Saturday, April 30, 2011

Stop, Collaborate and....glisten?!

There is no denying that spring has well and truly sprung in New York City this weekend.

The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens is showcasing its Cherry Blossom Festival at the moment and I wanted to get out there this morning to see it. Unfortunately some silly bunny forgot to set the alarm and sleep held me prisoner until very late this morning. Not that I'm complaining - I'm pretty sure the early start yesterday (thanks to THE Royal Wedding) was to blame, so I must have needed the lie-in.

All was not lost though, and I hit the pavement and wandered over to the Chelsea neighbourhood to look around. It was great not to be under any pressure to go anywhere, or to see anyone or anything in particular. I wandered in and out of vintage and thrift stores, and even visited some local art galleries. The good thing about having horrible hair, dirty sneakers and a foreign accent is that all the snooty art gallery owners thought I was a tourist so they said hello and then left me alone to browse. Sweet!

Unable to resist a good bookshop, I was attracted to the sign for Idlewild Books on West 19th Street and so I headed upstairs to investigate. In the front of the store, at a large dining table, a man was leading a class in discussing an Italian book. Not that a book club is an unusual thing, except that this book discussion was happening in Italian. Groovy! Then as I wandered around, half-listening to the class dissect tenses, explore themes and grammar, I heard a similar discussion happening behind a large velvet curtain - only this time, it was in French! What a great store - language classes AND books, all in one place; I was very intrigued by the whole thing. I wandered around with a couple of books in my hands, but I ended up putting them back - I have a long enough list of 'must read' books back at home so I was glad to show some restraint at lease. All the same, I loved the vibe in that store and I really enjoyed seeing the shelves of kids books in different languages - sure there was "Le Petit Prince", which I would have expected, but I had never before seen "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" in French. Nice one, Idlewild!

Then I found myself amidst the chaos of 5th Avenue chain stores and so I kept striding along aimlessly. A group of young guys - presumably off-duty construction workers - channeled Kit from "Pretty Woman" and told me to "move that it" as I cut around them (nice!) and pretty soon I found myself in the back streets of Greenwich Village, heading into Soho.

A quick pit-stop for lunch at a grimy cafe restored me (by the healing powers of grilled cheese and strong coffee) and before long I was off again for the long meander home.

As far as I'm concerned New York is a really welcoming, inclusive city. That said, I honestly don't think I belong in Soho. If you're a fashion plate or a bit of a hipster (i.e. not me), then Soho is a really great neighbourhood for you. Cute pubs and wine bars break up the boutiques and funky one-off stores that line the side-streets. Someone like me, rocking the aforementioned "bad hair-dirty sneakers" combo just doesn't seem to fit somehow. So I kinda kept moving through Soho, past the restaurant accessory wholesale places of Little Italy and ended up in Bowery where I totally don't belong. There is a really 'cool' vibe that punctuates Bowery and it's not even a particularly nice part of the city - but I can see what attracts people to it. A slower pace, less traffic, great street art (some of it even in development as I wandered around), and lots of cute little organic coffee shops and brunch spots. Anyway I scooted out of Bowery pretty quickly, but not before giving a gaggle of real NY tourists some directions to the Empire State Building. I know, me giving directions?! The world is totally nuts.

2nd Avenue was having a kind of street fair down in the East Village and I checked out some of the stalls. There are really creative people that exhibit in these street fairs I think, but I really didn't need to buy anything that they were selling - except for the guy with beautifully cold pineapple pieces - those I had to have.

I contemplated stopping for a glass of wine just so I could sit outside and enjoy the sunshine, and possibly read a couple more chapters of the truly terrible Sweet Valley Confidential book that I am battling through. A lot of the outdoor cafes and bars on 2nd Avenue were pretty full already around that time, so I abandoned the wine idea and just kept walking home, soaking up the sun the whole way.

The weather dude on the radio assured me that tomorrow will give me the same sort of climatic conditions that I enjoyed today. So here's to rocking the bad hair and dirty sneakers two days in a row!

Monday, April 25, 2011

What's the buzz?

What is it about people and celebrities? What prompts otherwise normal people to turn into pushers & shovers just to inch ever closer to the Secretary-General of the United Nations; and/or singer and actress Mandy Moore? These were the questions that plagued me tonight at the launch of the Champions to End Malaria photo exhibition at the United Nations.

Today is World Malaria Day, so the launch of the exhibition was very timely. I was out of sorts from the start of course, having sat on a wet bus seat that gave the unfortunate impression that I'd soiled myself en route to the exhibition. Sometimes I really hate my life. I don't even know what I'd sat on, and I really don't want to know, but the upside was that my dress didn't smell as a result and in any case, I was fortunately able to dry my dress off under the hairdryers in the UN bathroom. I still shake my fist at whomever dampened my seat in the first place. Curses!

I attended the UN photo exhibition solo, wandering around and viewing the photos and reading the really inspirational stories about the subjects who had made simple yet truly effective inroads into eradicating malaria from developing nations around the world. How easy it sounds to buy insecticide-covered mosquito nets to protect families from the horrible mosquitos. How admirable it is to hear about the young children who had been inspired by the fight against malaria, to draw the world's attention & fundraising efforts to the disease. How proud the Secretary-General obviously is of all the hard work that individuals, NGOs and Governments are doing to make their mark.

But how nauseating it is to watch seemingly sensible people basically run each other over trying to get photos with these celebrity philanthropists. Why can't people just applaud their efforts, have their glass of wine and go home? Promise me that if ever I chase a celebrity down, you whip me with a wet towel. Promise me!

Getting Back To Where I Once Belonged

Like fabulous bookends, Easter and ANZAC Day gave me an extra long weekend in Chicago - a wonderful chance to revisit my old sweet home and catch up with good friends.

I was up early on Friday and at JFK airport just as the cafes were warming up their coffee machines. Delta Airlines still didn't have its shit together though, and so I was delayed for about an hour for reasons altogether unclear. Why can't people teach airport staff how to speak properly into a microphone? A little diction is all I ask, really. But my fear of being tackled by the Air Marshall kept me quiet and after a late but uneventful flight I somehow made it to Chicago O'Hare, hitting the tarmac in pelting rain. Tremendous. Fortunately the Blue Line train to the city starts right inside the airport terminal, so I didn't get rained on until I got Downtown and was walking to my hotel. It's a horrible feeling when the bottom two inches of your denim jeans are soaking wet. Worse still when you realise that you don't have a dry pair to put on instead.

Collecting myself at my hotel, I called LH and arranged to meet up with her for lunch next door to her office. Poor Americans and their lack of public holidays. Lack of annual leave in general really. But it was great that she could at least abscond for an hour or so and honestly our food court lunch was really good. Then again, I've never met a burrito I didn't like.

Later that afternoon, I paid a small fortune to have my eyebrows torn out with hot wax at the Nordstrom Spa, and praised all the deities I knew that the lady didn't send me blind when she dyed my eyelashes a gorgeous shade of blue-black. By this time I was wearing a new pair of (dry) denim jeans - not boot cut ones unfortunately, these ones are straight-legged. Admittedly I was - and remain - a bit concerned that someone with my lower body shape should probably steer clear from straight-legged jeans but they were the only ones on the shelf in my size, so what was I going to do? Desperate times, desperate measures and all that.

I took my new eyelashes and absent eyebrows into Sephora and flattered the makeup man into slapping some products onto my face in time for my dinner engagement with LH and the boys. Visiting LH's new studio apartment for a quick cuddle with her puppy Preston, we drove down to my old neighbourhood for dinner at Mia Francesca. I had a sausage pasta and only remembered later about it being Good Friday. The pasta was good, but the guilt was still there. Two glasses of wine helped ease it, but not eliminate it. Then the boys applied the pressure to visit Sidetracks and enjoy a couple of slushies ("you only need two - the first one, and the last one," they said). So of course I went. And in typical fashion, LH and I were the only girls in the place but we were totally in our element. The music was fun, the slushies were delicious and we got right into the Easter fundraiser and L&D won so many raffle prizes it was quite ridiculous towards the end. A little before midnight and before the slushies could catapult me into oblivion, I took my leave and LH & B drove me back Downtown to my hotel. One episode of "Criminal Minds" and I was ready for bed.

The next morning I was up early and visited the good people at the adjacent Lavazza coffee shop for a large and very strong latte, and a breakfast sandwich. Watching the clock rather carefully I took a taxi to Union Station and bought my Metra train ticket to get out to Naperville, a beautiful suburb about an hour west of Chicago.

I was heading out to the burbs because my old friend Bork was getting married at the Cress Creek Country Club, not far from her childhood home. In the four years that I lived in Chi-town I never visited Naperville and I now know that was a big oversight. The train trip itself was a beautiful journey through some really lovely storybook towns and a very easy commute from Chicago. Bork had secured a block of hotel rooms at the nearby Courtyard Marriott and so I settled in early, watched an in-room movie ("The Rite") and took a nana nap.

At 5.15pm, I took the hotel shuttle bus to the Country Club for the wedding. It's really hard going to a wedding on your own, even if you know there' s a chance you're going to know people there. The other travellers on the shuttle bus were all gorgeous and skinny young things, dressed impeccably in the latest fashions. All of a sudden the control-top pantyhose and grandma heels that had seemed so practical when I packed now seemed a bit silly. I tried to make small talk on the shuttle, telling people how I fit in to the guest list but it was obvious that as the much older and only single one on the bus, I did not really fit it all.

The wedding ceremony was absolutely beautiful. Bork and her groom looked gorgeous and the setting for the ceremony out on the country club verandah made maximum use of the amenities and the lovely late-afternoon sunshine. What a difference 24 hours makes to the weather! Bork could not have asked for a more beautiful day for her wedding.

The reception was a lot of fun - delicious food, great company and free-flowing drinks. I had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner but then restricted myself to cranberry juice & soda, a new favourite. Sensible shoes called for sensible drinks. Before I knew it, the shuttle bus had returned to take me back to the hotel. I got a chance to say my goodbyes to the bride & groom, and the bride's family who were very kind to welcome me to the party. By the time I got back to the hotel, I didn't have any strength to watch even a single episode of "Criminal Minds". I just dove into my pyjamas and under the feathery quilt for a stone-dead sleep.

Easter Sunday morning was another early start, mindful as I was of the Metra train times for the day. I needed to be back in Chicago for Easter lunch at noon with Courts & CS. By sheer brilliance, I got coffee and a taxi in plenty of time to be at Naperville train station for the 10.30am train back to the city. Complete with Cubs fans already tucking into barely-concealed cans of beer. Yikes.

Courts picked me up at the train station and we headed back to her house a delicious home-made lunch of lamb & leeks, roast potatoes and a very yummy faro & barley salad. Dessert was a very sweet but creamy Indian-inspired pistachio & almond ice cream with rose syrup on top. Accompanied by a glass of very cold Tokaji and I was in heaven. Delicious!

Like all good things, the visit with Courts & CS came to end quickly and before I knew it, we were back on the road and bound for O'Hare. For the most part the journey was very slow going but we ultimately made it there. Checking in, I was not at all surprised to learn that my Delta flight was again delayed so I settled in to read my new book (that I cannot put down). Time passed quickly and I was back on the plane and landing at La Guardia in no time. In pelting rain. Tremendous.

Fortunately it didn't really matter that the bottom two inches of my jeans got drenched because I knew that at home, I had a fabulous - and dry - pair of pyjama pants just waiting to be put on. There is something so comforting about sleeping in your own bed again, even after just a short trip away. Today is my Easter Monday/ANZAC Day public holiday and I have absolutely no plans to be anywhere, other than a work event later tonight. So I have taken the day slowly, enjoying a sleep-in and multiple cups of Nespresso, ignoring all the piles of laundry that I am expertly stepping over. Blissful, don't you think?

Monday, April 18, 2011

But you don't need a bipopsy

You know in the cartoons when Popeye eats his tins of spinach and all of a sudden his muscles grow big and he gets all that energy? Obviously we're all supposed to recognise the uplifting benefits of putting vitamins into our system.

Well when I put vitamins into my system, I seem to have more of a wimpy reaction. Ha, perhaps I really should switch to hamburgers!

But seriously. When I lived in Scotland, I got sucked into the vitamins aisle at Boots and I bought a pack of those pills that were supposed to make your hair and nails grow long and strong. Instead of enviable locks and talons, I end up with a raging case of pink eye.

Then later on in Chicago I had a horribly persistent viral infection that presented in a delightful and unpredictable all-over rash. Cue the appointments with the allergist and the prescription steroids that not only made me retain water like a camel, but I ended up with a severe Vitamin D deficiency. GP spooked me with warnings about brittle bones and non-existent immune system, and he prescribed Vitamin D pills that I have been on ever since.

And this week, suspecting that I might not be getting enough citrus in my diet, I decide it's a good idea to start taking Vitamin C pill. Nothing like fending off scurvy, right? It was just an idea, nothing to be concerned about. So I tok care not to exceed the daily recommended dosage, and I was pleased to have no discernable reaction to the tablets. Well that was until Sunday, when I woke up with a disgusting blemish on my cheek. And it's the type of blemish borne of vitamin overdose, and not the sort borne of pretzel and chocolate overdose. Ugh, Wicked Witch of the West, eat your heart out. Needless to say I have shelved the vitamins (in pill form, anyway) and have upped my dosage of water and pimple cream.

Did you ever see the episode where Popeye had these biological iss-ues? Nope, me neither!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Voulez-vous manger une salade, ce soir?

It's actually quite hard to sit quietly and listen politely to someone tell you stories about their life in Paris and their cooking school and vineyard in Provence. It's harder still when you realise that you actually paid to put yourself through such torture. And yet this is the very position in which I found myself tonight at the French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) and the first in its "Art De Vivre: Garden for Gourmets" lecture series.

Tonight's event was ably hosted by the lovely Ina Garten (the very Barefoot Contessa that I basically stalked in the Hamptons a couple of years ago). I was sitting in the very back row by the Nespresso machines - hooray for corporate sponsorship! - so I couldn't really see Ina, but it wasn't too bad cause I could still hear everything. And then Ina introduced her good friend and fellow gourmande Patricia Wells, who was on hand to launch her new cookbook, Salad As A Meal.

Both Garten and Wells are good friends, and their banter clearly reflected that. But it's really hard to feel any sort of camaraderie when one guest speaker has fabulous houses in East Hampton and the other has a cooking school in Paris and a house and vineyard in Provence (for whose Cote du Rhone Robert Parker recently awarded 90 points). Ugh - hearing stuff like that really makes you feel like you haven't achieved anything in your life at all.

Then of course the ladies talked about what inspired them in terms of cooking, and how important it is to to have a really good time when you're in the kitchen. Just when I thought that Garten and Wells were miles from my reality, they talk about recipes that are "exotic yet do-able for everyone". Even I had to laugh when Patricia talked about buying Julia Child's old stove from her in Provence, quipping that "owning Julia's stove would be like owning Freud's couch".

Both ladies agreed that the kitchen essentials one must own include a good knife; a food processor; a good sheet pan; pasta pot; and a mandolin. Though when using the latter, Wells recommends you need to chant "I am slicing, I am slicing" so you can be sure to concentrate fully and not cut your fingers off. Good tip!

At the end of the chit-chat the moderator opened up to Q&A and other people asked dumb questions about a bunch of stupid stuff. Then Wells demonstrated two recipes from her book (which I couldn't see and none of us got to taste) and then she did a book signing. I didn't hang around for that part, nor did I even buy the book.

Primarily I went to tonight's lecture out of loyalty to Ina Garten as well as a curious interest in Patricia Wells after K's ex-room mate in Paris reviewed the book on her website. I don't doubt the book is excellent and I do love all manner of cookbook (let's face it), but I wasn't quite prepared to shell out $38 just yet. Maybe another time? I'm a sucker for these sorts of lectures anyway - I'm even signed up to go to one in June featuring the lovely Eli Zabar, whose deli on West 79th I absolutely love. Can't wait.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Bright Lights, Big Stars

Sometimes I forget that celebrities are real people too. It may sound dumb to say that, but when your only exposure to famous people is in magazines or movies, I think it's easy to forget that they actually exist in the real world.

So it's really nice to go to the theatre here and see - really see - famous people headlining some excellent shows.

Earlier this week I was fortunate to see "Good People" at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, starring Frances McDormand, Tate Donavan and even the old lady who played Roseanne's mother in "Roseanne" (her name is Estelle Parsons, for those of you playing along at home). The performances were so strong and I thought it was a really impressive show. I was so excited to see Frances McDormand but her character was ultimately so unlikable that I found myself forgetting about her being famous, but remembering about her being a fantastic actor. Naturally I was really sucked in to the show - so much so that when it ended really abruptly, I remember being quite disappointed because I wanted to know what happened next.

Today I managed to snag a discount ticket (four rows from the front no less!) to Ben Stiller's new production of "The House of Blue Leaves" around the corner from Times Square, at The Walter Kerr Theatre. The show is still in previews but I really wanted to see it, not just because of Ben but also because the play boasts a fantastic supporting cast including Edie Falco, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Allison Pill. Again, all the performances were excellent but honestly the story is a bit weird and somewhere along the way the plot gets quite ridiculous. Still, I have to tell you that Edie Falco has deserved every one of her awards; she is so talented and I think she really steals so many of her scenes. And PS, Ben Stiller is TOTALLY cute in real life.

To my mind there is something really great about suspending reality for a couple of hours to sit in the dark and invite amazing actors to tell you a fantastic story. Being able to do all that in the shadow of the fabulous Times Square is just the icing on the cake.