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Ten Things That Surprised Me About New York

  1. Cobblestone streets. Perry, Barrow, Morton – all in the West Village, where my office is located.
  2. The weather. From terrible to worse. Freezing winter followed by months of chill. To be replaced by a sweltering summer. The weather is not the best thing about New York.
  3. Being called “Miss” in shops. Often by young men. So adorably old-fashioned.
  4. The sheer illegal impossibility of buying a bottle of wine in the supermarket. Beer, yes. Wine, no. This I don’t get. This is not right.
  5. The number of meals served from disposable tableware. Paper plates, plastic forks and knives, aluminum trays. Caution: Soup from a styrofoam cup, eaten with a plastic spoon cannot taste reasonable.
  6. The number of meals I eat out or take away.
  7. Driving skills. Start, stop. Forwards yes, reverse, not so much.
  8. The gesture for over, no more, or closed: A quick horizontal chop at the neck.
  9. Single-ply toilet paper. Just wrong. Should be taken from the market.
  10. The unique stench of the subway. Piss overpowered by ineffective air freshener.

No account of New York City is complete without a mention of 9/11. I live very close to the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. Every morning on my way to work, I am greeted by the shiny new tower as I make my way to the subway at Chambers.

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Passing St. Paul’s Chapel, where George Washington worshipped, and which not only survived the attacks but also functioned as a retreat for volunteers and firefighters in the tragic days following 9/11, I am reminded every day of the hallowedness of this territory. By the incongruous colonial graveyard of St. Paul’s and Trinity Church so near to Wall Street. And by the many tourists.

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But it took a cabbie from India to underscore what being a volunteer after 9/11 could mean. I had to get to work early one day and jumped in a cab instead of taking the E train from Chambers. The cab driver started talking about 9/11 and said he was in lower Manhattan that September morning when he had to abandon his car and flee. (Those weren’t his words). His brother, a trucker, heard on the news that anyone with a refrigerated truck should show up at Ground Zero. He transported bodies away for days. The cabbie said, “It was hard work. He worked for days. But they paid him well. About 40,000 dollars.” When the brother applied for a green card, the judge didn’t ask any questions. His application was processed immediately. Which prompted his brother to tell me: “That’s what I love about America. When you give something, you get something.”

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Perhaps what I like most about the United States is how people here open doors for other people. They make introductions, give others access to their networks, and make connections. This weekend I had a chance to experience this firsthand on a broad scale when I attended a Three Dot Dash Org event.

It started when I responded to a mail with the subject line: Be Epic. In direct, conversational language it invited me to become a mentor to a Global Teen Leader: “Hang out with 30 of the world’s top game changing youth and 29 other incredible Mentors. Be a part of an international super community of endless opportunities and connections. Boom. Plus, it will be one of the best days of your life. No joke.” I said yes without even reading to the end of the mail.

The mail was from Jess Teutonico, who describes herself as a “Community Activator, Global Consultant, Purposeful Adventurer.” We met last year when my employer, SAP, signed up to sponsor the 2015 TEDxTeen in New York City. I’ve been wanting to do something outside of my work and family life and this was the opportunity I had been looking for.

I showed up yesterday to Studio 450 on West 31st Street, took a freight elevator to the 12th floor, and entered a glossy white loft with a brilliant view of the Hudson Yards. Among the group of assembled mentors were the President of BBC America, Head of Sustainability at Pepsi, former Chief of Staff for Oprah Winfrey, a Ford model, and a Google executive. After mingling over breakfast, we shared short introductions of ourselves (a very humbling experience) and were then matched with our teen mentees, who were ridiculously excited to be matched with a mentor. Because even if these teens are already CEOs and founders of their own organizations, their mentors can open doors for them.

These amazing young social activists had spent the week in New York City learning the kinds of invaluable communications skills that Americans have in spades. They learned to tell their stories, they learned to pitch their ideas, they visited a PR agency, they were trained in blogging by a media expert barely older than themselves. By the time we met them, they could deliver their elevator speeches flawlessly.

I was matched with Yada. A 17-year-old from Thailand, Yada is now studying computer science, economics and statistics at Mount Holyoke College, “renowned for ecucating women leaders” as its website claims. They will not be disappointed with Yada. At the age of 12, she developed a painful and disfiguring skin condition. Her mother, a pediatric dermatologist, was unable to help. Her schoolmates teased her and called her names. Yada retreated inside herself and found that writing and dancing helped to heal her. She healed herself through self-expression. Not content with getting well, she decided to help hospitalized youth in Thailand by teaching dance and offering cultural programs. Now she wants to expand her program to Cambodia and Burma. And my job is to help her promote the program. Let the adventures begin!

Discovering Crosby Street in Manhattan one wintry afternoon was like walking into a picture book: part Victorian memento mori, part flash. I went there in search of a cafe my husband had visited: The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. But I discovered much more. And since then, Crosby Street has been my favorite street. Admittedly, I have not seen a lot. But after finding it, my choice was quickly vindicated by a travel editor I have known since university – herself a transplant to New York. She says the Crosby Street Hotel is the best in the city. And one guidebook describes this short little street as gritty and sexy. So there. Here are three reasons why:

  1. De Vera, 1 Crosby St., 10013, NYC.  The lower end of the street begins with De Vera, a shop so intimidatingly arch that I nearly didn’t enter. No one spoke to me anyone. Arcane and rich with curiosities like insects, it feels very Upper East Side, but very mysterious too. Stocked with Japanese lacquerware, statues, antique jewelry and silver locked behind cases and cabinets, the shop is like a storeroom watched over by the descendents of a man of taste, perhaps a colonial officer returned from his travels. I did not check prices – I wasn’t buying that day.
  2. Broken English Jewelry, 56 Crosby St., 10012, NYC. When it comes to jewelry, I have no control. This shop acted like a magnet on me. I had to be buzzed in. A delightful young lady wearing white eyeliner opened a case to show me a ring I desired to hold and wear and feel in my hand. A solid jade knuckleduster lined with tiny flecks of some glittering stone, it was perfect on my hand. The price? $11,000. My search for the perfect green ring continues, although this one was perfect. Jade, emeralds, white gold.
  3. MZ Wallace, 93 Crosby Street, 10012 NYC. I still hadn’t found the cafe when I spotted MZ Wallace. It was crazy. So much goodness in just a few blocks. I recognized the brand because when it comes to handbags I have even less control than with jewelry. A friend from New York revealed this bag tip to me a few years ago and I had just seen her in the office a few days previous with her Kate model – still looking fresh after four years. She loves the lightness of the nylon and all the pockets. I’m going back for the techno puff Vail model in navy. And maybe Kate in nude?
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Entranceway, De Vera

By the time I had left the cafe, where a young woman with pale blue hair served me, it had started to snow. And I walked down Broadway back home, content from a day’s roaming, rushed by crowds and fresh slush, the slush that hardens to granitey craters when the temperature plunges in February. The only thing I bought that day was a long knit Eileen Fisher skirt at the thrift shop beside the bookstore. Not until I was home did I realize it was mothbitten. But on Crosby Street, a long black skirt with holes just needs the right boots to look outré.

One night late last year, I was working from home in Heidelberg when a colleague in New York pinged me. “I just want to through (sic) something out at you,” she wrote. Luckily I have learned to suppress my inner grammar Nazi. Because she threw the opportunity of a lifetime to me.

For some time I had been looking for an opportunity to relocate with my job. Sydney, Singapore, and Shanghai were all options at different times. I was always interested in returning to Asia. It had never crossed my mind to consider the United States. Yet as luck would have it, the chance to work not just in another country but in the world’s most exciting city came completely out of the blue.

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New York is not exactly a hardship post but it did mean leaving my family behind. “I’ll be a single girl in the city!” I told friends flippantly. My only relative in New York is an uncle, who is an 88-year-old priest living in Flushing.

From Eppelheim, Germany to New York, New York. Here are some of the differences:

  • I used to leave the house, get in my car and drive 15 minutes to the office. Now I walk everywhere or take the subway.
  • The price of food is insane.
  • The restaurants are amazing.
  • Shit don’t work: Keys don’t fall smoothly in the locks, windows leak cold air, the heating belches and billows either hot or cold, the toilet in my apartment has overflowed twice, the laundry emerges sopping wet from the washing machine.
  • Winter is brutal but can be beautiful (evidence below).

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According to a colleague in Singapore, the lucky numbers for this year, the Year of the Sheep, are two and seven. She mentioned this in case I wanted to purchase a lottery ticket – something I have never done before but will consider now. Because after short reflection, I realized it was 27 years ago when I was 27 that I left Montreal, bound for China with a one-way ticket. Double lucky! I never looked back. It was the beginning of my life as an observer abroad. And the next chapter has just begun.

At that time I asked my friends what I should take to China. Music, said one. Something to remind you of home, said another. Something to make you feel beautiful, said the wisest. I took a squat bottle of musky scent with a lilac cap, purchased on Rue St. Denis. Not only was it beautiful to look at on my bare shelves in Beijing, it smelled divine. I also took a black lace bra and fine black linen shirt that I was wearing the night I met my husband. But I digress. Moving to New York, I brought a bottle of Annick Goutal fragrance, a Christmas gift from my husband. Plus three suitcases. Forty-four kilos of luggage. Next time I travel, I swear it will be with a bar of soap and a toothbrush.

I feel positively electrified by this move. It made me realize how much I thrive on change and newness.

The Park Row Diaries are named for my building (below), built in 1899. Since Park Row was previously known as Newspaper Row, I feel a certain serendipity about returning to blogging with stories from the greatest city in the world.

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I have a confession to make. I cannot stick to deadlines. Maybe you’ve noticed?

This summer we split our vacation time between Canada and England. Family celebrations were on the agenda: the marriage of my niece at a country wedding on an Ontario farm and the 90th birthday of my husband’s aunt on the Isle of Wight. We stayed for two weeks in Ontario and spent the entire time with family. This post is about the Canadian part.

Everything in Canada is bigger – the cars, the houses, the people. Both of my sons (now 14 and 19 years old) enjoy the Canadian side of their heritage and love spending time in Canada. Of  Canada my youngest says, “It is open, not cramped. The nature is wicked, people are friendly.”

So it was no surprise that this mega truck, owned and driven by Jesse, a young man who is dating my sister’s daughter, was the source of much admiration. The couple are in their early twenties, both over six feet tall, handsome and fit. The truck is a GMC Sierra with 450 HP and has enough room in the back seat, as my son says, “For me and two ogres.” It is impossible for Jesse to pick up or drop off his girlfriend quietly; the entire house rattles when the booming engine of the GMC announces its approach. Jesse listens to country music in his truck. For a summer outing, he took my son to a demolition derby. He also took part in a “Tough Mudder” event this summer. This truck is  his pride and glory:

We also visited a summer house on Ahmic Lake, owned by my brother-in-law’s brother. (This is as complicated as the family gets – promise). The original cottage was set on a beautiful spot, a point, surrounded on three sides by the lake. Since it was falling apart, the owners eventually had it torn down and replaced with their current home, a 3,500 square foot summer house with master bedroom and ensuite bath, a similar suite for their daughter, five additional bedrooms (20 people were staying there the weekend we dropped by), poker table, three fireplaces, hot tub, two refrigerators, two dishwashers, ATVs in the four-car garage and even a tennis court. Next year an outdoor pool will be added.

The lake boasts one of the oldest summer camps for kids in Canada, the girls’ camp separated from the boys’ on opposite sides of the lake. The camp is known far and wide for its swimming program. I wished my son could attend. I learned to swim in a lake (and am a good strong swimmer) and still love to swim in the cold lakes of Ontario. A kid we met said, “Up here, you just get thrown in the water when you’re litle. Everybody learns to swim.”

Here are some of their neighbours’ houses:

 

A number of American families have their summer homes on the lake.

 

This is the filling station at Ahmic Harbour:

Some families live on the lake the whole year round, skidoo-ing across the frozen expanse of white ice in the winter. I met one of those families, a young, good-looking family of athletic, outdoor thoroughbreds. The husband’s brother is the author of a brilliant novel I read while there.  Joseph Boyden‘s novel, “Through Black Spruce” explores an aspect of Ontario life that has oddly been neglected in literature – the experience of native Canadians. Much of the story is set in the area north of Ahmic Lake, making it very easy to imagine – even in summer -the trapping and hunting, the pickups and skidoos, depicted in the novel.  This interview with the dashing writer, though not recent, provides insight into his background and sensitivity to the native experience. The author has received high honours for his novels; I’m just new to them.

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