Friday, August 27, 2010

Atlantic Tunnel Tour

Waiting to go down the manhole!
My love of adventure has often landed me in scary and/or uncomfortable situations. I've been lucky enough to have climbed Kilimanjaro, hiked to the top of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, zip lined in Costa Rica, skydived in the Mojave desert, taken a balloon flight in the Yangshuo mountains of China and a helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon, stroked cheetahs in Kenya and held a tarantula in the palms of my hands at the London Zoo ... Hell, I've even tried dating in New York City! So it's fair to say that I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie.

When I heard about the Atlantic tunnel tour in Brooklyn I in no way expected an adventure of the scale of the ones above, but I must admit that it did get my heart racing a little more than anticipated.

The half-mile long abandoned tunnel was discovered by a guy called Bob Diamond in the early eighties and is the oldest subway tunnel in the World - it was built in 1844 using very rudimentary tools. Bob has since been leading hour-long tours taking curious New Yorkers to the depths of the tunnel while explaining its construction, as well as some of the political context and business practices of the time.

I have been shopping the idea of doing this to a lot of my friends for the past few months but to no avail - they all exclaimed that I was insane and that they had no intention of accompanying me into a dark, dank and probably rat infested space. Thankfully my sister is staying with me for a couple of weeks at the moment and, as crazy seems to run in the family, she was up for it.

Tunnel entrance
When we are arrived at the meeting point, on the corner of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue, we were surprised by the sight of sixty or so people patiently lining up to go down a ladder through a manhole in the middle of the avenue one by one. We had expected perhaps only another handful of people to be there with us but we gamely joined the back of the queue and proceeded to wait for almost an hour before being able to get down ourselves. Most of that wait had to be done in the pouring rain, which made me reconsider more than once whether I really wanted to do this!

But we persisted and when it came to our turn, we awkwardly stepped down the ladder and into the wet and dark hole. My heart started to race immediately as we landed in a narrow and low corridor that lead to some steps and the start of the tunnel. It took a while for our eyes to adjust to the obscurity and we took cautious steps towards the guide and the rest of the visitors, illuminating our path as best as we could with the pocket flashlight we had brought.

We didn’t stay for the whole tour - not that we were scared as such but being there was very eerie and somehow we just couldn’t get into the talk that Bob was delivering. Not that it wasn’t engaging but I guess that not being able to “see” him made it harder for us to concentrate. A few other people were making their way out about 30 minutes in and we followed them shortly after.

In the tunnel
The funniest part of the whole adventure was perhaps when I came out of the manhole and almost caused a car crash. As I emerged from the tarmac, a passing car saw me and the woman driving screamed in shock and braked abruptly. The cars behind her beeped loudly and narrowly avoided piling into her! I guess my advice to Bob and his crew would be for one of them to stay at the entrance/exit and escort people out so as to not freak out passersby and motorists!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

About me - Part 2

Cycling in France
Here is the second part of the interview that the lovely Amelie from The Heimweh Safari did with me. As before, you can read it here below or over on her blog.


I introduced you to Stephanie last week. Again, I want to praise her blog Biting the Big Apple and herself. I didn’t attribute points last week. That’s a default. Finding Stephanie in the internet, reading her blog and getting in touch with her has helped me a great deal. 

It gave me the perspective that liking New York might just be a matter of time. That New York might be a city that kicks everybody’s ass at first, in some way or another, (although nobody admits it) and that it’s not just me. Reading Stephanie’s blog is therefore worth more than anything else so far on my Heimweh safari: 8 points.

In the second part of my conversation with her you can read about her first experiences in New York: “American hair”, a broken heart and finally feeling at home.

What was your most mundane and unexpected problem at the beginning (f.ex. laundry, food, etc.). How did you solve it?

Not so much problems as rather interesting discoveries, which were, in no particular order:
  • Realizing that there are no washing machines fitted in any Manhattan apartment. Quickly followed by the realization that dry cleaners here can do your laundry for $8 a pound and thereby making me the happiest girl on earth (I hate laundry).
  • Making myself understood! NYC being probably one of the most multi-cultural cities on earth, you’d imagine that people would be pretty used to accents. But not so in my experience and I’ve had some funny moments at the salad bar counter of delis, trying to say “tomayto” instead of “tomahto” so they would get my order right! And to this day, nine times out of ten, the staff in Starbucks hears “two” coffees when I ask for a “tall” coffee.
  • Getting used to the fact that everything is larger here: paper towels, bags of crisps, chocolate bars … Everything seems to be super-sized! Even hair apparently as whenever I visit my local hairdresser, I always seem leave with what I now call “American hair” – just that bit bouncier and bigger than you would get anywhere else!
  • Getting used to the subway was quite a challenge at first as I found it to be really unintuitive. I, of course, got the hang of it eventually and I am now even used to the fact that it is completely unpredictable at the weekends as express trains become locals and sometimes vice-versa!

In one of your posts you write, “Despite our enduring love affair, New York has kicked me pretty hard to the ground a couple of times very early on and taught me tough lessons…” What are you referring to? 

You end the very same sentence by, “… some of which I only very recently finally absorbed and accepted.” How? What helped you—in the beginning and over time? Again, in the same post you write that New York has actually become home for you. 
What gives you that feeling?

I’m afraid that I was referring to a good old-fashioned heartbreak! I alluded at one point on my blog that I was infatuated with a New York man who was as complicated, gorgeous and fast-paced as the City itself. Unfortunately for me, I met said man a mere two weeks after moving to NYC and I came to see my feelings for him as interchangeable with my feelings about living in the City itself, the peaks and (mainly) troths of one directly affecting the other.

I struggled for a very, very long time to come to terms with the fact that while we would never be in a normal relationship together, it didn’t mean that my time in New York had been a failure or should be marred by what was a pretty painful experience for me.

So I guess that the feeling of New York being a happy home for me took longer than it perhaps should have done – it kind of creeped in on me as my heart slowly mended and when I finally managed to completely disassociate the City from the man!

Many expats try to recreate their countries of origin in some way. Do you? If so, how? 

I wouldn’t say that I have tried to recreate my country in NYC, maybe because while I am French, I feel very close to British culture and therefore I am not sure which of the two countries I would want to try to recreate here.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Top NYC Events

Japanese Street Fair - 5th Avenue
I was asked by Expat Arrivals (a great website dedicated to providing valuable local information to expats) to write a piece about key events in New York City throughout the year.

You can read it on Expat Arrivals or below. The list is nowhere near exhaustive of course but I had to start somewhere!

New York is known the world over as the city that never sleeps. Though for many, the city’s borderline manic activity can actually be felt as much during the day as it can at night. In the summer season in particular, the energy is almost palpable, seemingly bouncing off gleaming buildings and steaming hot asphalt.

There is simply always something to do here; either an old favourite pastime that you’ve neglected for a while or an entirely new pursuit. As for picking just a few events, certainly a difficult task, but here’s is a list of tried and tested annual events, as well as some still on the to-do list.

New York Restaurant week - February & July
Some of the city’s most famous and most exclusive restaurants participate in New York’s bi-annual Restaurant Week. Eateries featured in this culinary dream period offer a prix-fixe lunch and/or dinner for $24 and $35 respectively. So this is your chance to sample some of the best kitchens in the city at the best of bargain prices, from Daniel Boulud’s modern French cuisine at DBGB to old school New York charm with an Eastern European twist at the Russian Tea Room.

St. Patrick’s Day Parade - March 17th
The Irish heritage in the New York area is omnipresent and St. Patrick’s Day is the event of the year to witness in all its intoxicating glory. On the day itself, there is a parade, complete with costumes and marching bands, that slowly snakes up 5th Avenue and is tons of fun to watch. A lesser known fact however is that Hoboken (just across the Hudson in New Jersey) hosts a veritable Irish extravaganza the weekend before St. Patrick Day. People start pouring into the small town from 9am onwards as pubs open especially early for the occasion and everything pretty much turns green (drinks, people, streets, clothes). Needless to say, most revelers start drinking early in the day, so things do get a little messy!

Street Festivals - April onwards
One of city’s most charming cultural gems is the appearance of random street festivals that pop up all over town on the weekends as soon as the weather starts to perk up, usually from April onwards. While there’s no official, comprehensive guide of when and where they are scheduled to happen, the chances are that if you are visiting NYC during that time, you are highly likely to stumble upon one. Sometimes they have a theme but most often they don’t - what they always have though are food stands (Thai, Japanese, Greek), Tarot cards readers and lots of useless but charming knick knacks.

Rooftop drinking - May onwards
Technically speaking, this is not an event at all of course; though with the start of the outdoor drinking season, it’s certainly a momentous occasion. In a place filled with skyscrapers, it is easy to see why looking out over the sweeping cityscape while sipping on a gorgeous cocktail is a New Yorker’s favourite past time. Some of the best rooftops are the Metropolitan Museum rooftop, 230 & 5th and the lesser known Bookmarks in the Library Hotel and newcomer Ink 48's Press Lounge.

Gay Pride Parade - June
Gay Pride is a huge event in the city and is usually made to last for the entire week with a number of smaller events all leading to the main parade on a Saturday. As Gay Pride originally started in NYC, there is certainly something special about this particular event. The celebration has its roots in 1970, and is an occasion to mark the one year anniversary of the Stonewall Inn incident. The event is incredibly diverse; with every single ethnic origin, gender and age being represented.

Outdoor Movies & Concerts - All Summer long
The list of these is almost endless - from River Flicks on the Hudson, to the Bryant Park Monday night movies and the Rooftop Films Summer series, there is really something for everyone.
Outdoor concerts in the city are also quite ubiquitous with the most notable being the New York Philharmonic concerts in Central Park, the Tompkins Square Park Charlie Parker Jazz Festival and the P.S.I Warm UP series.
Be it a music or cinema event (or ideally both!), one thing is for sure - there is nothing quite as magical as having the glittering city as the backdrop to your evening.

San Genaro Festival - September
San Genaro is a week long festival that takes place in Little Italy every year. It is actually a religious occasion and a statue of San Genaro (the Patron Saint of Naples) is carried through the cobbled streets by burly men, followed by a large procession of people. The atmosphere is electric with music, freak shows (!), street food vendors loudly selling their wares (you must try a sweet, cream-filled, cannelloni) and huge crowds slowly meandering through it all, usually clutching a cocktail in a giant, brightly colored plastic glass!

NBA Basketball Season - October to April
There are many sporting events in New York, the most popular being the baseball season (with the old rivalry between the Yankees and the Mets), as well as the US Open. NBA basketball season is also not to be missed; running from October to April with New York Knicks games being played at Madison Square Garden.
Despite the Knicks’ poor performance of the past few years, they have ardent fans and the atmosphere at the games is amazing - the combination of the venue, the fun musical and dance interludes, the constant chanting of the fans and the fast pace of the match make this a must-do experience in the city.

Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade - November
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is a well known event, and even preparations can be captivating to watch. On the night prior to the parade, the famous huge balloons depicting animals or cartoon characters are being inflated somewhere on the Upper West Side, usually near the National History Museum on Central Park West. It’s a great spectacle to see after a dinner out with friends - when hopefully a couple of glasses of wine will have warmed you up enough to brave the chilly temperatures and chance of snow.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hamptons Weekend

I took my very first trip to the Hamptons last weekend. One of my friend's family has a 5 bedroom house in Amagansett so a group of six of us (including the adorable dog Baxter) headed off on the BQE and along the Long Island strip on Thursday night to beat the weekender traffic.

I knew exactly what I wouldn’t like about the Hamptons which is essentially a gated paradise for rich people to play together. It is the least multi-cultural and diverse place one can imagine and I had never seen so many men wearing pink pants and polo shirts with an upturned collar before. It was ridiculous.

However, if you stay out of “the scene”, the Hamptons are very beautiful and a lot more laid back than I anticipated. Every morning we would take the short drive to the Amagansett Farmers Market to get a big cup of coffee and one of their fabulous brioche buns with egg and cheese to be leisurely savoured at one of the tables in the shaded garden. We would also get fresh salad ingredients, bread and cheese for our lunch back at the house later and the rest of the day would be spent either in the gorgeous swimming pool or at the beach.

We would get itchy feet at around 5pm and get ready to go out. The first stop of the night was always Cyril’s, a tiny roadside outdoor bar packed full of people wanting to see and be seen. For us however, the main attraction of Cyril’s stemmed from the large, strong and frankly yummy cocktails they create. The B.B.C (Banana Baileys Colada) in particular is worth the trip alone and with a rum floater on top, we would all be tipsy enough to engage in some serious car karaoke after just one on our way to dinner! Luckily for us, the one man in our party was happy to be our designated driver for the entire weekend - yes, he’s a keeper!

My favourite evening was on Friday night, when after our usual pit stop at Cyril’s, we headed to The Lobster Deck in Montauk. There we had what was probably was one of the best lobsters I’ve ever had while watching the sun set slowly over a completely calm sea and the pink, orange and yellow tones of the skies only seemed to accentuate the bright red shell of the lobster.

Spending weekends at the Hamptons is most definitely a New York rite of passage. Many people buy into share houses for the entire summer (at often exorbitant costs) and so it is a little like the entire crowd you would normally find on an average Saturday night in the Meat Packing district magically teletransported themselves there to form a weird but wonderful "Manhattan on Sea" ...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Forgotten New York

Photo by Angel Franco (c)
 Through the always excellent New York Portraits, I found a link to the New York Times Lens blog and an interview of freelance photographer Angel Franco who followed police patrols in the Bronx between 1979 and 1984 and took chilling pictures of what he witnessed.

New York then was nothing like New York now as it was at the height of the drug plague and the streets were extremely unsafe. The photos tell just that and it’s hard to even recognize our City in those scary shots that sometimes look like they were taken in a war zone.

America had trouble believing the pictures when they were first published as the country was prosperous at the time and the violence and despair you can feel in the photos were at odds with the national mood.

You can have a look for yourself here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

About me!

Mum & I in Soho
When I started this blog, soon after moving to New York 3 years ago, it was at the suggestion of a couple of my London friends who thought it would be cool if I documented my adventures in a new country and a new city. I used it as a sort of log of my observations, a personal record of my time here, and at times I must admit as a form of therapy too.

I only shared my blog address with a small selection of friends and never thought that anyone else but them would ever read it. But it turns out that other people do too and the chances are that if you are reading these lines now, you are one of them. A fact that I find surprising, flattering but a little daunting too.

Amelie is one of these readers and contacted me a few months ago. We exchanged a few emails back and forth, finding common grounds in our Expat status. Her blog, The Heimweh Safari, is great. Having moved here from Austria to study and struggling with feelings of homesickness, she started a rating system awarding points to the City for cool experiences or new discoveries, a bit like a treasure hunt.

Amelie’s blog contains a couple of interviews of other expats and their experiences of settling here and making it home. I was honoured when she asked me to take part as well.

You can read Part 1 of our 3-parts interview below here and on The Heimweh Safari.
How to become a happy New Yorker
A success story, Part 1

Stephanie is my guiding light. Apart from that, she’s French—yet British in her heart—and she moved to New York three and a half years ago. I discovered her blog a while ago (check it out it’s great!) and on that blog I found something that made me want to meet her urgently. In a post she wrote about how New York gave her a hard time at the beginning, yet how much it has become her home by now. Well, I thought, that sounds comforting to a homesick European like me. I need to talk to this girl.

I sent her some questions and got an amazing, very long e-mail back. Too long to be posted in one go. Therefore, we decided to make it a series. In sequel 1, read about Stephanie’s moving to New York.

When did you come to NYC and why?
I landed in freezing cold and snowy New York on March 3rd 2007. I had been working for a major American financial services company in London for a couple of years and got promoted to a great job in our NYC head offices, heading up online marketing in their Digital Group.

Did you come alone? Did you have friends in the city?

I came by myself which was actually a huge deal for me. A year prior to my move, my boyfriend of ten years and I (amicably) split up so while the opportunity to move to New York couldn’t have come at a better time in my life, doing it by myself was also a very new, equally exciting and daunting, experience for me.

I only knew three people in the City but I was so excited at the prospect of living here that I forgot to factor that into the equation … I have to admit that I did question my sanity as a result almost as soon as I landed!

Were you homesick at the beginning? If so, what helped?

As this is the second time in my life that I have uprooted myself and moved to another country (I moved from France to the UK 15 years ago), I’m not sure I really know what being homesick means. I am used to finding excitement in the challenges of learning to live in a new culture and noticing both the mundane and more fundamental differences. Having said that, I missed my friends a lot (and still do), closely followed by Waitrose groceries, Marks & Spencer lingerie (only British girls will understand me on this one), British television, decent Earl Grey tea and roast dinners!

Thankfully NYC is a transient place and the people who live here know it and are therefore very welcoming of newcomers and I made friends quite quickly, not only through work but also through friends of friends who kindly and seamlessly included me in their social group. Being transient also means that the people you get to know come and go too, and friendships can be on one extreme very superficial or, on the other, very intense. I definitely have fewer friends here than I do in London.

The Internet (already a huge part of my life) was crucial in helping me stay in touch with friends. I started some intense e-mail correspondence with my closest ones and Facebook helped fill the remaining gaps with the others.

Read more about how Stephanie became a happy New Yorker in a week!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Little Graduation

My “Little Sister” graduated from PS 131 Middle School at the end of June and it was quite a momentous occasion not only for her, but also for me as I have grown very attached to her over the 3 years that we have known each other.

She is a 12 years old Chinese girl called Jenny whom I started mentoring when I joined the Big Brother Big Sister of New York City charity in 2007. While not being the most child-friendly person (I don’t dislike children but I just don’t relate to them easily), I loved the premise of the program which is based on providing a positive role model in the life of children whose families often live in modest and sometimes precarious conditions.  I never realized until moving here that a surprising 16% of kids drop out of High School in the US and the program is designed to make them want to pursue further education to build a better life for themselves.

I feel I have been very lucky professionally and my career has taken me places I only dreamed of as a little girl. I therefore liked the idea of sharing that with a child and showing her that everything is possible if you work at it and pursue your dreams.

Jenny’s graduation was a great accomplishment for her and she is going onto High School in Manhattan in the Fall. It has been truly amazing for me to watch her grow from a frail little girl so shy that it was paralyzing for her, to a more self-confident young teenager who is starting to ask me about boys!

But the event, which I was very excited to attend in person (American graduation ceremony just like in the movies!), also marked the end of our time together as the program is not available in her new school. Her parents couldn't attend due to work commitment unlike every other parnts so me being there was even more important for her. We have sworn to stay in touch however and I can’t wait to see how she gets on next year and hopefully for many more years to come.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Country Girl

I am in France with my family for a few days and following the same reassuringly predictable and relaxing schedule I have described in the past.

I have been spending more time than usual with my brother however as he off work at the moment and most days have included games of squash, cross-country cycling with Dad and cooking with Mum.

We made a day trip to my parents' country house to enjoy the fresh mountain air and to go for a long walk in the woods surrounding their property. No walks in my family is without purpose however and ours was to pick wild mushrooms (specifically a vibrant yellow variety known as "chanterelles") which, as surprising as it may sound, is one of my favourite things to do in the world ... yes, as high up the list as drinking cocktails on rooftop bars!

Mushrooms tend to grow in the same areas over and over again and therefore the first rule of mushroom hunting (and second and third) is to never divulge your best picking spots. My parents for example would never tell their friends or even their siblings where their spots are and in fact, Mum and Dad themselves don't even know all of each other's hunting grounds as they tend to split up when going mushroom picking and only meet up later, each smiling widely and carrying a wicker basket brimming with delicate and aromatic fungi.

There is something very eerie but also incredibly freeing about being in the middle of a forest and not knowing where you are, which way you came from and more importantly, how to get home. Thankfully my parents seem to be equipped with an almost alien sense of spacial awareness and can not only find their way back very easily (thankfully, as neither of them carry a mobile phone!) but can also tell exactly where they are, even down to the actual ownership of the plot we are standing in!

My Dad's family owns several acres of forest in the area as it was customary for my grand-father to buy plots for his children and grand-children. I guess that for his generation it represented the safest and most long lasting form of financial investment. I must admit that I do always get a tinge of pride when, after having apparently crossed some kind of invisible boundary lines, my Mum or Dad casually drop in that we are now on my very own piece of land.

From country-side lover to stereotypical New York City girl, I realise that I am describing two different lifestyles that should in theory not co-exist very happily together. But I have come to terms a long time ago with the fact that they are both "me" and that I would never truly be able to appreciate one if I didn't also have the other.