All about shoes

 

An expat organisation recently stumbled across this blog and asked me if I’d like to be interviewed. The interview was carried out via email, which my journalist friend tells me is common practice these days. I answered five pages worth of questions about my experience of moving to New York: why had I come, what did I enjoy most about my host city, what did I miss about home, what adjustments had I had to make, what was the cost of living like, how was the public transport system, and healthcare?

These were all relevant and interesting questions, but a few weeks after I’d whizzed off my answers I realised that there was one very important question that had been missing from the interview. A question about shoes.

It might have been posed thus: how have you navigated the footwear dilemmas posed by your host city? Or perhaps thus: what is your footwear strategy for your host city given that you have no car and walk virtually everywhere?

It turns out that I do actually have a footwear strategy. I wasn’t fully aware of it until my sister and a Montreal friend came to visit (let’s call them C1 and C2, although C1 also goes by the name Pink Robe). During the course of their three days here we had many fleeting conversations about what shoes would be most appropriate given the activities we were planning for that day. We also spent a lot of time buying shoes. (C1 was in the mood to shop.) And while we talked and shopped, my footwear strategy came to light. I think I said something like the following when we were in Bloomys:

“I’ll have to go back to the apartment for a minute because I’m wearing my five block shoes and I’m going to need my fifty block shoes for this afternoon.”

C1 and C2 had not heard of this block-based approach to shoe choice. They asked me to articulate it. And so I did, and so I will do here and now.

Your fifty-block shoes are the Nike trainers or the white, Fit Flop trainers (a Godsend of a gift from our eldest daughter). In fifty-block shoes you can walk anywhere, for any length of time. North to Harlem. South to Soho. Across to Central Park, around and back again. (I had hoped that my very expensive, chic, black, Zadig and Voltaire walking boots would be fifty block shoes, but alas, the leather is too stiff and they start to torture my feet before I’ve even reached the lift in our building.)

Your ten-block shoes are those pretty flat sandals or ballet pumps. They’ll serve you well for a walk to Barneys to have lunch, or a stroll to Bloomys or the Frick, but anything further afield and they will begin to rub and pinch and make you long to slip your feet back inside those Fit Flops.

Your five-block shoes have heels. Not stiletto heels, but those chunky two-inch heels that have (thank the Lord) come back into fashion . These five block heels will just about get you from East 66thstreet to a dinner at August on Lexington, or Le Cognac on 70th. Or you could happily stand in them at a cocktail party for several hours without wanting to saw your own feet off.

Then you have your one-block shoes, which, if we’re being honest, are really taxi shoes. These are basically anything with a thin, high(ish) heel and a pointed toe (or, it turns out, Zadig and Voltaire walking boots). You can’t walk any distance at all in one block/taxi shoes, not even a block, really, unless it’s the block between the door of the taxi and the entrance to the restaurant. I own one pair of these shoes. I purchased them in London because I thought they would be perfect for my new New York life, whatever that was going to be. They sit on the top shelf of my closet, unworn.

(I should add, however, that you do see the odd woman walking through Central Park in one-block shoes. These women are usually young and hanging onto the arm of a man, and I guess they must either have bionic feet, or be so keen for passers by to liken them to gazelles that any amount of pain can be borne.)

Last but not least, you have the shoes that have nothing to do with either blocks or taxis. They’re your specialist shoes. In my case, they are the black lace-up Cuban heels I wear at the Arthur Murray Studio. They are soon to be joined by a pair of low heeled suede cowboy boots (L2’s will be mid-brown leather) designed to improve our line dancing technique and help us to cut a dash around the camp fire in Wyoming later in the summer.

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Left to right: Fifty-block shoes (a bit of a disgrace, I now notice), ten-block shoes, five-block shoes, one-block shoes (unworn, waste of money), and speciality shoes.

 

That’s a lot of shoes. Because it isn’t enough to own just one pair of shoes in each category. Obviously.

Of course everyone has some sort of shoe strategy, no matter where they live. But I’d wager a bet that if you live in a city centre and you mostly walk rather than drive, your strategy will be more or less block based, even if you’ve not articulated it as such. As for living in Wimbledon, where I drove or took taxis almost everywhere, I could pretty much wear whatever shoes I felt like on any particular day, without giving more than cursory consideration to what the weather was like or where I was going.

As it happens, the shoe theme that coloured the days I spent with C1 and C2 also coloured the days that followed. I flew up to Toronto to spend the weekend with my old college housemates, and as we strolled along Queen Street we found ourselves being lured into one shoe store after another. The best of them, by a long shot, was the fabulous John Fluevog store,

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The John Fluevog store in Toronto

which sells colourful, quirky shoes and boots that are hand-made in Vancouver. I very nearly succumbed to a pair of turquoise cowboy boots, but L1 sent me an in-the-nick-of-time text reminding me that we had already purchased our cowboy boots for the upcoming Wyoming trip.

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The cowboy boots that were so very nearly mine

As if we hadn’t had enough of shoes, we then spent Sunday morning in Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, where we took in a Manolo Blahnik exhibit and learned about all the shoes in the world that came before his, everything from Alaskan boots made from salmon skin cured with urine to Tibetan sandals on stilts. It turns out that most cultures have relied upon variations of the block strategy for footwear – the African king who wore the ornate gold sandals with the enormous chunk of metal between his toes while sitting on his throne certainly wasn’t planning to walk anywhere.

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Possibly the least comfortable sandals ever invented
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Manolo Blahnik shoes at the Bata Shoe Museum

 

Shoes, as I’ve already said, are very important to dancing. (I should mention here that I am now segueing, hopefully with a reasonable degree of seamlessness, into a new topic. I feel obliged to announce this because I’ve been told by one or two blog readers that they don’t much like it when I change topics mid-blog because they don’t have enough headspace to accommodate more than one topic in something that’s supposed to take all of three minutes to read. So, my apologies to those readers, and to CC in particular, and this is for you: I AM SWITCHING TOPICS NOW. YOU MIGHT WANT TO CALL IT QUITS AND GO BACK TO THAT REPORT YOU WERE WRITING)

So. Shoes. Dancing. You already know about the Cuban heels and the cowboy boots. I do hope the boots arrive before the end of this week, as we’re having our final batch of dance lessons before going back to London for three weeks, and we’d really like to see how much the boots improve our country and western creds. L1 has gone mad this week, booking us three private lessons, and suggesting that we participate in a couple of the group lessons in addition.

The group lessons can be a bit traumatic for me. Participants are required to change partners every five minutes or so, and some of the men are both rhythmically and stylistically challenged. One in particular, let’s call him G, has what might be politely  described as a frighteningly intense look in his eyes, and what would be diplomatically described as only a passing acquaintance with the deodorant stick.  Also an inflated opinion of his own dancing prowess. Last week, when we were dancing the foxtrot together, he insisted that we should be zigzagging across the floor. I didn’t believe him, but it was difficult to argue, what with the forceful way he was pushing me backwards into a zigzag.  After the group lesson, I sidled up to one of the instructors and told her that one of my dance partners had insisted on zigzagging throughout the foxtrot, and was that correct?

“That must have been G,  right?” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Yes, it was.”

“Well you should know that he and I don’t always see eye to eye. And no, you don’t zigzag in a foxtrot. Nor do you start the dance with one leg outstretched behind you at an angle, like this.” (She demonstrated. I recognised the stance.)

I was vindicated. But that doesn’t help me much in group lessons when G is present. L1 doesn’t know how lucky he is. The worst thing he ever has to deal with is a case of flapping elbows or overactive knees, or – as was the case last week – both at once.

The best group lessons, of course, are the ones with people you know. We enjoyed one of these when C1 and C2 were in town and Jacqueline agreed to teach all four of us together. To the accompaniment of Man I feel like a Woman and Sweet Home Alabama, C1 and C2 were treated to a whistle stop tour through the five or six line dancing steps that L1 and I have been practising for months, They picked the steps up in no time, and danced with amazing dexterity, rhythm and flair. It was most annoying.

 

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Under the High Line

A random Monday posting, and not the usual L2 fare. In the main, it’s a story, one of three that I’ve written for The Masters Review flash-fiction competition. The story is fictional, but it draws upon the many real-life tales told in a disturbing book titled Vanishing New York: How A Great City Lost Its Soul, by Jeremiah Moss.

Our dear Torontonian friend, SL, was staying with us when I picked up the book in Barnes and Noble.  “Good for you,” he quipped. “Now you can be one of those irritating people who are always banging on about how New York isn’t what it used to be.”

What we didn’t know was that during the course of the weekend we would all become those people who said that New York isn’t what it used to be. Browsing through another book on our coffee table, 111 Places In New York That You Must Not Miss, SL identified Il Vagabondo, a small bar on East 62ndStreet, featuring an indoor bocce court, that was founded by proprietor Ernest Vogliano’s grandfather in the early 1900s to attract the Upper East Side’s Italian immigrants. We made a plan to go there for coffee or a glass of wine, only to discover that it no longer existed. “It’s fun to watch the competition from a courtyard table, sipping wine and savouring scrumptious Italian cuisine,” boasted our coffee table book, published in 2015. Fun we wouldn’t have in 2018. Shame.

Next on SL’s list of places to see was The Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side. According to 111 Places, the market offered “a huge array of edible treats you’d otherwise have to hunt down all over town, and diverse merchants you wouldn’t think could coexist under one roof. Mom-and-Pop grocers, many there for decades, sell oxtails, oranges, cuchifritos and couscous, next to booths run by bankers-turned-bakers.”

Not for much longer they won’t. Moss warns us that The Essex Street Market and indeed the entirety of Delancey Street is about to be eviscerated to accommodate the Essex Crossing, a $1.1 billion dollar “manufactured utopia of the future” featuring hulking glass towers comprising “luxury condos, office space, floors of interior shopping-mall-style retail, glamorized suburban food courts, and some “affordable” housing”. IMG_1578

Moss asks, “In the glitzy future mall, expanded to accommodate more new upscale businesses, will the old school merchants survive?”

There’s a similar story behind the High Line. Who, when visiting New York, hasn’t walked along the High Line and thought, how great is this? What a genius idea, and what a fun way to spend an hour or two. Read chapters 13 and 17 in Moss’s book and you might not feel quite so unadulteratedly positive. I enjoy a stroll along the High Line as much as the next person, but I have to admit that when I look at the immense, luxury condominiums that have sprung up alongside the tracks since the project was completed in 2011, and think about all the homes and small businesses that were wiped out to accommodate them, I can’t help but think that something has gone awry.

Gentrification. Progress. The way of the world. There’s nothing new in that I suppose, except the sheer scale and pace of it in a city like New York. Perhaps it has ever been thus.  Back in the late nineteenth century, the American writer, John Jay Chapman, wrote that “the present in New York is so powerful that the past is lost.”

Even when that powerful present comes up with a genius idea for turning crumbling railway tracks into a raised walkway bordered by wildflowers in the middle of the city, the loss of the past is undeniably sad.  And we are all a little bit complicit.

Here’s my story.

Under the High Line

Number One, Hudson Yards – forty floors of shimmering sapphire. A young woman emerges from its revolving doors into the oppressive late afternoon heat. Joanna, married to Zach, who is at that moment sitting in his sleekly furnished office in Bloomfield Place, cooking up deals and manoeuvring large sums of money in ways that Joanna does not even try to understand. Her work is with words, not numbers.

Joanna walks east, towards the entrance to the High Line at West 30th.  Partially constructed towers of steel and blue glass rise up around her like lumbering titans. She barely registers the intense noise that once overwhelmed her –  the crashing of metal poles, the juddering of Jackhammers, the beep-beep of reversing cranes, the rude blasts of car horns that is the soundtrack to New York life.

There were many things that had attracted them to their building, things that more than made up for the noise and the chaos that surrounded it: the river, just across the West Highway, and the amazing facilities in the building itself – a state of the art gym, a pool, an outdoor roof terrace and an indoor entertainment room, a basketball court, a bowling alley – a bowling alley! Everything you could possibly need, as well as a few things you definitely don’t, she and Zach are always saying to guests.

Joanna’s favourite thing about Number One Hudson Yards is its proximity to the High Line, along which she can stroll amidst wildflowers, grasses and trees to get to the Meatpacking District. To her the High Line is an unequivocal marvel.  A peaceful, rural experience amidst the grime and hurly-burly of the city. If she looks ahead, or straight up at the sky, she can forget that she is in a city at all. Of course, the illusion never lasts long. Not with those mega-condominiums (Number One Hudson Yards amongst them) looming on both sides.

This afternoon, Joanna is headed towards The Lobster Place in Chelsea market, where she plans to purchase some fresh sea bass for supper.  Somewhere below her feet, Louisa de Denartis is removing one last tray of Pignolli cookies from the oven at the back of the De Denartis Pasticceria and Caffé, founded by her great grandfather in 1910. Like her father and mother, Louisa has worked in the Pasticceria since she was small, learning to bake Biscotti and Bombolonas, Semifreddo and Sfogliatelle. She is an expert on Italian sweet delights, and on the habits of the customers who buy them. People like Al Baldiccio who ran the auto shop down the road for thirty years, and used to come in for a Cartocci and a cappuccino every morning, or Fran Merkowitz, who brings one or another of her grandchildren in for a hot chocolate and a Cannoli most Saturdays.

“There must be a way,” Louisa had insisted, when her father had told her about the new landlord.

“There is no way,” her father said, already defeated. “When the Big Guys decide to come to town, there’s no stopping them. Look at what happened to Al.”

Progress, people call it. Louisa remembers hearing about the laudable project to develop the disused railway tracks that ran above the heads, homes and businesses of people like them, remembers thinking that it would enhance all of their lives and bring customers flooding into the Pasticceria. What she hadn’t realised – maybe nobody had – was that it would also bring the Big Guys with their money and their grand plans and their unblinking determination to demolish every pasticceria, auto shop, tailor, and coach house that lay in their path.

Development and destruction, breakthroughs and burnt offerings. Bound together as surely as omelettes and eggs, with a logic that is so easy to spout but so difficult to live with if you live on the underside of the tracks.

At four thirty, after closing the doors of the Pasticceria for the last time, Louisa dusts the Pignolli cookies with sugar and places them in a white pastry box. Leaving by the back door, she takes the box up onto the High Line, where she finds the spot she thinks must sit more or less directly above the Pasticceria.

She sits down, cross legged, and opens the box in her lap. Some of the many people walking along fail to notice her until it is almost too late, and she is aware of their stumbled steps as they try to avoid her. She remains undaunted, offering Pignolli cookies with a quietly outstretched arm. A small boy takes one, but most people pass her by without understanding or even seeing the fragile beauty of her gift.

Joanna, on her return journey from Chelsea Market and swinging a basket laden not just with plump sea bass, but with Pignolli cookies purchased from the giant food hall opposite The Lobster Place, sees the young woman sitting on the wooden boards and thinks that perhaps she’s in need of help. She kneels down.

“Are you okay?”

‘Would you like a Pignolli cookie?” the young woman says, opening her palm.

“Actually, I just bought some,” Joanna says, indicating the basket.

The woman ponders Joanna’s basket. “They won’t be as good as these,” she says. “You have no idea what you’re missing.”

She leans back, eyes narrowing as if to examine Joanna more acutely. A kind of silence expands around them, and between them, a thin, weighty line is pulled taught. It feels to Joanna as though she is being challenged, even accused of something.

How ridiculous, Joanna thinks, and forces herself to break free of the young woman’s penetrating gaze. She stands and walks away, keeping her eyes on the path ahead and her thoughts on the fish in her basket, which she must get into the fridge. But she can’t seem to walk fast enough. Her mind is gripped by the idea that it is too late, that the sea bass has already gone off and will be inedible, everything ruined.

 

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Waddabout spring?

 

L1 had warned me that New York doesn’t really do Spring. You can be catapulted straight from the icy winds of bleak mid-winter into the intense heat and blazing sun of summer in the blink of an eye. Straight from winter woolies to sundresses without even a nod to the light weight blouses and the perfect-shade-of-taupe raincoat you’d purchased for all those in between days.

And that’s exactly what happened this week.  On Monday it was 46 degrees, with a bone chilling wind and steady rain all afternoon. L1 came home soaked through and grumpy, declaring that he’d just had just about enough of  the New York weather. I hadn’t even bothered to go out at all. I was still sulking about having had to leave the dolphins and pelicans behind at Casey Key. Anyway I had two cases to unpack, a shed load of washing to do, and an apartment to clean (Remember that New York dust I told you about? Imagine how thick it was after a month away). I couldn’t have gone out into the cold if I’d wanted to.

Then on Tuesday the temperature soared to eighty, where it stayed for the rest of the week before hitting ninety on Thursday. And with the tropical temperatures came a transformation, as if the city had emerged from its cocoon. People were suddenly smiling and talking to one another in the lift. Having spoken to precisely five people in our building since November, I spoke to five at once on my way down on Tuesday. An elderly woman announced, by way of warning, I supposed,  “It’s very warm out there.” Her husband concurred eagerly. Another woman entered the lift on the fourth floor wearing a long rain coat and with a pile of clothes over her arm.

“Suddenly we’re all going out!” said the first woman.

“Yes! Well, I’m only going to the valet to drop these off for dry cleaning,” said the rain-coated fourth floor dweller. “But it does look fabulous out there. I’m packing up the apartment. And I’m wearing nothing but long underwear underneath this coat!”

Maybe a little TMI, but it certainly broke the ice. The elderly couple were keen to know about the packing up.

“I spend half the year in Rio,” the woman explained. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

Bad timing, I thought. Just when the tulips are coming out. And the tulips are everywhere. There are red and yellow ones carpeting the grounds of our building, and red and white ones under every tree I pass on my way to Madison Avenue.

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Manhattan House Gardens
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The tulips on Park Ave

 

It’s not just the chatty neighbours and the tulips brightening up the place. The streets now abound with pretty Chanel pumps, striped espadrilles, handbags in mellow yellow and cerulean, floaty floral sundresses and chic linen trousers. Fashion, in general, has come out from under its winter duvet. People don’t bother so much in the winter, or if they did, we wouldn’t see it anyway. We all look the same, in our hooded puffa-coats in various shades of black.

The dog lovers are out in force too. Usually it’s just me bending down to say hello to other people’s dogs, but yesterday I saw others doing the same. It’s as if the warmth and sunshine has melted away all the barriers that normally exist between people in this city and softened the stiffness that passes as discretion. People talk in louder, more excitable voices instead of huddling up against the cold. They gesture, look up and around, and smile.

I know that the residents of any country that has a winter will be celebrating the springing of spring. But I wonder if the transformation in people’s moods and behaviour is more marked when the winter is brutal, as it is in New York. I think that in the UK we get so used to the grey skies and drizzle all year round (except for about a week in June) that we just carry on, not much remarking when the weather shifts. In a place like New York, the contrast between winter and spring/summer is so dramatic that it seems to jolt people into a whole new way of being.

In this weather, I no longer want to sit inside Shakespeare and Co, so I’ve switched my writing spot to the open air Pain Quotidien which sits on the shores of the lake in Central Park – the one with the Stuart Little boats. It can be difficult to find a table in the shade, but when you do, it’s bliss.

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It wasn’t so blissful in the Arthur Murray Studio on Thursday, where the air conditioning did little to combat the ninety degree heat. Our instructor, (whom I think I once called Louisa, but who is in fact called Jacqueline) took L1 and I through some challenging swing steps that had us both dripping inelegantly within minutes.  My hair was so damp and flat I looked as if I’d been caught in a rainstorm.  It was not a pretty sight. As we left the studio  I reminded L1 that this, of course, was the primary reason I would never be able to appear on Strictly.

But it wasn’t as hot in the Arthur Murray Studio as it is in the basement of our building, where the maintenance guys are stationed. Terry came up on Thursday to sort out a ceiling light that was misbehaving, and I asked him how it was down there in the bowels of Manhattan House.

“No air conditioning down there,” he said in his Irish slash Brooklyn accent. “And we have to keep the heatin’ on because, ya know, it’s going to go down below fifty at night next week. So we gotta protect the pipes.”

“You must be dying down there,” I said.

He shrugged. “We’re used to it. New Yawk is like that –  goin’ from winta to summa in one day. Boom! Waddabout spring?!  It’s crazy.”

I’d felt a little sheepish about dragging him up to attend to a ceiling light that I should probably have been able to fix myself, but then I realised that I’d actually done him a favour. I’d given him an excuse to escape the inferno for ten minutes. And he must have had thirty or forty of those excuses that day, because he actually looked quite fresh in his crisp white shirt. His hair was certainly in better shape than mine had been after an hour in the Arthur Murray Studio.

Also, of course, he could count on the inevitable tip to lessen his pain. After I gave it to him, he positively skipped towards that lift.

Until next time,

 

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Searching for Stephen King

 

Do I actually live in New York City? My dad doesn’t think so, and he may have a point. Since L1 and I officially moved there in late October, I’ve spent five weeks in London, a week in California, and most recently, almost a month in Florida. That’s a sixty/forty split between New York and other places. So I guess our first six months on this side of the pond would more accurately be described as Our Big American Adventure rather than Our Big New York Adventure.

The Florida part isn’t actually new to me – I’ve been coming here at least once a year since I was seventeen, and the kids have been coming since they were babies, courtesy of my parents having lived here part of the time for the past forty years. But the prospect of coming here never ceases to engender a ludicrous level of excitement in all of us, and particularly in daughter number two. (“We all love Florida,” said daughter number one, “but K REALLY loves it, in an almost crazy way.”). Apparently, during the month prior to their flying here, daughter number two’s boyfriend was subjected to the daily pronouncement that she just could not wait to get to Florida, she thought she might die if she didn’t get there soon, accompanied by much hyperventilating, squealing and hand waggling. Continue reading “Searching for Stephen King”

Will the real New York please stand up?

I’ve spent the week lying around, doing my best to recover from the debilitating lurgy that prevented me from making the planned trip back to London to surprise our youngest on his nineteenth birthday. Actually, Norwegian Airlines also did its bit to prevent me from going. Four hours before my scheduled departure at eleven am Thursday, they sent me a text informing me that my flight had been rescheduled to three am on Friday on account of the fact that they needed to comply with rules pertaining to rest periods for crew – rules to which they had, presumably,  suddenly and surprisingly been alerted.  They hoped this would not be too inconvenient.

Thank you Norwegian Airlines. Now we know why your premium economy seats are so much cheaper than everyone else’s. You’re not actually a proper airline, with all that this implies in terms of logistical expertise and professional standards. You’re an illusion, a sham, a fake.

But back to the lying around. While reclined, I did two things, in the main. The first was to  binge watch Grace and Frankie. I know I’m late to the party, but what a party.  Comedy gold. The trouble is, twenty four episodes in, I’m dangerously close to believing that I actually live in that beach house with Jane Fonda, and that I have access to her dreamy wardrobe of pastel coloured knits by Ralph Lauren and St John. At one point, L1 insisted that I leave the bedroom and come in to watch the news, just so I could regain some perspective on the world. I sat there, forcing myself to take in the latest revelations about how the leader of the free world had been paying porn stars to lie while colluding with the thug who’s in charge of Russia and a dodgy UK tech company and an even dodgier US tech company in order to subvert democracy, but I’m afraid none of it really made an impression. I was too busy longing to be back on one of those tasteful striped loungers on Jane’s deck, gazing out at the Pacific.

Wary of getting lost in Grace and Frankie land, and unable to get out into the city to experience it, I decided that the next best thing would be to to read about the city. I happened to have two books about New York to hand – Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and New York Stories.  And what I read really got me thinking. I thought about the city in the books and the city that L1 and I have been experiencing, and I wondered whether either version is what anyone would call the real New York, or if such a thing even exists. Continue reading “Will the real New York please stand up?”

Old Dogs and New Tricks

 

When we moved to this great city, we expected to see new things and meet new people. What we didn’t anticipate was that we might become new people.

 

Please don’t be alarmed. I’m not talking about plastic surgery, or about any upending of character or values. I’m talking about small shifts in what we choose to do, how we opt to spend our time.

 

Here’s what I mean. Back in London, L1 was not a shopper.  If the trend over the past decade has been towards men making up at least fifty percent of supermarket traffic, L1 hasn’t been part of that trend. He’s been the anti-trend. And yet, within days of moving to Manhattan, he transmogrified into someone who positively embraces the supermarket shopping experience. Could he possibly pop into Morton Williams on his way home from work to pick up some milk and broccoli? No problemo. Does he want to accompany me to Whole Foods on Saturday morning to pick up some grass-fed beef for dinner, and the other twenty items we need for the week? Nothing would give him more pleasure. I’m enjoying this new supermarket persona, but every now and again, catching sight of him wheeling the trolley through the fresh produce aisles or testing the ripeness of an avocado, I have the odd sensation of wondering who he is and what he’s done with my husband.

Continue reading “Old Dogs and New Tricks”

Finding Shakespeare

 

Here’s a sentence you probably don’t hear very often: we’ve come back to the city that never sleeps for a good rest. After a whirlwind ten day visit to London, squeezing in more birthday parties, lunches, dinners, and communal dog walks than we’d normally manage in the course of two months, in addition to sorting out a small mountain of post, a rattling oven and a downstairs loo with a lacklustre flush, L1 and I returned to Manhattan happy but exhausted.

 

“It’s weird, isn’t it,” L1 said as we hauled our suitcases out of the lift on our floor. “Do you feel weird?”

 

“Very weird.”

 

“I wonder when it will stop feeling weird.”

 

I wonder that too. When does a transatlantic life begin to seem completely normal? When do you stop saying to yourself, as you land in each place, Gosh this is surreal, just this morning we were in …. I must ask my parents, who’ve been spending six months a year in each of Montreal and Sarasota for what feels like forever. Do they experience this kind of dislocation, this sense of weirdness? Or do they take it in their stride, rolling from one place to the other and back again with nary a second thought?

 

Our eighteen year old son had this advice to offer: really you’ve not been there very long, so of course it’s going to feel strange every time you go back. It’s like when I get back to uni after a weekend at home. Or like that first term at Epsom, when I arrived back at school on a Monday morning after a weekend at home, feeling shell shocked. But it will get easier. You’ll get used to it. Give it time.

 

So here’s another question for you: when did the eighteen year old son get so wise? And when did our children start advising us, rather than it always being the other way around? Age sixteen? Seventeen? Eighteen? It seems to have happened without our noticing, and now I find I solicit the advice of our three all the time. It’s marvellous not to have to always be the one with the answers. And I can’t tell you how fantastic it is that the two girls have taken over the shared parenting of the boy. Whenever I have some tricky issue to discuss with him, or something to admonish him for, one of the of the girls will say already done that, or got that covered mum. It’s such a blessed relief. And I’m sure they manage to dole out their advice in a far more eighteen-year-old friendly way than we could ever manage.

 

But back to the business of this transatlantic life. It’s not half as unusual as I might once have imagined. I’ve been befriended by one woman who’s been making the journey back to England once every ten days for the past five years. And this week, thanks to an invite from my friend E (herself an experienced transatlantic hopper), I had coffee with eight New York dwelling women, half of whom spend much of their time flying back and forth across the ocean. One woman spends all of her time actually on the ocean. She lives on something called The World, which is sort of like an apartment building crossed with a cruise liner. The hundred or so residents make a plan for the year, deciding where they want to go and how long they want to stay there. Then they set sail, making temporary homes in their chosen ports. The woman said that this year they’d spent five weeks living in the Antarctic, in addition to doing long stints in India, Australia, and parts of South America. She flies back to New York for board meetings. I wonder if she also flies back for a rest.

 

 

The place where we all met for coffee was the wonderfully eccentric Shakespeare and Co, a purveyor of new and second-hand books which is also part coffee shop, part library and part printing press. (Who said the Upper East Side was dull?) The two original Shakespeare and Co establishments were in Paris, the first one opened by the American Sylvia Beach in 1919. It served as a gathering place for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and James Joyce, but was closed in 1941 during the German occupation and never reopened. The second Parisian Shakespeare and Co, modelled on Beach’s shop, was opened by another American, George Whitman, in 1951, and continues to serve as a purveyor of new and second hand books, an antiquarian bookseller and a free reading library for the public.

 

The continued existence of Shakepeare and Co on both the Upper East Side and the Left Bank is a heartening reminder that there is, after all, life beyond and after Amazon. The New York shop isn’t related to its Paris counterparts in any way but by name, but I like to think of it as being inspired by them. I also like to think about the spirits of Hemingway, Pound and Joyce wafting around there, lending a small amount of their erudition to all who sit at the little round tables and write, listening to Bach and Mendel, ordering cortado after cortado just to be able to stay long enough to finish a chapter.

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Shakespeare and Co

On Friday I walked to Shakespeare and Co in weather that can only be described as a mixed up mix of everything – icy cold, gale force wind, rain, snow and slush. Be careful out there, Robert, the doorman, warned when I set out. And he was right to warn me, because I skidded much of the way, borne along the slick sidewalk by a ferocious wind that turned my umbrella inside out within minutes and very nearly blew me into the path of oncoming traffic at the corner of Lexington and 66th. I arrived at Shakespeare and Co looking thoroughly bedraggled, wet hair plastered to my scalp, leather gloves, trainers and trouser knees soaked through. Serves me right for being so smug about the mild weather we’d been experiencing while the UK battled with heavy snow. Spring is not, after all, on its way.

 

 

Is it possible, though, that in the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Florida, some sensible and long overdue gun legislation might finally be on its way? I hardly dare to believe Trump when he says something must be done and talks the language of age limits and strong – very strong, unbelievably strong – background checks being implemented. If he manages to beat back the hard-core, gun-loving Republican base and deliver on his promises, we might be persuaded to forgive him one or two of his many sins of the past year.

 

Nah. You’re right. It’s not going to happen. A man who just launched an ill-considered tariff war to deflect attention from the facts surrounding Hope Hick’s testimony before Robert Mueller’s investigative team and her subsequent resignation, and the increasingly damaging allegations about his son in law – a man who is today reported as being unglued in the face of the unravelling of his administration – a man who thinks a good use of his presidential time is to engage in a Twitter spat with the actor  Alec Baldwin – cannot be counted upon to follow through on a few disingenuous and hastily made comments about gun control.

 

Our only hope is Mr Mueller himself.  Was there ever a man who exuded more calm strength and integrity, whose Mount Rushmore countenance you could trust more? Even if I didn’t see in him a striking resemblance to my father, I’m sure I would feel that way. To echo the words emblazoned above Mueller’s photograph on one of my favourite placards at January’s Women’s March: HURRY UP.

 

L1 and I watch with interest, along with all of America. Meanwhile, the novel writing is going reasonably well, thank you for asking. Twenty-one thousand words down. I feel sure that Hemingway – whispering sweet encouragements in my ear while I sip on my third cortado – is at least partly responsible.

 

Onwards,

 

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Taste Test

Still dreaming of those verdant hills and robust cabernets in Napa, and inspired by the story of the Valley’s triumph in the 1976 Judgement of Paris, I’ve decided to conduct my own taste test. I won’t be judging wines, but countries. No prizes for guessing which two. My test won’t be blind and the criteria will be a little more random than those used to judge wine – things like flavour, bouquet, tannin levels, acidity, and my personal favourite, legs. But I will be awarding scores out of twenty, just as the judges in Paris did.

I fully accept that judging entire countries on the basis of some randomly chosen factors, using a sample of one (me), and incorporating data from just two cities (London and New York) is in no way fair or scientific. I ought, at least, to try to get some data from some places like Virginia Beach and Birmingham.   But I haven’t got time for a scientific methodology, and neither have you. So I’m counting on you good people to indulge me in a harmless game of compare and contrast.

So. In no particular order, we begin. Continue reading “Taste Test”

Golden Days

My apologies, loyal blog followers. This post is (a) late, and (b) not about life in New York. L1 was called upon to fly to Northern California for meetings, so I tagged along, as indeed I’m tagging along, L2 like, on this entire year’s adventure. So this post is about California. But perhaps you’ll be pleased to take a break from the intense cold, manic pace and expense of New York to spend a little time in the Golden State.

It so happened that in the week before we left I met several people who knew the San Francisco area well. The consensus seemed to be that the city itself was not what it used to be.

“San Francisco is the new New York,” said A, a management consultant who travels there often. “It used to be kind of an alternative, creative place, but now it’s full of hyperactive, money hungry techies. They’re the only people who can really afford to live there.”

“The traffic is diabolical,” said another friend. “Really, you don’t want to drive anywhere near the city.” (This rather put the fear of God into L1, who had booked us into a hotel in Half Moon Bay, thirty miles south of San Francisco, and was planning to drive in for meetings every day.)

Another woman, who moved from San Francisco to New York six months ago, said “It’s all over for San Fran. The weather isn’t great – it’s almost always foggy and a little chilly. And the only people who live there are the fabulously wealthy tech players, or the desperately poor and homeless. There’s not a lot in between. Plus any day now there’s going to be a huge earthquake and the entire place will fall into the sea.”

On this cheerful note, L1 and I boarded our American Airlines flight to SFO. We then hired a car (which L1 described as a giant sitting room on wheels) and made the half hour drive to Half Moon Bay, a little gem of a place (and the pumpkin capital of the USA, no less) perched on the west side of the San Francisco Peninsula directly across from Palo Alto. Continue reading “Golden Days”

Nice day for a protest

One bitterly cold afternoon this week I received a visit from K, a Lithuanian woman in her early sixties who’s lived in New York for some twenty years. K had made the long bus journey from North Queens to uptown Manhattan to collect a package I’d brought over from the Lithuanian angel, R, who is the linchpin of our transatlantic life, looking after house, dogs and twenty somethings back in Wimbledon.

K refused my first two offers to come up to the apartment for a cup of tea, but finally relented. During the forty minutes we spend together, I learned that K and R are old friends who both left Lithuania in 1996, crossing great expanses of water in search of better lives. K ended up in New York, where she met her American husband in a dance hall in Brooklyn. (When she told me this I couldn’t help picturing the dance hall scenes in Colm Toibin’s beautiful novel, Brooklyn). The husband died eighteen months ago, and K said she was still trying to work out how to live without him.

“Trouble is,” she said, “ New York is not very friendly place. People do not want to know.” Continue reading “Nice day for a protest”