Posts Tagged ‘new york city’

What Gets Caught Between Paris and New York

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

A Picture of a Picture

I visited the shops at the Parc de Bercy in the rain in the spring, which is how I saw so much of Paris. Because of that, I tend to remember the city as an upside-down place, reflected most clearly in the streaky puddles on the street, green from the fallen buds.

My feet got wet that day.

I tend not to love the places in Paris that feel as though they’re somehow trying to be like New York. The Marais feels that way to me sometimes — a neat row of clean-lined boutiques with black-painted walls and half-empty shelves, impossibly sparse and chic but too much like SoHo, or the galleries on the West Side. France without arcs and curlicues is hardly France to me. I want to see a breath of Versailles, of the lavish, even if it’s done with no effort. I liked the old stuff in Paris better than the new. Or maybe the New York-ized Paris just made me homesick.

The shops at the Parc de Bercy are of this sort. Bright and glassed-in, and built into old stone storage warehouses, the shops capitalize on a modern idea — put new stuff in an old space, and leave the old space as unmarred as possible, so it can exude all of its original charm and character. It’s well done, but it’s boring.

I skipped the travel store and the soap store and the gift shops. There was nothing I wanted to buy. My sandals were soaked through. Plus, I could do the same thing in Chelsea Market — hell, in Faneuil Hall.

I ducked under a stone arch to get some shelter from the rain and lowered my umbrella. That’s when I saw it.

There was a photo exhibit on one wall — large-format, vertical black-and-whites, all of them rather moody and dark — of street scenes from New York. I stopped in front of one, aghast. The photo was of a prewar building in the West Village, the typical fire escapes clinging to the brick like spiders. The ground floor was occupied by a shop, a dry goods store that sells coffee. The barrels were clearly visible through the front windows.

The shop in the photo — and that prewar building — stood exactly two blocks from my apartment in New York. I passed by it every day, smelled the coffee, watched the patrons shuffle in and out on weekends. And there it was, in an art exhibit in Paris.

I took a picture of the picture. I could not resist. A thing to take back with me, to restore to its rightful place on a quiet tree-lined block. A block where there once passed a French girl with a camera, who aimed her lens, and thought, “This looks like Paris. Only more so and less so, and maybe not at all.”

Go there: Bercy Village, a patch of new shops in old buildings, is located at 28 Rue François Truffaut in Paris. To get there, take metro 14 to Cour Saint-Emillion.

The Delay

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Bedhead

In the airless terminal, we wait. We’ve hit a pocket of weather, the kind that lets the flights before ours and after ours take off on time. It’s the worst kind of delay, the kind that singles you out, that obliterates any chance of impromptu airport camaraderie. The nods to moms holding screaming babies are less than sympathetic.

The destination is Miami, which means that we’re all wearing in-between clothes, coats of the wrong weight for both where we are and where we’re going. We’ll swelter when we land, but for now, we freeze.

I buy a pair of fuzzy socks at Hudson News that don’t go with my shoes. Stuffed into them, my feet look like they belong to a polar bear, or like I have developed a skin disease. I don’t regret them, or the $10, for an instant, because they have bought me a few precious moments of comfort, one sensation that is not sticky or grimy or too dry or lit with pasty yellow florescents.

It’s not that we’re family or dear in other ways. We’re colleagues traveling to a work meeting. So it’s not like sleeping on a shoulder is an option. We read magazines. We watch as the life wane in our phone and laptop batteries. We don’t touch each other. We share few common stories, except for the ones that involve our day-to-day in the skyscraper, and no one wants to talk about those.

After four hours, I decide that I need to walk. Matt and Helen and I walk to Brookstone, to see what buzzing things can distract us for a precious few moments, can make the waiting bearable. Outside the store, something hovers in the air. Silent, none of us can take our eyes off it—a flat black disc as big as a pizza, floating four feet off the ground in the center of the corridor.

“What the hell is that?”

“A space ship.”

“I bet you can buy it at Brookstone.”

You can.

The Parrot A.R. Drone Quadricoptor uses gyroscopes to retain stability in flight. It has built-in wifi that allows it to be controlled using an iPhone, and onboard cameras stream video so you can play “augmented reality” games that make it look like there’s a military skirmish in your living room. It costs $300.

The store clerk who is using it when we pass by is a kid. The look of delight on this face is unmistakable.

There are ultralight suitcases and ergonomic pillows and digital cameras that are James Bond-like in their tininess and sleekness. The only thing I consider—a pair of socks made out of some kind of technologically-advanced chenille—is beyond my target price point.

We leave, unsure of whether we had real intentions of buying anything in the first place. The magazine store is a better bet.

The travel magazines are shoved in a back corner next to the art and photography magazines and the porn, all of it bagged up and blacked out for safety. I waver between Travel + Leisure and a magazine called Islands. Both have palm trees on their covers. The headlines, in canary yellow, promise secret paradise. I finally dismiss both and settle on a practical Budget Travel—although even that is awash in palm trees (Feature story: Hidden Caribbean). I choose another, Afar, that’s larger format and printed on beautiful matte paper and pimping a story about Barcelona. The Gaudis on the cover—wiggly as phantoms—say nothing about the actual story, which is about seafood, but I am hungry for elsewhere, for anything as tall and concrete and blowing in the open air as a palm tree.

Back at the gate, I read about a place called Eluthera, a word so beautiful that it almost tastes good to say it. Allison tells a story about going to Anguilla once, about a seaside mansion in a place that no one can get to.

I flip a page. I rub my fuzzy toes together, unconcerned at this point that my work colleagues are seeing me in my socks. They are also seeing my in-between self, the best and the worst of it, the time before leaving and before getting back.

The Sweet Stuff: Granita from Sicily to NYC

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Almond Granita at Grom

When I visited my family in Sicily last spring, I ate almost continuously for a week. In those six days, I forgot what it felt like to be hungry. This, I suppose, is the point of going to Sicily. I remember every meal I had there in almost freakish detail—a chive tied around a hard-boiled egg, the tiny, edible spines of fried sardines. At one point, my Uncle Turi said to me between bites of a pizza topped with artichoke hearts and prosciutto, “You realize, of course, that the best food in the world is in Italy and the best food in Italy is in Sicily.”

You know what? He was completely right. Of all the amazing meals I ate in every corner of Italy—and there were dozens of them, trust me—none were quite like the food in Sicily. None were so packed with flavor or so effortlessly and elegantly prepared, and this was both in restaurants and at home. They sent me back to Paris a solid five pounds heavier and I hardly cared. I refused nothing.

But my single favorite food in Sicily wasn’t something that was prepared at home. I had it at my cousin Graziella’s house, sitting at the kitchen table with her children, my cousins Gieuseppina, Rosetta, and Gieuseppe. In the morning, her husband got us a hugely special treat for breakfast—granita. I’d had granita lots of times growing up, starting with the homemade version my great-grandmother mixed in a baking pan in her freezer. There was also, at one point, an old Italian guy in a dingy convenience store in Lawrence, Massachusetts who sold it, too. I remember that granita, and it was good, but it was not quite the real thing. It was more like what Americans would call slush—more icy than not, and very sweet. My grandmother always said—still says—”It’s better in Sicily.” But then, she says this about everything. The granita that my cousin brought us that morning in Sicily was maybe the best sweet treat I’ve ever had. And for a girl who loves her macarons and her ricotta cannoli and fat slabs of New York City cheesecake, this is saying something.

It came in a styrofoam cup with a lid and with a brioche, a sweet bun that’s glazed and a bit sticky on the outside, and very soft on the inside. You’re technically supposed to put the granita on the brioche to eat it, but I think I had some coordination problems at that early hour and just sort of ate the two of them as time and space would allow. The granita itself was a beautiful balance of icy and creamy—and not too sweet. My favorite granita flavor—on both sides of the Atlantic, regardless of quality or authenticity—is almond. It’s the kind I always got as a kid. It’s the kind my great-grandmother made. It’s the flavor I requested in Sicily. For me, it’s almond or bust.

You can imagine how happy I was to find out that I can actually get granita—and a pretty good one at that—in New York City. It’s not perfect like the granita in Sicily, but it eases my cravings for not just the food itself, but for the comfort of having my family close, the lazy, sun-dappled beauty of that island. It’s at Grom, the amazing-and-jaw-droppingly-but-justifiably-expensive Florentine gelato parlor that set up in New York a few years ago. And again, it’s not perfect. The almonds are not as finely ground, so it’s a bit gritty, and it doesn’t have that blissful smoothness. But it’s flavor, its perfect sweetness—is so close. It’s close enough that I can drop in on a Saturday, drop my $6 on the counter, and be transported back, just for a minute, to that table with my family, the place where my heart lives.

Go there:

You can find Grom in major cities all over the world, including two locations in New York City and the original in Florence, Italy. I’ve been to all three of those. The granita costs about $6 and comes in almond, lemon, and coffee. The granita I had with my cousins was purchased somewhere in Biancavilla, Sicily. If you visit, I’m sure you could just ask someone for good granita and they’ll tell you. That is, if you can find anyone in Biancavilla who speaks English. Which you probably can’t.

The High Line: The Park Up There

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

High Line Park

Of all the design and public space projects to have gripped New York City since I moved here, few have gotten as much attention as the High Line. A park built on top of an abandoned strip of elevated rail line on the West Side, it had its own exhibit at MoMA when it was still in its design phases. And now it’s open. Well, a piece of it is open. A portion above 20th Street is still under construction and the unrestored line near 34th Street could still be demolished.

It is not the first park of its kind—the Promenade Plantee in Paris is similar (but more traditional in terms of approach) and others are now planned in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Seattle.

After a quick visit yesterday afternoon when the crowds were relatively thin and the sun was blaring, I have to say. It’s pretty awesome. The designers worked to incorporate the site’s original use—the rail line—into the design, so some of the original track is still present. The plantings are based on the foliage that grew naturally on top of the High Line after it was abandoned in the 1980s. There are places where the path melts into the garden, where it swings to the right or left and splits as a rail line would. There are vistas to admire the view and seating to catch rays or read a book. Maybe it won’t be like this on weekends when the crowds come and when the chic Meat Packing District and Chelsea hotels start putting lawn chairs on the perimeter, but on a Monday afternoon, the High Line was sunny and serene—an escape from the chaos below.

Go there:


The High Line is located on the West Side of Manhattan and runs from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street, with sections north of 20th opening on later dates. It’s open from 7am to 10pm. For more information, call (212) 500-6035.

NYC Outing: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site

(Sometimes I like to play tourist in my own city. I like playing tourist in my own city even better when it’s inexpensive to do so. This is a cheap, quick little New York City activity; it won’t kill your budget or your feet.)

If you’re a fan of history, fusty old house tours, or Victoriana, I think you’d really like this museum. Ditto if you like spending $3 for an afternoon of entertainment, because that’s how much it costs to get in. And if you’re a fan of Theodore Roosevelt, well, you’ve probably already been here.

The brownstone on 20th St. is a National Park and the rangers there are quick to tell you that it’s not the actual house where Theodore was born. That one was demolished in the 1920s, but the structure that now stands on that spot is accurate to the original plans and contains a significant amount of furniture and artifacts that were original to the Roosevelt family.

The presidential history is just fine—Theodore’s hunting trophies, the Rough Rider uniform, the bullet-hole-riddled shirt he wore during the assassination attempt are all on display—but the most interesting information concerns the day-to-day life of a family of means in New York City. The guides highlight everything from the politics of calling cards to the finer points of New York City brownstone architecture (which is based on the Amsterdam canal house), but the beautifully re-created rooms are the highlight. The powder-blue front parlor is gaudy-gorgeous and dusty in the corners, as though to remind visitors that front-parlor life (and not just the velvet curtains) is history itself.

The house can only be seen by guided tour, but there are lots of them. Check the web site for details.

Listening Underground

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

The 14 Arrives at Chatelet

In Paris. Every morning on the 13 to Montparnasse. Not every morning. Some mornings. I would sit or grip the pole and wonder about germs and the people would shove in and not move to the center. A man with his face in my hair, a hand on my book bag. And I had no language to tell him to stop. Or I did, but I would be so afraid to use it. I didn’t know how people said things. That’s what it means to really learn. To say things the way people say things. Not what’s in the book.

Once, a woman stood with a wriggling little girl, clawing over her shoulder, and I offered her my seat.

“Madame?”

That’s all I could say. I could say things about sitting, about the seat. (Or maybe the only word I knew was “chair.”) I could command her to sit, like a teacher yelling at a classroom of children. Please take my seat because you need it more than I do. That’s what I needed and didn’t have. But she smiled and I felt relieved.

One morning, my hair was wet. And I wanted to bang my head backwards against the scratched window and shout.

STOP. SPEAKING. FRENCH.

I’m sorry. I don’t understand. It’s driving me crazy to be so close to you and not to understand. I self-punished. You are a terrible student. You are old and can’t learn anything. Maybe your hearing is going. Because if you were really learning, you would be a part of this. You would be reading something other than Wuthering Heights on the 13 to Montparnasse.

And the Metro coughed me up at the foot of the ugliest skyscraper in the most beautiful city in the world, and the wind whipped across the concrete plaza while I fought tears and wanted to pound my fists into someone’s face. Please, just let me learn so I don’t have to be alone.

New York. Months later.

A French family stands by the door on the 2 train as though they are drawn from a picture book. The father, rotund and bearded in a fedora, directing traffic, watching the stops. The mother or maybe an aunt, bundled in a winter coat, in designer boots. And the little girl in enormous pink sneakers and a more fashionable haircut than I could hope for in my lifetime. She’s fair haired and her eyes are enormous and sparkling with such ferocity that she looks almost feverish. She recites the names of the stops as they fly past in her little-girl accent, high-pitched, wonderous. I can understand everything they say. Everything.

They know exactly where they need to go, have counted the stops and know the street layout where they’re headed. Disappointment, almost. As I recite in my head the things I could say like a game. Questions that never made it onto the test.

Do you need help?
Do you know where you’re going?
I speak, but only a little.

Six times, I hold my tongue. The French do not invite casual conversations with strangers. They read the map. The doors open. They move on.