Thursday, December 23, 2010

Stranded


France and my family home have never felt so far away than this week.

Like thousands of other people, my travel plans were severely hindered this past weekend - and unfortunately still are.

Unusually heavy snow flurries hit most parts of Britain and closed down airports. I always fly via London and therefore my flight on Saturday night was canceled but I managed to rebook for the following night on a 1am red-eye.

I made it to London by Monday lunch time, expecting to grab my connecting flight to Lyon that evening. Except that it was canceled too and no-one could tell us when we could expect to fly to our final destination. In fact now, 3 days later, British Airways still has no information about alternative flights on their site and their phone lines are dead. I luckily have a lot of friends in London and therefore have spent the last few days warmly ensconced with one of them, but thousands were left stranded in the airports for days with nowhere to go.

On Tuesday, I spent hours on the Internet and on the phone trying to find a way, any way, to get to my parents in time for Christmas. The Eurostar was fully booked and barely functioning. I even considered taking a 2 day journey consisting of taking 3 trains and a ferry to get there but even availability for that was scarce. At the height of my despair, I called my parents and burst into tears of frustration and sadness that I may not make it at all. I know I am a grown woman but I have never spent a single Christmas without my family and the prospect of that happening left me devastated.

I guess these kind of things make you realize what's important and when I miraculously found an Easyjet flight leaving Gatwick at 7am on Dec 24th, I booked it straight away, ignoring the cost.

So now, unless the snow situation gets much worse, I should be able to at least spend 3 days with my family before returning to London to spend New Year's Eve with friends as was originally planned. I can't wait.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Let's Go Knicks!

I have written before about my rather surprising love of watching the New York Knicks play at Madison Square Garden. What started as just another item I felt I had to tick off my list of things to do in New York has now evolved into a full blown passion. As my friends and family know, I can be very "all or nothing" and in this instance, I am very much "all' but even they are surprised as I am the most unlikely basketball fan one can imagine.

After taking many different friends to games with me, who all enjoyed it thoroughly but not quite to the feverish extent I do, I'm so happy that the last friend I took with me, LE, has fallen as hard for the game and the atmosphere as I have and we've been to 2 games together already with many more to come I'm sure.

Watching a live game is almost like a workout for me. It's so intense, fast, unpredictable and suspenseful that my heart races throughout and the constant adrenaline rush makes me dizzy and giddy at the same time. I jump, scream, swear, clap, cheer and usually lose my voice by the end of it. The beauty of the whole thing is that I only have a fairly rudimentary understanding of the game but that's enough - unlike other American sports like baseball or football, no advanced knowledge is required to enjoy it.

There is something incredibly exhilarating and intoxicating about chanting along with 10,000 or so other Knicks supporters for a common outcome: victory. I have tried to capture a little of the atmosphere with this video taken on my iPhone but I must admit that it doesn't quite do it - not only does it not show how well you can see game but I also find it very difficult to stand still when cheering which makes recording quite challenging!

I must say that this year is definitely a more fulfilling one to be a Knicks fan because the team is playing very well. Last year, they only won 1 the 7 games I saw. This year, they've won all 5 games I've been to so far. Amare Stoudemire, their new star player and team captain, even broke a historical Knicks record last week by scoring over 30 points at each of the last 8 games the team played and seeing him do amazing dunks (all 6"10 of him seemingly effortlessly hanging from the basket) is an incredible sight.

It is one of things I will miss the most if I ever leave New York for new adventures and the experience I most wholeheartedly recommend to anyone visiting the City between the otherwise dreary months of November and April.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Santa Con

Photo by Jake McGraw @ Flickr (C)

As I popped out for coffee and to run some errands on Saturday, I was surprised to share the elevator in my apartment building with a girl scantily dressed as an elf. I have noticed New Yorkers' fondness for dressing up before but at 11am in the morning, this seemed a little odd.

Later that evening, on my way to some friends' holiday party, I noticed quite a few people dressed as Santa, some of them in advanced stages of inebriation (read "passed out on the pavement") even though it was barely 8.30pm.

Just when I thought this City had gone completely Christmas mad this year, it finally dawned on me the next day that it must have been SantaCon! And indeed it was.

SantaCon is, according to their website, a "non-denominational, non-commercial, non-political and non-sensical Santa Claus convention that occurs once a year for absolutely no reason". Which from what I can tell is just a brilliant excuse for a lot of people to dress up, get drunk during the day and loudly spread some holiday cheer. If you happen to be near one of their meeting points in the City for the day, I hear it can be quite a sight as the picture shows!

My hatred of crowds means that I will never partake but it is one of those rather random New York traditions that you never hear about until you live here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cupcake Craze

Photo by jammieanne @ Flickr (C)
Today I am delighted to be bringing you a guest post about the best cupcakes in New York from Charlotte, a writer for Simonseeks.com.

This is rather handy as, while I have on occasion enjoyed them, I am not a huge fan myself (too sweet for me!) and therefore wouldn't be able to provide any guidance on this hot topic!

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These beautifully crafted small cakes adorned with icing of every colour and flavour you could imagine, once associated with children, are now big business, a fashion statement in their own right the cupcake is now glamorous, fun and here are some of the best places in New York City to pick up one of these delicious treats.

Magnolia Bakery
No list of the top places to grab a cupcake in New York would be complete without the Magnolia Bakery. Opening its doors for the first time in 1996 on a quiet corner in Greenwich Village, Magnolia Bakery was designed to make visitors feel as though they were stepping back in time whilst enjoying the best in traditional American desserts. The brand has developed and there are now six stores, four of which are in New York, one in California and one as far afield as Dubai! Fans of the hit TV show Sex and the City will recognise the Magnolia Bakery as where Carrie and Miranda devour delicious looking pink frosted cupcakes in one of the episodes. Magnolia bakery is a tourist attraction in its own right, it’s even a stop on the Sex and the City tours that run all year round, be prepared to queue if you visit, sometimes around the block but the experience is worth it once inside – particularly for a Sex and the City fan like me!

Sweet Revenge
Sweet Revenge situated in the West Village offers an artisan twist to cupcakes, the eatery is open every day and becomes an excellent place to be in the evening as it stays open till late. This is largely due to the fact that Sweet Revenges unique feature is that it sells alcohol, the menu teams the perfect cupcake with the perfect drink for you so you don’t have to worry that your chosen combination won’t taste right! They offer the finest in beers, wine and cocktails to accompany your delicious cupcake and for those who don’t have a sweet tooth they even offer a savoury cake option. If I were to go it would have to be a Crimson and Cream cupcake and a Raspberry Bellini for me, I’m booking a table already!

Sugar Sweet Sunshine
Situated on Rivington Street, Sugar Sweet Sunshine aims to offer its visitors a warm and comfortable vibe with a 60s and 70s vibe thrown in. The atmosphere here is relaxed, the decor of mismatched chairs and tables make it feel as though you are in someone’s living room rather than a coffee shop. The owners operate an open door policy, visitors are made to feel more like guests than customers and all can see into the kitchen to watch the sweet treats being made. The delicious offerings at Sugar Sweet Sunshine include the cupcake named after its birthplace Sunshine which is a yellow cake with vanilla butter-cream icing and a Sassy Red Velvet, red velvet cake with chocolate almond butter-cream. The overall aim of this coffee shop is that its customers leave feeling happy, a reason enough to pay them a visit.

Crumbs Bake Shop
Crumbs Bake Shop first opened in New York’s refined Upper East Side in 2003 with the promise of offering elegant comfort food. They offer over 50 varieties of cupcakes, all baked fresh daily with a cupcake of the week being unveiled every Monday, they are renowned for the large size of the cakes and deliver all over the USA. They even offer a college care pack, so if your loved ones are in college in The States you can show them your thinking of them with the cakes being delivered to their door. Crumbs focuses a great deal of its energies into donating to charity, so although the guilt of the amount of calories you’ve just eaten can’t be taken away knowing that $1 from every cupcake purchased goes to the Breast Cancer Coalition makes you feel better about ordering that second cake!

Cupcake Stop
Cupcake stop is the place where New Yorkers go to enjoy their cupcakes and avoid the crowds of tourists at the better known cupcake shops across the city. As Cupcake Stop in no ordinary coffee shop, instead it is a fully mobile truck, rather like an ice cream van, the Cupcake Stops several trucks travel around New York stopping in some of Manhattans prime locations to serve delicious freshly made cupcakes to the passersby. All of the cakes are baked the night before in a commercial kitchen, making over 40 flavours, with any leftovers at the end of the day being donated to the less fortunate at the City Harvest. This relative newcomer, only being established in 2009 offers a unique mobile cupcake service and is perfect for those you want a quick sweet treat to go minus the long queues and waiting times.

If you are looking to visit New York and sample the cupcakes on offer, you might want to also look at the top rated recommended New York hotels on Simonseeks, where you can find inspirational travel guides and expert advice.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Winter Survival

Photo by Robert Harding (C)
As I prepare myself to face my fourth winter in the City while seemingly dishing out advice on how to survive it to a number of friends for whom it will be the first, I thought I would share my own little survival guide to New York's coldest and most challenging season.

1- Forsake fashion and style. Completely. I remember being puzzled by seeing the normally fashion-conscious New York women donning these awful and unflattering padded down coats that make you look like you are wearing a duvet. But I barely made it past a month into my first winter before reluctantly buying one myself and I haven't looked back since. I still hate it of course but, more than a necessity, it is a life saver - keeping you toasty warm and insulated when you have to brave the elements. The same goes for rain boots (indispensable when crossing the streets through the huge puddles of melted snow) and ear-muffs (although I have yet to cross the line on the latter).
2 - Prepare a long list of movies you've always wanted to see but never had time to - you will be literally hibernating, whether you like it or not. The arctic temperatures will compromise your social life quite dramatically.
3 - Having said that, unlike most European cities, a snow storm doesn’t stop the subway from running like clockwork here and taxis will still be fairly abundant even in the worst of blizzards, so you can still go out. At this time of the year, only the coziest of restaurants and bars appeal to me and I shun anywhere that is minimalist looking - my perennial favourites (Marc Forgione, Boqueria, Tolani, Hi Life and Landmark in the Time Warner Center) will get even more visits than usual. I'm on the hunt for a place with an open fireplace and comfy sofas (probably pining for a British pub) and will let you know if I find one.
4 - While this is not the most practical advice, you should in general avoid finding yourself on large avenues, especially near the river - the bitterly cold winds get channeled into them and make walking, let alone standing, intolerable for more than a few minutes.
5 - Make the most of snow days. Ahead of a storm, companies here will usually send out an email to their staff advising them to work from home. Not that commuting to work will be impossible (see point 3), but more because the possibility of an employee slipping on pavements is a lawsuit reality. I love it because it very much feels like an unexpected day off school - I usually stay in my pajamas all day and occasionally look out of my living room windows to see Broadway covered in white powder.
6 - Go to Central Park. It’s not only hauntingly beautiful under a white blanket of fresh and fluffy snow but it’s also very entertaining to see entire families sledging down the hills and a few brave souls actually cross-country skiing around it. The sight of the latter never ceases to amuse me as it is the antithesis of what one would expect to see in a city setting.
7 - When all the above fails - escape! My yearly January jaunts to Miami are no coincidence. South Beach is really only $250 and 3 hours away from this frigid cold hell so you can lie on the beach for just a weekend to get your much needed vitamin D injection, while getting ready to face yet another month or so of New York winter with some sense of perspective that summer (and getting your life back) is only around the corner!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving Extravanganza

The significance of Thanksgiving didn't really hit me until my second year here.

It is now my favourite American holiday and is for me a celebration of love for my adopted family: the dear friends I have made along the way here without whom I wouldn't have enjoyed, and wouldn't continue to enjoy, my time in New York.



This year's Thanksgiving weekend was probably the best one for me so far. On TG day itself (Thursday), I joined LJ to go and share a lavish breakfast at BG and LE's place in Battery Park. After hours of fun with them and plenty of Mimosas, it is a small miracle that I made it to my friend's KM by 4pm for a full traditional TG dinner cooked by her lovely parents, along with our friend CS. I somehow managed to have two servings of the delicious turkey, along with all the sides (green bean casserole, stuffing, mash potatoes amongst others) ... and dessert!

Although I was clearly busy and doing double duty on Thanksgiving day, I really wanted to throw my own dinner party as well and invited a bunch of friends to mine on Saturday, thinking (quite rightly) that at least we'd all have Friday to rest and fast.

Eight of my close friends could make it and thankfully they all volunteered to bring a dish which left me in charge of just cooking a couple of roast chickens and providing the venue in the form of my apartment - a lot less stressful than cooking an entire feast for 9 by myself! My guests included all my friends from TG breakfast and dinner of course, as well as a few more friends who were otherwise engaged with out-of-town family gatherings on the day itself.

Hosting house parties in New York apartments is something of a logistical nightmare due to size constraints (especially with such tiny kitchens) and something most people (including me) normally shy away from. But I am fortunate to have a good sized apartment and while we were definitely cozy, it was still comfortable. Somehow all of our disparate dishes made a beautiful meal together. We drank more wine than could possibly be imagined. And we danced and laughed late into the night.

If Thanksgiving is about being thankful, then I feel that I have my fair share to be thankful for with my friends alone ...

Monday, November 22, 2010

Florida Detour

I went on a bit of cross-country jaunt across the US last week. I was attending a work-related conference in Phoenix Arizona for the first part of the week but instead of flying straight back to NYC on Thursday (as was originally planned), I made a "small detour" (2 flights and 6 hours later) to Treasure Island for the weekend, a small beach community 45 minutes away from Tampa airport on the West coast of Florida.

My lovely friend FM moved there from New York about 6 months ago (I have document her endlessly fun goodbye parties before) and although I had promised to visit her, last weekend was the only conceivable time I could do it and also happened to be the one when our mutual and much, much beloved friends LJ and NS were visiting her, promising it to be a very merry time indeed.

I must first say that I didn't see much of Phoenix, a city that I expected very little of because it is new and has spread at an incredible pace in the past 50 years or so to become a very large and quite soulless suburban landscape (or so I have been told). The conference was in Scottsdale, an upper middle class neighbourhood in town (seemingly strewn with shopping malls) and most of my time was confined within the four walls of our rather luxurious hotel. We did however get time one day to drive the 2.5 hours it takes to get to the beautiful Sedona valley and its amazing red mountains towering high over the otherwise desert landscape.

But back to the fun Florida part. I didn't expect Treasure Island to be quite so beautiful but rows upon rows of pastel colored houses and the clear blue sea and powder white sand reminded me very much of being in the Keys. TI is primarily a retirement community but it somehow added to its charm. It's very laid back and the night scene, if you are a young and single, is non-existent. Which is probably why I liked it so much.

We spent our days on a motor boat rented from "Frenchy's" (the irony of that did not go unnoticed and was the butt of many jokes), roaming the open sea and adjacent canals, spotting dolphins, with music blaring out of our iPod speakers (the highly danceable Florida's "Club can't handle me" was our theme tune for the weekend - I still can't get it out of my head!) and drinking from mini-Chardonnay bottles (right in front of the sticker on the boat saying "Don't drink & drive" of course). The other part was spent lazily lying on the beach while a sand castle building competition was going on much to our amusement, or cooking a lavish and calorie-ladden breakfast for each other.

FM's gorgeous house was the perfect base for us, minutes away from beach, coffee (I learned to love 7/11's) and the infamous Captain Kosmako's restaurant/club. We ventured there on Saturday night and it was actually like stepping back into the 70s, from the decor, to the ambiance, the food and the clientele. But we loved everything about it - especially the fact that we were the youngest patrons by about 30 years! We danced the night away with these amazing, full of life, retirees. My family gatherings in France always include many generations and so I know how to dance (but probably quite atrociously) to most things. A skill that came in rather handy that night as LJ and I twirled around the dance floor and salsa danced without a care in the world.

The weekend I just had may seem like one in many - it is and that is very much a key component to my happiness. I love New York dearly and feel like I have mastered it as much as one really can - which is not very much. But nothing makes me happier than going away from it and coming back. I realize very much that my time here, and this moment in time in my life, is precious and probably counted. Surely no one can be afforded such unbridled fun for very long! So I want to carry on making the most of it, for as long as I possibly can ...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Tolani

I'm a creature of habit and although I love going to new places, when I am feeling even just a little tired or lazy, I lose my sense of adventure and love nothing more than going back to my favourite haunts.

Tonight was one of those nights when after a long and stressful week at work, I was meant to meet up with a couple of girlfriends for drinks and nibbles Uptown and suggested we go to High Life, a comfy and well tried/tested place for us. But KM wanted to try something new and a quick search on nymag.com prompted us to give Cava, a wine bar on 80th & Amsterdam, a try. When we got there we found out it was closed for a private party but another drinking establishment caught our eyes pretty much immediately with the words "wine restaurant" prominently displayed on the awning. You can't really go wrong with these two words combined together.

So that's how we ended up stumbling completely by chance upon Tolani - the aforementioned wine restaurant - which only opened barely a month ago. And boy were we not disappointed. Beautiful setting in a very New York wine bar kind of way - cozy and warm with exposed brick walls and rustic wood details, candle lights dancing throughout the dining room, cool music but not too loud, plush and comfy leather seats at the bar and an enticing and eclectic menu with a paired down but carefully edited wine list. It was love at first sight (or sip I guess) and we knew straight away that we would be back, over and over again. We shared a bread basket, cold meats and cheeses and I also had a great zucchini and white anchovies salad - but next time, when I am hungrier, I will give the amazing sounding peri peri grilled shrimps on a bed of saffron rice a try, which is pretty much all my favourite things ever, combined into one dish.

The service was discreet but attentive and friendly and the South African manager giving us an extra glass of wine (we were on our 3rd bottle by then so I guess he knew we were going to be good customers!) and a complimentary "out of this world, better than sex" bread and butter pudding type dessert sealed the deal.

Go. Now.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Limelight Marketplace

The Limelight Marketplace, a converted 19th century Episcopalian Church in Chelsea on 20th & 6th, opened up a few months ago - interestingly it had also been a trendy but drug filled nightclub throughout the 80s and 90s . I didn't get a chance to check it out until last weekend however when the massive queues to get into Eataly, where we had intended to go, put me and my lovely friend SM (visiting from London) off and we headed there instead.

I didn't know exactly what to expect but it was a much posher affair that I had envisioned. A very modern space, with glossy white surfaces and strategically placed mirrors throughout was created while respecting the building's architectural integrity. There is certainly no mistaking that you are in fact in a church.

The maze of tiny shops sell an eclectic mix of gourmet food items (including delicious ice creams and a small but perfectly formed selection of cheeses), high end gadgets, arts and crafts, and upscale furniture amongst many other treasures.

A few restaurants will soon open as well, including a cozy wine bar on the top floor affording a great view of the shopping arcade below and the much anticipated Manhattan outpost of Grimaldi's, the famous Brooklyn pizza joint.

I know where I will be doing my Christmas shopping from this year!


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Insider Sources

As I have mentioned before, I make it a bit of my own personal mission to keep up to date with events happening around the City all year round. This has not gone unnoticed by my friends of course, who seem to view me as a bit of a resource when it comes to finding things to see and do.

This would not be the case if I was not an avid reader of various websites, blogs and newsletters dedicated to New York and I thought it might be useful to share some of the ones I check out most often.

I have been a subscriber of the New York Magazine even since I moved here and find both the paper and online version to be very useful on a weekly basis. I also trust their restaurant reviews more than any other publication and when I am about to try a new restaurant, I always check if it’s a critic’s pick as I know I will not be disappointed. What I love is that they don’t just rate fancy restaurants. My local jewish deli and much beloved institution, Barney Greengrass, is also a pick.

I also love the nycgo website, which while being a great resource for tourists, also contains interesting content about little known spots and events.

In terms of newsletters, I read Daily Candy, Thrillist (although it is geared more towards a male audience), Blackboard Eats (for restaurant deals), Citysearch as well as all the NY Mag's newsletters (Vulture, Fashion, Grub Street).

Some of my favourite New York blogs are Scouting NY (written by a professional film location scout), New York Portraits (daily photos of the City), NewYorkology (packed with events listings) and My Upper West (for obvious reasons). Some expat blogs are also great - My New York Dish for example being one of them.

For more general news, I have already documented my frustration with US TV news channels and gave up watching them a long time ago, when I realized that I didn’t really care about how your shower curtain might be giving you cancer and couldn’t take one more ad for personal injury lawyers.

I’ve also come across a few cool iPhone apps that make navigating your way in the City a little easier. Sit or Squat is a brilliant one overlaying public toilets on Google maps. The Starbucks app is a lifesaver for the caffeine addicted. The new Central Park app pinpoints areas of interest you may have otherwise missed, along with their history. And CityMint uses GPS location services to deliver food to you, wherever you are - say in the middle of the park for example!

Lastly, while it offers little value in terms of things happening in the City, I adore Overheard in New York because it gives an hilarious and sometimes concerning glimpse into the crazy, lusty and manic urban jungle that is New York City.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Identity

I surprised myself in the past month or so by feeling what I can only guess is the tiniest (but disturbing for me) tinge of national identity.

I first noticed it when I read about the US government blanket advisory against traveling to Europe a couple of weeks ago and was outraged by what I considered to be a fear mongering exercise and overly simplistic view of an entire continent.

But I felt it even more sharply last night, during the weekly Evolutionary Psychology class that I am taking at NYU this fall (my idea of intellectual distraction - I know I’m weird!). Our lecturer, a deeply academic Harvard professor, was explaining how the advent of agriculture and the manipulation of nature as a consequence will probably be seen in years to come as the biggest mistake we ever made as a species. The point (which I agree with) is that we learned to manufacture food that is lower in nutrients but more calorific which drove higher birth rates but disrupted our original metabolism for the worst, creating a more sedentary lifestyle where fast food is king and exercise is shunned - in stark comparison to our athletic, lean and healthy hunter/gatherer ancestors (but who couldn’t reproduce as fast we could and therefore in a true manifest of Darwin’s theory lost the survival reproductive battle). But she used as an illustration a Mac Donald’s ad that apparently ran in “Europe” depicting a baby seemingly suckling on a bun. She made much fuss of the fact that this ad would have never run in the US but that European audiences are different and would not only see the humor in it but also be somehow more enticed to buy MC burgers because of it.

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and felt miffed that she would not only come to such a sweeping conclusion, but also that Europe (a continent comprising 50 countries and speaking no less than 230 different languages) was in her eyes, and many other Americans, seen as just one undifferentiated and dumb unit.

I have never felt particularly strongly one way or the other about the fact that I am French - although I readily admit to being appalled about the current government in power and the particularly argumentative yet pointless (i.e strikes) nature of my native country. It just happens to be the place where I was born and spent the first 19 years of my life. I consider some of my most formative years to have been spent abroad and therefore always thought of myself as a bit of a citizen of the world - happily and openly taking bits and pieces of cultural traits and behaviours from wherever I live. When I introduce myself I rarely mention that I am French (or at least not at first), particularly in the US where most people don’t detect the French intonations in my otherwise quite British sounding accent.

But I object to that fact that Europe can be seen and characterized as a seamless entity because in my experience it is anything but. We have hundreds of years of history and countless bloody wars that shaped very distinctive countries, with different languages, cultures and ideologies. I don’t think that any of them are right or wrong - they are just wonderfully different and diverse and that’s what makes the world a more interesting place.

But hearing such generalizations about an entire continent awakens in me a sense of national identity I never really felt before. It makes me want to proclaim that I am French, not in the sense that I am proud of it, but in the sense that we are all different and that the sooner we accept and embrace our differences - while finding common ground (there is plenty!) - the sooner we will all learn to live in this world together happily.

Because what I felt is so uncharacteristic for me (a serial expat and the least French person one might meet) it also made me wonder if “national identity” as a wider, almost philosophical, matter is perhaps also an integral part of the psychological toolkit we unconsciously evolved over millions of years - a sense of belonging that transcends ages/places and somehow grounds us to a certain place, even though we don’t live (and have no intention to ever live) in that place again.

As an expat, no matter how open and embracing you are of your adopted country, can you or should you ever forget where you come from? And what is the right balance between embracing your new country but drawing on your cultural heritage, however patchy it may be?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ecuador Memories

Before our trip to Ecuador, in a rather idle yet morbid moment, I actually made a list of all the things that could kill or harm us there based on the reading I had done.  A bad case of altitude sickness, an earth quake, a volcanic eruption, yellow fever, malaria, piranhas, caymans, tarantulas, anacondas, poisonous frogs, pirates, sinking, political unrest ... The list seemed a lot more exhaustive and all together more concerning than my previous adventures.

I’m glad to report that we are home safe and sound but after a trip as unbelievable as we had, an exhausting total of 9 flights within 10 days and more up close and personal wildlife encounters I had ever imagined, I’m not sure we will ever be the same again.

Our journey started in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, nestled in the impressive Andes Cordillera. At an altitude of 2,800m (which we never quite got used to) the dull headache and shortness of breath we constantly felt there made it a more tiring experience than we had anticipated. But Quito’s dramatic mountain landscape, along with its amazing old colonial style Spanish architecture made it all worthwhile. From the myriad of intricately ornamented churches dotted everywhere to the majestic plazas, it’s easy to see why the Old Town is a UNESCO protected site.

While exploring Quito (and going to a windy view point 4,100m high) was great, we couldn’t wait to get to our first adventure in the jungle of the Oriente region of Ecuador. A short plane ride took us to the edge of the rain forest in the bustling market town of Coca. We felt the change in climate immediately, the heat and humidity hitting us as soon as we stepped off the aircraft.

We were met by our guide Luis and embarked on a 2.5 hours motorized canoe ride, dropping off local Amazon community members who hitched a ride with us at seemingly random spots along the wide Napo river. To realize the remoteness of where they live was frightening but little did we know at the time that we were heading to an even more secluded place ourselves.


Upon disembarking at a make shift jetty and after I was literally devoured by bugs the second I  set foot on land (I felt the painful stings before even noticing the countless insects that were nibbling on my shoulder/arms and only then proceeded to douse myself in DEET), we had to take a 30 minute trek through the jungle to get to the edge of a lake. A couple of men then rowed us in a traditional (and very unstable) hollowed tree trunk pirogue to La Selva Lodge, on the far side of said lake.

There started probably the most intense day and a half of my life. Within that time, we woke up each day at 5am. Took 2 long treks through the jungle and encountered countless spiders, lizards, monkeys and brightly coloured poisonous frogs. Went up 40 meters to the top of the Canopy tower to catch the sunrise over the immense expanse of the forest and watch the feeding rituals of numerous birds, including the gorgeous toucans. Faced our deepest fears by swimming in the lake inhabited by piranhas, anacondas and caymans (our guide challenged us to do it while assuring us it was “safe”). Enjoyed the most stunning sunset I have ever witnessed (so unbelievable in fact that it brought tears to my eyes) reflecting on the perfectly still mirror-like surface of the lake while taking an early evening canoe ride. And later that night, took another canoe ride in completely darkness, armed only with a powerful torch to catch a glimpse of the nocturnal animals and the cutest baby cayman.

I have been to a rain forest before (in Costa Rica) but not nothing as dense, wild and remote as the Amazon jungle. Nothing beats walking a trail cut with a machete, your hands firmly clasped to your chest (you should never touch anything for fear it might bite you!), religiously following the naturalist as his trained eyes spot the tiniest creatures otherwise so well camouflaged.


I don’t consider myself to be a spiritual person but I never felt more in tune and in awe of nature than on this part of the trip. I surprisingly loved the remoteness of it all - no cell phone or internet reception, with only the incessant (and sometimes alarming - howler monkeys sound like horror movies monsters!) sounds of the jungle surrounding us day and night.

All too soon, we had to leave our little jungle paradise and head back to Quito to continue on to the Galapagos islands. I must admit that while going back to a city with lots of people and honking cars was a shock, I relished being able to sleep without being concerned about critters getting in my bed at night. The cabin next to us found a tarantula on their porch on the second night and that was pretty much the end of my “Jane of the Jungle” fantasy!

We made it to San Cristobal island in the Galapagos after a couple of delayed flights and met our guide, Tatiana, and the rest of the group on The Odyssey, a gorgeous ship and our home for the next 4 days. There were 14 of us in total, 6 of them being backpackers traveling through South America, which kept our group young and lively.



Within an hour of landing, we had been given a short briefing, chosen our wetsuits and snorkeling gear and been taken to shore to snorkel off a local beach. As we approached, we spotted the first of many sea lions basking in the sun. We had been warned that the sea was cold (no more than 18C) but with the excitement of it all, I hardly felt it and dove in only to find myself swimming with a sea lion and a giant turtle almost immediately. I was so shocked and exhilarated by the surprise encounter that I stopped breathing for a few moments.

The Galapagos archipelago consists of a dozen or so of barren volcanic islands with little vegetation and dramatic rocky cliffs that huge waves crash into noisily.
The wildlife is so abundant and you have to watch your step for fear of hurting anything! Animals are mostly unconcerned by us, barely acknowledging our presence. As relatively new visitors to their territory, they do not see us as predators. It is really one of the only places on earth where one can stand so close to them and observe them in their natural habitat from the endemic blue footed boobies birds, majestic albatross, sally lightfoot crabs in their dazzling red coats, to iguanas and of course sea lions. It was like being inside a National Geographic documentary.

The days were roughly divided into 3 parts. Early morning land based hiking on one of the islands from 8am to 11am. Lunch at 12pm followed by a couple of hours of relaxation (i.e drinking tons of the very strong but deliciously smooth Ecuadorian coffee). From 2pm onwards, we’d start the sea based activities with deep sea or beach snorkeling to partake in our daily swimming with the sea lions, turtles, myriads of fish and the occasional sting rays.

We didn’t realize quite how much snorkeling would be involved. Especially “extreme snorkeling” as we all came to call it. On the 3rd day, we dove 3 times and each time came out of the sea having lost all sensations in our fingers and toes, our lips blue and teeth shattering. I must admit that we questioned our sanity for doing this (and paying for it) more than once! The ship’s crew certainly seemed to find it a highly amusing spectacle. But there was no way that any of us were going to miss any snorkeling opportunities and what was essentially like swimming in a huge aquarium - despite one of them involving being dropped at a 30 meters deep point at 8am and snorkel in strong currents along the cliffs to get an unparalleled glimpse of maritime feeding time and playing hide and seek with 4 young sea lions.

Most of the sailing was done at night, which considering how rough the sea got was a blessing as we could take sea-sickness medication and more or less sleep through it. The second night in particular was very, very choppy and the slightly over-friendly Captain (4 weeks into an 8 weeks stint at sea made his zeal a little more understandable!) took us to the Bridge although getting there via the narrow passageway, with only a handrail between us and the huge waves was terrifying! Sailing in such conditions requires a lot of concentration and the First Mate and him alternated 2 hour shifts each throughout the night.

We also made a stop at Post Office Bay on Floreana island. We expected something resembling a post office but were surprised to find instead an old barrel amongst piles of driftwood. Legend has it that sailors back in the 1700s left letters to their loved ones in the barrel for other passing sailors to post/hand deliver when returning home. The tradition continues and we all left postcards for our respective families around the world and in turn took postcards from other travellers to post on our return. I can’t wait to see how long it will take for my parents to receive theirs!

Our trip ended back in Quito where we made an obligatory stop at the Equator line. It was fun taking pictures of ourselves straddling both hemispheres and the small Inti-Nan museum was particularly interesting as we took part in various experiments showing the effect of zero gravity on the line. From watching water go down a drain without spinning, to quite easily balancing an egg on top of a nail and walking with our eyes closed and arms outstretched on the line, feeling ourselves very destabilized by the opposite pull of the Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Coming back from such a diverse, intense, adrenaline-filled adventure is always hard and I returned to New York with a serious case of holiday blues and a bad cold. But all the pictures and memories will hopefully keep me going through the inevitably cold New York winter.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Out-Of-Towners

I have come to realise that there are a few little details that betray someone as an out-of-towner or as a recent implant to the City. Some of these traits are cute and some of them are damn right annoying - but of course I myself exhibited most of them in my first few months in New York too. 

It is therefore without prejudice or snobbery that I can say you are not a New Yorker yet when:

Upon exiting a subway station, you stop and stand at the top of the stairs and look confused. The chances are that a New Yorker might be confused too as it is almost impossible (despite the signage, which I believe to be a fallacy) to know which way is north or south unless you've been there before. .. but New Yorkers don't block the exit for everyone else in the process. They just start walking in a random direction and work it out from there.

You insist in paying cash in restaurants. I can't think of a single good reason why this makes sense and I also find it a little annoying as it means having to work out the tip in advance for the person(s) paying in cash, rather than just conveniently calculating it from the tax on the credit card receipt.

When asked for an address, you say "2350 Broadway" or "1330 6th Avenue", which means absolutely nothing to anyone. New Yorkers never, ever, use street addresses and always reference the cross streets and avenues to direct people.

You walk at a normal pace, or even worse, stroll along the streets instead of the competitive speed walking that New Yorkers practice on a daily basis. I have to admit that it is a particular pet peeve of mine as, despite my rather short stature, I can walk faster than most grown men I know.

You don't let women go before you through open doors and in elevators. This rather old-fashioned form of chivalry seems to have been imprinted for life in the psyche of New York men and while I am all for equal rights, it is rather endearing.

You suffer a mild panic attack when your New Yorker friend crosses the street just as the red hand flashes and sometimes even forcibly try to stop them. The flashing hand means you get at least another 30 seconds to cross the street before getting run over. If it takes you anything over that time to cross the street, then it is the City's own natural selection of the fittest process as far as I'm concerned!

You think that brunch is a meal that takes places sometime after breakfast and before lunch, around 11.30am. Which couldn't be more wrong - New Yorkers will never be caught dead having brunch earlier than 1.30pm or 2pm.

You genuinely hold hope that you are going to find a public toilet anytime now when roaming around town. As far as I'm aware, they are simply nonexistent in the City apart from the extremely clean and pleasant one at Bryant Park. But then that's what Starbucks is for.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ecuador Scare

I have been cursing my previously documented love of adventure a little more than usual in the past few days ...

Together with my lovely friends GP and CS, I have been planning a 10 day trip to Ecuador for the past couple of months. We were set on going somewhere in South America and had originally envisioned going to Peru and climbing Machu Picchu. But upon reading that it had become a bit of a tourist circus, we started reading up about other surrounding countries. Ecuador stood out pretty much immediately - it's the smallest country in SA, which makes it easier to travel around, and yet one of the most diverse in terms of landscape, culture and wild life. It's also meant to be one of the safest and when you are traveling with two other girls, that makes a big difference.

Our itinerary was soon decided. We will fly into the capital - Quito - this Saturday and spend a couple of days there exploring the old town (a UNESCO protected site) as well as go to the Equator line of course. From there, we will board a small plane taking us to the edge of the Amazonian rain forest, followed by a 2 hour canoe ride to our lodge, deep in the jungle. After about 3 days of facing all imaginable killer insects, arachnids and reptiles known to man (and perhaps doing a spot of Piranha fishing), we will make our way back to Quito to catch another flight to the Galapagos Islands where we will embark on a 4 day boat trip with 13 other passengers and a naturalist guiding us through their incredible wild life. Bearing in mind my keen interest in Evolutionary Biology (I have, over the years, read as much Darwin, Dawkings and Pinker as possible for one who actually works in an unrelated field), the Galapagos have been what I thought was an unattainable fantasy for me for many years. Needless to say that because of all the above and the eye-watering cost of it all, I anticipated this to be a trip of a lifetime.

But the dream was almost shattered last Thursday. I got an email from both GP (Italian but based in London) and CS (British who still reads the BBC website religiously) about some trouble happening in Ecuador. It turns out that there was a military coup of some sort and the President was taken hostage. Fights ensued that lead to 5 people being killed and hundreds injured. The airport was closed, many European governments issued a "no travel warning" and the country declared a state of emergency for 7 days.

What troubles me the most about it all is that I would have never heard about it had it not been for them. In fact, when I came in to work the next day and mentioned it to my colleagues and then to my friends later that night, not one of them had heard the news either. It is simply because it was not covered (and still isn't) in the US media.

I realized a while ago but US news outlets are rather selective about what International events they cover. If it is anything controversial/salacious or could directly affect the safety of Americans (on their own soil or in war areas), it will be covered at length (understandably). But everything else seems to be simply ignored. For example, I remember vividly the lack of coverage of the sweeping forest fires that devastated huge parts of Australia last year (a country nearly the size of the USA).

I have been checking the US government travel advisory website for days now and found no mention of any unrest in Ecuador. Instead, I was surprised to read a post advising American citizens not to travel to Europe. They seem to forget that Europe is a continent made up of 50 official countries (or 27 if you chose to count only the ones in the European Union). It is in a way as ludicrous as advising against travel to North America because there's a potential threat in New York, which must sadly happen more times than we'd like to think.

I know this will sound like I am bashing America and that's not really my intention. There are many, many things I love about this wonderful country or I would not live there. But the fact that I have only been able to get updates on the Ecuador situation from British, French and Australian news sites, has been rather frustrating for me and, I have to admit, kind of embarrassing.

Thankfully, things seem to have quieten down there and the President is back in power and looks to have the support of his people - whether that's right or wrong is another issue. Our travel agents and airline's advice today is to go ahead with our trip. Traveling to South America always means a certain amount of political volatility, which I guess we should have anticipated.

We have all managed to alleviate our respective parents fears and now all the travel shots and our preparations do not seem in vain anymore. But it is of course with some remaining nervousness, and clearly a bit of pent-up frustration, that I look forward to finally going on this rather incredible trip!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lost In Translation

I went to Japan exactly a year ago but forgot to post about some of my experiences there.

Japan has long been on my travel wish-list and I was starting to wonder when I was going to make it there until my friend GP told me that she was stopping there for a week on her way back from London to Melbourne and asked if I wanted to come. We met in Tokyo and stayed there for a day before moving on to Kyoto for 2 days and then back to Tokyo for the remainder of the time.

I was fully expecting to suffer from horrendous jet lag and was unfortunately right. After a 14 hour flight and a 9 hour time difference, I got to our first hotel, the B Akasaka in the district of the same name, early in the evening and barely able to remember my own name. G and I managed to squeeze in a quick sushi dinner locally before collapsing into bed at around 9pm. I woke up at 4am the next day and was unable to get back to sleep. So it is in a rather time-zone confused daze but with barely contained excitement that we ventured into the heart of the city the next morning ... except there is no heart to it. Tokyo doesn't really have a center as such - it is instead a fascinating patchwork of neighbourhoods, each with their own distinctive personality.

I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed in our first few hours. We walked from Akasaka to the Imperial Palace only to realise that it couldn't be seen as it is a closely guarded fortress and only the surrounding gardens can be glimpsed at. From there, we walked to Ginza, the high end shopping district (although we had no intention of shopping) and we were surprised by the nearly deserted long avenues. With the tall buildings and Western designer stores, we could have been in any other large urban cities in the world and I started to fear that perhaps the Tokyo of my fantasies did not exist.

Thankfully we started to walk away from Ginza and into some of the small adjacent streets and the feeling subsided as we were surrounded by signs in Japanese characters, older low-rise buildings and houses. I started to really fall in love with Tokyo at lunch time as we followed a group of locals ducking under a piece of fabric hung over a door that lead to a steep and narrow staircase, with only a heady smell betraying the fact that it was a restaurant. We gestured to the host that we wanted to have lunch and were lead to a communal rectangular table in the tiny but beautifully decorated dining room. From the pictures on the menu, we worked out that the restaurant's speciality was Ramen (we soon realized that restaurants in Japan tend to specialize in just one type of food, mastering it perfectly as a result) and ordered the pork version. It was honestly the best ramen I ever had in my entire life and I knew then that this country was going to be heaven for a foodie like me.

G and I had both been warned against taking the subway but adventurous as we are, we decided to try it in order to get to Akusaka. While it is a first glance a complete maze of lines, colours and japanese characters, once you spend some time trying to work it out, it is actually quite straight forward, extremely reliable, clean and punctual and frankly the best way to get around Tokyo, which is a deceptively large city.


Despite having been almost entirely destroyed during WWII (as was much of Tokyo actually), Akusaka is considered to be one of the last few areas of the city that is representative of a more modest, old-style Tokyo and used to be the red light district for a long time.  And this is where my love of Tokyo was cemented as we weaved through crowds of people shopping at small market stalls on the way to the Senso-Ji shrine, overwhelmed by the bright colors of the multitude of trinkets they sold (from sushi candy to plastic cats) and the weird and wonderful food items we had never seen before. We meandered through all the tiny side streets, engulfed by the smoke and delicious smell that came from make-shift restaurants crammed next to one another, usually consisting of nothing more than a hob, a busy cook and a small table on the pavement packed with locals eating and drinking in between puffing on their cigarette.

The next day, we made our way to Kyoto on the bullet train despite our confusion over the difference between express, rapid and super express trains (as it turns out rapid is faster than express!). We had opted to stay in a Ryokan there, which is a traditional Japanese guest house. Ours, the Motonago, was located in the picturesque, cobbled and narrow streets of the historical Gion district, steps away from the Maryana gardens and its multitude myriad of temples and shrines.

Ryokans are like doll houses in the sense that everything is small and close to the ground. At 5ft3, I am not exactly tall but even I felt like a big, clumsy thing is such tiny quarters. Our room consisted of a corridor with hidden wardrobes and a central open space covered in tatami mats with a low table in the centre, a mirror (mysteriously covered at all times with an ornate cloth) and a small raised area decorated with a minimalist flower arrangement (which we were told was a sacred shrine, prompting me to quickly remove the handbag I had conveniently put there!).

While we had already guessed at the importance of etiquette in Japan, it truly came to life there in a ritual and almost spiritual way. Shoes had to be removed at the entrance of the Ryokan and slippers were provided to us, as well as a light cotton kimono to relax in when we were in the house. A chambermaid served us elaborate, multi-course breakfasts and dinners in our room with a sense of decorum and precision in the placement of the various dishes on the table that made us feel … unsophisticated. In fact, the feeling of us unwittingly being rude and unrefined foreigners is one that persisted throughout our trip – in a country so steeped in tradition and ritual, it is impossible to know which unwritten rule one might be breaking at any given time. Although none of our Japanese hosts made us feel that way, I am sure it is due to their extreme politeness and that they would never have wanted to make us feel awkward by pointing out our mistakes.

One of the best things about staying in a Ryokan for me was most definitely having a Japanese bath. I've never been a bath person (I get bored far too quickly to stay in one for more than a few minutes) so entered the bathroom with some skepticism at first. I was faced with a row of low stools each facing a mirror and equipped with a shower hose and a deep bath on the other. Having thankfully read up about it before, I knew that I had to shower before dipping myself in the bath as everyone shares the same. Showering sitting down while avoiding looking at with my naked-self was not particularly relaxing and afterwards I forced myself into what I knew would be a very hot bath … and into pure 43C heaven. Instantly, my sore muscles melted and all the tension disappeared. I never managed to stay in the bath for more than 10 minutes as the intense heat made my heart race a little too scarily but it was the most unbelievable experience.

We had such an amazing trip in a country that is incredibly different to any other in the world that it is very hard to summarize or describe all of it in an accurate manner.

There are so many more things I could write about without doing them any justice. Visiting the Tsukiji fish market at 5am when trading is at its peak and trying to avoid being run over by the myriad of motorised vehicles that erratically transport the merchandise. Noticing Japanese men's fondness for Louis Vuitton "man bags". Arriving at restaurants at 8pm to find rows of business men drunkenly slumped on their yakitori, only waking up to do another shot of Sake. Finding vending machines at every street corner, selling everything from water, to coffee, candy and cigarettes. The toilets of course - a mind-boggling experience at first but it's funny how easy it is to get used to heated toilet seats. And the always funny and sometimes puzzling deformation of the English language we encountered everywhere - "well come", "there is a difference, please note one's feet" ...

Wonderfully lost in translation indeed ...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Beautification

One of the things that you quickly notice when moving to New York is that all the women are immaculately groomed.

Perfectly manicured nails/toes and impeccably arched eye-brows are the norm, rather than the exception.



In fact, I am convinced that there are more nail parlors and waxing salons in the City than Starbucks stores - and that’s saying something!

The “beauty” of them is that they are cheap. Whereas in London a manicure is a rare luxury costing north of $80, in New York you can walk away from any corner street nail salon with a perfect one for $15 at most, including tip.

I didn’t give into the wonders of this ritual until quite a few months of living here. But a friend of mine suggested a girlie trip to our local salon once and I have never looked back since. The whole experience, even in what might look like a slightly run-down place, is pure heaven and I like the ritual as much as the end result.

You first walk in and say what you’d like done to any of the ladies, who are usually busily attending to other customers. The wait is either nonexistent or very brief and you are told to choose from the vast array of nail polishes they have available on a high shelf (you can also bring your own).

Upon sitting down at a small (but perfectly constructed for the purpose) table, your manicurist will carefully remove any previous polish, soak each of your hands in a warm soapy solution, apply a mysterious serum, push back and/or cut your cuticles as needed and proceed to cut or trim your nails to your desired shape. She will then apply a moisturising lotion (which has been warmed up in a special cabinet) to your hands and massage it only to then wipe it off afterwards with an even hotter towel - the most heavenly part of the ritual for me . After this, you will be asked to pay - this used to surprise me until I realised that you can’t reach into your purse with a fresh manicure. 

The polish application part can then commence with an undercoat, two coats of your chosen polish and finally a top coat being applied, after which you are taken to a drying station and given a brief (but wonderful) back rub while you wait.  You will be left with nails more unbelievably perfect and polished than you could ever have imagined and thereby catch yourself admiring them at any given opportunity - like when you are grabbing on a subway pole while commuting, writing notes at work or even pointing at random things. It’s weird I know, but girls will understand me on this one.

The whole process takes at least 45 minutes from start to finish and is therefore not something you can do if you are in a hurry. You have to build it into your schedule as I do now on a bi-weekly basis, usually on a Saturday morning after the gym but before brunch.

I have come to consider it the best “me” time I can get. The only time when I am not checking my emails or talking on the phone. When I can truly feel disconnected from the rest of the world as I watch in absolute awe the expert skills of the manicurist tending to my nails, each coat of polish seemingly soothing my otherwise hectic mind.

I don’t even have to talk as chit-chat is not really encouraged in such places. I have seen many women yapping on their phones while getting their nails done but I consider it to be rude to the manicurist and I prefer to sit there in silence, occasionally smiling and telling them what a wonderful job they are doing. I do however remember a conversion with a girl who was giving me a pedicure once and told me that in her country looking at feet, let alone touching them, was forbidden and that she cried the first time she had to do it. This only made me more respectful (and guilty) of the work they do so skillfully and perhaps unwillingly do to make ends meet. I always tip generously to make up for it - my lowly contribution to a strange system, I realise.

I have yet to indulge in eye-brow threading - a practice that still instill incredible fear in me, not lessened by the fact that every eye-bow threading shops in the City advertise their services by playing a constant loop video of said procedure in their store window for every passers-by to see. They make it look painless and almost pleasurable. I don’t believe them.

One thing at the time ...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Campbell Apartment

A couple of my oldest friends are making great progress in launching their business into the US market which is not only great news for them, but also for me as it means they have to make frequent business trips to New York as a result.

This gives us the opportunity to leisurely catch up over several evenings, rather than the usual crazy schedule I have when I visit London as I always try to fit it seeing as many friends as possible.

So when my friend SM spent a week here for meetings after attending South By South West in Austin a few months ago that's exactly what we did. We pretty much spent every evenings together and SM gamely followed me on a tour of some of my favourite New York haunts, from live Jazz at The Garage to expensive but exquisite sushi at Gari's, all the way to late night drinks at Hi-Life. But we also went to a place that had long been on my list to try - The Campbell Apartment in Grand Central.

Drinking in a train station may sound far from glamorous but Grand Central is probably the most beautiful, serene and grandiose station in the world and I love having fiery Bloody Marys at Cipriani on the raised concourse while watching the world go by. But this time, I wanted to try something different and SM and I made our way (with some difficulty as it is hard to find the entrance) to the Campbell Apartment instead.

The strict dress-code (no jeans or t-shirts) ensures that this grandiose drinking den is fairly clear of tourists. The "apartment" was the former office of rail road executive John W Campbell who had it built in 1923 to resemble a 13th Century Florentine palace. It takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness but entering this space is like stepping back in time, complete with an atmosphere of quiet and old-world luxury. One almost feels in a museum and we almost reluctantly raised voices above whispering level when asking the hostess for a table. Their cocktails are also to die-for.

SM is coming back to New York in a few weeks time and has already requested that we go back. I shall gladly oblige of course.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oyster Fest

Lots of people. Lots of oysters. Lots of margeritas. But nothing can beat a slice of pizza to finish a day that lasted well into the night!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Armageddon

The weather here can be so extreme that it always brings the word "Armageddon" to my mind because sometimes it is so bad, that it can feel just like the end of the world. This kind of weather is largely unknown to us Europeans, apart from (thankfully) rare spectacular floodings.

As most of you will know, that was the case last Thursday when severe storms hit the City and violent winds tore through parts of Brooklyn, uprooting numerous trees and damaging properties and people in its wake.

I was at a work happy hour when it started. The skies turned black and the gusts of winds and pouring rain - even while in the safety of a bar - were very scary. My friend LJ sent me the above picture of his street near Park Slope that he took on his iPhone.

The storm finished almost as quickly as it started. The New York Times has some haunting pictures of its aftermath here.

Pomander Walk

I spend a good amount of my time trying to find out about little known New York spots so when I stumbled across a mention of Pomander Walk in my Upper West Side neighbourhood, I had to go and check it out myself.

Pomander Walk consists of a dozen or so Tudor houses, squeezed in between rows of perfectly modern and much taller buildings on 96th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue. I have since learned that it was created in 1921 by an entrepreneur who originally intended to build a hotel on the site but was unable to secure adequate funding. These English style houses were built instead and have been a residential haven ever since. The name originates from an old London street and a stage play.

While it is not possible to walk through its iron gates (unless you know someone who lives there), peering through them is like taking a charming, almost whimsical, and certainly completely unexpected step back in time.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

San Diego Fun


I was in San Diego with LJ (a.k.a my gay best friend) for a few days. We've been going together for the past 3 years as we attend the same annual Media conference there in beautiful Coronado Bay.

We've always managed to make a fun trip out of it and this year was no different.


We visited the fantastic and famous San Diego zoo and saw everything from Pandas to black Panthers and Flamingos.

We did silly things with inflatable ponies and took pictures of it (most 5 year-olds have a more sophisticated sense of humour than we do!).

We experienced the tremors of an earth quake in the middle of the night.

And we even cycled to Mexico - granted, the border is only about 8 miles from where we were staying but I certainly never thought I would ever be able to say that I actually cycled there!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

To Do

I love everything about making lists - writing them, adding to them, crossing items off them ...

I always keep a list of clothes & shoes I want to buy, household chores, work tasks and projects, packing lists, movies to see, music to download, books to read, restaurants/bars I want to try as well as the ones I have been to ... but perhaps the most fun of all my lists is the never ending, always growing, one of things I still want to see and experience in New York.

So I thought I would share just a couple of my “To Do’s” in the City coming up in the next month or so.

Queues waiting for Eataly to open last week!
 Graze around Eataly
 The latest Mario Batali venture is a huge Italian market/restaurant/grocery store opposite Madison Square Park near the Flatiron called "Eataly".

I actually popped in there with my brother and sister last week but I think the beautifully designed and wonderfully stocked space requires a more thorough exploration. As it is, I got an enticing sneak peek at their extensive range of cheese, wine, fresh pasta, vegetables, meat and fish.

And as there is nothing I love more than a platter of cheese and cold meats washed down with an excellent red wine (which is what is served at various high chairs & tables dotted throughout), this is at the very top of my list!


Stone Street by Katz & The City(c)
Go to the Stone Street Oyster Festival
I used to be very sceptikal about oysters and frankly quite grossed out. While it is customary to eat them every Christmas in France, I was never one to partake.

But in NYC, oysters are bountiful, delicious, cheap and served pretty much everywhere - so when I moved here and started meeting my friends for Happy Hour drinks after work, I saw them sharing huge platters of the things ... and I really felt like I should give them another try and now I love them!

This annual festival takes place on September 25th this year in cute and cobbled Stone Street (one of the oldest streets in the City, in the heart of the Financial District) and the restaurants and bars lining it will be hosting tasting sessions, but also serve lots of beer and feature live music acts. I believe that another festival will also simultaneously be held at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central.


Photo Alexandre Rizos (c)
Watch the Bryant Park Petanque Tournament
What can I say? I am still French after all! Petanque is a very old and traditional game played most prevalently in the South of France.

I (like every other French child I would assume) grew up playing it and while I don't normally seek out French activities around the City, there cannot be a Petanque tournament in Bryant Park without me at least seeing it briefly!

This particular tournament will be taking place on September 28th & 29th but I understand that there are some throughout the year, as well as free lessons available, weather permitting - you can find more details here.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Memories

After being away from home for almost 15 years now, you'd think that saying goodbye to my family would get easier. It doesn't. And waving my sister and brother farewell this time around was no different. I miss them more than words can express.

But we will always have the memories - walking for hours up and down Manhattan (and even Brooklyn!), sharing new experiences together, laughing and talking late into the night while sipping delicious cocktails.

Below are just some of my favourite shots we took during their stay.

Cycling in Central Park
Walking in the Meatpacking District

Near Gramercy Park
On the High Line

High Line
View from my living room window
Classic NYC
Charlie Parker Jazz Festival @ Tompkins Square Park
Rowing on the Lake

Walking over the Brooklyn Bridge