Sunday, June 15, 2014

Only in NYC...

Only in NYC, do you find young Chinese children decorating and wearing kippahs that they made at the annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams festival sponsored by the Museum at Eldridge St.

Elderly Chinese men and women playing mahjong, while 20-something Jews watch and try to understand how to play.

Jewish children listening to Chinese live music.

A sofer and a Chinese calligraphist sitting side by side inside the Eldridge St Synagogue, demonstrating their written arts.

This was last weekend.  We spent the first part of the day at Governor's Island, enjoying the FIGMENT art festival.  First stop off the ferry boat - costume boxes for the kids.  Max and Nava were transformed into a packet of ketchup and a flower.

Governor's Island is incredibly peaceful since there are no cars, despite it being just a few minutes' ferry ride from Manhattan and Brooklyn.  Wandering around art installations, playing with found musical instruments, all while being encouraged to create and relax was an amazing start to the latest in what we've termed our "family adventure days."

The egg rolls and egg creams (which, we learned, naturally contain no eggs nor cream of any kind!) were an added bonus.  It's always fun to walk through Chinatown - it feels truly foreign, which of course it is as the majority of signage is in Chinese only.  I would love to know what all those vegetables and herbs and other products being haggled over by Chinese shop owners and Chinese customers actually are.  The Eldridge St shul, right on the border of the Lower East Side and Chinatown, opened its doors in 1887 to serve the Jewish community of the Lower East Side, and is still home to a small congregation today.  That's over 120 years of continuous Jewish life in one building.  And gorgeous to boot.

I love that the Museum at Eldridge St has embraced the diversity of the area, and in a way that feels unique to New York City.  Ferry boats, free costumes, art installations, multi-cultural celebrations - that's a good Sunday in NYC!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Things I've Seen Lately

We went to the Bronx Zoo this weekend.  The most peculiar part about going to the zoo (peculiar is being extremely polite, and not at all representative of words that were being spelled in our car at the time, little pitchers and all that) is getting into the parking lot.

Actually, it starts before that, when you get off the Triboro Bridge and start driving through the Bronx.  Like its borough brethren (e.g. everywhere but Manhattan), it seems that the Bronx is largely dirty, gross, and not somewhere you would choose to spend much time.  I know you all believe that Brooklyn is the coolest thing to happen to America since artisanal mac 'n' cheese, but beyond the pockets of yuppie-dom and hipster-burg, it's dirty, gray, and unappealing.

So you drive past liquor stores and check cashing fronts, and then you hit traffic. A lot of traffic.  This is the traffic to get into the zoo parking lot.  Twenty minutes later, you get to park.  And then, just a few steps down the path, you completely forget you are in New York City (and not only because the diversity of visitors at the Bronx Zoo seemed to consist of white people from New Jersey AND white people from Connecticut in addition to white New Yorkers).

We're not really talking about "you", of course, we're talking about us.  And in our actual experience of this, Max started asking to eat lunch while we were waiting to get into the parking lot (at 10:10am - the zoo opens at 10). He then decided he cared nothing for seeing any animal other than African wild dogs.  We said, "let's go see the gorillas! Look, there are giraffes!"  And he screamed, "Wild dogs! I want to see the wild dogs!"   Five sleeping, mangy, overgrown mutts - check.

Nava was happy to see everything, but only if it meant she could walk.  And the zoo is big.  Put her in the stroller to shlep from Tiger Mountain to the Sea Bird Aviary, and toddler shrieking commenced.  Max, naturally, refused to walk at all.  Because why walk when someone will push you for two-and-a-half-hours?

All in all, we saw some great animals and it felt like we got out of the city.  However, weekend animal sightings were trumped today by a sighting of a different kind - celebrity sighting!

If you know me, you may know that I have a habit of talking to strangers.  A jumping-into-someone-else's-conversation-uninvited habit.  Maybe it's because I grew up in a friendly place; maybe it's because I've had a severe shortage of adult conversation in the past three years; maybe I'm a social freak.  In any event, today I took Max to get his haircut at the neighborhood toy store/kid's hair cutting place.  It's outrageously priced, but Max gets to sit in a train and watch a movie, which is a total preschooler high.  Nava and I were wandering around the store when a woman around my age came in with two girls.

There was something about her that was noticeable - she had this zen voice, and was so cool she wasn't even carrying a purse or a diaper bag.  She announced she wanted to buy a scooter for her two-year-old (seriously - out with a two-year-old without a bag of any sort!), and then asked the sales clerk whether she thought the girl was old enough for a scooter.  Sure, she didn't ask me, but I was standing right there so I helpfully offered up the fact that we bought Max a scooter a few months after his second birthday but that I thought Nava would be ready for one even sooner.

Honestly, normally I get a pretty good response to my uninvited comments.  I like to believe that all of us moms are always more interested in hearing from another mom then from the person selling the product.  And maybe I cling to the idea that us moms are in a club - especially those of us out with kids during the work day - and you can always chat up a fellow club member.

But not today.  Today, I received a look that clearly stated, "I have no interest in you, your children or your scooter information."  In that moment, I realized that I was pretty sure I was talking to a celebrity, and that she believed I was only speaking to her because she was a celebrity.  She had a celebrity vibe, and also was wearing over-sized sunglasses inside.

And then she actually pulled her credit card out of her bra to pay for the scooter and helmet.  Suddenly I knew that I had just chatted up Maggie Gyllenhall.  It then became very difficult not to stare at her.  Possibly I tried to read the name on the credit card but I wasn't wearing my glasses so I probably looked like a stalker.  After she left, I said to the sales girl, "So not to gossip, but that was Maggie Gyllenhall, right?"

Identity confirmed, and apparently she's something of a regular at Lulu's.  I didn't find her breath-takingly beautiful or anything like that, but I am in serious awe of her lack of bag.  My new goal in life - leave house with nothing but a credit card.  Thank you Maggie.

PS Maggie, if you are looking for a play date for Gloria, hit me up. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sunnyside Down

For Mother's Day, we wanted to get out of the city.  Max listens to stories on CD every night when he goes to bed and one of his favorites is "Rip van Winkle".   Naturally, we thus decided to visit Washington Irving's Sunnyside estate in the Hudson Valley for our Mother's Day excursion.

The Historic Hudson Valley website describes an "enchanted adventure in a romantic landscape", with "bucolic grounds" and a tour guide in period dress.  What's not to love! 

Mostly everything, as it turns out.

First of all, Sunnyside is a two story house, with some grass around it.  There's a stream on one side of the property.  You can see the Hudson River from the yard, as long as the Metro North train isn't roaring by at the moment.

Our tour guide had to be the least-welcoming-tour-guide-in-period-dress ever.  Either that, or nobody in the 18th and 19th century ever smiled, so she was staying in character.

We were the only people with kids on the tour.  Obviously going on a guided tour with a 1 year old and 3 year old is a completely foolish idea.  However, the only way to see the inside of the house was through the tour.  Also, it is possible that Max believed we were in fact going to meet Washington Irving and/or Rip van Winkle, and was both bored and disappointed from the instant our dour tour guide opened her mouth.

After dragging out the tour of the yard for what seemed like eternity (Nava ate grass; Max ran around searching for Rip van Winkle under trees), we entered the house.  It's a neat old house.  Well-preserved.  The individual rooms are blocked off with gates or ropes, of course, so you mostly stay in the hallway.  After a minute or so, Nava got bored and started to yell.   MDC tried to distract her by pointing out the stairs leading to the next level. Nava promptly began crawling up the stairs, resulting in both Nava and MDC getting kicked off the tour and asked to wait outside the house.

At Sunnyside, they are VERY serious about staying with the guide.  Because in a maybe 2000-sq-foot house, who knows what kind of damage could be wreaked if not in immediate proximity to the guide.

Max and I tried to stay the course.  But the tour was seriously boring.  And we thought MDC and Nava had left by choice.  So we discovered the (forbidden) stairs, and ventured up to check out Washington Irving's bedroom (also roped off, of course).

Within a minute, the tour guide found us, explained we could not be upstairs without the group, and kindly invited us to exit the house.

That's right, we all got kicked off the tour by a grumpy girl in a hoop dress.

But we were still in a lovely region, and wanted to make the most of this Mother's Day experience.  We headed to a restaurant recommended by one of MDC's co-workers only to find out that, despite having called the day before with no mention of this made, they only offered a prix fixe menu at $60 per adult and $30 per child.  Oh, and they do not have any high chairs (code for: please do not bring your young children to our establishment).

We ate in an overheated diner in Tarrytown.

Come on, Hudson Valley!  Reach deep, and pull one out for the team!  We ventured over to Stone Barns Center (which I obviously knew about from Top Chef - and some people say television is a waste of time!), which is where wealthy people go to pretend they have been to a farm (don't get me wrong - I very much like pretend farms.  It was just strange to feel a farm. And I was wearing a skirt.).  

There was a "farm market", featuring very expensive pastries and charcuterie.  There are the original silos where they used to keep animals or corn or something, and now are very contemporary restrooms. There is valet parking.  There are very well-dressed people on their way to eat at the very fancy restaurant, Blue Hill (this is the part that was on Top Chef).

You can venture down the road into the pastures and see some real animals.  Unfortunately, MDC had a slight mishap on a concrete curb and banged up his knee.  Two minutes later, I let Nava get too close to the chickens, and one bit her hand.  She cried (understandably).  There was blood.  We left the farm.  (Which, I might add, we paid $10 to park at.).

It was not the best day trip.  After Sunnyside, we realized we are suffering from post-chateau snobbery, in which all homes and gardens visited will be compared with this and this and this.  Now, is it fair to compare a family home in upstate New York with a chateau in the Loire Valley?  Of course not, but that's hardly the point. 

When life gives you a boring house, mediocre pancakes, and chicken biting, make a trip to Whole Foods.  Fifty bucks spent on cheese, bread, and chocolate will fix most problems.   It certainly salvaged our Mother's Day.

PS Yes, my French friends I know you are thinking, how does baguette and brie cost in NYC?  More than you could possibly guess...

Saturday, May 17, 2014

BK Life #1

A few weeks ago, I had the rare opportunity to spend an afternoon alone with M.  After picking him up from school, we headed to Prospect Park.  As we passed the street vendors in front of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza, M asked if he could have a "giant pretzel" for snack.  Wanting him to feel the same sense of joy and appreciation of our time together (read: yes, I use food to buy my kid's happiness), I agreed.

Just as I said, "One pretzel, please," to the vendor, a homeless man (this is assumed, of course, but at the least, he was low on disposable income and personal hygiene) asked if I would buy him some food.  Still caught up in the lovely spring afternoon with just one child, and wanting to be a role model for M,  I asked the vendor how much a hot dog cost.

"Two dollars," he replied.

I turned to the homeless man and said, "Ok, I will buy you a hot dog."

He responds, "Actually, could you buy me a shish-kabob?"

My mouth actually dropped open at the audacity of this man. I want to help those who are less fortunate than me, and I want my son to want to do the same.  But if you are going to beg me for food in front of my kid, and I agree, then take the darn hot dog and say thank you!  What I actually said, though, was "No, I am not buying you a shish kabob."

I told the vendor we would just be getting the original pretzel.  The homeless man jumps in and says, "Wait, you're not buying me a shish-kabob and a soda?"

When did the soda enter the equation?!

I looked at him, and just said, "No."  To which he responds, "Fine, I guess I'll take the hot dog."

"No, now I'm not buying you anything. Have a nice day."

Pretzel in hand, we hurried away.  Was this the right response? Was it somehow even more patronizing than simply refusing his initial request?  One of the challenges of raising kids in an urban setting is coming face to face, on a regular basis, with real poverty.  Most of the time, M and N have no idea what they are seeing.  Preschoolers and toddlers don't know about social cues, about what clothing and language and other physical signs tell us about each other.  Another time, on the same walk past the library, there was a mentally ill man walking up the sidewalk shouting angry rhetoric at the sky.  M wanted to know why he was angry, and he also asked if he could tell the man that he wished he could be happy.

I explained that some people are just angry, that it's a sickness just like when N has an ear infection.  That it's not his fault, but also that we weren't going to talk to him.  Do I want my children exposed to these realities of life so early?  I want them to be compassionate, and have perspective on just how privileged our lives are.  But they are also my kids, and I want to protect them, shelter them, and keep them safe. 

It turns out that M was so focused on getting the coveted pretzel that he missed the entire hot dog-shish kabob exchange.   Score:  Child 1, Over-analyzing Brooklyn mom 0. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pastries Save the Day

I haven't blogged here in over two months.  There are a few reasons I could give, but the primary reason is that I simply had nothing to say.  Brooklyn is not entirely what I expected.  And life-after-Paris is also not what I expected.

I did not want this blog to become a conduit for my negativity towards our new home, and most of the things I thought about writing were along the lines of "reasons I'm not impressed with Brooklyn."  Or, "reasons New York is annoying."  Or, "reasons I wish we still lived in Paris."  We have spent many nights contemplating whether we made the right decision to come here, always ultimately concluding that right or wrong, the decision was made.  Here we are.  Here we will be, for the foreseeable future. 

Throughout college and subsequent years living on the East Coast, I thought it was the height of snobbery that New Yorkers saw their city as a universe unto itself.  So wrapped in their New York-ness, some New Yorkers I met did not even know where my home state of Oregon is located.  Yes, seriously.  And at an Ivy League school.   But I better understand this reality now.  New York City is simply so huge, so colossal, teeming with every kind of race and religion, showcasing rich and poor within blocks of each other, and geographically so large that you could immerse yourself 24 hours a day in understanding the complexities of the New York life and never finish the task.

Brooklyn alone has a population the size of Chicago.  So that's a significantly-sized urban population with spitting distance of maybe the most densely populated island on Earth - Manhattan.  The heterogeneity of the people I pass every day is remarkable.  Do they fall into distinct groups?  Sure.  The hipsters, the yuppie moms, the nannies, the white kids, the black kids, the Orthodox Jews - just to name a few.  But I say this to try to explain why it is easy to feel so lost in one of the most populous corners of the planet.  As Michael says on a regular basis, there are just too many people in New York.

Paris felt, and truly was, much smaller.  We lived in a more rarefied neighborhood - more like the Upper East Side than Park Slope.  And we could take comfort in knowing that we would really never fit in.  Thus, when we felt alone, we knew it was just part of the expat experience.  In New York, though, these are our countrymen.  We should be able to be fully part of this world.  That is more daunting than having to speak French every day.

In our first months, we had only a few opportunities to explore the city, and I think we fell victim to the idea of experiencing what's "hot" (e.g., Williamsburg, the Highline, etc).  But we saw those places with little context, and never had a moment where we felt, "Ah, here is New York."   Having recently read a fascinating book called "Eat the City" about the history of food production within New York City, I better understand what the Highline used to be (this was how meat was transported into the City to be butchered).  I read "Unorthodox", a remarkable story of a young woman who grew up in the Satmar Hasidic sect in Williamsburg only to later leave the sect (a fairly rare occurrence).  That gave me more of a picture of how Williamsburg has been for the past few decades, rather than the trendy bakeries and bars of recent years.

But it took a drive deep into Brooklyn to finally achieve that a-ha moment.  About five miles from our apartment, in the Bensonhurst neighborhood, is Villabate Alba.  It's a family-run Italian bakery that has no pretense, no hip trends.  On one side is a line for bread; the other side is a line for cakes and pastries. Every possible inch of the store currently holds holiday panettone, or cookie assortments, or brightly colorful cakes.  The workers are brisk and friendly.  And the prices are - wait for it - completely reasonable.
Marzipan treats

Max & Nava debate which cookies look the best
Yes, that's a faux-hamburger cake.

This is what we had been waiting for.  Something that isn't geared for the tourists or the hipsters or the wealthy.   Something that just is, dare I say, authentic.
What we brought home - cheesecake and a cannoli-cream-chocolate-mousse slice

A friend who has lived in New York for many years told us this weekend that he has faith that we will come to not only like, but to truly love this city.  There are many things that make it challenging to embrace this intense place (have you read this?  - she lives about 20 minutes walking from us).  But Villabate Alba has renewed my faith in the possibility of making New York our own. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Hunt is On

One of the biggest changes in my day-to-day life is the absence of fresh bread.  It's not just the actual baguette - soft and chewy inside, perfectly crunchy on the outside - but the act of going, each and every day, to the boulangerie.  Of listening to Max say, "Baguette, s'il vous plaĆ®t." Of seeing boys and girls, men with briefcases, and old ladies carrying their baguettes home at the end of the day.  Boulangeries are ubiquitous in Paris, though not all produce the same quality product.  Though baguette consumption is decreasing in France - there is even a PR campaign to promote bread that launched this spring - it is still an important part of the French lifestyle.

We ate a lot of baguettes in our two years in France.  And yet, I mostly lost weight when we were there.  After less than two months in New York, the bagels are not doing me any favors and we miss baguettes.  Very little tears at my heart more right now than hearing Max say, "I want a baguette," and having to explain that we don't have baguettes here.

So the hunt is on for a real baguette in New York City.  In a city that has everything, this seemed like it would not be too difficult.  And yet, five baguettes into the search, nothing quite compares.  

We started with a baguette from Trois Pommes, a French bakery here in Park Slope.  Most of the fanfare about Trois Pommes focuses on its pastries, which I would hope are better than its baguette.  Which was simply dreadful.  No taste, no crunch, too heavy.  None of the thin-as-air interior you are guaranteed in France.

Next up was the chain Le Pain Quotidien.  This chain actually exists in Paris so it is not completely inauthentic.  Yet the baguette was worse than the first one. 

Lafayette, an upscale restaurant in NoHo, also runs a boulangerie/patisserie.  Their goods looked the best so far, but the baguette was too heavy.  We couldn't even muster up the energy for a second bite. 

We spent a day in Williamsburg, Brooklyn a few weeks ago, and made significant progress on our baguette hunt.  Our first stop was Bakeri, where we sampled a few pastries in their serene garden. I don't entirely understand the Williamsburg shtick that leads to all of the employees wearing industrial jumpsuits, but their baguette was fresh out of the oven, and not too bad.  It still didn't hold a candle to the baguette from our neighborhood bakery, and, like all New York baguettes, was twice the price.  

The best baguette we've had so far - which was still mediocre when eaten plain, but recovered nicely when toasted, then spread with butter and French honey - was from Pain d'Avignon.  We bought the baguette at the Pain d'Avignon stand at Shmorgasburg, the weekly foodie market in Williamsburg and DUMBO (another Brooklyn neighborhood - Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, if you aren't up on the latest NYC lingo).  

So the hunt continues.  What remains unclear is why something considered a run-of-the-mill, everyday product in one country is only found in artisanal, specialty shops in another.  Why is good bread artisanal? Why isn't it just good bread?  Why does it cost $3 in New York but only about $1.50 USD in Paris? Some say the flour is different.  Or maybe it's the water.  It's a hard case to argue that the process hasn't been recreated properly, because there are certainly plenty of French people in New York.  

It's more than bread that is different between American and French food cultures.  There is less variety in France, but also less preservatives.  A typical American grocery store has multiple aisles of chips, crackers, cookies, and gelatinous fruit snacks.  The typical French grocery store has a few shelves of chips, maybe 3-5 types of crackers, and one aisle of sweet treats - these are consumed almost exclusively for the gouter, the 4pm snack. Yes, the French have a national snack time. 

There's much more to say about the differences in food, and in eating.  Right now, we're simply hunting for a great baguette. And maybe we're also trying to preserve a bit of the French lifestyle that we absorbed for the past two years. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Urban Pioneers

I saw a sign in the Lower East Side last weekend celebrating the "urban pioneers of the municipal frontier" - in this case, immigrant workers who lived in New York tenements in the early 20th century.  That phrase stuck with me as we made our way - or I should say, ate our way - through the neighborhood.  Today's urban pioneers are reinventing the city experience, in many cases by paying homage to the kinds of small, product-specific stores that were once the only option. 

Of course, today's versions are often less practical than the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker of old.  At the Pickle Guys, you can choose from new, sour, half-sour, hot sour, or dill pickles; you also have a variety of other pickled items - tomatoes, peppers, string beans, and more.  To hit your sweet tooth, head across the street to the Doughnut Plant.  I highly recommend the carrot cake doughnut.  If you can't decide between pickles or doughnuts, get some sweet and savory at Pop Karma, the specialty popcorn store.  (Seriously. They only sell popcorn. Cheddar, Porcini Cheddar, Kyoto Mix (umami, and if you don't know what that is, don't bother), Caramel and more).

Apparently, just by living in Brooklyn, I'm another kind of urban pioneer.  Today I walked behind a frustrated woman, complaining to someone on the phone how she is "always sent to desolate places like this" (that would be Park Slope) and that she "wouldn't live here if someone paid her mortgage."  The crux of her complaint? Apparently it's easier to park in Manhattan than Brooklyn.

Pioneering is uniquely American.  Nobody is a pioneer in Europe, even if they're breaking new ground or starting a new trend.  Plus, I don't think anyone in France ever played The Oregon Trail computer game.   Fortunately, we don't have to hunt for our food here in Brooklyn, no matter how desolate it may seem.  If it gets desperate over here, we'll just ford the river to get some more pickles.