At the end of October, I flew to Oregon to spend a couple of months with my sister’s family. About halfway through my time there, I streamed Cinemania, a cult documentary I had wanted to see for years. It profiles a bunch of obsessive moviegoers during an era — the turn of the Millennium — before you could order a DVD of any film you wanted to see, let alone find it on-demand or stream it. These cinephiles would study the movie theatres’ programs like tacticians, and then they would hop from arthouse cinema to repertory cinema to museum cinema, taking in four or five or six different movies a day, every day.Continue reading
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One thing I noticed in France a few years ago and which appears to remain steadfast, is Parisians’ fascination with New York and especially with Brooklyn. [It’s also well-documented.] This is both wonderful and terrible for me. I left Brooklyn hoping for something altogether new, and yet my old New York neighborhood keeps creeping into my new Parisian ones. On the other hand, as a product of Brooklyn I am quite a hot commodity here, and I really cannot complain about that.
For some reason, many people here think that my accent in French is that of an Italian. It probably has to do with the fact that I have no ear and just approximate everything in a way that randomly cleaves more towards Italian sounds than American ones. In any case, I always correct people rather apologetically when telling them that I’m actually from the United States, even though they’re always thrilled. By now, I delight in the inevitable next question, ‘Where in the United States?’ because I’ve come to expect that nine times out of ten my response will elicit pure joy and predispose the person to like me based solely on my provenance.
I started out telling people that I had come here from New York by way of Dakar, assuming that Dakar was the most interesting thing about that statement. It certainly is to me. But no one here really cared about Dakar and now I’ve taken to skipping the Senegal part and saying that I’m from Brooklyn instead of New York, to optimally exploit Parisian sensibilities. On more than one occasion, people have squealed with delight when I’ve told them where I’m from, and then breathlessly peppered me with questions about it. Sometimes I withhold my origins strategically, waiting to throw my Brooklyn cred into the mix until I sense that a conversation is petering out and needs revitalizing. It’s like my secret weapon. (My other secret weapon, ridiculously enough, is my terrible accent. Men especially find it endlessly charming, which is great but also incredibly bizarre. I sound objectively awful when speaking French. The pull could only be the anthropological imperative to diversify the herd.)
A few incidents that have highlighted for me the ongoing hotness of the New York / Brooklyn brand:
In the supermarket in Barbès, there was a minuscule offering of four books for sale on the checkout line. One was called “Une Femme de Brooklyn.” You really can’t get more on the nose than that. I was tempted to buy the book to see what kind of offbeat characterizations they would make about Brooklyn women. The cover offered no insight.
A couple of weeks ago, I passed a McDonalds ad publicizing a month-long special menu called ‘New York Street Food.’ (The menu items bore no resemblance to New York street food.)
I just booked an apartment for July and August in Belleville, a rather hip neighborhood I am interested in exploring further. The apartment is perfect for me, but I was a little dismayed to find that the building is situated next door to a brunch-serving cafe called Topknot, and next door to that is a hipster barber shop. Also, I’m subletting from a guy with a Tom Selleck-like mustache. Have I left Brooklyn only to end up right back where I started?
Nah. The French are too delightfully off in their rendition of Brooklyn for it to really be threatening. [To wit: the photos above and below, from the Saint-Ouen flea market. Apparently Brooklyn = hot dogs and bicycles with a side of tattoos. While I suppose that’s technically correct, the ratios are way out of whack.]
And since there’s no danger of brunch spots overtaking cheese shops anytime soon, I can still afford to be amused rather than horrified by it.
I had been hankering for raclette ever since missing my chance to try it in France, so last Thursday I went to eat it in New York. Philippe found me a quirky little place that serves fondue and raclette – but only on winter nights they deem sufficiently cold – out of a dimly lit, speakeasy-like back room. Getting to it felt almost like going through the wardrobe into Narnia. Continue reading
I visited the new bookstore in the French Embassy because a. it looked like a beautiful space – cozy and snug and perfect for escaping the frigid temperatures last week, and b. because I want to read in French for 15 minutes a day as a way to review grammar and vocabulary without opening up a textbook.
I asked the bookseller for a beach read because I figured I need simple language and an easy but engaging plot to overcome the boredom I’ll inevitably feel at moments when I lose the thread of what’s going on. Somehow I ended up instead with a translation of a Patti Smith short story collection. I understand every third word. Good thing the stories are about three pages each, so that by the time I get exasperated enough to abandon one, I’m already on to the next.
Once I’m done “reading” this book, I’m excited to go back to Albertine. It’s such a gorgeous space, and I already have my next book picked out: a young adult novel called “Dentiste Diabolique” that I spotted on my way out. Promises to be a much easier read. 🙂
(Photo: Albertine interior)