Monday, 24 February 2014

Things to See in NYC

In truth, apart from skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty, New York is actually a place you go to more to do things than to see things, but I decided to accord myself some artistic licence in this title. Normally in cities I like to spend most of my time walking around and soaking up the atmosphere but, despite what other people told us, I was surprised to find that this wasn't really the bit that I enjoyed the most. It might have been something to do with the slush and the sub-zero temperatures, but many of our most enjoyable experiences were specific things that we made the effort to do. As it was our first time there, many of them were classic tourist-trail things, so this is in no way an expert guide, but here are some of the highlights of our trip:

Top of the Rock

This was probably the most touristy part of our whole trip, but also one of the best things we did. Having figured out that if you go to the top of the Empire State Building, you can't see the Empire State Building, we went to the 70th floor of the Rockefeller Center instead. It's pricey, at 27$ for a very small exhibition, a ride in a lift and access to the top 3 floors of the building, but I don't think it's possible to appreciate the sheer scale and verticality of downtown Manhattan without viewing it from up high and the 360 degree panorama really is impressive.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

For a long time, the Lower East Side was where new immigrants from all over the world lived in crowded slums directly after arriving in America. The museum is a tenement building that has been furnished the way it would have been at the time, but in fact the visit is more like attending a lecture than going on a tour. You have to book a session with a guide and you can choose which of the immigrant's stories you would like to hear. We went for the history of an Irish family told by our knowledgeable and engaging guide using traditional songs and it was fantastic.


Understanding Frenchman and I both have a fairly limited tolerance for museums, but we did get a lot out of our visit to New York's Museum of Modern Art. If you start on the top floor and work your way down, you can get a good impression of how modern art developed from just after the Impressionists onwards, and for somebody like me who doesn't know a lot about art history, the overview of the different movements provided in each gallery gave just the right amount of information to understand what the artists were getting at ... and to confirm that Dadaism is not a concept I appreciate any more in art than I do in literature. (The example that sticks in my mind from the MoMA is a bicycle wheel stuck into a stepladder, an attempt to prove that everyday objects are just as much art as something that has been beautifully crafted just as long as you decide to call it art. Apart from that, though, I enjoyed most of what we saw. I found this painting both fascinating and beautiful - according to the museum guide I am not alone.

Other great things we did that don't really count as sights were: ice skating in Bryant Park (a great rink surrounded by beautiful buildings, and it seemed bigger than the one in Central Park), dinner and a concert at the Smoke jazz bar, a delicious meal at the Red Cat in Chelsea and yummy Nepalese food at a restaurant in Queens. We also saw the musical Chicago on Broadway, a decision that flew a bit in the face of advice we had received from an acquaintance who has been an actress in New York and said not to go and see anything which has been running for too long because the atmosphere tends to be a bit flat and the theatres full of tourists. This was true to some extent, but we wanted to see an American musical that we knew we would both like, and I felt that the sheer quality of the acting, dancing and singing more than made up for any deflatedness on the part of the audience or the cast.

There were a few things that I would have liked to do that we missed out on, like the immigration museum on Ellis Island and one of the other art galleries, but overall I felt that we made pretty good use of our time in New York. If I ever go back, I would like to have a specific goal or something purposeful to do, because I enjoyed myself most on the days when we had a particular mission and weren't just wandering around. After all, how can you make the most of the fastest city in the world when you have all the time in the world on your hands? 

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Paris vs New York

It's hard to think of any cities in the world which are quite as iconic as Paris and New York, at least from an Anglophone European perspective. Cities whose street names are legendary, whose facades are familiar, and where even the public transport systems have qualified as settings of many a cinema classic. And so, when Understanding Frenchman and I took our first trip across the Atlantic together and exchanged the Eiffel Tower for the Empire State Building it was probably inevitable that we made a few comparisons.

Before anybody takes what follows too seriously, I should make it clear that we spent a grand total of seven days in New York, and that even after living in Paris for four years, I'm still trying to make sense of the place, so nothing that I've written is anything but my own subjective, and possibly superficial, opinion. I'm quite happy for people to disagree with me or correct anything I've said, but please be nice to me. (I know what Parisians and New Yorkers can be like!)

Parisian Style vs New York Style

To put things in context, we arrived in New York in the middle of a snow storm and spent most of the week wearing hiking boots, ski gloves and cagoules, so any attempt to pass judgement on anyone else's fashion sense is entirely hypocritical. Understanding Frenchman and I differed on this one: he thought that New Yorkers didn't make nearly so much of an effort as Parisians, while I was impressed with both their creativity and the fact that so many people looked good even in the face of metre-high piles of melting slush. And next time it snows in Paris, I am definitely investing in a pair of designer wellies.

Paris: 0 NYC: 1

Paris Metro vs New York Subway
I never thought I'd say it, but with its clanking trains, complicated timetable changes and the fact that stations several blocks away from each other can share the same name, the New York subway makes the Paris metro look modern, user friendly and efficient. NYC does get some bonus points: the subway runs all night, every time the train pulls away from the station you start singing Moby in your head, and the sheer enthusiasm of the "Stand clear of the closing doors, please!" announcement are all big plusses, but Paris still wins this one hands down.

Paris: 1     NYC: 0

Paris Street Names vs New York Street Names
Admittedly, the New York system is simple. Just look at the numbers on the street signs and you'll know exactly where you are and how far you have to walk to your destination. But in the long run, I prefer to get lost every so often for the privilege of walking along streets named after the Elysian Fields or reminding myself that in the days before NafNaf, Gap and Sephora, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine was once a hotbed of revolutionary fervour and not just another shopping street.

Paris: 1 NYC: 0

Parisian Traffic vs New York Traffic

Our American friends expressed deep concern about the dangers of New York traffic and the high number of accidents but nothing we experienced in NYC compared to the adrenaline rush of being still on the pedestrian crossing as the lights change at the Place de la Concorde ... or the Place de l'Opera ... or the Place de la Nation. We were pleasantly surprised by New York drivers' courtesy and care at every crossroads (especially as, with cars that big, you could do a lot of damage!)

Paris: 0     NYC: 1

Big Coffee vs Little Coffee
I had high expectations of American coffee. You can't warm your hands or your soul around a tiny cup of Parisian espresso (and if you try with a café crème, you'll probably find it's lukewarm), so I was looking forward to big doses of caffeinated comfort in New York, but I was actually a bit disappointed. There's a reason Americans can spend the whole day slugging on those huge cups of hot beverages without getting hyped-up like the Duracell bunny: what's inside tends to be flavourless and somewhat insipid. The verdict? No points for either city - go to Milan instead.

Paris: 0     NYC: 0

Parisian Rudeness vs New York Rudeness

You know that moment in Sex and the City where Carrie drops her birthday cake on wet tarmac and gets yelled at by a group of workmen? I spent a fair amount of our time in NYC in fear of having a similar experience, after seeing people getting bawled at for crimes as diverse as stepping away from the immigration desk a moment too soon and turning to the left instead of the right when looking for their seats in a Broadway theatre. New Yorkers, it seems, have no compunction about making other people's mistakes very, very public. Nevertheless, on balance, I decided that I prefer this to the Parisian version where you often don't even realise someone has been rude to you until it's far too late to make a comeback.

Paris: 0     NYC: 1

Parisian Politeness vs New York Politeness

Apart from the above-mentioned incidents of public humiliation, we found most people in New York to be very polite and friendly. People were patient when we failed to swipe our metro cards correctly and helpfully explained to us the value of all those tiny coins funny names when we tried to count out change in shops. What we found weird though, was the way that salespeople would be incredibly helpful on a first meeting, but if we went back to look at something for a second time, had no recollection of who we were. We also quickly understood that the question, "How are you?" doesn't really expect an answer. So, helpful and welcoming as New Yorkers were, the points for this round go to Paris, because when a Parisian makes up his mind to be nice to you, means something profound.

Paris: 1 NYC: 0

As you can see, this post has been very carefully engineered so that neither city came out on top. Because while it's always fun to compare, I'm here to share experiences, not sit in judgement. But I do have more thoughts, of the deep and less deep variety, on this subject. Watch out for more posts coming soon.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

If Only ...

With nothing much else to blog about this week, I thought I'd share the new expression that Understanding Frenchman decided should be added to my repertoire yesterday. We were watching the Olympics and the commentator kept saying, "If only she had done this, if only she had done that."

"Yeah, yeah," said UFM. "Et si ma tante en avait, elle serait mon oncle." ("If my aunt had any, she'd be my uncle.")

Seeing that I was quite taken with this new phrase, he told me that in polite company, it would be preferable to use the much less colourful, but never the less pretty, "Si Paris était petit, on l'aurait mis dans une bouteille." ("If Paris were tiny, we'd have put it in a bottle by now.")

The closest English equivalent I can think of is, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," but can anybody think of a rude version?

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Dinosaurs in Paris and New Year Resolutions

I didn't write a post about my new year resolutions back in January, mostly because they were a bit half-hearted. My goals for January 2014 could be summed up in 6 words: walk more, cook more, blog more.

Put differently, I decided to do more of three things that I already do, things I like and things I think are good for me.

The advantage of these kinds of resolutions is that they're highly achievable, so now, a month down the line and feeling pretty smug that I'm on my way to succeeding, I've decided to make them public.

The reasons behind walk more were simple: I'm not good at team sports and I've been too busy recently to commit to any kind of gym classes, so day-to-day walking and the odd bike ride are pretty much the only exercise I get. Attractive scenery and dramatic views make me very happy, and while I don't suffer from SAD, I'm sure that a daily dose of sunlight is good for the soul too.  Walking used to be a big part of my twice-daily commute but since I moved to Paris, a combination of being short of time and having heavy bags to carry, as well as the long hours of darkness, have made making use of door-to-door public transport all too tempting. Since January, however, I've been making an effort to leave work earlier and walk for half-an-hour in the last of the daylight, as well as getting out into the open air every day at weekends.

My cook more resolution was also a consequence of my having slipped into lazy habits. The combination of free meals in the work canteen every weekday and the fairly rubbish selection of interesting foodstuffs in your average Parisian supermarket meant that Understanding Frenchman and I were tending to do bare-minimum shopping and eating nothing but ham, cheese and salad every single evening. Recently, though, we've been making far more use of the wonderful Marche d'Aligre to buy vast quantities of interesting, tasty fruit and vegetables and I've been trying out recipes from the new cookbook I got for Christmas. When I shared some of my baking with a colleague and told her it was part of my new year resolution, she suggested that I should decide to walk more, cook more and share more instead, so I must be doing something right!

This entire basket of fruit cost about 7 euros and it tastes
so much better than supermarket plastic!
My resolution to blog more was a consequence of my reflections on Blogging About Blogging. Having realised that one of the things I love best about reading other people's blogs is the little insights into their daily lives, I've decided to blog at least once a week whether or not I have something extra-fascinating or entertaining to say. (Hence why this post is pretty much seven paragraphs of navel-gazing - sorry about that!)

And what about the dinosaur? Well, a couple of weeks ago, Understanding Frenchman and I walked along the Seine from the Place de la Concorde to the new shopping centre at Beaugrenelle, where I bought some classic British ingredients to cook our Sunday morning bacon muffin brunch and evening baked potatoes with tuna and cheddar cheese. On the way, the sun was going down and I got some great pictures to publish on this blog:

Everyone loves a pretty picture of the Eiffel Tower...

... but it's even better if it's got a dinosaur in it.
That particular Saturday afternoon was a new year resolution hat trick!