Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Yorker v1.1

It seems that you notice even more how much of a New Yorker you have become after spending a week in London when ...

Your friends are concerned that you are mildly obsessed with Barack Obama because you have read both his books and are recommending them to everyone you talk to, you brought the Time Magazine Special Election Commemorative Issue with you and you explain that you ended a recent casual fling on grounds of "irreconciliable political differences".

You keep calling London "the City" causing many confused looks - while in New York the City refers to Manhattan, in London it is the nickname for the Financial district.

You find an English accent utterly endearing and charming, realising you had somehow become immune to it over the years.

You almost choke when having to pay $120 for a taxi ride from Central London to Essex where you were staying for a night - in New York, this could almost get you to the Hamptons!

You make twice a day pitstops at the Starbucks around the corner from the office for a Tall Black Americano - not because you like their coffee but because it "feels like home".

Your resolution to take the Tube everywhere lasts for less than 24 hours! After that, most of your time is spent desperately looking for a black cab, loudly cursing their elusiveness outside of the city center.

Your face drops when, after spending the night at a friend's in South West London, he suggests that the best way for you to get back to Central London is to take a bus ... a bus! And then you of course spend half an hour looking for a taxi instead.

You think that hanging out with a 6'8 transvestite that you randomly met in a nightclub and talking about the merits of push-up bras is completely normal.

You take an hour train ride from London to Kingston and back and wonder how you managed to do that commute every weekday for nearly 7 years without losing the will to live - it gives a new meaning to the rat race which I don't think I could ever go back to.

When having said that, you find London trains to be very clean but ever so narrow and Londoners to be extremely polite and reserved compared to some of the more colourful characters you have encountered in the New York subway.

You feel that London is too big or at least too spread out compared to Manhattan. I am never more than 20 minutes away from where I want to be, whereas in London going back to wherever I was staying after going out seemed like a mini-adventure, without the reassuring part of knowing I would actually find a way to get home.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Thanksgiving


The significance and meaning of Thanksgiving only really dawned on me this year.
For us Europeans, Thanksgiving may seem like a rather mysterious holiday, another excuse for consuming enornous amounts of food and wine (not that there is anything wrong with that) and the beginning of the Sales season.
But it is in fact a much more inclusive celebration than Christmas is, independent as it is of religious convictions and therefore even larger in scale. It does however share the same themes of family, joy and love. And immediately after, the full madness of the Holiday spirit unleashes with lights and trees going up in every corner of the City.
This year, I was incredibly lucky to have my "chosen family" with me for the celebration - my closest friends Marie and Giorgia (visiting from London) but minus Larry as he had escaped to sunny Florida. I therefore decided to put my rusty "domestric goddess" skills in action and host Thanksgiving dinner.
Groceries from Zabar's,
the UWS Foodie mecca.

Not a common sight in
my kitchen I must admit ...

I had no intention of cooking the traditional American TG dinner of giant Turkey with a side of caramelized sweet potatoes... craving Jamie Oliver's perfect roast chicken instead.

I may look completely in control (note the glass of white wine by my side however) but this was minutes after I dropped the chicken in the sink, screaming when some "things" fell out of its bottom as I was washing it. Not quite a domestic goddess after all ...
The chicken was accompanied by roasted potatoes and a green salad with my famous French dressing. Marie made a delicious fruit tart and we also feasted on farm cheeses and baguette. Come to think of it, there was nothing American about our Thanksgiving dinner at all!
Lifting of the "huge beast"
Marie & Giorgia

I can't share any more pictures as a few too many bottles of wine were consummed throughout the evening while we chatted away, listened to music, stalked people on facebook and made travel plans for next year.
The morning after had to be spent at Barney Greengrass in an attempt to cure the hangover of course.
"Dirty brunch"There is nothing this cannot cure!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Yorker


You know you are a New Yorker when ...

You are dreading having to use public transport all the time when back in London for a few days, being so used to taking taxis everywhere.

You suffer a mild panic attack when finding out that a friend of yours is having her birthday party in Brooklyn.

Your friends often ask you for restaurants and bars recommendations, even if they have lived in New York for longer than you have.

You tell taxi drivers to go to "27th and 7th", not bothering to say Avenue or Street, and demand that they take 9th and not Broadway.

You lose all self-consciousness and dance in the street when the first snow falls on the City because that's what everyone else is doing too.

You get upset when your local dry cleaners changes ownership because you had made friends with the previous ones as you went there so often for your laundry.

You avoid 5th Avenue like the plague and shop online instead.

You don't consider a manicure to be an unnecessary luxury but merely a relaxing part of your weekly routine.

You sometimes find that even ordering food in online is too hard of a task.

Your dentist's office was featured in an episode of "Law and Order".

You refer to the Upper West Side as UWS and the Lower East Side as LES.

Your concept of being on time occasionally deteriorates.

You inadvertently crash the private party of a trendy fashion photographer at Bar & Books and end up chatting to Mary Kate Olsen about jeans.

You walk really fast everywhere and get frustrated when tourists can't work out how to use the turnstiles in the subway.

You sometimes feel that your love life could be mistaken for an episode of Sex & The City but not the one ending with "happily ever after". And you're actually OK with that.

You have only used your oven for the first time 18 months after you moved in, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for friends.

You plan your social calendar like a military campaign.

Your bible is the New York Magazine.

You feel guilty about your hedonistic lifestyle but yet can't give it up.

You have a local breakfast place and a local bar where you don't need to order anymore as the waiters know what you want without you asking for it.

.... And you are looking forward to be out of the City for a couple of weeks but also can't wait to come back to it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Office

My office is not exactly the kind of a place where laughter is heard much. Rows upon rows of grey cubicles don't seem conducive to it somehow.

Humour does feature but in very cautious, "above the belt" ways, and when I moved to the US I was warned that my days of swearing outloud at work were over as it is very much frowned upon here - at least in the corporate world. It couldn't be more different from London where trading salacious remarks all day long is part and parcel of office life.

While I try my best to be serious and behave in the way that is expected in my position, I find it hard to completely stifle the rather British sense of humour I have acquired in my 10 years of living in the UK.

So for your amusement, I will share some of the most politically incorrect situations I have found myself in.

* During an agency meeting - involving around 6 agency staff working for me, one of my direct reports and my internal business partners (including a VP) - we discussed the relative importance of ad formats in driving conversions. We were concluding that larger ad sizes drove the best results and to my utter disbelief, I found myself exclaiming outloud "well, bigger is usually better!". I just couldn't help myself. Cue much laughter in the meeting room and embarrassed blushing from me. I seem to remember that the VP was still chuckling to himself about it after the meeting was over.

* In a one-to-one meeting with a manager working for me, we were discussing an upcoming Affiliate Marketing conference we were both going to attend in Boston. He told me that they were holding a "meet market" where affiliates and publishers could network and mingle. I couldn't hold a straight face when I told him that I had been to a few "meat markets" in my time and always found them to be much fun.

* In another agency meeting, again involving agency staff and internal business partners, we reviewed targeting in Media buys. One of our media buyers was explaining that some forms of targeting available in the market still have to be vetted from a privacy standpoint and were therefore not quite legal yet. I looked up from the deck we were reviewing and said "barely legal?". I think they are still talking about that one.

* While in a meeting this week, Larry & I were both on our blackberries so I emailed him saying I liked his jumper. He replied asking if I wanted to make out later. We both managed to keep a straight face but still got caught by Larry's VP who jokingly asked us to stop sending love notes to each other in front of a shocked but amused room full of people!

I like to think that my US colleagues have accepted my rather unorthodox comments and ways. If anything, I seem to provide free entertainment from time to time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pura Vida


Costa Rica has long been on my list of must-go places to visit, enticing as it is for consisting largely of protected nature reserves brimming with an amazingly diverse wildlife.

By luck, it was also on my close friend Giorgia's travel list and we went for a week's holiday, renting a 4x4 with a rather simple itinerary - flying into San Jose before setting off for the Arenal Volcano National Park, followed by the Cloud Forest in Monteverde and finally Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast, spending just a few days in each area. I feel restless if I stand still for too long so this hectic trip, across such different parts of the country, was perfect for me and full of incredible memories.

Driving a small section of the Pan-American Highway (famous for connecting Alaska to Chile) while on our way to Arenal - trying to avoid running over the pedestrians, dogs and cyclists who also frequent it. Driving for hours on narrow, sinuous dirt roads riddled with potholes and complete with impressive precipices. Few road signs to help us find our way and the ones present usually reporting wildly different mileage to our destination. Going through small villages clinging onto mountains, posh houses next door to run down cabins, all drowning under tropical foliage and flowers. Witnessing a group of teenagers forming a circle around a cock fight by the roadside.

Amazing food. Enjoying our first Costa Rican lunch of marinated beef, rice and beans at the Arenal Observatory Lodge to the sound of crickets, birds and monkeys while watching the mist slowly lift from the rumbling volcano. That same evening being treated to the sight of bright red lava spurting out while having dinner. Having the best tapas in the world in a tiny restaurant in Monteverde. Endlessly enjoying the freshest fish and seafood at the Gaia Hotel restaurant in Manuel Antonio.

Countless wildlife encounters. Crocodiles, iguanas, large lizards, boa constrictors, banana spiders, bats, turtles, too many types of birds to mention and colourful butterflies. Plenty of monkeys too which is what I was particularly looking forward to and we even had a particularly dramatic encounter with an injured sloth that we found on the side of a trail and helped rescue with our guide.

Adventure in the form of zip lining. Adrenaline and excitement pumping through my veins, my entire body shaking while I whizzed through the mountains and rainforest in Monteverde for two and a half hours. Finally taking in the incredible view of the sprawling valleys once I was done screaming on the 750 meters long line, reaching speeds of 40 kms an hour. My heart jumping out of my chest as we did a mini bungee jump (if some of you remember what I did last year, this was a thousand times harder!). The fantastic sense of adventure I felt when I boarded the tiny propeller plane taking me back to San Jose - feeling like a traveler from another era.

Relaxing. Swimming in the emerald sea on a near deserted beach in Manuel Antonio, leafing through my book while surrounded by iguanas and hoping that the boa constrictor our guide mentioned seeing earlier was not sleeping in the branches of tree I had taken cover under. Enjoying a luxurious and indulgent 90 minutes chocolate massage. Sipping a robust Argentinian Cabernet Sauvignon in the open air, colonial style, bar at the Gaia Reserve to the sound of local music, watching a breathtaking sunset turning shades of pink, orange and glowing crimson over the rainforest and the sea in the distance.

And everywhere, marvelling at the incredible friendliness of the people. Smiling at their surprise when Giorgia and I had to explain that I am French but live in New York, she is Italian but lives in London ... and that we met in China. And envying the country's motto - "Pura Vida", the pure life in more ways than one as Costa Rica is one of the very few countries in the World without an army or a defense budget ...

Costa Rica pictures

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Change


November 4th 2008.

The day started normally enough ... I woke up with only a slight pang of nervousness in the pit of my stomach. Made my way to the lounge, still in a slightly sleepy daze. Put the kettle on. Slipped a bag of Earl Grey (which I get specially brought by friends visiting from the UK) in the teapot. Turned on the computer to check the emails I had received overnight and glanced at my facebook newsfeed.

But how special the day was became quickly apparent. Most of my friends facebook status reflected their anticipation of the events that were to unfold throughout the evening - the hugely important choice that America had to make in the wake of it's 56th Presidential Election. I looked out of my window only to see a large queue of people forming at the corner of 86th and Broadway, the nearest voting station from my apartment. I dutifully updated my facebook status, expressing my own anxiousness and excitement.

At work, all conversations inevitably turned to the election - how many hours had been spent queuing to vote and what election parties would be attended that night. I spoke of my frustration at not being allowed to vote in such an historical election. I have always felt very strongly about civic duties - about the right and the need to vote. In fact, the most exciting thing for me when I turned 18 years old was finally being old enough to vote - sad but true and my parents can attest to that!

I unfortunately had to attend a business dinner that evening (preventing me from attending some of the election parties I had been invited to) as I have joined the Advertisers Advisory board of a major US Online Marketing vendor. Talking "shop" was far from my mind as by the time evening came, my state of "slight nervousness" had descended into mild hysteria. I went home as soon as I could and sat down to watch the coverage on CNN.

I found the whole process incredibly confusing - not understanding why everyone was more concerned about the number of Electoral seats being won, rather than the popular vote ... Numerous text messages were exchanged with American friends who kindly explained and also shed light on what "gubernatorial" means. I should clearly have done my homework ahead of time!

When Ohio was predicted to have been won by Obama, CNN proclaimed the election to be won without a doubt. I again found myself confused and unable to celebrate as it seemed a little premature to me ... until I heard the noise coming from outside my windows. I have not seen such an overwhelming display of public euphoria in a long time (the last time was probably when France won the World Cup in 1998!) - car horns were going wild, people were screaming, crying and dancing in the streets. I did my own little happy dance while exchanging calls and texts with my friends to share in the joy and relief. I became rather emotional and shed some tears when watching Obama's victory speech ... four consecutive times in a row thanks to the wonders of cable live replay! I don't think I have ever felt so inspired and moved by a politician in my life.

I wish I could say that the public exhilaration lasted for many days after the victory ... It did the next morning at least when I sat next to two ladies in the subway who loudly expressed their joy and encouraged the rest of the carriage to cheer with them - which we gladly did. But with America's economy in the most precarious position it has been in decades, I'm afraid that I went back to work worrying about redundancies and the incredibly challenging year ahead.

However there is genuine hope in the new government and trust that they will make the right decisions even if the road to recovery and change will be long and hard. At least, with Barack Obama at it's helm - yes, we can!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Perfect Day


Recipe for a perfect day.

Take two best friends in need of cheering up.

Order Eggs Benedict at Nice Matin, eaten alfresco in the still warm air and brilliant sunshine.

Decide to walk off brunch, with no particular destination in mind or aim other than soaking in the atmosphere of the bustling streets.

Stop over at Columbus Circle and literally bump into the actress playing Hermione in the Harry Potter movies. Fake ignorance but can't help feeling star struck.

Take 8th Avenue down and chance upon one of the last street fairs of the year. Buy freshly made lemonade and check out the various stands. Stop at a palm reader's booth and decide it's a good idea to have your palms read for the first time in your life. Learn that you will both live until 91 and that it's important that you "close the door", which can only be achieved with the help of $125 crystals ... which can handily be bought from the psychic. Politely decline and walk away laughing hysterically.

Continue strolling down 8th, nearing 34th street and decide that you are too far down to stop now. Remember the Bansky exhibition in the West Village that you've been meaning to see and walk until you reach it. Experience the surrealism of the small space, set up as a fake pet store - http://thevillagepetstoreandcharcoalgrill.com

Realise that it is now early evening and that the Meat Packing district and the wonderful rooftop bar of the Gansevoort is not that far.

Sip champagne on said rooftop until the sun sets.

Repeat all the above as often as necessary until blissful happiness is reached again.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I Hate New York


I know I said I love New York over and over again on this blog, to the point that it is probably boring.

But what I failed to mention is that I, and many of my friends, have a love-hate relationship with the City too. As I mentioned before, this is a transient place - most people weren't born here and have come to the City on some kind of quest for the perfect life. Our expectations of New York are very high, higher than they would be of any other cities in the world because in most cases living here is a life-long ambition, a fanciful dream that finally became reality.

And reality is invariably not as glamorous as the dream. Living here doesn't make you happy if you weren't happy before you moved. In many ways, New York has a way of blowing out your previous "unhappiness" (regardless of how small it was before) to new proportions. If you felt lonely before, New York will make you feel lonelier. If you felt you were not achieving enough, New York will make you feel like you are achieving nothing. If you were looking for love ... well, let's not even go there!

It is the City where every single person you meet is an over-achiever. Where it's normal to have pre-dinner drinks with one friend, dinner with another, and post-dinner drinks with someone else. Where we cram everything we can into the very little time we have. Where relationships of any kind are either passionately intense (and therefore short-lived) or dreadfully casual. Where the palpable energy can stimulate you and suck you dry at the same time.

As a few of my friends are leaving the City after 3 or 4 years, disillusioned and exhausted, I am making a conscious effort to enjoy New York until I cannot stand it's frenetic pace anymore. I do feel lucky - I have the career I always wanted to have, friends who love me and are always there for me and I live in a place that provides me with endless excitement and intellectual stimulation.

But New York sometimes has a way to make me look at my half-full glass as decidedly half-empty. Nothing is easy here - you always have to fight for everything, all the time. I have seriously considered leaving the City a couple of times already - going back to more familiar, safer, quieter territory like London.

But a taxi ride from downtown Manhattan to the Upper West Side gets me every time - catching a glimpse of the neon sign on top the New Yorker Hotel, going through Hell's Kitchen's bustling streets, crossing the West Side Highway bridge with it's amazing view of the glittering skyscrapers ... It always makes me realise that I am not quite done with New York yet. It may have thrown me on the floor and kicked me in the guts a couple of times but the battle is not over.

New York 2 - Steph 1. The next move is mine.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Manhattan Nights


I realise that I haven't blogged much about some of the most entertaining nights out I had over the summer. I've always liked a party - I take it from my Dad who always has to be the last one to leave, just like me. This is especially true since I became single two years ago. With no-one to answer to or to alert of my whereabouts, the party girl in me has truly been unleashed ...


Singing Queens
One of Marie's friend is a DJ who regularly plays in New York. He invited her to dance boat party where he was DJing and we decided to make a girls night out of it with two other girlfriends, Lisa & Libs. Donning our best summer nights outfits we made our way to Chelsea Pier, the idea being that we would sail around Manhattan for around 3 hours while drinking and dancing.

As soon as we started queuing to get on the boat, we realised that it might not quite be our scene. Our fellow party goers were clearly avid clubbers and on the young side. Our fears were confirmed when we eventually boarded. We went straight to the bar and ordered some white wine, only to be told, after the barman poured us a glass each in a plastic cup that this was the last of it ... Clearly, wine was not the tipple of choice at this party and we suspected that alcohol was probably not the vice of choice in any case.

We managed to find an awkward corner in which to stand, surrounded by sweaty crowds. The hard house music was deatheningly loud. I was bracing myself for three hours of hell when Libs and I exchanged a panicked look and I knew then that she felt the same way as me. We hatched a hurried plan to get off the boat as soon as possible. Marie and Lisa also shared our feelings and we literally jumped off the boat minutes before it sailed.

Instead, we went to the rooftop bar of the Gansevoort Hotel, in the Meat Packing district. Sipping cocktails in real glasses, with cool music playing in the background, is much more my idea of fun these days. It came to that time of the night when, after a few drinks and lots of chatting, our feet started tapping along to the music and going to a Karaoke bar seemed like a very good idea ... We hopped in a taxi to Sing Sing in the East Village and while the rest of the night is a little blurry, I do know that we spent hours in our private room, belting out 80s hits until the early hours of the morning.

Friends Melting Pot
Paul, an old friend of mine, was in town from London and staying with me for a week back in July. On Friday night, we made separate dinner plans but agreed that we would meet later at a birthday party he had been invited to in the Lower East Side.

So I first met up with Kimmy, Debbie, Joe and some of his friends at Kum Gang San, a traditional Korean Barbeque restaurant in Midtown. One of our dinner companions was Korean and ordered everything for us. It was a wonderful way to sample new and exciting dishes. One of them was a seafood soup: plump prawns and scallops were floating in a fragrant broth as well as something round, dimpled and white, which I could not identify. Joe and I happened to take a bite of "it" at the same moment and our faces convulsed. Upon biting on the chewy exterior, a bitter liquid came out of it and we both immediately spat out the offending "thing". Joe's friend laughed and told us that we had just tried something called "sea squirts". We googled it on our blackberries and were horrified to find out that it was a slug-like sea creature, known for eating its own brain when it found a rock to set up home. I won't be trying that again.

I left my friends who were going on to Soho and went to meet Paul. The party was on the rooftop of a newly built apartment block, with amazing views of the City glittering in the night. As Paul started to wholeheartedly embrace my love of living in New York (not difficult when you're sipping a cocktail with a view like this), Marie called me and we decided to leave the party and join her and a few other joint friends at Toy Company on Norfolk Street.

No, we did not go to a children's toy store. The Toy Company is a "secret" bar that could easily be missed if it wasn't for the small sign on the entrance gate, surrounded by burly bouncers. A short walk through an underground tunnel leads you to a bar that looks like a Victorian living room, complete with a huge fireplace, antique chandeliers and velvet paisley wallpaper. There is also a back room which can only be accessed through a sliding bookcase. The main quirk of the place is that all drinks are served in tea cups. It was impossible not to lift our little fingers as we drank from our dainty cups and I had to convince myself a couple of times that it was indeed wine I was sipping and not the finest Earl Grey.


Brooklyn Barbie
Strictly speaking, this event did not happen at night and did not even take place in Manhattan but it is one of my favourite summer memories. Larry hosted one of his infamous barbecues at his house in Brooklyn on July 17th. He spent hours cooking southern style pork and twice baked potatoes, bought enough meat to feed an entire army and a group of around eight of us made the trip across the East river to attend it.

Larry lives on the ground floor of an old factory, set in a quiet residential street populated by families and elderly people. The barbecue was set up right on the pavement and thankfully one person in the group actually had any kind of meat grilling skills. Pop music was blasting out of his appartment and competing with a rather odd-looking group of teenagers who were practicing line dancing in the park across the street. Evidently, we drawned out their music and engaged in an hilarious dance-off with them. Phil had the best dance routine, writhing around on the balcony in suggestive ways.

More salacious entertainment was brought on by the children's paddling pool Larry had also placed on the pavement and we spent hours throwing water at each other. I believe that Larry changed outfits a record number of five times due to the constant soaking, while we were left to dry off as best as we could until the next water fight.

Other highlights of the day included putting make up on Phil's face while he was "resting" from drinking a little too much vodka, as well some rather rude things being done to a Little Mermaid Disney figure ... I don't think the neighbours have quite recovered from our antics yet.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Stalker

Barack Obama is stalking me ...

He really is. I get almost an email a day from him, his campaign manager or his running mate, Joe Biden. Sometimes even his wife emails me. I admit it is because I have donated to his campaign 3 times now. Of course, the irony of this is that I am not actually "allowed" to donate to a presidential campaign as I am not a US citizen but I ticked the box anyway. I did it because I am absolutely terrified that John Mc Cain will win.

This election is fascinating to me. While I am sure that Obama will not be able to deliver on all his promises, this country has the opportunity to change and show the world that it does not support the terrible decisions Bush made during his tenure, that it is in fact a liberal and progressive country, free of old-fashioned bigotry and prepared to help it's people.

The reality, however, scares me. The country is so divided. Look at an election map showing which states are Democrat or Republican, and you will see a big red area in the middle, while the East and West coasts are resolutely blue. I believe that race is not as important at this stage of the campaign now (it should never have been in the first place of course) and it is now a pure left-wing versus right-wing decision and a matter of who can demonstrate that they have the interest of the "average American" at heart. I am not convinced that Middle America is ready to make the change and cannot imagine the consequences of having yet another aging, conservative leader at its helm.

I am awaiting the 4th of November with bated breath, watching the candidates debates with a passion I haven't felt since Le Pen came close to be elected in France a few years back. I will be starting a new course at NYU next week on the language of American Politics - studying some of the most important political documents and speeches from the days of the Constitution to present time. I'm sure it will be fascinating and will give me more insights into the intriguing political landscape of this country.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Intervention


Marie staged an "intervention" on me for Labor Day weekend, a few weeks ago.

I was at least 2 weeks past my "I have to get out of the City" point and was feeling sick and frankly quite low. We had talked about going to the Caribbean that weekend but by the time we looked into it more seriously, the prices had soared so I was bracing myself for a long weekend in New York, while desperately needing some peace and quiet, away from the noise and the energy of this place.

But Marie came to the rescue and called me announcing that she had booked us train tickets to Poughkeepsie and a motel room in Kingston, Upstate New York.

To be honest, we really had no idea where we were going but we were on a mission to relax and take long walks in the woods. Exhausted but excited, we boarded a train from Penn Station to Poughkeepsie at lunch time on Saturday, but not before loading up on a stack of gossip magazines and a copy of the New York Mag of course. The journey itself was great as we travelled north past beautiful lakes and white picket fence houses. I love American trains as they are so large that they almost feel more like a plane. They also have old-fashioned controllers who punch your ticket on the train, which I find so quaint.

We arrived at Poughkeepsie Station where we expected to take a train to Kingston, only to be told that there were none and that we would have to take a 45 minutes taxi trip. Little did we know at the time that it would be one of the many taxi rides we would take that weekend ...

Our motel in Kingston was like the ones you see in the movies - a few buildings of connected rooms, with doors facing the car park but ours had the added advantage of a swimming pool. When we checked in, the clerk asked for our car registration number and when we told her we didn't have one, she looked at us as if we were aliens. We hadn't thought of renting a car, assuming that the country side in the US is the same as in Europe in that you can walk everywhere. How mistaken were we!

We ventured out of our motel only to find a residential street on one side and the motorway on the other. We wanted to find a convenience store to buy water and cigarettes and therefore bravely crossed the motorway on foot ... yes, you read this right. It was quite something ... But there was no store to be found so we went into a pizza restaurant to grab a coffee. The owner chatted to us and upon hearing our plight called his girlfriend (who was on her way over, by car of course) so she could pick up some cigarettes for us! And he refused to let us pay for the coffee ... at least, we found out quickly how friendly people were.

The lack of car was not such an issue in the end however, as we called upon the services of the local taxi company to take us to and from places we wanted to see. They thought we were mad too and perhaps this is a sign that Marie & I have spent too much time in Manhattan already ...

On Sunday, we decided to walk around the Ashokan Reservoir, which provides water to New York City. The size of it took us by surprise as it spans 34km2 but the sense of wide open space was amazing and very calming. We quickly realised that we would only be walking a very small portion of it and strolled along the banks, admiring the lush trees and the completely clear blue sky.
When we were ready to leave we realised much to our horror that we had no mobile phone reception and therefore no means to call a taxi! Thankfully, our driver had originally dropped us off near the only police station in the area (with the words "this will be a safe place for you to come back to", which we laughed at at the time) so we made our way back there and asked the nice police men if we could use their phone ...
We decided to go into Kingston itself, which is a lovely town, set by the Hudson river. The city was in a very cheerful mood as the annual Irish Festival was taking place, meaning that there were a number of stands in the streets and bands performing. I'm not sure how many Irish descendants still remain in the town, but it certainly looked like everyone wanted to be Irish for the day! This made for terrific people watching and it was wonderful to witness the sense of community and neighbourhood of a place where everyone seemed to know each other.

We ended our trip with a long, leisurely boat tour on the Hudson and got back to New York refreshed and ready for City life again.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Yankee


My long-time friends Sam and Claire came into town for a few days and had the genius idea of buying some tickets to see one of last baseball games at the 85 years old Yankee Stadium, which is soon to be demolished (the new stadium is being built just across the road). Although I cannot be described as a sports lover by any stretch of the imagination, I really wanted to go so that at least my first baseball game would be a historic one.

The excitement was palpable as soon as we got off the subway at 161st street - probably the most northern point I have ever been to in the City (cue jokes about me getting a nose bleed of course).

The game had already started but crowds were still slowly making their way into the stadium. There was no doubt that this was indeed a historical moment for die-hard Yankees fans as proved by the 55,000 or so of them who came that day. Our very first stop, once inside, was to the merchandise shop where we bought big foams hands and branded caps. The next stop was at the food counter to get a hotdog and a diet coke. I always said that if I ever saw a game, it would be like an American: waving a big hand in the air and eating junk food.

While I was excited to be there, I fully expected to be bored and leave the game early, rather than stay for the 3 or 4 hours it lasts. Much to my surprise and enjoyment, I was not. I never really got into the game though as I don't understand the rules. Sam patiently tried to explain them to me but my eyes would glaze over each time. Nothing to do with Sam's communication skills at all but my brain is somehow unable to process the rules of sports or card games for that matter! So the excitement I felt came from the atmosphere, the beautiful weather, the constant clapping, singing along to the frequent musical interludes (mostly cheesy 80s anthems - think "Rocky" and "Enter the sandman"), the messages displayed on the huge TV screens (there was a marriage proposal of course) and making as many hand-related jokes as possible.

We did look like complete tourists in our attires and I didn't help matters by asking Sam rather loudly, half way through the game, who the Yankees were actually playing against ... But we didn't care and had a fantastic time.

If enjoying baseball games does not make me sort of an American, I guess that getting the green card I am applying for might ... I promise not to lose any of my French/Britishness though!

Pride


Having a Gay Best Friend (GBF) may seem like a terrible cliche, the stereotype side-kick to girls around the world ... But I have always had a GBF from as long as I can remember - although unbeknown to me at times as my first male best friend when I was a teenager was gay but didn't come out until we were in our mid-twenties.

Any girl will understand me - there is nothing better than having a gay guy as one of your closest friends. You love and trust each other to an almost romantic level, but without any messy attraction getting in the way. Yet he is still a man - a man who tells you that you look pretty in that dress or that your hair looks good today, but also tells you that your bum does look rather big in that outfit!
In a way, it is the best of both worlds - you can check out boys together and talk about relationships, yet your GBF will be the one telling you the hard and hurtful truth when a guy is messing with you, whereas your girlfriends will try to understand and make excuses for him (in the very same way you are).

I feel very unapologetic about how much I enjoy hanging out with gay boys, which is why I was very happy to join Larry and some of his friends to watch the New York Gay Pride a few weeks back. The atmosphere was wild as rain poured on the most eclectic set of people I have ever seen gathered in one place - from punks to rastafarians, bikers, yuppies, hipsters, families and OAPs ... all waiving the rainbow flag.

I had a blast, standing up on the banquette of the very packed Duplex (one of NY's flagship gay bars) as I was craning my neck to watch the parade, dancing to classic club anthems and sipping Pride specials (vodka & pink lemonade). We went to a house party afterwards and I remember being perched up high on a fire escape and watching the colourful crowds below causing chaos in the streets while discussing sex and the City (and I don't mean the TV show) with a boy wearing nothing more than a tiny pair of speedos and glittery eye shadow ...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hurricane


The tail end of hurricane Hanna hit New York City last Saturday, after sweeping through the Caribbean.

It mainly meant tropical rain and gusty winds but I was amused at the level of high-tech preparation ahead of the storm - which included, as I noticed when looking through my window that morning, some plastic sheets having been placed over the subway grills and held *securely* in place by buckets filled with what looked like sand.

Needless to say I did not take the subway to go downtown for one of my friend's birthday party that evening. The dreadful weather didn't dampen our spirits and we feasted on Korean barbeque at Do Hwa in the West Village, before finishing the party back at his place for some very bad collective singing and rather wobbly dancing.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

New York Settlers

As I was riding the subway on my way to work the other morning, a Barnes & Nobles ad caught my eyes. It was a short extract from a book written in 1948 by the American novelist E.B. White entitled "Here is New York".

"There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter - the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last - the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, itsdedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion ..."

The truth of these words, even though they were written exactly 60 years ago, really resonated with me in the light of an email exchange I had with a friend the night before.

He is a born and bread New Yorker and during our conversation he asked me to send him my "Fall in love with New York in 3 days" itinerary which I had mentioned to him before, as he had some family in town. I asked him in exchange to share with me his perfect tour of the City, expecting that he would know so many more places that I hadn't discovered yet or a way to see New York as a native that I just wouldn't know about ... But he didn't and it appears that E.B White was right when he wrote that people who were born elsewhere are more passionate about the City and that we perhaps also experience it in a very different way to native New Yorkers, let alone Commuters.

Therefore, I feel compelled to share here what my itinerary is in its precise details. I do vary the restaurants and sights a little but this is really my ultimate, favourite and fast way to share my love of New York with friends and family from abroad.

Day 1 - Upper West Side/Central Park/Midtown

I live on the Upper West Side so this is where my guests wake up on their first morning in the City. I only offer a light breakfast - mainly because my fridge usually contains nothing more than bread, butter, olives and wine ...

We set off at around 11 am and walk down Columbus Avenue, which has plenty of picturesque boutiques and restaurants, and stop at the Antiques market on 79th & Columbus, right across from the Natural History Museum, as I love it's eclecticness combined with it's genuine neighbourhood atmosphere. You can find anything there from organic vegetables to Moroccan mirrors and Victorian jewelry. A stop at one of my favourite brunch spot, Ocean Grill, is also compulsory to sample the different and delicious varieties of Eggs Benedict they serve.

Slightly dazed and confused from the carbohydrate and fat overdose, I make my guests enter Central Park at 77th Street and we stroll to the Lake and the Boat House, which is level with 74th. After a few minutes of walking inside the Park, you do forget that you are in the middle of the City and I love that feeling, as well as giving my guests a sense of peacefulness before I immerse them into the madness of midtown Manhattan.
If time allows it, a rowing trip on the Lake is a must. If it is during the week, then I will substitute brunch at Ocean Grill with brunch at the Boat House as it's location is idyllic. I would not recommend attempting to get into the Boat House at the weekends as it is packed and you will be turned down at the door. Even on a weekday, you will have to be put on a waiting list and will be given a rather futuristic looking buzzer which will flash uncontrollably once a table has become available, indicating that you should make your way back to the restaurant from whichever part of the Park you ended up strolling to while killing time.
In the event that you have more time in the City than 3 days, I would also highly recommend the Conservatory Gardens and the Zoo - the first for it's romantic and serene atmosphere, the second for the sheer fun of seeing the Penguins walk in a funny way.

From the Boat House, I take my guests down on a walk to 5th Avenue. I love the contrast of the two - going from an almost country-side like experience to New York's most famous and busiest avenue, complete with dizzying skyscrapers.
I'll take 5th Avenue down, stopping at the various shops, from the Apple store to Abercrombie & Fitch (one for the girls as the gorgeous male models in the store are naked from the waist up!). I make sure to stop at the Rockerfeller Center and also in Times Square - both very touristy spots, but they really have to be seen once, especially the latter.

I then turn East at Times Square, taking 42nd Street to Bryant Park - quick stop to marvel at the black tower with gold highlights of the Bryant Park Hotel and also at the Beaux Arts building of the New York Library. But this is only a pit-stop on the way to Grand Central train station, which is probably my favourite New York landmark. Newcomers to New York are always sceptical when I tell them that I am taking them to a train station, but watching their jaws drop in awe once we get inside is priceless. No other building in the City still sends shivers down my spine when I enter it.

By that time, my guests and I are rather tired so I take them to one of my favourite rooftop bars on top of the Library Hotel, just around the corner from the station, for a relaxing and well deserved cocktail while watching the lights of the Empire State Building blink in the evening dusk.














Day 2 - Soho/West Village/Meat Packing


Breakfast on Day 2 usually takes place at Barneys Greengrass, which needs no introduction as I have mentioned it so often in this blog already. We then catch the subway downtown to Soho - if this is my guests' first visit to New York, and therefore first subway experience, I usually provide detailed coaching on the art of successfully swiping a Metrocard through the turnstile, which is no mean feat as it happens - relax your wrist and walk through as you swipe at the precise speed of 2 miles per hour!

We get off at Prince Street and Broadway, one of my favourite corners of the City for its sheer busyness. As I am physically unable to walk around Soho without a Tall Black Americano from Starbucks, I usually make a stop there. The immediate next stop is Dean & Deluca, probably for sentimental reasons on my part. I visited it the first time I went to New York 10 years ago, fell in love with it and proceeded to buy almost everything in the store that could fit in my luggage! I love the perfectly formed and arranged vegetables, the huge varieties of breads and cheeses and the fact that it is the only place in the City where they stock proper Twinnings Earl Grey tea bags.

We then walk around the cobbled streets of Mercer, Wooster and Green before ending up in West Broadway for some serious non-high street shopping in my favourite boutiques. I like to make a stop at the quirky MoMa store on Spring Street too as one can pick up anything low-brow or high-brow there.

Then we head off to Washington Square Park to watch the various street entertainers - from classical pianists to break dancers and surreal interpretive dancers. And also to observe the chess players towards the end of the Park - just don't join them unless you have a few hundred dollars to spare!

From Washington Square, we stroll along West 4th to the West Village and wonder around all the small streets on the way with no particular plan - the streets are so lovely there: tree-lined and filled with small independent shops ranging from seedy sex shops to specialist cigar shop. By that time, a cocktail pit stop is in order and we have one at The Garage, on 7th Avenue and Grove Street, for an Espresso Martini and live Jazz.

Depending on energy levels (and number of Expresso Martinis consumed), I usually like to keep on walking to the Meat Packing district and its cobbled streets and designer stores - if only to drool at shoes with vertiginous heels in the window of the Christian Louboutin shop.













Day 3 - Boat Trip/Lower East Side/East Village


There is no better way to appreciate the City's skyline than from afar and a boat trip is one of my favourite ways to show my guests what a beautilful, lego-like place, I live in.

I usually take them on the New York Sports & Racket Club yacht which leaves from the pier on East 23rd. It goes around most of Manhattan and lasts for over 2 hours. It's a smallish boat which makes it more intimate (do not ever take the free Circle Line ferry unless you enjoy rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other people!), there's a simple buffet lunch and a bar at the top of the boat, usually playing Frank Sinatra classics. The other boat trip I like is operated by Shear Water Sailing, who run sail boat cruises which are even more relaxing. Seeing the city from the water is an absolute must have, regardless of the type of boat. They also always sail past the World Financial Center, where I work, and I secretly enjoy people's envy when they realise my office is located in a beautiful marina and my "local" is a open-air waterfront bar with unbeatable views of the Statue of Liberty ...

After the boat ride, it's off to the Lower East Side. I have a special fondness for it for many reasons - I had no idea it even existed until I actually moved to New York, I have since had memorable nights out there and it is one of the most historic areas of the City. I love the fact that it combines tiny fashion-forward boutiques (some of them require you to ring a bell before allowing you in!) and yet has a raw, slightly unsafe, edge to it. I love walking around Rivington, Ludlow and Stanton and peak inside Economy Candy (corner of Rivington & Essex), an old-fashioned candy store stocking many unusual sugary delights.

A walk along heavily trafficked East Houston is then required until we reach the corner with Bowery. This area used to be incredibly dangerous until a few years ago but now, somehow surprisingly, largely houses a lot of stores selling light fixtures. As we turn left onto Bowery though, we catch a glimpse of the modern structure of the New Museum which sticks out amongst the low-rising tenement buildings. I am not a huge fan of Modern Art but the museum is fun and has a roof terrace offering fantastic views of Lower Manhattan.

My itinerary from there becomes a little fuzzy but involves strolling through Chinatown and Little Italy with no particular purpose other than soaking in the atmosphere.

A taxi ride takes us to the East Village, where I like to be dropped off at the start of St Marks and Astor Place, which marks the beginning of the East Village and Alphabet City (so called because avenues there have letters rather than names). This area has a slight punk vibe to it and I like to laugh at the shops that line the street - selling anything from "I love NY" t-shirts, to 80s style sunglasses, bongs, tattoos and piercings.

Because Larry used to live in the East Village, I discovered that there are many small neighbourhood gardens in that area - literally spaces between walk-up buildings that haven't been built on and that locals have turned into their own urban gardens. They are open to everyone and offer an oasis of green, peace, quiet and slight bohemia (in a "I am growing my own organic vegetables" kind of way). My favourite is on 6th Street and Avenue B because I can walk in there and feel like I am in an endearingly unkept English countryside garden, hardly believing I am in still in the heart of New York.

Day 3 invariably ends with dinner at Cafecito, my favourite Cuban restaurant on 11th Street and Avenue C. I always order Churrasco - thinly sliced flank steak with rice and beans topped with spicy coriander pesto. Oh, and the fabulous tostones (fried slices of plantains) with garlic sauce and deliciously potent and minty Mojitos ...




Are you in love with New York yet?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Cheers

You know that you have found your local neighbourhood spot when you sit down and the waiter doesn't even ask what you are going to order as he knows already.

Marie and I have made a tradition of going to Barney Greengrass - my favourite Jewish deli, as mentioned before - for breakfast, usually on Saturday mornings. We live 2 blocks away from each other and Barneys is exactly in between, which is deliciously convenient.

As I have been away, we hadn't been there in weeks until today but the waiter welcomed us back with a cheerful "Hello ladies, the usual?".

Sometimes you want to go somewhere where everybody knows your name ... or in this case, where they know your fondness for sesame seeds bagels, Nova scrambled eggs and bottomless coffee!




Wednesday, July 30, 2008

South of France

Sanary-Sur-Mer, tiny fishing village 50 kilometers away from busy Marseilles. Family holiday exactly as we used to have them as children.

The sound of the cigales as soon as we stepped off the train from Paris, via Marseilles. Faint smell of lavender in the warm air. Cypres trees gently swaying in the breeze. Knotted vines precariously clinging onto steep white hills.

Hit by the heady scent of suntan lotion, a blend of vanilla and coconut, as soon as we reach the beach – so distinctive of French beaches in particular.

Lazy alfresco meals, invariably involving grilling fresh fish or meat on the barbeque. Insisting on drinking only the local Rose wine. Walking barefoot everywhere. Wearing as few clothes as decently possible. Gentle bite of the sun on bare skin. Warm croissants and Nutella every morning.

My brother and sister introducing me to new French Reggae music, while I make them listen to Hotel Costes. Rediscovering the fantastic chilled out beats of the “Harmony Jazz” album (disk 1 only). Making endless lists of songs I still have to buy on iTunes.

Cycling to neighbouring villages and ports. Town houses with buttery and worn plaster crammed along narrow, cobbled streets. Pastel hues of the ancient doors and shutters. Purples, yellows, blues and reds of fishing boats. Smell of freshly caught fish – sea water with a metallic undertone.

Shopping for fresh produce at the market. Festival of colours, odors and sounds. Artfully arranged fruits, vegetables, olives, spices, herbs, cheeses and cold meats. Market sellers loudly calling over prospective customers, happily sharing recipes and jokes.

Making bouillabaisse – a 24 hour long process involving marinating different varieties of fish in plenty of garlic, herbes de Provence, tomatoes, wild fennel we picked in a neighbouring field and a touch of Pastis. Enjoyed on a balmy evening, with toasted slices of French bread thinly spread with garlicky, hot, saffron-spiced mayonnaise.

Ten whole hours of peaceful, uninterrupted sleep every night as well as the occasional nap in the afternoon on the beach.

No wonder I can’t write full sentences anymore …


Paris

I've always said that I would never live in Paris. Despite having visited the city a number of times in the past and finding it beautiful, I never felt a kinship to it in the way I do with London or New York.

However, on my way down to the South of France from London, I couldn’t resist stopping over in Paris for a few days to stay with my 24 years old cousin, Jeremy, who lives in a fantastic apartment in the 3rd Arrondissement. My sister joined us and there is absolutely no better way to appreciate a city than to be guided through it by people who live/have lived there.

It seems that living in “New” York made me appreciate the classical and old world beauty of Paris even more with its elegant Haussmanian buildings, perfectly manicured parks and tiny cafes spilling out onto cobbled pedestrian streets. There is a sense of architectural unity, a common look and feel throughout the city, which is just not found in disparate and diverse Manhattan.

I embraced my inner, but often denied, “Frenchness” with much more fervour than I anticipated and fell in love with Paris a little more with each new experience.

Sharing a delicious alfresco dinner in a tiny cobbled street, near the Isle of Saint Louis - drinking Rose wine and unashamedly smoking in between courses. The scene couldn’t have been more typically French unless we had also been wearing berets and biting into raw garlic cloves.

Visiting the “Buttes Chaumond”, an oasis of green and cascading water in the heart of the City, where we took in the sweeping view of the Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tour in the distance, after a rather breathtaking hike to the top of the hill.

Stumbling upon a serene and peaceful Medieval garden – the Cluny museum - in the heart of the busy "Quartier Latin".

Having dinner at La Bellevilloise, away from the beaten path, in the 20th Arrondissement - a spacious restaurant, filled with olive trees inside, with an outdoor terrace and a jazz club. We were treated to a live acoustic guitar set by 2 men who took it in turn to sing easy listening hits from Eric Clapton to Jeff Bluckley.
As we walked to the Metro on the way home, we stumbled across an odd little café tucked in the curve of a paved street and the tiny tables set outside enticed us to have one last drink. We ordered a glass of wine, which came in the tiniest balloon glass I have ever seen, and was served by the café owner who had clearly consumed quite a lot of alcohol himself. It felt as if we were in a small village, rather than Paris ....

Finally visiting the Musee D’Orsay, which houses the world’s most important collection of Impressionist Art (my favourite period). It was overwhelming for me to see so many of the paintings I have admired in books for many years all within the same building - from “La Montagne Sainte Victoire” by Cezanne, to “Portrait en bleu” by Van Gogh, “Bal au Moulin de la Galette” by Renoir and “La Laveuse” by Toulouse-Lautrec. I actually got teary eyed more than a few times.

Perusing old and dusty books in a small and quirky English bookstore called “Shakespeare & Co”, opposite Notre Dame at Kilometer Zero (so called because it is the point where all distances to & from Paris are measured). Rows upon rows of books, piled up to the ceiling on precarious looking shelves. A woman playing her own hauntingly beautiful melodies on a piano, crammed in between bookshelves. An upstairs area with more clumsy piles of books, but also beds and chairs for people to read at their leisure. Notes with messages about life, love and pain handwritten by visitors and stuck to the walls or left on tables. It was so inspiring and ever so bohemian that I couldn’t resist leaving a note of my own … I felt compelled to buy some books as a memento of my visit and picked up “The unbearable lightness of being” by Milan Kundera and “A moveable feast” which is Ernest Hemingway’s account of his time as a struggling writer in 1920s Paris.

I think I may have changed my mind about living in Paris one day ...


Monday, July 21, 2008

Cold Britannia

Since moving to New York, I always make sure that I stop over in London for a few days twice a year, usually on my way back to France to see my family. Having lived there for 12 years, a lot of my "extended" family and very dear friends are there. This time, the trip was little more complicated - I was in London for 5 days, then in Paris for 2 before finally joining my family in the South of France for a week.

Moving to another country is always challenging from a friendship perspective and I must admit that I fear fewer and fewer people will still want to see me as years go by ... although it hasn't been the case so far, thankfully. When I see my London friends again, whether I am in touch with them on a weekly (or sometimes daily) basis via email, or just once in a while, it always feel like we only saw each other yesterday, despite our lives changing and evolving all the time.

I therefore always look forward to going back to London ... although this time I had the distinct impression that London didn't want me there, considering the number of things that went wrong during my short stay.

It all started with the constant rain, grey skies and surprisingly cold temperatures. I had only packed summer dresses (a case of misguided optimism) and was eventually forced to buy a pair of trousers and borrow a friend's coat, after a couple of initial days of shivering, constant cursing and getting soaked to the bones (usually while lugging my heavy suitcase in the streets!).

Things got worse as I moved into my hotel after staying with various friends for a few days. I was staying in a guest house in Belgravia and was given a dark and damp basement bedroom with a tiny bathroom - so small that I felt I was showering in a coffin (an experience I would not recommend!). And with only one towel (not much larger than a hand towel) for the entire 3 day stay, and a TV that wouldn't have looked out of place in a museum, I was close to tears.

Even a trip to Brighton turned into a much less straight forward affair than it should have been. I was making my way down to have dinner with Charlie, one of my oldest friends, but was delayed by over an hour because of violent storms. I finally made it and had a wonderful evening, at the issue of which I thought I had overcome my streak of bad luck ... until I took the train back to London the next morning and got fined $40 for buying the wrong ticket - something that has never, ever happened to me in the numerous times I have made that journey!

As the final touch to a fairly disastrous trip, I realised after leaving London that the Ipod Touch I had bought for a friend of my brother's had been stolen from my luggage, leaving me $400 lighter ...

But I didn't let London (quite literally) dampen my enthusiasm and I had a wonderful time catching up with as many friends as time allowed. It did bring mixed feelings to the surface however: a sense of belonging (enjoying seeing old faces and old places) but of detachment as well (being very aware that it is not where my life is right now).

I feel at home everywhere, yet nowhere in particular at the same time. They say home is where the heart is ... right now I feel that my heart is scattered across France, London and New York. I hope that one day it will settle somewhere finally.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Miami Vice

No matter how I much I love New York, I physically and emotionally feel the need to take a break away from the City every 6 weeks or so. I'm not really sure why - perhaps because I keep myself so busy (too busy?) here or because it can be an overwhelming metropolis where it is difficult to get away from the energy and the noise .. All I know is that after a few weeks here, I start feeling extremely run down.

As soon as I started feeling the above symptoms, a couple of weeks ago, I hatched a plan to finally visit Miami with Larry for a long weekend of fun. We had talked about it for a long time and I had never been to Miami, where Larry has spent a lot of time over the years, so it was an obvious choice.

So I boarded my plane from JFK on Thursday evening last week, excited by the prospect of lying on the beach and swimming for the next 3 days. I felt on holiday as soon as I stepped off the plane and was hit by the humid heat and even more so when my taxi left the airport area and I spotted the first palm trees. I love that feeling- you know you are away from your normal life and responsibilities and your mind somehow empties of every day worries and of anything at all in fact.

I arrived at the Beacon Hotel, a wonderful Art Deco affair facing South Beach, at around 10.30pm. Larry, who flies on standby, was meant to get there before me but couldn't get on a flight until much later. The hotel wouldn't let me check in as the reservation was in his name so I found myself doing something I have never had the courage to do before: having a glass of wine by myself, sitting in the open air bar of the hotel. Miami is so laid back that I didn't feel self-conscious about being on my own at all. The waiter was very friendly anyway, spent most of the evening talking to me and didn't even charge me for my drink.
Larry eventually arrived at around 1am and we strolled down Ocean Drive, which was a vision of white and pastel coloured buildings, neon-lit signs, cars slowly cruising with music blaring out of them. I felt I had stumbled in the middle of a "Pimps & Hos" costume party as the dress code in Miami is distinctively "bling, tight & short" for both men & women.

Our hotel was great and we were excited to find that our room was fitted with an ipod player, as we had both brought ours. It made for some amusing games though as I would play Kanye West or Hotel Costes and Larry would switch it to Maria Carey or House music at every opportunity ... thankfully, we found some musical common ground in R Kelly's "Ignition" and Madonna's new album, which became the soundtrack for our holiday.

A few things about Miami surprised me - the most obvious one being that people addressed me in Spanish first. It is very much the first language there and there is a huge Cuban and Argentinian community, which adds to the exotic feel of the city. I was also surprised by the daytime drinking culture, where it's not unusual to see people drinking Mojitos from what looked like enormous fishbowls as early as 10 in the morning.

In addition to the relaxing sunbathing and frequent swimming in the wonderfully warm Ocean, it was very much a party weekend, filled with many fun memories. Chatting and sipping Caiparinhas on a friend's balcony overlooking South Beach. Lying on the beach at 3am while philosophying about love and life. Spending a boozy afternoon at The Palace, a fantastic gay bar, chatting to all the boys (including a Matt Damon lookalike) and laughing to the point of tears when their drag queen show involved these giant "ladies" strutting down Ocean Drive, singing and waiving rainbow flags, jumping in passing cars and hugging startled bystanders ... at 3 o'clock in the afternoon ...




Settling

Marie officially moved to New York last week, in an apartment just a couple of blocks away from mine, and it is wonderful to have another friend in the neighbourhood. With most of my friends living downtown, I constantly hop on the subway or in a taxi to meet them - it is a well known fact that it's nearly impossible to make a "downtowner" travel uptown.

And the advantage of having one of my best friends close by became even more obvious yesterday.

I woke up with a raging hangover after a great night out with a group of friends at Pier I, an outdoor beach style bar on the bank of the Hudson river. Marie was feeling similarly awful for the very same reason as me, so when she called me in the morning suggesting that we meet for breakfast at Barneys Greengrass, it was an offer I could not refuse. There is nothing better than eggs, bagels, bottomless coffee and gossiping about the night before, to cure a hangover.

The rest of the day was devoted to helping Marie settle into her flat, which is in a brownstone on a wonderfully bright corner of 87th and Columbus. We stopped at the local pet shop and I helped her pick a goldfish - little Harry is now happily swimming in his tank. I had to google instructions on fish feeding and learnt some very valuable facts, guaranteed to make me the star of any dinner parties: who knew that the oldest goldfish lived 43 years, that they can develop gas problems or that they can be fed hard boiled egg yolk and lettuce!

Then came time for some hard work. We put on Madonna's new album and set about building the various pieces of flat pack furniture she had bought at Ikea a couple of nights before. I have painful memories of building all my furniture myself when I arrived here. Despite zealously reading the instructions, it always resulted in me having to rebuild everything twice as I never got it right the first time - cue tears of frustration, copious amount of swearing and regular refill of my glass of wine. Somehow, I was determined to do it all by myself, which was frankly very stupid ... and which is why I happily offered my help to Marie.
It seems that my skills have improved somewhat as this time, I only had to rebuild the chest of drawers at a relatively early stage of the process. We had no tools other than a screwdriver and decided to use Marie's blue snakeskin stilettos as hammers (yes, you read this right). I looked up at one point as I was banging on a screw, shoe in hand, to see Marie doing the same thing - causing an inevitable fit of laughter.

I love seeing her place take shape - it reminds me of my own settling-in experience, of creating a new home, mixing in objects from my past with new ones. Realising that it is really where I live now and that there is no going back. Feeling the excitement and fear that come with making a new start.

Moving to another country is the most rewarding and character forming experience I have been through (twice!) and I only hope it will be for Marie too.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Reality

My relationship with my Little Sister, Jenny, seems to be going from strenght to strenght.

When we are alone she can't stop talking, excitingly telling me about her latest sailing trip or school project - in stark contrast from her near silence of a few months back. We still communicate online often, although she has now realised that I have a life of my own and that we have to arrange a time to talk that works for the both of us. She has a new found interest in poetry, after an assignement she had to complete for school, and often sends me her poems which I am actively encouraging her to keep writing.
She recently asked me to help her with her maths homework: "If the shadow of an 8 feet tree measures 4 feet, and a nearby building's shadow measures 16 feet, how tall is the building?". I realised that I don't remember any of the hard-learned mathematical formulas of my youth but the solution was very easy of course and didn't require them - this is a problem intended for 11 years old children after all so even I can manage that! The hardest part came in trying to guide her to the solution, without giving it to her on a plate, despite her insistence that I do so.
In our second to last session, we were asked if we wanted to pair up again next year and I am happy to report that we both agreed to. I am glad that I will carry on mentoring Jenny and see her hopefully flourish over the coming months.

But the reality of New York City or, more precisely, the New York City that our Littles live in, dawned on me in a particularly gruesome way this week.

We learned that the mother of one of our Littles was brutally murdered last week. We were all shocked by the news and have been coached on what to say, should our respective Littles want to talk about it. Jenny has not mentioned it yet but I can't imagine how I would have felt as young child if one my school friends' mum had been killed ... In fact, I can't even imagine what it would feel like as a 33 years old woman as I've never lived in an environment where something like this could happen.

New York is a much safer place when it was in the 80s, at the peak of the crack epidemic, and by the end of the 90s crime had dramatically decreased (as explained from a very interesting angle in "The Tipping Point"). But even in 1998, the year in which I first visited the City, I remember mistakenly ending up on a corner of Bowery, feeling watched and unsafe despite the afternoon hour. Bowery is now an up & coming area, rapidly filling up with edgy designer boutiques, a cool new museum and trendy restaurants, and I often stroll through the very same corner when walking from the Lower East Side to Soho.

My New York is incredibly safe and I have never felt in any danger, however mild. But I am now even more aware that it is in a very privileged New York that I live and play in every day ...

Monday, June 2, 2008

SATC

A Sex & The City craze swept New York a few days ago.

Cinemas across the city started screening the movie from midnight on Wednesday and every half an hour thereafter. Absolutely every girls and gay guys I know had plans to see the movie, usually with a group of friends as part of a night out, and it has been a major topic of conversation and source of excitement.

On Saturday night, Larry, Marie, Samantha, Jules and I met outside the Loews Theatre on 3rd Avenue and 11th Street, on the edge of the East Village. Queues outside were a colourful display of party dresses and glittering high heels. As we had a quick drink at the bar opposite the cinema before the screening, we noticed another large queue forming outside Webster Hall, down the street. They were hosting an Eighties Prom night and I have never seen so many tiaras and puffy metallic dresses in my life. The mix of the two crowds made the atmosphere that little bit more surreal.

The movie itself was both satisfying and disappointing. It was great seeing the characters five years after the end of the series, but it didn't work very well as a film. While that annoyed me at first, I was able to enjoy it a lot more once I saw it as just an extra-long episode. But what I loved the most was the ambiance inside the screening room - people were cheering, clapping, laughing and crying throughout the movie. I don't remember the last time I witnessed so many diverse feelings openly expressed.

I think it is a testament to how important SATC is as the first TV series addressing some of the concerns of my generation of women - we have romantic visions of love but know that it's not easy even after you find it, we see our close friends as our chosen family, we care about our careers yet we want to have fun too, we want to see the world, we want to improve ourselves (physically, intellectually, emotionally), we want to give back to the community, we want to make our parents proud ... and yes, we love fashion and especially shoes!

While I often think that the characters are overly one-dimensional (the romantic one/the career-driven one/the traditional one/the sexually liberated one) and lack depth, it is when you take the four of them as a whole that you get a better understanding of the multi-faceted personalities of women today, often balancing conflicting desires and priorities.

The night wouldn't have been complete had we not ended it in typical Sex & The City style ... sipping Cosmopolitans and talking about men. It's good to be one-dimensional for a few hours sometimes!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Eating

I think that it is about time for me to share reviews of places I have been to in the last few months and hopefully provide further valuable insights on where to go in New York on a night out. Again, I am only reviewing places that I particularly like, as I have been to well over 150 restaurants and bars since I've been here. I know that because I keep a list - very anally retentive of me, I know.

* Mercer Kitchen - 147 Mercer Street, corner of Prince Street
I was a little wary about going to Mercer Kitchen the first time. It is the restaurant of the Mercer Hotel, right in the heart of Soho, and as such the venue of choice for celebrities and models. Lindsay Lohan famously trashed a suite once and Kate Moss always stays there when she is in town. Going to this kind of places usually mean seeing no celebrities (not that I would really want to anyway) but instead being faced by a room full of poseurs and wannabees - incredibly stylish but hopelessly snooty and boring. But I like Mercer Kitchen - an underground brick walled space, quietly luxurious and bathed in candle light. The food is wonderful as well, my favourites being the steamed shrimp salad with avocado, mushrooms and tomato in a champagne vinaigrette, as well as the sea scallops with french lentils, crisp pancetta and lemon creme fraiche.

* MercBar - 151 Mercer Street, between Prince Street and West Houston
MercBar is the bar next door to the Mercer Hotel and part of the stable. It's my favourite bar on week nights, as it becomes too loud and busy at the weekends. The decor is similar to Mercer Kitchen, and again there is an understated luxurious feel to it, along with a smooth, chilled out atmosphere - enhanced by the fantastic "Hotel Coste" compilations softly playing in the background. In addition to the exposed brick walls, seats are covered in cowhide, deer horns hang on the walls and a suspended canoe glows above the bar - giving the place a very distinctive feel. They also make the most perfect Sour Apple Martinis.

* Tomoe Sushi - 172 Thompson Street, corner of West Houston
Upon learning that my friend Joe is not only as much of a sushi fanatic as I am, but also makes regular trips to Japan, I asked him what his favourite Japanese restaurant in the City was and Tomoe was his answer. We've been there together a few times and, as he is the expert, I always insist that he chooses our food.
The restaurant itself is nothing to rave about - probably about 12 white formica tables crammed in a small space, specials scribbled on pieces of paper stuck to the wood-paneled walls. It is a cash only restaurant, usually indicative of cheap food, although I have never spent less than $100 per person there.
But the queues, which start forming outside the tiny venue at around 7pm, speak for themselves. The sushi there is simple but incredibly fresh, in a melt in the mouth kind of way. I also tasted more unusual japanese dishes there, such as Ankimo (monkfish liver pate) and small fried fish that you eat whole... both surprisingly delicious.

* Ocean Grill - 384 Columbus Avenue, between 79th & 80th Street
On the few occasions that I stay in my neighbourhood to have brunch - usually when I have people staying with me - Ocean Grill is my first choice for brunch. It is located in one of my favourite corners of the Upper West Side, 79th & Columbus, opposite the Natural History Museum. I love the building itself, surrounded by old trees and a lovely arts and crafts market at the weekends, and as such always buzzing with people.
I never eat in the main dining area, which I find too formal for brunch, and instead always head to the banquettes in the bar area, with large windows looking onto the museum.
The atmosphere at the weekends is very relaxed, the bar populated by an incredible variety of people - from elderly couples, to families and young professionals. I usually order one of the few versions of Eggs Benedict they have on offer, tuck into the bottomless coffee and enjoy the soft jazz music and the company of the friends I am with.

* Barneys Greengrass - 541 Amsterdam Avenue, at 86th Street
I read about Barneys Greengrass before I actually experienced it. It is one of the most famous and oldest Jewish delis in the City and happens to be about 2 minutes walk from where I live. There is nothing fancy about the place but there is something very old-fashioned and endearing about it ... from the formica tables, to the muddy beige walls adorned with rather average murals.
The service can be either incredibly friendly or rather rude, depending on the mood of the waiters. But the atmosphere never changes: hot, almost smoky (from the kitchen) with barely any tourists - a primarily Jewish neighbourhood crowd . They, and I, come here for the amazing bagels accompanied by the simple, but tasty, eggs scrambled with lox (cured salmon).

* Lure - 142 Mercer Street, corner of Prince Street
I fell with love with Lure the first time I went there in January this year. Whenever I describe the place to friends in an attempt to convince them to go there, they look at me with disblelief - it is meant to look like the inside of a yatch, which smacks of a theme restaurant. But it really isn't.
Yes, it does feel like you are on a boat but not in a cheesy way. The sushi there is very inventive and probably my favourite thing to order in the evening, along with some of their more conventional, french-inspired, fish or seafood dishes.
The bar area, which I sometimes go to on weekend afternoons, offers delicious cocktails - my favourite being the Blueberry Gin.
My only criticism of the place is the music. They play an endless selection of Eighties songs, a little too loud for my liking, and oddly jarring with the atmosphere of the place.

* Per Se - 10 Columbus Circle
I literally fantasized about going to a Thomas Keller restaurant since reading Anthony Bourdain's "A cook's tour" a few years back, where he documents his most memorable meals around the world. Keller's most famous restaurant is located in the Napa Valley ("The French Laundry") but his New York outpost is "Per Se", in the swanky Time Warner building at Columbus Circle. Both are notoriously impossible to get into (they only accept reservations 2 months in advance of the dinner date and telephone lines are notoriously jammed) so I had lost all hope that I would ever experience his legendary art ... until the Washington Post Online invited me to an industry dinner that was taking place there.
Per Se was hands down the best restaurant I have ever been to in my entire life, with the most attentive, yet friendly service. As we were sipping champagne before sitting at our tables, smiling waiters offered us a selection of canapes - salmon tartare with red onion creme fraiche in a light as air crispy cone, foie gras mousse on tiny croutons and cheese feuillete.
Our main meal consisted of 7 courses, all paired with a different wine. We started with hot smoked sturgeon, served with picked apple slices, horseradish cream and dill infused olive oil. This was followed by caramelized endives, roasted beetroots and steamed small onions. The mains were seabass (the best I've ever tasted) with globe artichokes and then ribeye beef with fingerling potatoes and chanterelle mushrooms. The beef was much rarer than I would usually have it but simply sublime. We then had a very light salad with beans and rocket, before finally finishing off with desert: apricot sorbet - which reminded me of my mum's apricot jam with melancholy - and petits fours.
Everything was so simple and yet refined and executed to perfection. As they poured us a delicious 20 years old port at the end of the meal, along with amazing American cheeses (3 words I never thought I would put together), I literally thought I had died and gone to heaven.
I feel guilty about recommending this place as it is so hard to get into. But if you know you are going to visit New York in the next 2 months, make sure you at least try to get a table there. I promise that you will be blown away.

* Salt - 58 MacDougal Street, between Prince & West Houston
I have a special fondness for Salt. Not only because I wish my flat looked like the restaurant - exposed bricks, long white tables adorned with bouquets of roses, white bookshelves on the walls filled with quirky ornaments but with a very homely, lived in feel. But also because it's tucked away in an odd corner of MacDougal Street and almost difficult to find.
The menu is short, making food decisions much quicker. The quirk is that you can choose from a list of sides and a list of proteins and combine the two together to your own taste. The food is amazing - clean, fresh, tasty and very good value.

Amazingly, the City still holds an endless supply of restaurants for me to try - and I have the very hard task of sampling as many of them as I can ...