Night Lights

After my Spanish class last week, I walked through Herald Square on my way home. The temperature was freezing (literally), but I stopped and took in the scene. I crossed the street, then turned to look again and take a picture, then walked a few steps, then stopped one more time before continuing on my way. A passerby would have thought I was a tourist in New York for the first time or a resident New Yorker on her last night before moving to a new city. I’m neither, of course. I can walk here whenever I want, and I do, at least once a week after my class.

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I’ve passed through this touristy area many times, but for some reason the atmosphere of colored lights and city night reminded me of certain evenings near the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Some Monday nights, one or two British girl friends and I would meet at the same café for a slice of quiche or a hot chocolate. I’d walk there from work, when it was almost dusk, and by the time we emerged from our chats, it was nighttime. I’d turn the corner to walk to my bus stop, pass lit up commercial stores and theatres, and there would be the Opéra Garnier. Like Herald Square, it was a normally busy area that cleared out on cold nights but kept its buildings aglow.

I think I just realized why I like Hopper paintings. Or do I feel myself expand in these real life scenes because I like Hopper? Rhetorical questions. Words rarely encompass feelings.

I’m not as head in the clouds as my writing makes me out to be. Not all the time, anyway. If anything, my feet are firmly planted on the ground, looking at what’s around us.

Do you get those moments
in between all the running around and responsibilities and worries
too?

Graffiti

Sometimes when I see graffiti, I think of:

– The day one of best friends and I rented bikes and took them along the Canal Saint-Martin far out of Paris. This was before I signed up for the cost-effective annual Vélib subscription, so he and I were racking up a fee, but I think we’d both say it was worth it.

– Sitting along an isolated part of the canal on a warm day having a conversation with a Right Bank mec I knew. It started drizzling, and we skedaddled to find cover. Where did we go? A bar? Was that the day he taught me how to play pétanque? I don’t recall, but I remember the grinning cat graffiti across the water.

I guess there is a lot of graffiti along parts of the canal.

Somehow they hold for me pleasant memories of unrushed afternoons en français.

When I Said À Bientôt to Paris

Last year I said goodbye to the people I knew in Paris. I remember in the weeks leading up to my departure, people asked me how I felt, and I felt really fine because I had lived every moment during my time in France and it was my own choice to move back to the States. I already felt lucky to have soaked in every nighttime golden bridge, both with others and by myself. I had doubts about what the transition would be like since there were uncertainties in my immediate future, but I accepted that as a necessary part of changement.

My last night, as I parted with a friend across the street from Invalides after our ride on the bateaux mouches, I was confused by a sudden feeling of sickness that overcame me. I hadn’t eaten anything in the past few hours, so it wasn’t that kind of nausea. It wasn’t that I was hungry, either. I didn’t believe it was post-seasickness, if that is even a thing. It took a few minutes of me standing there and descending to walk a bit along the Seine in the direction of home to realize that my body was catching up to the knowledge that I was leaving and reacting in its own involuntary way. Perhaps I was fine in the weeks and hours prior and would be fine later that night, but I didn’t feel so in that moment.

During my stroll past the people enjoying the summertime air on the berges, a friend called me. We had already had our “goodbye for now” a couple of months prior since he lives in another part of France, so we didn’t have to have one now. He was just calling to see how it was going and to wish me off well. I was feeling better at that point and was further bolstered by his comforting and encouraging words.

The next day, a good friend came over to say goodbye before my SuperShuttle to the airport. We had meant to meet up the day before after an afternoon party I attended, but due to my usual lingering at events, by the time I headed to the bateaux mouches that friend was on his way to another get-together with his friends, and we missed each other.

Luck was on my side, because he offered to stop by my place midday before going to his office. Lucky because everyone else I knew was working since it was a Monday, but his schedule that day permitted him to come by. Lucky because we were then able to open a nice bottle of champagne that one of my bosses had given me and that I would have otherwise left behind. It went well with my last opéra pastry that I offered to split with him but that he declined, leaving me to eat the whole thing by myself (pas de souci).

Half an hour later, as I gazed out the window of the shuttle van during the ride to the airport, I was glad that we had sipped a little champagne. I have a low tolerance, so even the light bubbly made everything just hazy enough so that I didn’t think think think during this bonus tour of the city, but dreamily observed neighborhood after neighborhood, each containing memories made and absorbed into my being.

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.

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.