Small Thrills

Recently I realized that I have become comfortable being uncomfortable. Sometimes I am socially fluid; other times, not. But I usually don’t let the possibility of being uncomfortable prevent me from doing something. If anything, I am glad that there are still new frontiers to cross.

I am not someone who seeks thrills in roller coasters or skydivers; these everyday encounters outside my comfort zone are what send a tingle to my soul.

I wonder if I gained an ease with not understanding what’s going on from living in a country where the language was not my native tongue.

Earlier this year, a friend invited me to join her and her friend at a concert by a Ukrainian pianist. I hear “piano concert” and I go.

I arrived about an hour early after having spent hours at my friend’s Galentine’s Day party in Brooklyn. It was cold outside, so luckily there was a nice waiting space inside the cultural center where the concert was to take place. I munched on the bagel and homemade chocolate doughnut with heart sprinkles from the party.

My friend and her friend showed up, and we chatted a bit before finding seats. It turned out that the concert was a performance of old American songs, some little known and others recognizable. In between pieces, the American singer and the Ukrainian pianist explained the background of the songs and the influence between the United States and Europe over that time period.

Afterward, we stayed for the little reception. The reason my friend’s friend had heard about this concert is that her daughter had gone to the same music school as the pianist. She is Russian, and my friend is Kazakh and speaks Russian (in addition to Kazakh and French). Within a few minutes, I realized that almost everyone attending the small recital spoke Russian. I stood with four or five people as they conversed. My friend didn’t say much but clearly understood everything, and once in a while she’d translate for me. Being in that environment kind of tickled me since it was such a surprise. Saturday night with a bunch of Russian speakers after an intimate concert of American songs—why not? I love these kind of “random” events. It felt so cultural, and maybe even more special to be an outsider—that is to say, not typically part of this community. In another way, I did not have the impression of being an outsider at all—I felt that I belonged there.

DSC03204

Advertisements

Year of the Pig

The Lunar New Year began earlier this month, on February 5. I sometimes mention it in conversation leading up to the day, which leads people to ask how I celebrate. In recent years, I don’t have a particular “big” tradition. Instead it’s the “little” practices that I observe—wear red, eat three meals, have long noodles, don’t cut your hair, don’t clean (that should be done the day before), and other dos and don’ts. This is all to attract good luck and avoid bad luck in the coming year.

My paternal relatives in China get together for a large, multigenerational gathering at their regular restaurant to celebrate the Spring Festival, as they call it. It’s quite a different experience here; my immediate family doesn’t have relatives nearby, and my parents separated some years ago. So every year is different.

A couple of years ago, a friend who is from the same region my family is from (the Fujian province in southeastern China) organized a weekend meal in Chinatown with some of her French friends and me. It was nice being with her because she knew what to order.

Last year, my colleague and I had dinner in Chinatown and then dessert at a new place with piled-high Instagram-able desserts. Bright streamers littered the streets.

DSC01907DSC01908
DSC01909

The weekend after, two friends and I attempted to see the parade in Chinatown, which was extremely crowded (I wouldn’t seek it out again unless I knew of a good spot where there was breathing room), then had lunch before they went off to watch “Black Panther” and I took the subway to the Flatiron District to meet two French friends who were visiting New York City.

This year, I had dinner with my dad the day of and lunch with my mom the Sunday after. In between, I suggested to a date that we visit the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown and have dim sum afterward.

Every year, at least one person in my family (nowadays half the time it is me) seeks out tikoy, a sticky dessert that is called many different names depending on what Chinese dialect you speak. And tikoy isn’t a Chinese word, actually, though it comes from one—it’s what people in the Philippines call it. We only know of one bakery in Chinatown New York that makes it the way we like it. To prepare it, we take it out of the round aluminum pan, slice it, dip each piece in egg, and fry them. When heated, they become gooey with a slightly crispy outside.

I guess I—no, we—celebrate Chinese New Year more than I thought.

George Nakashima Woodworking Studio

I was looking through some old books at home and found a paperback collection of American poetry for students. There were a few poems that spoke to me, including:

I May, I Might, I Must

By Marianne Moore

If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across if I try.

Earlier this year a friend and I visited the George Nakashima furniture studio complex in New Hope, which is literally the first town we entered in Pennsylvania when coming from New Jersey. We had invited a couple of others along, but it ended up being the two of us, a nice girls’ trip. She picked me up in the morning, and we drove along highways and across the Delaware River to arrive at the peaceful grounds.

Funnily enough, only a week or so before I had become aware of Nakashima (1905-90), whose low, wooden table and wide-seated chairs were on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. My museum date had wanted to show me them at the Arts of Japan temporary exhibit before it closed. We sat around the table with other visitors. I found the hidden wall label that spoke about Nakashima’s intention to honor the tree.

Now I was seeing the distinctive wooden bow on chairs in his studio miles from the city. My friend and I wandered around the finishing department, the chair shop, and the showroom; took a peek into the main shop; and lingered by a small pond surrounded by a structure that made me feel like we were in Japan.

While my friend and I love nature, we don’t possess the instincts of country girls—at one point, I thought that an alarm was going off and tried to figure out where it was coming from. Then I realized it was the sound of… frogs.

It so happened that a Pride festival was going on in New Hope. We drove on the main street decorated with rainbow flags and found an Irish restaurant for lunch. After, we popped in a few boutiques and a coffee and doughnut shop before driving back.

I’ve mentioned the woodworking studio to friends, and no one has known about it. It was an easy, relaxing getaway for a few hours.

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.

DSC00628DSC00629DSC00630

DSC00637

DSC00640

Frenchies in New York

My first year in Paris, I had a group of American girl friends. We had dinner at each other’s apartments every Tuesday and shared ups and downs and a ton of fun in the city. Amazingly, years later, we keep in touch online and see each other when we can, sometimes in our respective cities and sometimes in a different country altogether. I was one friend’s conference spouse in Liège, Belgium and we made a side trip to Aachen, Germany after. Another girl saw the other during a long stopover in New York. Three got together in Greece. Once, four of us managed to reunite for a weekday lunch in New York.

This week a friend from the group forwarded us an email thread from over four years ago. I didn’t understand half the references we made in them (I would say you had to be there, but I was…), and there was some embarrassing stuff that reminded me why I should save some stories for oral telling and my diary. The excerpt below, however, is appropriate for sharing with you. I wrote it after spending a summer day with a friend and her boyfriend and their three friends, all Frenchies.

Today I hung out with French people visiting NY, and here were their observations:
No one smokes.
There are a lot of ads for storage space.
It is shocking that at a bar the server takes one person’s credit card to open a tab and doesn’t give it back till the end.
It is surprising that they could wear shorts to go to a fancy rooftop bar. (Most of the people at the bar were dressed up, but my friends were in shorts.)
It is freakin’ humid.
The subway stations are HOT.
They were surprised at how many people were wearing warm clothing like jeans and boots when it’s so warm today. (This really amused me, because this is what we always say about the French.)
The Nespresso boutique doesn’t have George Clooney’s face.

Two other things that happened that day:

My friend and I agreed to meet on Broadway in Soho. On the phone, I described to her where I was and couldn’t understand why she didn’t see the same stores. Turns out she didn’t realize that the little ‘W’ on the Broadway street sign she was looking at meant that she was on West Broadway, a different, but nearby street. And yes, it is confusing.

The six of us went to a rooftop bar, the first they had ever been to. We sat down and looked at the view of the city. One of the guys said he would go up to the bar to ask if we should order there or if we would be served at our table. He came back, a baffled look on his face. “According to the sign, you have to be a group of 21 to be served,” he said. That’s strange, I thought, until I started laughing. “Must be 21 to be served means you have to be at least 21 years old,” I explained. Understandably, this meaning wouldn’t necessarily occur to someone who is from a country where the drinking age is 18.

Snowshoeing without Snowshoes

I skipped out of work a couple of hours early (having worked late several evenings this month) and hopped on the Metro-North train to visit a friend who got married last summer. A few weeks prior, I was sitting in a restaurant next to three young women, one of whom was espousing the line to her two friends: “The Metro-North is the way to travel. It is like, so sweet.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does tend to be on time (great if you’re early, out of luck if you’re running late).

My friend and her husband picked me up from the train station in New Haven, Connecticut. Along for the ride was their big Doberman puppy, who jumped all over me as soon as I got in the back. She alternated between being very conspicuous—bounding on me and chewing the crocheted lanyard on my bag—and almost invisible, as she is black as that Friday night.

In their town about half an hour’s drive away, they had left their door unlocked for the other friend who would be joining us for the weekend and had arrived shortly before. We certainly weren’t in Kansas anywhere—or maybe we were closer to Kansas? In the Jersey suburb where I’m from, we wouldn’t leave the door unlocked if we weren’t home.

Here were wide open spaces. A long, wide driveway leading up the house. Peaceful, snowy trees out back. Birds flitting around a feeder on the deck. A kitchen that could fit two, perhaps three Parisian studios.

The weekend was a lovely one, with a BIG pancake (to quote the menu), laughter and talks, the making of not one but two cakes, music and movies, cuddling with the two dogs, and a hike up snowy hills and along a frozen reservoir.

In Paris I used to visit a friend in Marseille every few months. Since coming back to the States, I’ve done the same with my friend in Connecticut. The Metro-North is not quite the same as the TGV, but it’s still “like, so sweet” since it takes me to scattered parts of my heart.dsc00223dsc00224dsc00226dsc00229dsc00234dsc00235dsc00237dsc00240dsc00242

Oh Snap

Today I had lunch with a colleague who graduated from college last spring. When our appetizers arrived, she asked, “Should we wait till the entrees come to snap everything together or start eating now?”

I didn’t hear exactly what she had said and thought she was asking if we should snack on the appetizers or wait to eat everything together. Whatever the actual question, I knew my answer was that I wanted to start eating; hadn’t we both just said we were hungry?

A moment later, I realized she had actually been asking if we should wait so that we could take a picture of all our food to post on Snapchat, the app that’s all the rage among teens and early twenty-somethings.

This could have made me feel the significance of the seven years between us, but truth be told, I know that even if I were her age, I would never have considered waiting to eat my spring rolls. I do take photos of my food sometimes, but as it comes and not to show my friends. I can think of a few reasons I wouldn’t have started eating immediately (if my food had arrived and hers hadn’t, if she was in the restroom while they came, if one of our orders was wrong), and none of them include an app.

I acted as if her question was normal, but I was really thinking, “Are you serious??” I still wonder if there’s a possibility she was half-joking. Hot spring rolls! Hunger! No one except us cares what we’re eating!

Even when I was that age and up on all the trends, I didn’t feel inclined to follow them. The difference is that now I can use my age as an excuse!

Three Tuesdays

Today I was sitting in a café, looking out the window at the rain in the city where “our” President-elect currently resides. It was my second time in this café; the first was three weeks ago. Staring at the old-timey barber shop across the street without seeing it, I remembered what I was doing here on that equally gloomy, rainy day. I was scribbling thoughts on the back of a metro newspaper, thoughts that had been tumbling around in my head since the previous night. It was only twelve hours after I had woken up in the middle of the night to see Trump on TV.

“11/9/16 Last night I fell asleep around 1am and left the TV on. I woke up at 2:56am and saw on TV, “Clinton calls Trump to concede.” At first I thought that meant she called on him to concede. [The latter part of the night, it was “too close to call,” “too close to call,” “too close to call”… had she won, he was contesting it and therefore she was calling on him to concede?] Then it sank in that he had won. He started giving his victory speech, and I started crying. I cried for what it meant. Our country’s citizens had elected someone who denigrated women, minorities, and vulnerable groups. I thought, “I am not represented by him.” … On my commute to work this morning, thinking about it made me tear up. He didn’t force his way in. People voted for him. I cried when Clinton finally gave her concession speech around 11:50am today. … We’re a nation of immigrants and diversity and supposedly progress. What is going to all the progress we have made? … And half the country is happy about Trump’s election.”

In the following days, not a day went by where the topic of the election results didn’t come up with friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances. If there is one good thing about this horrendous election, it is that it has spurred those who are normally apolitical to search for ways to take action for causes they believe in.

Even if complacency started to settle in, one would quickly be reminded of what is going on as a resident of this region. The other Friday, I heard that there were traffic delays of an hour between New Jersey and New York due to the Lincoln Tunnel being closed. This was the first time I had heard of the tunnel being closed; there are three tubes with two lanes each. There are times when one lane or one tube is closed due to a car accident or a suspended bus, but for the whole tunnel to close in both directions something must be up. I later found out that Trump was on his way from New York to New Jersey… to go to his golf course… at rush hour.

In case you’re wondering, most of us are not proud that he’s from here.

Love, Actually

I know I’m not the only one who feels like the world is going down the tubes. I can’t even keep up with all the bad news. Pain and violence rule the news, and it’s not sensationalism, it’s what’s really happening.

In spite of it all, I’ve had some happy events in my own life in the past couple of months, and I hope you have too. To celebrate a recent achievement, I ventured out into the summer heat to treat myself to a bottle of perfume I have had my eye on for a while (i.e. years). It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have money in the bank to purchase it. It’s just not in my habit to buy luxury items. Plane tickets are different—I expect them to be expensive and have naturally incorporated travel into the purchases that I consider “essential.”

As I stood in front of the counter at Jo Malone and watched the employee pull a long piece of ribbon from a roll and snip it to tie up the classy cream and black box, I was reminded of the scene in “Love Actually” where Alan Rickman agitatedly watches Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) take eons to wrap up an expensive piece of jewelry. After placing it in a box and tying it up in ribbon, he puts it in a clear bag, bends down to scoop up small roses from the drawer behind the counter and drop them into the bag with a flourish (twice), adds some lavender sprigs, and crushes some of the lavender over the whole mix. The final touch is a cinnamon stick. Well, almost final. When Atkinson takes out a big “Christmas box” to place the whole thing in and puts on a yellow glove to prepare the holly, Rickman flips out and rushes away, having to get back to his wife who cannot find out about this gift not meant for her.

Unlike Rickman’s character, though, I thoroughly enjoyed the wrapping process, as the perfume was not meant for a secret lover, but for myself. Nothing like celebrating guilt-free.

On my walk to the boutique, I chose a path that would lead me by Stonewall Inn, which two weeks prior President Obama had designated a new national monument after the shootings in Orlando. There were police officers standing across the street—more than usual—and people sitting the small, quiet intersection park nearby.

101_0954101_0955101_0956

A block or two away, a billboard above an old-fashioned storefront promoted a message of harmony and diversity. What a simple concept that seems so hard to practice universally.

101_0959