Benin: Ouidah for the Vodoun Festival

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After I posted about the Fête du Vodoun yesterday I realized that I never actually explained what it is. A national holiday held every January 10 in Benin since the 1990s, it is a day for Beninois to celebrate – and to share with the outside world – the Vodoun religion practiced by a large percentage of the country (I’ve seen estimates ranging from 20-60%).

According to this informative 2012 article from the New York Times (that still rings true to my experience in 2019),

Despite the efforts of Christian missionaries, this ancient belief system still has millions of adherents along West Africa’s former Slave Coast, from Ghana to the Yoruba-speaking parts of Nigeria, but especially in Benin. A succession of dictatorships suppressed vodun after independence, but in 1996 Benin’s democratic government officially decreed vodun a religion, and ever since, thousands have openly practiced it.

The Fête du Vodoun is, in effect, a show of pride in practices, beliefs, and a culture that endured despite endless attempts to wipe it out. Though festivities take place all over the country, the apex is in Ouidah, which is considered the heart and soul of Vodoun. It is around Ouidah that Vodoun first developed hundreds of years ago.

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diner tours

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One of the only things I liked about growing up in New Jersey, and one of my favorite things about living in New York, was the ubiquity of diners. I have been a regular at many of them over the years. Whether they are in the original rail car-style shape, of the stone-faced mid-century variety, or in the more expansive multi-room form of the 80s and 90s, there is something uniformly familiar and inviting about them. I feel comfort, security, and joy wherever and whenever I see them. 

Almost a decade ago, my high school friends, Jenny and Jennie, and I planned a drive around North Jersey to visit the oldest remaining diners in the area.

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It was a day filled with beauty: stainless steel, milk glass, neon, Formica, and pastel table-top jukeboxes.

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Also, indigestion. I discovered you should really only eat a diner breakfast once per day at the absolute maximum. 

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Since I got back to town in January this year, we’ve relaunched the diner tour concept and expanded to luncheonettes, coffee shops, soda fountains, delicatessens, and other very old, fast, and cheap food joints. We’ve also become far less stringent about what we eat in these places – sometimes a coffee will suffice. The point is not the food but rather to absorb the ambience and energy of places that have been communal cozy gathering spots for decades. 

Diners are falling like flies these days, an allegory for the death of both affordable and soulful New York. It feels really important for me to get to as many of them as possible in the time that they have left. 

So far, we’ve done the Northern New Jersey diner tour, a Bronx / Manhattan diner tour, a Brooklyn / Queens diner tour, a Staten Island diner tour, and a lower Manhattan diner tour, and I’ve also visited a bunch in my solo wanderings. Here is a photographic compendium:

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balls!

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I have a few recurrent nightmares that clearly indicate when I’m wracked by waking anxieties:

  • I desperately need to pee and there are hundreds of available toilets but every stall is tiny, missing its doors, covered in filth, or otherwise unusable. In the course of maneuvering around the obstacles, I end up peeing all over myself.
  • One tooth comes loose and falls out, setting off a domino effect in which every other tooth in my mouth drops out, one after another.
  • I’m back in high school for my final calculus exam, after cutting class all year. I can’t remember where my locker is located, let alone what the combination is, so I can’t even grab my math book to figure out what will be on the test. I realize that I’ll have to give back my college degree once they find out I failed calculus and never finished high school.

Last night I added a new one to the roster of anxiety dreams:

I was craving a falafel sandwich so I tried to buy one from a food truck. The vendor refused to sell me one. He said that since my records indicated that I hadn’t spoken Hebrew since 2001, I no longer understood it and I’m therefore not allowed to eat falafel. [I think I stole this concept from the Israeli Consulate.] I became enraged at the injustice and started flipping out, at which point the vendor and another guy forcibly removed me. I vaguely remember that my mom was there, happily chatting in Hebrew, munching on falafel, and turning a blind eye to my ejection. I silently cursed myself for not having learned Hebrew the easy way, as a kid.

[I did start and quickly abandon Hebrew Duolingo lessons a few weeks ago so maybe this was not an anxiety dream but rather my brain’s tough love reminder to get back to work?]

[Photo: Insatiable Munch]

My Dakar places

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On Valentine’s Day two years ago, I flew to Dakar. So much has happened since then that it feels more like a decade.

It also feels like I left Dakar ages ago, but it’s actually only been eleven months, which is so unbelievable to me that I redid the math twice. Still, eleven months is long enough to lose touch with a place, and the list I’m about to post may be a little outdated. But I’ve been promising it to myself and others for too long to let it evaporate. And things change far more slowly in Dakar than in New York, so even though there are surely new places to discover, almost all of these old places could still be going strong. (I’ll edit the post accordingly if I learn differently.)

Without further ado, and in no particular order, my favorite places in Dakar… Continue reading

Drinking Sancerre in Sancerre

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It makes sense that the first (and let’s be honest, probably the last) poem I ever wrote in French was inspired by drinking Sancerre in Sancerre:

C’est clair, si je vais boire un verre,
Mon vin préféré, c’est sancerre
Maintenant je suis sûre,
Que la joie est plus pure
Quand on boit le sancerre sur sa terre.

(I’ll leave the translation to you.)

My first taste of Sancerre was during the spring semester of my senior year at college.

I went for drinks with other soon-to-be-graduating friends at a French-style bistro just off campus. We sat around a small outdoor table in the fresh April air of a faux Parisian terrace, eked out of a Manhattan sidewalk. I had only recently crossed over the divide into legal drinking, and the freedom of choice was thrilling. When a friend of a friend who seemed to come from a glitzy background suggested we order a bottle of Sancerre – her absolute favorite, she said – I was incredulous she could remember the name of a wine, annoyed that a 21 year-old claimed to have a specific wine preference, and even more annoyed that it just happened to be the most expensive one on the menu. We were college students, not college professors.

Still, when the bottle of almost-white rosé arrived and I took my first sip, I had to admit there was something special about this wine. It was crisp and refreshing, with a hint of sparkling grapefruit, and for the first time, I truly enjoyed drinking a glass of wine. I am not sure whether it actually tasted sophisticated or whether I simply read sophistication into the experience, but from that moment on I linked Sancerre with both exceptional taste and understated elegance. In the more than 15 years since that spring evening, it’s the only wine whose taste my ridiculously forgetful palate can identity, the only one I get excited to see on a wine list, and the only one I’ve ever splashed out for at a wine shop.

So, when I realized that the town of Sancerre was less than three hours from Paris, an idea inevitably took shape. How amazing would it be, I daydreamed, to drink a glass of Sancerre in Sancerre?IMG_3526
The answer is: incredibly amazing, especially if it’s a perfectly bright and crisp autumn day, your friend Simona is in town, and your only ambition is to wander around the countryside sipping wine and eating cheese.
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Some more pictures, after the jump… Continue reading

Thanksgiving in Paris

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Happy Thanksgiving, to those who celebrated last week! Thursday and Friday were work days here, so I hosted a belated potluck dinner on Saturday, after spending a small fortune at the Thanksgiving store (actual name), where they have a corner on the market for cranberries and pumpkin pie filling, and at my local rotisserie, where I ordered a 7kg bird that they cooked on a spit. Continue reading