Nirvana

Lunchtime in the park in Manhattan. On the next bench over from me, a man sits and chats with his friend who has rolled up and parked her wheelchair next to him. I’ve seen her in the park before; she has some kind of handwritten sign affixed to her chair. They seem to be regulars who linger in the park without anywhere to rush back to. A girl comes by and greets them. She is a student, perhaps in college. I wonder how they know each other. They talk about her classes a bit. In the course of their conversation, she mentions Nirvana.

Man: Nirvana? Is that a white girl? She won a Grammy, right?
Girl: It’s a band.
Man: It’s a band? It sounds like a girl’s name.
Woman: You’re thinking of Rihanna.

An old man approaches. I scoot over a bit to make room for him. He obviously knows the rest of the group, but they merely tolerate him. He is very drunk and has a small bottle of alcohol with him. His manner is subdued, not raging, though he’s definitely out of it. He tries to talk to me about his travels during his time in the service and his anxiety these days, but he has trouble completing his sentences, so his thoughts taper off as quickly as they begin. However unfinished, his brief mumblings reveal more in a flash than decades of greeting a distant neighbor or colleague in passing.

People in the park.

Advertisements

Finishing Touches

101_1080

To me the weirdest part about this scene was not that a petite man was painted green, solely covered by a loincloth, and about to climb on a pedestal, but that he was painting himself in public. Wouldn’t a professional have come out fully painted and ready to pose?

Am I jaded? No, even though I was not surprised to see a little green man, I was not too blasé to take a picture.

Am I too demanding? Maybe…

The Cloisters

Earlier this summer, a friend was in New York for a business trip, and I jumped on the chance to hang out with her. She came up a day early on a sunny, hot Sunday. We agreed to meet at her hotel with another college friend.

First to arrive, I sat in the snazzy hotel lobby. A bit later, I received a text from my friend saying that she had arrived and how about we meet in ten minutes? I looked up and saw her checking in at the reception desk. Not wanting to scare her or interrupt her conversation with the receptionist, I creepily stood behind her at the distance you’d stand behind the customer at a post office counter when you’re next in line (in the U.S. I mean… in France mosey on right up behind that stranger).

We went up to put her bag in her hotel room, which to her surprise was stylishly decorated but did not feature a desk. Considering she was there for work and would need to use her laptop several hours a day, she called reception to inquire about it. They responded that she hadn’t requested one. We were baffled. Even in low-cost motel rooms, I have always seen a bed and a table.

Our friend joined us, and after a leisurely lunch and animated chat at a restaurant in the neighborhood, we took the subway up to the Cloisters, which is built from stone and materials from four French medieval abbeys. It contains art, objects, and tapestry from the Middle Ages. There was a surprising lack of signage leading to its location in Fort Tryon Park. We followed somewhat inclined paths surrounded by trees and plants before reaching the fortified structure. 101_1003

You may recognize “The Unicorn in Captivity” (1495–1505).

101_1020

You’ve probably never seen this guy, though. He is an aquamanile from Germany (ca. 1425-50), used for handwashing at the table.

101_1018

This stained glass window from the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Rouen (ca. 1200-10) depicts a scene from the Legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

101_1014

The gardens were lovely. 101_1009101_1010

There was an entertaining garden of plants grouped by use in medieval times: magic and ceremony, arts and crafts, brewing, medicine, vegetables and salads. Plants had funny names like wallflower, scarlet pimpernel, mandrake, common foxglove, catnip, and butcher’s broom.

101_1022101_1033101_1029101_1045101_1039101_1035

A couple of trees reminiscent of pipes or menorahs stood against a wall. 101_1050

Our visiting friend had chosen the perfect museum for her trip because she spent time looking at every object and artwork in the building. Meanwhile, our other friend and I sat in one of the peaceful gardens for a while after looking through the Cloisters until she joined us.

On our walk out of Fort Tryon Park, we took a different meandering path and found a small cave.

101_1055We topped off our day with dinner at an airy restaurant near our friend’s hotel. Old friends and the even older Cloisters, a delicious Sunday indeed.

Park Vignettes

I was sitting in a city park doing the metro newspaper crossword puzzle when three Asian girls approached my bench. One sat down to my right, while the other two stood to my left. I thought it was a bit strange since the seated girl still had space next to her for the other two to sit, but I looked up anyway to see if they were hoping I’d shift over. The girl seated next to me held up a half-finished Sudoku. She pointed to it, nodded her head, and said, “Yeaaah” while smiling a cheesy grin. I gave her the kind of tentative smile and wide-eyed glance you reserve for strangers who may be a little off their rocker. Odd, but okay, perhaps she wanted to celebrate our mutual success, however incomplete it was. She said, “Picture?” and gestured to her companion standing to my left. I turned and saw the friend’s camera phone pointed at us. I looked back to the girl who had spoken to me and asked, “Is this for a scavenger hunt?” “Huh?” she responded. They didn’t speak English. “For fun?” I tried again. “For fun,” she parroted, nodding, though it wasn’t clear that she actually understood what I had asked. Giving up, I did the only remaining thing to do– smile for the camera while we both held up our puzzles. They went away happily while I was left wondering what had just happened.

~ ~ ~

A week later, in the park again, I chose a shady bench to read my book. In spite of its position under a towering tree, the bench was spotless. I wasn’t reading for very long when I heard a splat. One foot away from my foot, there was a fresh splotch of bird poop. While slightly perturbed, I delighted at my luck to have avoided it. If I had sat just slightly to the right, I would have been running to wash my foot at that moment. I’m not naive, though, bird poop can come in a series. I ran my hand over my hair and, finding it untouched, again congratulated myself on my narrow escape.

Half an hour later, I was sitting at my desk, happened to look down, and what did I see but… bird poop near the bottom of my skirt. I ran to the bathroom and frantically grabbed paper towels and repeatedly scrubbed my skirt with soap and water. Satisfied, I returned to my office with a big water stain my skirt. No matter. I had planned to go see a colleague with a question, but it could wait half an hour while the water dissipated.

~ ~ ~

Sometimes even I marvel at my glamorous life.

Park Here

Recently I had a meandering afternoon with a friend that reminded me of some of my favorite days in Paris—not particular memories or people, but collectively, as I spent many a nice day meeting up with a companion and taking a long walk with pauses in between to sit or lie in a park. There was the luxurious sense of having time and not having to take the most efficient way to the next destination. Sometimes while experiencing those days I recognized them for the treasures they were and was grateful for the pleasure.

This past time, I was in Manhattan, sitting at the southeast corner of Central Park waiting for a friend around 5:30 pm while horses and carriages stood nearby and tourists hovered over maps. I had become acquainted with this friend last year. We had both arrived in the U.S. around the same time, the difference of course being that I was returning home to New Jersey after having lived in Paris, and he had just embarked on a year of travel from his home country of France (he is from Bourgogne and had been living in Montpellier). He had initially planned to stay in New York for three weeks and ended up staying double that, not wanting to leave. He eventually did go on to travel elsewhere in the U.S. before going back to France for a few months. Now he was back for another three months in New York.

He texted me to let me know that he had arrived across the street from Central Park. I found him sitting at the base of a statue, his skateboard in tow. He asked if I wanted to sit down for a while. Sure, I agreed, though I wondered why we wouldn’t just walk the few steps into the park and find a nice bench in there instead. He lit a cigarette and said, I can’t smoke in the park, can I?

Ohhh, I said, That’s right. I wouldn’t have even thought of that even though I knew smoking hasn’t been allowed in New York City parks for five years. That’s because none of your friends smoke, he said. This is true—most of my friends in the States don’t smoke. This was definitely not the case in France. I used to come home smelling of cigarette smoke from spending the evening with a smoker. Sometimes I would even delay washing my hair if I knew that night my clean and shampoo-scented cheveux was going to be cancelled out by second-hand smoke anyway.

As you can see my thoughts are as meandering as my day spent with my friend. We headed into Central Park and followed different paths around ponds and up and down paved slopes flanked by grass where birds and squirrels hopped. I was again reminded how amusing it is to hear a French person say ‘squirrel.’ It is a joy that I sadly forgot until this day that he stopped to take a picture of two écureuils. I brightly said, “What do you call that animal in English?”

We saw a ballerina near the Bethesda Terrace, watched boaters on the lake, and walked along the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. As the sun set, joggers and bikers were out in full force. 101_0176101_0178101_0180

We headed down into the 86th Street subway station. My friend realized that he had to refill his metro card. He only had cash and all of the machines were temporarily not accepting bills (though I can tell you this happens often). While he lined up to pay at the booth, I decided to test a function I don’t usually use at the machine even though I didn’t need to refill my card. A worker cleaning the station immediately came over and tried to help me, telling me how to refill my metro card. Oh my goodness, here I was, passing for a tourist! He asked me if I had studied Egypt. This seemed out of left field until I realized he was referring to my tote bag, which sported the image of an ancient Egyptian woman in profile. Oh, no, I replied, without going into how I won this bag as a child one summer for reading the most books at the Bookmobile my mother took us to. If you like Egypt you should go see the pyramids, he told me. This friendly Asian man, obviously a true New Yorker from his New York accent, reminded me why I like being a tourist, albeit a false one.

My friend and I got off at 42nd Street to walk west towards Bryant Park. As we passed Grand Central Station on foot, he said, “What’s this building?” “You’ve never been to Grand Central??” I asked. Somehow I had assumed that during his last stay in New York, which lasted a month and a half, he would have visited the iconic station. It was a reasonable supposition considering that he had done random things like go to an Irish music session I recommended to him and a barbecue restaurant in Brooklyn that another acquaintance had mentioned. 101_0181

We entered the central part of the station and soaked in the grand hall and humming atmosphere. He took pictures as he had all day.

Unexpected mission accomplished, we then continued on to Bryant Park, where the lawn had opened after weeks of being prohibited to the public in order to ready itself for the spring and summer. My friend oohed and aahed over how green and fluffy it looked. We lay down on it, and it was even softer and more luxurious than I had imagined. I don’t remember ever having felt such nice grass.

I later saw a blog post on Bryant Park’s web site announcing that the lawn had just opened that day at noon. We stretched out on it a mere nine hours later. No wonder it felt so new. I hope it will still be as soft next week.

Yorkshire

Sometimes when I walk through a city park, I think of the time I took an acquaintance to the Place des Vosges in Paris. She was from Yorkshire, England, visiting Paris for the first time on business, and I acted as her enthusiastic guide. Place des Vosges, located in the center of Paris, has grass, benches, and a fountain and is surrounded by old beautiful architecture. The day we went was beautiful and sunny, and many people lounged on the grass. “I love this park,” I told my new friend. She laughed, and not one to mince words, said, “You call this a park? It’s so small!” I was confused and remained so until a few months later, when I visited her in Yorkshire.

I stepped out of the airport in Leeds, England, where my friend awaited me with the little blue Mercedes convertible she drove for her employer. I had never ridden in a convertible and was thrilled as we zipped away to her village, our hair whipping around as we caught up during the hour-long drive.

Upon our arrival at her place, I noticed that her house was neither isolated nor crowded because she had neighbors directly on either side but vast space in front and behind her property. Her home was lovely. A red roof topped a brick structure that featured a perfectly-sized back garden and patio along with a small pond and nursery.

Approaching the back fence of her garden, my jaw dropped when I saw what seemed like endless miles of cornfields. They didn’t belong to her but ensured that this amazing view would not soon be obstructed by new buildings. I suddenly understood why she thought Places des Vosges was small. If only she knew how Parisians considered a tiny balcony prime real estate. When her two young adult daughters arrived at the house to join us for dinner, she laughed and remarked to them that I had taken photos of the cornfields.

100_6618

From my time with my friend and her family, I noticed that most of them had lived in Yorkshire all their lives and were happy there. She told me that all of her family lived close-by except for one of her daughters, who lived in Leeds. Leeds was only an hour’s drive away! Her considering that as far made me think about how I was an eight-hour plane ride from my own family and how my parents were halfway around the world from their families. I love traveling and feel lucky to have lived in different places, but I also thought about how nice it could be to be the type of person who is content staying put. Not to say that my friend and her family didn’t travel—they had all gone on vacation to different countries in Europe—but it was clear that none of them had that yearning to move somewhere else. 100_6626

My friend served a pitcher of the English alcoholic drink Pimm’s to which she had added slices of cucumber and fruit. We ate dinner outside at the table on the patio: my friend, her two daughters, one daughter’s fiancé, and the other daughter’s new beau, whom I only realized was a new boyfriend when my friend started questioning him conversationally. My friend’s husband worked long hours on the field and would not be home until later.

As darkness fell we all sat in the living room that was in an extension of the house covered with a glass roof and walls. It was interesting having the light on and night around us, being inside and outside at the same time. I remember a similarly warm and pleasant night when my friend and I had reverse roles; she was the visitor and I was the host. I took her to a restaurant in Montmartre and we ate French food at small round tables outside on a steep little street, other diners seated closely on both sides of us. How different an evening may be in different parts of the world.

On my first night in the English countryside, I was kept company by this boy, whose name is Paddy.

100_6628

Powdered Sugar

Last week there was a very, very light dusting of snow, perfect for a walk through the south side of Central Park on the way to Grand Central Station. You’ll notice a lot of buildings in the background because I stayed on the outskirts of the park rather than venturing further in. I was on my way to catch a train, but it was a no-brainer that a walk in the park would add to my day. 101_0022101_0024101_0025101_0026

I later saw this snowy bear, below whom someone had locked a bike and and intentionally or not, given a ride.101_0042.JPG

Pancakes in Small Spaces

Prior to our Amsterdam trip, I caught a horrible cold—or who knows what it was, but it involved a constant, conspicuous cough. My poor travel companion good naturedly put up with my hacking. I’ve been told I’m pleasant to travel with, and I tried this time, but his periodic attempts at humorous imitations of my cough were met with a withering glare. I now laugh when I come across one photo where I look miserable under a blue sky and a sunny bridge in the background. Fortunately, we still got to walk around the city and enjoy our experience. No late nights in the Red Light District, though. Rather, nighttime tea and cough drops in our quiet apartment.

During our second day, we strolled through a couple of markets selling food or gift items. One stand featured Amsterdam’s signature cheese. I did not know this round yella fella was considered a local specialty until we saw it everywhere.

152.amsterdam.a

A salesperson was rude to me as I decided whether to buy fluffy red slippers in the shape of Dutch clogs for my mom. Not sure why he thought that was a good idea, since he was selling items that could be bought for the same price elsewhere. That’s exactly what I did, of course: walk away and find a store with the identical product but better service.

We crossed more picturesque canals and streets lined with bikes.

I noticed right angles in boxy cars and panes of glass.

152.amsterdam.f152.amsterdam.g152.amsterdam.h

We lunched at a Dutch pancake restaurant found at the top of a steep staircase. I have no idea how they haul groceries and laundry up and down those narrow stairs. Amsterdam was full of staircases like these. Interior spaces were small, too. The apartment we rented was large enough for city living, but the bathroom was surprisingly tight. You could not leave the shower door open and the toilet lid up at the same time.

We took the city tram, which was clean and a good way to see different neighborhoods. You swipe your metro ticket to enter, and for unknown reasons, swipe to exit it as well, though it is not enforced.

We walked through a park and stretched out on the grass for a while. I was reminded of our nap along a dusty river bank in Florence the previous summer. Therein lies the benefit of traveling in warmer weather; when you need respite, you can seek out a patch of lawn to take a restful break.152.amsterdam.l

A bit refreshed, we went in search of Foodhallen, a food hall that a colleague had told me her friend in Amsterdam recommended.

We had some difficulty finding it, but after asking a couple of kindly people, we arrived and found… a dead quiet, practically empty space.152.amsterdam.m

I was surprised, especially since it was definitely still open according to the hours listed outside. As we walked through the hall, we saw doors on one side that displayed this sign.

152.amsterdam.n

Through the doors, another huge space opened up, this one bustling with all kinds of food stands lined up along walls surrounding tables and tables of people eating, drinking, and chatting on matching high wooden benches. What acoustics; how incredible that the main hall remained so silent when all this life was going on right adjacent to it.

We made a full tour of the offerings before selecting Vietnamese sandwiches and finding a table off to the side.

Post dinner, we took a walk and looked for a bus line that would take us back to the apartment. While waiting at the stop, I fished a cough drop out of my bag, threw out the used tissues accumulated in every pocket (a delightful detail you appreciate, I’m sure), looked at the blue evening sky, and felt lucky indeed.

152.amsterdam.q

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!