Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What happens in Vegas ...

doesn't necessarily have to stay in Vegas ...

My trip started well. I picked up a book on my stopover in Chicago, something of a ritual of mine. I like seeing books on my shelves and remember which far flung airport I happened to buy them from, my choices either influenced by the trip itself, friends or random encounters.
This time, I bought "Naked" by David Sekaris because I spotted a guy reading it on the subway in New York a little while ago. He couldn't stop laughing to himself during the whole ride and the title intrigued the vixen in me. I highly recommend it by the way.

It got a little less smooth however, when I reached Las Vegas. My luggage hadn't been transferred and I had to go to Caesar's Palace, tired and crumpled, without them. I was meant to attend my friend Lia's (whose wedding I was going to Vegas for) bachelorette party that evening in the Belaggio but didn't get my luggage until around midnight, by which time I had collapsed from jetlag anyway.

As soon as I started walking through the airport, I realised that I was not in the normal world as we know it. The slot machines and bars everywhere were the first clues. The crowd around the luggage carousel was an interesting mix of morbidly obese American tourists and size zero girls sporting enormous fake breasts that even I couldn't take my eyes off.
Driving to the strip and spotting the billboards advertising "hot babes direct to you" and places named "Fat Burger" were other unmistakable signs that I had arrived in the land of hedonism.

Las Vegas is like no other place in the world.

It is where one doesn't bat an eyelid upon seeing women wearing full ball gowns at 4pm. Where one can get beer, drugs and or whatever else they desire at 7am – and not realise it is 7am anyway as there are no clocks anywhere. Where one can share an escalator with Cleopatra & Marc Anthony impersonators and be unfazed by it. Where one gets asked if they want to sit inside or outside while dining in a fake Italian trattoria inside the Venician hotel, despite being very much indoors either way. Where one can get sickly sweet cocktails by the yard in brightly coloured plastic receptacles. Where one can get severe sunstroke by standing outside for less than 15 minutes. Where one can lay by the pool and feel that they have wandered onto the set of Baywatch - in a "face like Crimewatch, body like Baywatch" kind of way.

However, the wedding was wonderful and much fun was had in the form of reckless dancing to 80s tunes late into the night.
I didn't gamble and therefore didn't have to sell my body to cover my debts. I didn't marry my gay best friend and therefore didn't have to get divorced. All in all, a good weekend away.

I had to catch an early flight back to New York the morning after the wedding, in a drunken daze, the flashing lights of the slot machines torturing my sensitive eyes.
The crowd at the gate looked like they had all just come out of a nightclub (which they probably did) - bloodshot eyes, shaky hands, slumped uncomfortably over the chairs.

The air crew team on Southwest Airlines was another Las Vegas stereotype - a freaky Barbie & Ken type pairing. Her - too thin, penciled in eyebrows and lips, caked on foundation and unnaturally jet black hair. Him - too muscular, penciled in eyebrows and lips, caked on foundation and unnaturally jet black hair. Maybe they do each other's make up or at least share clumsy beauty tips.

Las Vegas is like no other place in the world ... and it's probably better that way.

Monday, August 20, 2007

New York virgins

I am so excited about my brother and his girlfriend coming to visit me in a couple of weeks time. They have never been to the States, let alone New York, and I can't wait to see the awe on their faces as they first glimpse at the city's infamous skyline.

I almost envy the fact that they haven't been to NYC before. I wish I could experience the overwhelming feeling I had when I first came here on a windy day in March 1999 again.

We had landed in the early evening and somehow, I had missed the approach to the city and driving through it as I was asleep.
It was only when I stepped out of the bus at Grand Central Station and looked up at the towering buildings. Took in the snaking taxis. Processed the sound of the car horns. Breathed in the heady scent of asphalt, exhaust fumes and stale hot dogs. Sensed the raw energy through every one of my nerve endings. That I felt it ... love at first sight.
I slowly uttered the words "New York ... just like I pictured it" from Stevie Wonder's "Living for the city". I seem to remember that I even said it with the accent (which must have sounded comical - listen to the song and you'll understand why I will never sound like that).

I knew, there and then, that I would have to live here some day. My long love story with New York started that very minute.

I will make sure that I visit places with them that I haven't discovered yet. But for our first weekend, I want to give them: "my perfect New York weekend".

They arrive at lunch time on a Saturday. We'll stop over at H&H Bagels, on 79th & Broadway, and head over to Central Park to eat them under the shade of an old tree in Sheep Meadows. We'll walk down to 71st and take a boat trip on the lake.
We might stroll down 5th Avenue for a little while, where the buildings are so impressive. I'd like to end up in Times Square by early evening, catching the tacky yet jaw-dropping light show that it is, amongst the sea of backpack wearing tourists and dressed up theatre goers.

If by luck they can still walk/remember their names/keep their eyes open by then, I'll take them to Bryant Park and eventually to Grand Central, where we'll try to avoid bumping into people while walking with our noses in the air, admiring the elaborate ceiling. Maybe we'll stop at Cipriani Dolci on the upper concourse for one of their fiery (jet-lag kicking in this case) Bloody Marys and to take in the atmosphere of the station a little longer. But that's a probably a little optimistic.

On Sunday, we'll have brunch of course. Trying to convince my brother not to have breakfast until 12.30 will be nearly impossible. But these are the New York rules - it's totally, like, uncool to brunch before that time.

So we'll hop on the subway (hopefully encountering plenty of colourful characters for the full experience) down to Prince Street in Soho. I'll take them to Jerry's because, if you have read this blog properly, it is my NYC institution. We'll get a booth and I will force them to have eggs Benedict and a glass of champagne.

We'll walk down Prince Street a little further, hitting West Broadway, turning right onto Thompson, all the way to Washington Square Park. Have our picture taken in front of the gate. Head down West 4th and stop over at "Extra Virgin", a recent fantastic find, sitting outside under the awning for a restorative beverage (coffee for them, cocktail for me).
We'll then get lost in all the little streets in Greenwich Village, popping into some of the quirky boutiques, until we reach Little W12th and the start of the Meatpacking District.
We'll walk along the Hudson and the paved streets. Go to the top of the Gansevoort Hotel for the fabulous view.

Then we'll jump in a cab - "East Village, Tompkins Square Park please". We'll stroll through the small park, go down to 6th street to see all the small but artfully decorated community gardens that line it. Then back up to 12th to have Cuban food at Cafecito.

I can't wait, I really can't. And the best bit? I'll be doing it all over again, with my parents & my sister when they come in October, wearing a few more layers but minus a few cocktails.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lost in translation

I've just had a lovely green salad with ham, green pees and beetroot ... Not something worth blogging about you may think but when what I actually wanted was a green salad with turkey, sweetcorn and roasted mushrooms I think it is.

But let me provide some context. There is a lovely little deli, just downstairs from my apartment building, called Cafe Broadway. I have already admitted to given up cooking as soon as I landed in JFK 6 months ago, so I often go there because they have a big salad bar with lots of fresh ingredients that you can pick, as well as a dizzying array of salad dressings.
The thing is that you don't physically make the salad up yourself. A lovely and helpful person behind the counter makes up the salad for you based on your specific requests.

And this is where the problem begins for me.

As lovely and helpful as the deli boys are ... they do not understand a word I say. What is puzzling is that I haven't had any problems in making myself understood anywhere in New York despite my accent - I mean this is the city that manages to pack more than 170 different nationalities in just 23 square miles!
But for some reasons, these guys just don't get me, despite my desperate pointing at the items I actually want and my (clearly poor) attempts at an American accent (you know, the whole "tomahto/tomayto" thing).

Most of the time, I persist until they get it ("on your right, now up, up a bit more and then right again") or resort to getting outside help. Like once, when the gentleman behind me, in witnessing what was happening, proceeded to "translate" everything I asked for to the deli boys ("she said broccoli").

But I was too tired today to do so. Oh well, I enjoyed it anyway.

Analyse this ...

The Blogalyser reveals...
Your blog/web page text has an overall readability index of 18.
This suggests that your writing style is intellectual
(to communicate well you should aim for a figure between 10 and 20).
Your text contains 16 sentences, which suggests your general message is distinguished by verbosity
(writing for the web should be concise).


male malefemale female
self oneselfgroup world world
past past presentfuture future

Your text shows characteristics which are 63% male and 37% female

Looking at pronoun indicators, you write mainly about yourself, then the world in general and finally your social circle. Also, your writing focuses primarily on the present, next the past and lastly the future.

So, I'm really a man, far too much into himself and the present and writing too much intellectual (!) non-sense.

Good to know. Not going to stop me though.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Big Sister

I first heard about the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America from a friend who is part of the scheme. It's a mentoring system for teenagers coming from under-privileged background or facing difficulties with their family or at school.

I will be spending 3 hours with my little brother or sister, twice a month, trying to be a positive role model and supporting him/her with any issues they are facing.

That is if I am accepted. The screening process is understandably pretty thorough but, to my knowledge, I have no criminal record and I intend to keep it that way.

They ask who our role model is and I was surprised to realize that I couldn't come up with one and that I had never given it much thought. Family, friends, even colleagues ... more a collection of people and some aspects of their life & personality rather than a single one.

I'm not becoming Mother Teresa or anything, but I like the idea of helping someone, particularly at such a difficult age. I personally hated my teenage years so I want to show someone that dreams can happen if you work hard, that things do change, that life does get a little easier ... or maybe more difficult, but in a way than your adult self is more apt - in most cases - at dealing with.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Steph's restaurant reviews - part 2

I’ve decided to continue with my restaurant reviews, this time focusing on the East village, Tribecca and the Lower East Side.

Café Cito – 185 Avenue C, East Village
One of my favourite place in the city, Cafecito is a tiny, authentic Cuban restaurant, complete with white formica tables. I usually start by drinking mojitos while sitting on the high stools set on the sidewalk at the bar protruding from the front windows, watching the world go by, being amazed that almost everyone walking past seem to know each other and loving the real neighbourhood feel of the area. The actual restaurant is very small but the food is delicious and good value.

Churrascaria Riodizio – 221 West Broadway, Tribecca
I still can’t pronounce the name but it’s definitely one for the boys (or certainly the boys I was with that night). Churrascaria is a Brazilian steak house and the concept is that the waiters will keep on piling your plate high with 15 different cuts of meat off a huge skewer until you tell them to stop (or turn your coaster from green to red). I may have managed only about 4 types of meat, but they were all delicious. The décor is resolutely unlike a steak house though – think leather chairs and brick walls.

Nobu – 105 Hudson Street, Tribecca
As a huge sushi fan (or even addict), I was very much looking forward to dining at Nobu and I was not disappointed. While I didn’t like the signature miso cod that much (it was surprisingly sweet), I loved the sashimi and the sushi, which were some of the freshest I’ve ever had. The atmosphere was quite cold though, the dining room being overly modern for my liking. We did come across our CEO there though, who was having dinner with one of his key advisor – might not sound like much, but in a company with 90,000 employees around the world, we never see our CEO on a face-to-face basis and it was a little like meeting a movie star, complete with the “he’s shorter than I thought he would be”feeling.

PJ Clarke – World Financial Centre
OK, so it’s not located in Tribecca, the East Village or the Lower East Side and moreover, it’s a chain restaurant. But I spend so much time there that I feel I should write about it. It is located in the World Financial Centre, where I work, and is therefore so convenient that I usually end up there if I fancy a quick drink (or 5) with some work colleagues. A bit like the American equivalent of a local pub.
They have oysters happy hour (50c a piece and a selection of at least 5 varieties), which made me try oysters again for the first time in many years (still can’t eat more than 3 though). They do fantastic crab cakes with more crab than potatoes and their portions are huge, leading me to order everything in appetizer size. But the setting is glorious – sitting outside, watching the sunset over the Statue of Liberty and the numerous yatchs in the harbour. I wouldn’t go to any other PJ Clarkes in the city, but this one is worth it.

Stanton Social – 99 Stanton Street, Lower East side
Such a beautiful place and I love the concept of small plates where you order a number of dishes that you can share with your dining partner – allowing for unlimited greediness. There’s a bar upstairs which we unfortunately didn’t get to experience after dinner as it was so busy. The Lower East Side is the new trendy part of town, still very rough around the edges but being “gentrified” a little more every day. I haven’t spent that much time there but intend to do so in the future. It was the area where most of the early immigrants settled and has a lot of history.

Fat Baby – 112 Rivington Street, Lower East Side
This is the bar we went to after giving up on the bar at the Stanton Social. I was not convinced at first, as the place was industrial in design and completely empty but my companion knew what he was doing. As I was ordering drinks at the bar, my date disappeared, only to come back a few minutes later to lead me down to the basement where he had paid the entrance fee and somebody proceeded to draw an intricate design on our hands (to prove we had paid, I assume, rather than show off remarkable artistic skills).
What followed was probably one of my most memorable night in the city. The basement was hosting live music or “battling” to be precise. I love Eminem and the movie “8 Miles” and I felt I had stumbled onto the set of that film. These young, very talented, kids were rapping and improvising, the crowd rhythmically moving to their beat and anger. I watched in awe, my mouth literally open, unable to process how different downstairs was from upstairs and how lucky I was to be witnessing this. I fell in love even more that night, if it was even possible.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Perfect day?

I had a picnic with Larry in Central Park today. I have been dying to have one for years actually, having been deprived of the pleasure by my ex who hated them. So when Larry suggested we spend the day in the park, I jumped at the chance.

We met up in Columbus Circle to go to Wholefoods in the Time Warner Centre and get some supplies. Wholefoods is an upscale deli/supermarket with amazing food, albeit fairly pricey – in other words, heaven for the discerning foodie.

We stocked up on goodies from the salad bar and deli counter, bought some Chardonnay and stopped at the corner newsstand to fill up on trashy magazines before making our way to Sheep Meadows, a large expanse of green in the Park.

The weather was beautiful – clear blue skies and bright sunshine. Larry had brought a sheet (from which a pair of boxer short fell off, provoking fits of laughter) and we positioned it in the shade of a large tree.

We spent the rest of the day glossing over the magazines, discussing deep philosophical and world changing issues such as Angelina Jolie’s weight – or lack of – and whether Jessica Biel is in fact pretty – I think we decided she was in the end. We did talk about politics a little though, as every New Yorker does.

We ogled at all the semi-naked men who happen to be wondering in our vicinity, definitely confirming the high level of body consciousness of New Yorkers and shaming us into planning to visit the gym more often.
I took lots of pictures of Larry wearing his silly plastic teeth for his facebook profile, ensuring that he would never get a date from that site.
We talked about our trip to Las Vegas next weekend and whether we should just get very drunk (well, that’s a certainty), do a Britney Spears and get married by an Elvis impersonator in a drive-through ceremony, agreeing to never actually consummate the marriage and to get it annulled the next day.
I can picture it already – it will be the only wedding in town where the bride and groom refuse to kiss and we’d get some massively over-weight old gamblers from the Mid-West for witnesses. Pure class.

A picnic, gorgeous men, lots of laughter, light-hearted conversation and wedding plans – could this have been the perfect day?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

120 blocks or so ...

There are times, like today, when I’m not so in love with New York City.

Apparently torrential rain and violent wind fell upon the city before dawn – I slept through it – but it was bad enough to bring it to a complete stand still. Of course, it had to happen the day I had to be in the office for 8.30am for a very important all day meeting when I had to present to a bunch of eager and overly smart Senior VPs.

I absentmindedly heard something on the radio, when I was getting ready, about the subway being a “little” disrupted but thought that setting off at 7.15am would leave me plenty of time to get to work (at the other end of Manhattan) for 8am.

I took the short walk to the subway outside my building, Ipod firmly in place with uplifting music on, only to find that my subway station was closed. I walked to the next stop (79th- I live on 86th-) and it was closed too. I thought that maybe the A or the C (I normally take the 1 & 2/3) were still running and walked across to the Natural History Museum, a couple of avenues west… where I managed to get on a train that stopped at 72nd and refused to go any further.
I walked to Columbus Circle (57th) but soon realised that there was absolutely no subway trains going downtown at all, anywhere in the city …

I started to walk down 7th avenue, along with hundreds of other people, and it was weird knowing that there was nothing we could do but just walk and sometimes hold our arm out (to no avail) when a taxi came into view. We all live in one of the most sophisticated cities in the world and yet we were all stranded and helpless. All the taxis were taken and all the buses were crammed. There was no way to get anywhere in the city, regardless of status, gender or age … Manhattan never felt so big.

I walked for many blocks hoping that I would chance upon an empty cab… until I finally reached Greenwich village when I realised that I was so far down that there was no other option but to walk all the way to work to the World Financial Centre.

What I haven’t mentioned is that today was one of the hottest (35C) and most humid day of the year. In the end, I walked about 120 blocks, which took around 3 hours, drenched in sweat (not an attractive sight, but then everyone else was the same), before I made it to the office in time for my presentation at 11am. By that time, I was too exhausted to even remember my name, let alone explain “Steph’s Grand Plan” as it has become known …

To add insult to injury, I had been to the gym the night before and ran 5 miles on the treadnmill, so a 7 miles walk in tropical weather and kitten heels was not what I needed …

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Back in Blighty

Being back in London was a strange feeling. It felt like I never really left, although I realised when I was there that I've been away for 6 months already.

It was wonderful seeing everyone and picking up right where I left off. I was constantly on the move, staying with close friends in Streatham, Primrose Hill, Mill Hill and finally Kingston over the course of 10 days. I never had time to unpack but I quite like being a nomad anyway.

London was very much unchanged bar the odd buildings having been torn down in Victoria. I spent an unreasonable amount of time in Topshop and Marks & Spencer (just admiring the perfectly arranged vegetables, how sad!) - guess I missed those shops more than I realised.

I was freezing cold though, having ignored most people’s sound advice about packing plenty of jumpers. I had optimistically taken a few summer dresses with me, which obviously never saw the light of the day.

The main change really was the smoking ban, which the city seem to have taken extremely seriously. It’s almost fanatical actually – I even had a complete stranger tell me on the street that I was “too beautiful for that cigarette’! As any girl would do, I decided to take the compliment and ignore the insult.
Special wardens seem to have been given the specific role of shooing away people who attempt to smoke outside of office building or from outdoors areas that happen to have a tiny bit of a roof over them – I decided that it must be some kind of job creation scheme. There were also constant announcements in Victoria station reminding evil smokers that they were not allowed to do the deed anywhere inside or near the vicinity.

It’s a positive thing though, but not just because of the obvious reasons (death and other bothersome health conditions for example) … it means that almost every single bar and restaurant has now managed to find outdoor space on pavements or courtyards I didn’t even know they had to set tables outside. It struck me how much it now looks a little like New York and that therefore a lot of the alfresco areas here are designed to accommodate smokers. I think it creates a lot more atmosphere and livelihood, right in the streets.

I had a wonderful but exhausting week, very much burning the candle at both ends – I’ll be back at Christmas doing it all over again though!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Call me Indy

I must give a quick update on the “skyline” thing I did with my dad, which was not quite what we expected … We thought it consisted of a few adrenaline fuelled jumps from trees on a cable-system but it turned out to be some hard core training which would have surely left Indiana Jones weeping like a girl.

Two and a half hours of walking on single ropes, on moving logs (sideways and lengthways), uneven & broken steps, Tarzan style jumps into nets, climbing and crossing rivers while suspended on a steel cable – all of this while at least 12 meters in the air.

The result: rope burns in places I didn’t think you could get them (under my arms before you ask), bleeding hands, bruised and scratched legs …
I have also learnt that I do not possess the essential skill of being able to do a Tarzan swing from a rope, should I find myself stranded in a tropical forest (although I can do everything else).

But I absolutely loved it! It was scary and exhilarating. I cursed my adventurous spirit more than once but I would do it all over again – well, after nursing my wounds that is …

La douce vie

My life in France couldn’t be more different than my life in New York or London. Of course, my parents have a big house and garden in a relatively peaceful small town in the Loire region of France - hardly a hub of urban activity! I also only go there 3 times a year on holiday so I am in a different state of mind.

But my days here have a marvellous and soothing routine to them …
They start with breakfast on the patio outside and must involve lashings of Nutella on any kind of toasted bread. My mum makes all kinds of wonderful jams from fruits we pick in the garden or the forest, but I need my fix of the nutty chocolate paste every time I’m home, much to her despair.

Breakfast is then followed by an energetic 2 hours mountain bike ride with my dad on the small paths along the riverbank. Although we are breaking with the cycling tradition tomorrow as my dad and I will be trying “skyline”, which involves swinging between trees, above the river, while hanging on for dear life on (hopefully very strong) ropes – Dad & I are the adventurous ones in the family, so I can’t wait! (click here for more details on skyline: http://ghettolocker001.free.fr/forezaventures/)

Lunch will obviously be taking place outside too and will last for a minimum of 2 hours as we tend to linger over a full platter of cheese and afterwards a few cups of coffee (with a small piece of dark chocolate). Lunch time in France (or certainly in my family) is the perfect time to talk about politics, global warming, unemployment - generally how bad the world is basically (the French are a pessimistic breed) - or the latest news about our extended family & friends. As we tend to all have different opinions, these conversations are never dull.

In the afternoon, we’ll all don swimming suits and try to catch some rays while reading our books, apart from my dad who will have found something to fix in the house/garden/computer (or even in a neighbour’s house) and will be busy attending to it. Today, there was nothing to fix, so he made alcohol – “Verveine Liquor”… pretty handy to have my dad around …

If my sister & I are feeling brave, we’ll play squash for an hour and work out any deep seated frustrations we may have – I may only be 5’3 and her 5’1, but when we play together, there is no mercy and we’re like tigers!!

At some point in the afternoon, we’ll be foraging the garden in search of the latest young courgettes or tomatoes that seem to grow overnight so that we can cook them in the evening.

At around 5pm, we’ll all start thinking about dinner, debating whether to grill the fresh sardines or the huge prawns on the bbq tonight or would it be too greedy to have both? We’ll have an aperitif or two (Martini for the girls, Pastis for the boys) and enjoy a leisurely dinner on the patio again, sometimes carrying on with some of the heated debates we started at lunch time …

To say that it is pure relaxation is an understatement. Nothing is required of me apart from being there, lending a helping hand from time to time and generally be happy.

I am amazed at how I feel equally at home here, in London & now in New York considering the immense difference of lifestyle in each places … perhaps I have a multiple personality disorder I am not aware of …