paying, of course). No fitting room and no mirror, but I could pay via credit card and have the receipt emailed to me.

When we came upon the Ferris wheel, I couldn’t believe someone had the idea to jam it into the little Little Italy street. It made me think of the city citrouilles. Ferris wheel or bust.

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