Orelsan in New York

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About a year ago, on the very angsty eve of my 38th birthday, a song I had never heard before, but which was apparently a new French chart-topping hit, lifted me out of my malaise. It was called “La Pluie,” and Spotify fatefully served it up to me at the exact time when I needed it most. Buoyed by the words and the music, I listened to it about a hundred subsequent times while walking around Paris, which more often than not was fittingly rainy. By that point, I was just coming out of what had felt like a bottomless well of depression and anxiety. I was in the middle of battling a health issue that would require a hospital procedure to resolve. And I was staring down my persistent French underemployment, my dwindling bank account, and my lack of any clear direction. I was finally beginning to accept the inevitability of returning to the United States to become financially solvent and figure out what to do next.

“La Pluie” wasn’t responsible for my unexpected pivot from dread to beatific acceptance, but it was while listening to the song that I realized the change had already happened, and I felt a kind of aching serenity wash over me – sadness and hopefulness at the same time. Also silliness, because for French rap to inspire such profound feelings is ridiculous.

I went to see Orelsan at Irving Plaza in New York a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to revisit that absurdly intense period of my life and the emotions that – even though often highly unpleasant – had made me feel so alive.

I suppose I set myself up for disappointment. I should know by now it’s impossible to recapture the past, especially when you’re trying. Orelsan played “La Pluie” in the first half of the show, and it somehow didn’t hit the right notes, so the trip down memory lane I had wanted to take instead turned into five seconds of full-fledged emotion followed by another minute or two of trying unsuccessfully to force it to stick around.

The rest of the show I just took it all in without trying to make it something it was not. Yes, the place was filled with more French people than I have ever seen gathered in one place outside of France. But they did not make me feel the way I did in Paris. There, I felt like an outsider but in an intrepid and exhilarating way. At the show, I felt like an insider rendered an outsider by other outsiders who lost their caché outside of France. I don’t know how to adequately express it except to say that when Orelsan led the crowd in a call and response complete with a lot of ’90’s era hand waving, “Quand je dit Irveeng, vous dites Plahzah. Irveeng? Plahzah! Irveeng? Plahzuah!” I both smiled and flinched at the awkwardness of it all.

So it wasn’t a transcendent night, but it was still a lot of fun.

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Things that I forgot I love about New York

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Before returning to the city after two years away, I made a list of the things I was looking forward to. Several important items didn’t occur to me at the time, but now that I’ve been back for six months, I’ve rediscovered them with delight. In no particular order:

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Decades old diners

I feel like diners are to New York what bistros are to Paris. At first glance they all look the same, but each one’s character is uniquely shaped by its history, the people who work there, and the clientele who frequent it. Many years ago, two friends and I went on a historic diner tour of northern New Jersey. This spring, we revived the format and spent the day eating one meal after another at various Bronx and Manhattan diners that have stood the test of time and gentrification. In August, we did a Brooklyn-Queens tour and blurred the boundaries to include a 100 year-old soda fountain and not one but two decades-old roast beef joints.

eddies sweet shop

It’s a shame to see so many vestiges of New York’s neighborhood past disappear year by year, but I’m trying to live it up in the ones that are left.

mets gameMets games

Without ever realizing it, I deeply missed the “green geometry of the playing field,” as former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giametti called it. Being back in the stands on a blazing hot, crystal clear day and cheering my team on to victory during an otherwise (highly) lackluster season was heavenly. I wore the Mets cap I received for my tenth birthday (and which still fits because, as an optician pointed out at my glasses fitting right before I left for the game, “You have a tiny head.”) I was surrounded by people with thick New York accents, whose love for the team is intergenerational. I felt a deep sense of New York City continuity that I hardly ever feel anymore. On that note…

New York accents, fast disappearing

I read a prediction once that they will die out within one or two generations, replaced by Michigan standard, I suppose. Not sure if it’s true, but it saddens me.

Chowards violet gum and violet mints

Most people think it tastes like soap; I do, too, but in a good way. I have a thing for flower flavors and Chowards is no exception. Plus the packaging is both beautiful and vintage. And it’s a New York City original, since 1934.

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Excellent art deco and mid century signage and buildings

Design from the period between 1890s-1960s is my favorite, and in my angst about disappearing New York, I forgot how much beautiful typography and architecture the city retains from those times.

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Pocket parks

I most often think of New York greenery as within the purview of massive parks like Central Park and Prospect Park, but there are also so many tiny, peaceful squares of green dotting this city. They are lovely places to stop and sit amongst a tree and a flower or two.

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Magic in the everyday

I’ve stopped short several times at the sight of something blatantly apparent yet heretofore unseen by me in my millions of walks around the city. For example, I never noticed the ghost signage and old lettering on two buildings by Astor Place even though I’ve walked down the block they are on countless times. I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized there’s been a circa 1700s house (above) planted right off 3rd Avenue in Murray Hill this whole time. And I discovered a hidden-in-plain-sight cemetery a few months ago while walking a very well-trodden path in the East Village. These new-to-me, old-to-the-city gems remind me that there will always be places for me to explore and delights for me to discover in this city. It’s the embodiment of one of my all-time favorite quotes, by Roald Dahl: “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

Looks like it takes approximately two years away to jumpstart my NYC wonder.

(get over the) hump day inspiration: Tennessee Williams edition

TennesseeWilliamsQuoteI haven’t posted an encouraging quote for awhile but I crossed paths with this one via Brain Pickings a couple of days ago and it seems eminently appropriate for the times we’re living in. To say the zeitgeist has been getting me down is an understatement. I keep coming back to the conviction that community, connection, and love is the only thing that can save me – us – from chaos and despair.

I have been saying it to myself in much less poetic and profound ways than Tennessee Williams does here, though. This is a beautifully wrapped reminder of what it means to be human.

My gray places

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Much as I wish I were a laid-back person who could live easily with uncertainty, I am not. Though theoretically wonderful, in practice I don’t like gray areas of any kind. One of the gray zones I am most annoyed by is the one created by layovers in states or countries I’ve never been. Having touched down on Chilean tarmac and spent three hours in the Santiago airport en route to Buenos Aires, for example, I might claim to have been to Chile. But having never actually stepped foot on Chilean soil or breathed in fresh Chilean air, I don’t feel that I can. Instead, I imagine myself occupying an uncomfortable liminal state between having been and not having been, that must be rectified by going on a real visit to Chile as soon as possible. Most people could shelve that feeling, or would not have it in the first place. But I like things black and white, and so it nags at me.

Here are my gray area places. Fortunately, I actually do want to visit most of them. Unfortunately, I don’t have plans to do so anytime soon. As the list grows, so does my discomfort.

Countries:

Chile

(The most notable detail of my layover was when a woman in the bathroom stall next to me puked all over the floor and it started seeping into my view. How can I have not truly been to Chile when I was traumatized by an experience I had there? It’s a paradox.)

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Mali

(Below, a view of Bamako, where I spent an hour sitting on a plane with the doors wide open, troubling my “no fresh air” rule.)

bamako from the air

Monaco

(I took a train from Nice to Rome and it went underground through the entire tiny country of Monaco in less than twenty minutes. I only saw a glimpse of it out the rear view mirror from Italy, so to speak.)

U.S. States:

Georgia

(I’ve been through the Atlanta airport twice. Georgia remains the only state on the East Coast that I haven’t officially visited.)

Ohio / Kentucky 

(This one is a double whammy because I flew through the Cincinnati, Ohio airport only to later learn it’s technically in northern Kentucky, which means I now have to visit both states to put the discomfort to bed…)

…Or I could just learn to live with the gray areas of through-travel, and life in general.

Does anyone else have this particular brand of neurosis or am I the only one wasting brain space on it?

 

 

Allez les Lions! (Also, Vamos, vamos Argentina!)

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Less than a year and a half ago, I boarded a plane in Dakar bound for New York. As I stepped off the collapsible staircase and through the door of the plane, I realized that I had effectively left Senegalese soil and I had to hold back tears. A few drops squeezed out despite my best efforts and as they slowly rolled down my cheeks, I imagined that I must look like a spoof of a French new wave film.

Before I realized that the cabin crew was 100% American, I apologetically explained to the flight attendant whose eye I had accidentally caught, “Je pars…,” and then I trailed off sheepishly. She smiled at me with the truly soft and sympathetic look of someone who has borne witness to this scene a million times, and she said simply, “I know.” I am not sure she did actually know what I had said, but she knew what my tears meant. I am leaving. I don’t know when I’ll be back. And it feels like I’m leaving a bit of my heart behind.

I thought of that moment on Tuesday evening as I crossed over the East River from Manhattan into Brooklyn. The sun was setting, and New York was at its most beautiful. Earlier that morning I had been briefly and emotionally reunited with the country I hadn’t been ready to leave, and it was wonderful.

That’s all a very melodramatic way to say that I watched the Senegal v. Poland game from a Senegalese cafe in Crown Heights, and I ate Senegalese food for the first time since being in-country, and I heard Wolof and West African-accented French all around me, and when Senegal won I may as well have been in Dakar for all the joy in me and surrounding me.

I am so thankful that New York is a city where you can experience a little bit of the magic of every other country on earth. And it is especially magical at World Cup time.

I’m going back to the cafe on Sunday for the Senegal v. Japan game and what I hope is a repeat of the euphoria of victory. (I won’t even get into the sadness of the Argentina v. Croatia game. I’m hoping for a miraculous turnaround that allows Argentina to advance and Messi to stop looking so forlorn.)

As we go into the weekend, I leave you with a few moments of Team Senegal adorableness.

This is why I ride with Senegal, indeed.

Have a relaxing weekend

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It’s been a while since I’ve checked in here. Every Friday, I mean to post a bunch of ever more belated links to tidbits of interest, but every Friday something gets in the way. This week, I break the cycle! Below, a slew of links that I’ve been stockpiling to share with you. Some of them may be rather old, but they are still quite interesting.

Have a lovely weekend and enjoy the World Cup, if you’re watching! Tomorrow at 9am I start my vigil in front of the TV with the Argentina-Iceland game, and before Tuesday at 11am I have to figure out where to view the Senegal games alongside Senegalese people (even though I watched no more than ten minutes of their soccer team while actually living there). Four years ago I was obsessed with Argentina; this year I’m rooting for Senegal first, Argentina second, and I couldn’t care less who comes in third. It’s silly, but it feels good.

Anyway, here are those links…

We have one man to blame for that annoying English grammar rule that prohibits ending sentences with prepositions.

Sample some entries in “The Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” a collection of 18th century working-class London slang.

The Romans would have called me a barbarian.

The obituary for a very unlikely sumo wrestling commentator.

Tales of another sufferfester (here’s the first one I posted about), this time an ocean kayaker. Fascinating to ponder why they do it, and what part of that impulse I have in me, albeit in relatively tiny amounts.

Towns to add to your France bucket list.

And Macron wants baguettes added to another kind of list. 

Terms of endearment from around the world. Some more adorable than others.

There is no cut-off age for learning a foreign language. Just do it.

“I’m not rude; I’m just French.” Hahahahahaha. Not the Onion.

The unspeakable linguistics of camp. 

A cheese-themed theme park. Be still my heart.

Speaking of cheese. “Camembert without Raw Milk? It’s Treason, Connoisseurs Cry.” I love how protective the French are of their gastronomy.

Finally, pix of beautiful Cuban cinemas. And here’s one of my favorites that wasn’t included in the article:

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I’m becoming my mother in the most unexpected way

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It seems I’m in French withdrawal. 

My first weekend back in New York, I went to lunch with my parents and we had a francophone waiter. I knew this not because he spoke anything less than the most perfect English with us, but because I overheard him conversing with his colleague in French by the cash register. Despite telling myself sternly, “Do not be that person, Ruth” some ineffable force compelled me to switch into French and ask him where he was from. Congo, apparently, and his colleague was from Senegal.

Since then, there’s been the father and his two kids on the subway, the vacationing couple at the restaurant in Hanoi, the retirees on the ferry in Hong Kong, the woman looking for a street downtown, the man watching his kids play in Central Park… Every time I hear anyone speak French – or even English with a French accent – I wrack my brain for a way to break into their conversation, en français, without seeming too desperate. Many times I can’t find one, and I am able to keep my mouth shut. But sometimes, my tongue disobeys my brain and follows my heart into the most awkward exchanges. Without fail, I feel silly about it, yet I keep doing it anyway.

I used to be mortified whenever my mother, a Brooklynite who moved to Israel in her 20’s and returned to the States in her 30’s, would butt in on strangers’ conversations after she overheard them speaking Hebrew. We’d be in the middle of the English-speaking world – a mall in New Jersey or a cafe in New York – and this native English speaker would find any excuse to say something to the Israelis in Hebrew. It always seemed that my introverted mother did this not because she truly wanted to engage with other human beings but because she wanted validation of her identity in the kin group. No matter what she said to them, all I ever heard was a pathetic, “Wink wink, I’m one of you!”

Now that I have caught myself pulling the same stunt on multiple occasions, I think of it a little differently. 

I suppose there is a small part of me that has something to prove: that I can still speak the language, or that I belong with the foreigners in my midst. But most of it has nothing to do with pride (which is good because there is nothing ego-boosting about sounding like a complete dope). Instead, the overpowering desire to speak French comes from…wanting to speak French. I have so few opportunities  these days that when I see one, I can’t pass it up.

I don’t really miss France, but I really, really miss French. It’s a beautiful language, and I love it. I guess my mother feels the same way about Hebrew.

So to that I say,

!כל הכבוד*

*Kol hakavod, i.e., “All the honor,” i.e., You go, girl!

[Photo: Rithban]

Vietnam part 4: Trang An

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The day after my Halong Bay trip, I boarded another bus, this time to Ninh Binh Province. I spent the day touring Trang An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of the Bai Dinh Buddhist temple complex (the largest in Vietnam) and a system of waterways and grottoes in which other temples are hidden.

The landscape was just as beautiful as Halong Bay (in fact it is sometimes described as Halong Bay on land), and the temples were stunning, too. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.  Continue reading