Thursday, April 30, 2009

domestic goddess

I have become a domestic goddess. Okay, not the sultry gorgeous type that Nigella made so addictive and covetable … But as all my friends very well know (and have uproariously laughed at on many occasions), I’m sooooo not domestic. It’s H who gets excited about the latest in spin-dry technology and it’s his eyes that fire up at the sight of a heavy-based non-stick frying pan. I simply don’t do cooking. About my most notable achievement is getting a boiled egg to that state of perfection between stomach-churning yellow goo and bounce-off-the-wall hardness. H is also a lot better at washing dishes and doing the laundry than I am. (So what do I do, you may ask? Don’t.)
I’m an Aries, what can I say. Ariens don’t do domesticity; they confront life with guns blazing, tackle issues head-on and leap where angels fear to tread. Or so they say.

Well … things have changed. It all started with H’s humongous collection of golf shirts, with which I became intimately acquainted while we were unpacking into our new apartment. Since H is one of the few in the city who has a job (and he’d like to keep it) he leaves before 8:00am and returns after 7:00pm. So I thought I’d help out the poor guy by upending his four (I’m not kidding) suitcases and neatly folding his clothes away into our limited closet space (we don’t do cupboards in this country). The sheer volume of his shirts astounded me. In fact, it felt like one of Escher’s self-repeating drawings. The golf shirts tumbled out in grey-blue, powder-blue, sky-blue, navy and so on – through the entire colour spectrum.

The urge was so strong to colour-code them, I did. It was a very necessary scientific exercise. (To prove that he has too many shirts? That he buys more clothes than me? I’m not quite sure, but what the hell…) The rainbow-coloured pile was so high I had to divide it into two tottering towers – but it was a gorgeous reflection of the colour spectrum. I’ll give it to him, H took it in very good humour. He laughed before the two towers collapsed under their own weight.

I’ve moved on to vacuuming our wooden floors and Smartie-coloured carpets (you have no idea what kind of mess reams and reams of cardboard, bubble-wrap and minute bubbles of polystyrene leave in their wake). Thank goodness we have an excellent recycling room in our building or my guilt at what we’re doing to the earth would force me into hourly self-flagellation.

And now I iron excruciatingly crumpled sheets and duvet covers and pillow slips (100% cotton in a sateen finish seemed like a very attractive idea at the time…). Steam or no steam, they just never seem to uncrumple. My only indulgence is sweating over the iron while watching the trashy (but oh, so addictive) Real Housewives of New York City. In HD (high definition for those who haven’t made the leap) on a very large TV screen. (That’s one of the perks in the US of A. Technology is cheap.)
I try to justify my fascination with the antics of the housewives in this ‘reality’ show by convincing myself that it’s an education in the things that make New York ‘tick’. Many, of course, would disagree as the show unveils what a bunch of exceedingly rich and not-so-famous NY socialites get up to (lots of on-screen bickering and behind-the-scenes bitching – and plenty of ego). Never mind, it adds a pleasurable spin to the housework and I ain’t gonna mess with that.

Street news

Susan Boyle and How Looks Matter. . .

Okay, so I’ve already introduced you to the NY-American penchant for analysis and dissection, but it’s no more evident than in the case of Susan Boyle of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ fame. I’m sure she needs no introduction. And, yes, she made me cry too.

So after the media had fully dispensed with describing the amazing transformation from drab, dowdy, frumpy and never been kissed to unbridled astonishment, applause and feel-good admiration, it was time for psycho-analysis. Out came the four-column story, accompanied by pics of Susan Boyle, on stereotyping: an exposé of how shallow we’ve all become. Words like ‘ageism’ and ‘lookism’ – the prejudice against older and non-beautiful people – were bandied about, and erudite experts, ranging from psychology and anthropology professors to a neuroscientistist at NYU, Yale and Princeton, were consulted.

In a nutshell, stereotyping goes back to earliest times when humankind had to sum up an adversary in a split second to judge whether he or she was a threat or not.
But my best – bear in mind we’re discussing Susan Boyle and the speed at which her status barometer spiked at her audition – is the newspaper quote attributed to a psychology professor: ‘… encountering discrepancies to stereotypes probably creates a sort of autonomic arousal in our peripheral nervous system, triggering spikes of cortisol and other indicators of stress.’ Huh?
Wow, Ms Boyle (an out-of-work Scottish spinster with a cat called Pebbles, the newspaper said) sure had a powerful physiological effect on us.
And that’s not all … (if you dial now, you get two for the price of one). The audience also, apparently, experienced ‘a rush of dopamine from the surprise pleasure of hearing her voice’. Well, this is becoming a veritable biology lesson.

Yet despite all these so-called physical transformational processes going on in our bodies, we’re told that it’s not so easy for us to change our ways. It’s highly likely that stereotyping will prevail. So never mind Ms Boyle’s bruised feelings in the wake of the frumpiest terms writers could jab their keys at, the judgements had enough of an effect on Susan to move her to update her looks. A new photo shows her ‘frizzy gray hair’ freshly tinted, face made up, and clad in a shiny black leather jacket, camel pants and Burberry scarf. Acceptance or no by an admiring public, societal pressure is still making sure that Susan Boyle fits in…

[Image: YouTube]


All a-Twitter about tweeting

I’m not quite sure whether South Africans have been lured into the micro-blogging sphere of Twitter, a messaging system that allows stars, celebrities and, more increasingly, politicians to post inane mind-ramblings of no more than 140 characters (called ‘tweets’) on their profile page. The idea is that these mindless musings are a response to the single question: ‘What are you doing?’ Which means that at any time, in any space, salivating subscribers can receive feeds enabling them to track the movements of their idols, 24/7.
However, when their priceless tweets consist of gems like: ‘Just picked up coffee at Starbucks’ or ‘Wolfing down a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Deli’, my knee-jerk reaction is, Who CARES?!

The technology generation does, that’s who. When you observe them in action – the earpiece an obligatory accessory for every single New Yorker on the street – you understand. Their lifeline is hooked up to a cell phone, BlackBerry or iPod, and tuned out is the thing to be (god forbid you’re forced to make eye contact…). Don’t get me wrong, though. Tuned out is tuned in, if you get my drift – SMSs, e-mails, tweets, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook… It’s just more of an inner world than an outer world.

When US icon Oprah keyed her first tweet in the middle of her show in mid-April, cyber traffic to Twitter leapt up by 43% (okay, Ashton Kutcher had a hand in it too). Later it was estimated that over a million users joined the micro-blog service after Oprah’s fingers were done with tapping. Recently an online news site quoted Oprah as already having 75 000 followers (that’s since April 17!), and the bets were already on as to when she’d clock a million. The poetic snippets Ms O’s followers are plugging into? (Tweet to Hugh Jackman) ‘Hugh…I’m countin’ the hours. Wanna do dinner the night before. Same booth? Or catch up fresh on-the-air?’
A politician who’s become totally enamoured of Twitter, tweeted: ‘Made it to DC, next stop baggage claim.’ Huh? Is this really the wisdom we’re breathlessly waiting for, tongues hanging out? His bags never arrived (next tweet). Yawn. Slashed from my ‘following’ list.

Twitter and tweeting went horribly wrong last week when Madlyn Primoff, a hotshot lawyer from the uppercrust New York State town of Scarsdale, lost her cool with her two teenage girls squawking and squabbling in the back of the car. Perhaps she’d had a particularly stressful day, wrestled with a difficult client, was weary of juggling a high-powered job with her duties as a mother … she snapped, stopped the car and ordered her girls to get out. They were only 3 miles (5km) from home, but it was enough for the 10- and 12-year-old to spread the word of their mother’s misdeed via Twitter. The news spread like a virus.

The 12-year-old chased the car and managed to clamber in; the 10-year-old was scooped up later by a passer-by. Then the police were involved. By the time Madlyn Primoff had turned the car around to pick up her second daughter, she was slapped with charges of endangering the welfare of a child and a misdemeanour. She spent the night in jail and was released on $1500 bail the next day.

The incident caused a major uproar in Scarsdale and beyond, with anyone and everyone spouting their outraged opinions about the quality of Primoff’s maternal skills. It made both print and online news, and was discussed (with relevant invited experts) on talk shows. That’s New York, and much of America – the need to psycho-analyse (and self-righteously so) is deeply embedded in the fabric of American culture.

The last line belongs to a comment made in The New York Times: ‘If she had been a clerk who left her kids at a CostCo in Fargo, North Dakota, what happened in Fargo would have stayed in Fargo. But thanks to … Scarsdale / Park Avenue / Columbia Law School, it hit the online jackpot.’

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

9/11 still very fresh. . .

On Monday 27th April The New York Times carried a front-page story of a Boeing 747, trailed by two fighter jets, flying so low over Lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers (and frighteningly close to the World Trade Center site) that it caused mass panic in the city. To the roar of engines and reverberating office tower windows, distraught workers tumbled down the stairs of multiple floors and fled onto the streets of NY City, Staten Island and New Jersey, petrified that 9/11 had come back to haunt them. ‘Probably about 80 per cent of my office left within two minutes of seeing how close it got to our building,’ was how one person put it.

The jet was in fact one of two Boeing 747s used regularly by Air Force One (that is, for presidential purposes) and the plan, hatched by the federal government (the Defense Department, exactly), was intended as a ‘photo opportunity’ – one that had the White House and Pentagon in Washington hopping. New Yorkers, accustomed to being kept in the know on government exercises and events, only found out what it was all about well after the NY major’s BlackBerry started buzzing wildly (he hadn’t been informed either, neither had the president himself!).

In spite of federal regulations stipulating that airplanes fly at least 1000ft (+300m) above buildings and bridges (jets leaving city airports fly at 8000ft (+2500m) or more), the Boeing flew particularly low over the harbour so that publicity and souvenir photographs could be taken of Air Force One captured against the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline. Barack Obama was notably furious.
[Photo by Jim Brown]

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

new york and spring

[Large image by my newest NY friend/photographer Andre Neethling.
The 3rd image is a magnolia tree! Yes, really.
The bridge on the horizon in the 2nd last image is George Washington Bridge; this walkway along the Hudson River is my running path]

It’s miraculous how, in the space of a couple of days, spring has unfurled its pretty party skirt. Only a week or so ago the sky alternated between moody, rain-pregnant clouds and a brief wind-crazed snow blizzard. Here one minute, gone the next, snowflakes were dancing and swirling past my nose as I pressed my face to the window, like tiny weightless feathers floating this way and that, sometimes hanging suspended for a fleeting second before whirling downward.

Then the sun came out against gorgeous clear blue skies. You could feel the heightened sense of expectation in the people striding by or loitering at street cafés, revelling in the promise of happier warmer days. White blossom (Callery pears, I’m told by a volunteer gardener) erupted along city avenues and leafless magnolia trees positively bristled with giant pastel-purple blooms. Curious, I searched the Internet for ‘calorie’ pear … as in, being an ornamental pear, there’s no fruit hence no calories to speak of and no temptation for all those weight-conscious New Yorkers …?! (This is a kilojoule-obsessed nation and the greater part of the population is madly overweight.) That trick didn’t quite work but I stumbled on the correct spelling by chance. So now we know about Callery pears…

Next, flowerbeds separating the avenues and outside the swisher apartments became newly planted with daffodils and tulips, little green shoots forging up through the soil towards the sun. Suddenly the air was filled with promise and hope and birdsong.

And now, spring has truly sprung! An early morning run in Riverside Park along the Hudson River has me so inspired I’m compelled to wax all lyrical in cyber ink.
I run down an avenue of trees so heavily laden with blossom that branches trail on the ground under the weight of their petals. They come in single and double layers or little cabbage rose shapes, their hues starting at cool pastel and ending at blazing popsicle pink. Others come in gentler shades bleeding to rich hues into the centre of the blossom, like cherry ink dropped onto blotting paper. The blooms on the white trees are so prolific they look like burst cotton pods. They’re all ornamental cherries, maybe some crab apple blossom, and I feel like I’m in the imaginary worlds of Alice in Wonderland or The Wizard of Oz.

Clumps of daffodils pop up in surprising places – creamy-white or sunshine yellow or lemon-cream with egg-yolk centres. Scarlet tulips look like giant splashes of blood in the foliage, there’s a profusion of bushes in singed orange, and bright yellow Forsythia shrubs (part of the olive family) are prolific. There are snowdrops and hyacinths and crocuses. The volunteer gardeners – members of the public who offer their time, energy and gardening skills for free – have been very busy in Riverside Park.

When I stop to sit on a shaded bench next to a giant statue of Joan of Arc, nature is pulsing with life all around me. A squirrel with a puffed-up tail playfully bounds and leaps and twists in the air like a cat during ‘mad’ hour while unfamiliar birds flit and hop in the undergrowth, ensnaring unsuspecting worms. A bird with a yellow bill and chestnut-orange chest (much like our olive thrush) turns out to be an American robin while a beautiful specimen with a little crest, sharp black bill and striking blue, black and white markings (I was convinced it was a smaller version of our pied kingfisher) turns out to be a blue jay! And most exciting of all, bouncing around on the leafy ground, I identify a scarlet-feathered bird as bright as our red bishops but without the black markings – a northern cardinal (got the birdbook, becoming the expert).

Even as I sit here, spring petals are whirling downward like delicate butterflies. Spring blossom is temporary, ephemeral – like the snow blizzard that was here and gone in minutes. Already the NY streets are carpeted with fallen petals, and as you walk beneath the trees they swirl lightly about your ears like confetti.

My morning is sealed as I spot the most exquisite arching sprays of inflated pink flowers – each in the perfect shape of a heart. Beneath every blossom is a tiny white tear. Pink Bleeding Hearts, I find out later.


long walk to a homeopath

(apologies to madiba)

You may not believe me, but South Africa is waaay ahead in some – surprising – areas, one of which is legal alternative healthcare. Company or private medicare (medical aid’s not a word here) does not recognise or pay for homeopaths. Not in this city, anyway. Acupuncture, somehow, seems to have achieved some veneer of acceptance on healthcare-provider listings, but again, you’re on your own when it comes to paying the bills. And I so don’t do needles. So trawl and crawl I did to find a homeopath who could banish my irksome cold back to the murky depths it sprang from.

First challenge was to find a homeopath. You’d think it’d be easy in a city of endless possibilities. But even the phone consultant from Blue Cross/Blue Shield (one of the most recognisable healthcare companies in America) struggled to track down an entry for homeopaths on their website. She eventually found a listing (as I patiently hung on the line) under ‘alternative health’, and then again under osteopaths. Lurking, hiding behind a more accepted label of medical specialisation…
Next problem … there wasn’t a single homeopath listed in NYC. They were all in Connecticut or Massachusetts, a couple of hours’ train ride out of the city. Highly apologetic, the consultant suggested I try my own non-Blue Cross-related Internet search.

What you need to understand at this point is, should there be an Internet crash here tomorrow (heaven forbid) it would be Armageddon in this land of plenty. No one does anything without tapping into the world wide web. To dig up anything about anything – track down a person or store location, download directions with the closest subway or bus-stop, check in on weather and daily temperatures, research a restaurant or coffee shop – your BlackBerry, iPhone or Notebook is always on hand for just that.

So I logged on. (I’m linked to – Boring! – a staid, traditional landline.) In a city that hosts 3 million commuters daily, I got a handful of results. A day later, one or two homeopaths had answered my e-mail and another even called me back (gasp!). Sadly the non-Blue Cross fees were outrageous.

The guy who won me over returned my call in 10 seconds, and offered to contact Blue Cross to see what he could work out with them (I know the jargon, he said). That didn’t work, but he did quote an acceptable fee for a half-hour session. (Needless to say he looked nothing like the youthful, preppy face that gazed quizzically at me from his (read: outdated) website.) The jury’s out on whether he’s right for me, but I’m totally seduced by his very cool location – plump in the centre of the Theatre District with flashing neon signs of Jane Fonda in her acclaimed new play and lots of Broadway musicals.
Maybe he’s worth the name-dropping alone…

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

(P)op-ed pages

Never before has a pooch received so much print mileage on the front page of the daily newspapers than Bo, the White House’s new Portuguese water dog. Clearly, the downsized economy, closed shopfronts, joblessness, less shoppers and even less spending have left little to talk about…

And you have to give it to the Obama family, Bo is seriously cute. Jet-black in colour except for two front paws that seem to have been dipped in a pot of white paint, and with shaggy hair and beguiling shaggy eyes, he’s been the subject of intense media coverage, from newsprint to cyberspace. In one newspaper photograph of him curiously sniffing news reporters’ furry microphones, the headline ‘Does Bo know he’s Top Dog?’ precedes a story priming doggie experts on whether Bo has any clue of his leveraged status. Opinions vary, depending on whom you ask.

If such highbrow speculation were not enough, Bo is already being written into an illustrated children’s story book, due out (unbelievably) at the end of April. Mascot Books started on it even before the cute pooch had been chosen, leaving space for the illustrations to be slotted in later.

For those who are wondering, Bo gets his name from Michelle Obama’s father who was nicknamed Diddley, in a reference to the American rock ’n’ roll singer Bo Diddley.
[Photo: Doug Mills, New York Times]
* * * * * * * * * * * *
What Americans are watching on TV…

Last week, shows that South Africans will relate to and that are topping TV ratings here are:
* American Idol (23.5 million viewers!)
* Dancing with the Stars (US version) (14.8 million)
* NCIS (13.4 million)
* The Mentalist
* Without a Trace
* The Biggest Loser
* Law & Order

Street news…

US Confidence Poll

Some political/economical sound bytes…
Since Barack Obama was inaugurated as president (mid-Jan), Americans have become more optimistic about the economy and the direction of the country – the percentage grew from 15%, just before he took office, to 39%.
* 20% think the economy is getting better, vs. 7% in mid-Jan.
* Those who felt the country was going in the wrong direction dropped from 79% to 53%.
* 70% of Americans are very / somewhat concerned about someone in their household losing their job in the next 12 months.
* 40% have cut spending on luxuries; 10% have cut back on necessities.
[New York Times, 7 April 2009, Telephone poll on 998 adults]

* * * * *

Jobless in America

If South Africans are feeling bleak about the recession, loss of jobs and the state of their economy, take heart … you’re not alone. Unemployment in the USA hit 8.5% at the end of March, the highest level in 25 years. Two million people were laid off in the first three months of 2009 and a total of 5.1 million jobs have been lost since December 2007, New York’s Daily News reported at the beginning of April.

Every day The New York Times runs a different front-page personal story of an individual affected by the sudden loss of a salary, and the repercussions to his or her network of dependents and family. But there are also some lighter, funnier moments. Like the report on how recruiting organisations, who find background actors and people to fill character roles in movies, were so inundated with applications that they gave up trying to handle the flood. And what caused this mini-tsunami? Highly qualified lawyers, financial analysts and business advisers depleted of work but replete with leisurely hours to fill.

Rather stand in line and network with the rest of the jobless than sit contemplating their navel, right?

Another slew of younger out-of-workers was trying their hand at … wait for it … DJ-ing! Forced into a new way of thinking in our ever-changing techno world, people are prepared to push into areas they’ve never dreamed of before. Desperation gives us the courage to push the edge of the envelope – because we have nothing to lose.

My best report is of a recently laid-off lawyer who every day dresses in a suit, scoops up his laptop and commutes into the city to his favourite Starbucks – to ‘keep up appearances’. Here he taps on his computer, thumbs on his BlackBerry, meets with similarly affected colleagues and networks. Networking is the cog that keeps the New York machine oiled and operating. Opening conversations revolve around what someone else can do for you and vice versa, and people are constantly sized up according to their networking value.

The psychologists (New York is Self-analysis Central) say keeping up appearances is good for personal pride and therefore an effective social strategy. Pride begets perseverance, The New York Times article said. In closing it stated, ‘However pride may go before a fall, it may be far more useful after one.’

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

a BIG week . . . hair, yoga, Pilates

This last week was a BIGGIE! Skimmed low across a row of major hurdles (the smallest of tasks become great hills to climb when you’re in foreign territory; every day dawns as a big adventure, everywhere there are demons to conquer…).

So … I signed up at a new gym, joined my first group yoga class (terrifying!), went to my first one-on-one Pilates session (loved it), and delivered myself like a lamb into the hands of a new hairdresser.

I can’t believe how stressful it is – and how vulnerable you feel – to yield yourself to an unknown hairstylist. Will he/she wield a devious pair of scissors and butcher my hair? Will the colour brush become an aborted paint job? Hair is so much about personal identity, the face we present to the world, the way we feel about ourselves. . .

Then there’s the etiquette around tipping. Oh, the agony of it. This alone sends me into a dizzy panic (not being a numbers gal ‘n’ all). Working out 10% I can just handle, but 15 to 20%?? It’s enough to have me hyperventilating in the coat rack. Then, do you graze the palms of the assistant at the washbasin or afterwards at the cash desk? Do you tip your stylist personally or leave something discreetly at the end while you’re doling out your dollars?

I survived my styling trip intact, maybe not with exactly what I had in mind – but I can live with it. I under-tipped, I sense, but, hey, I’m a foreigner and maybe they’ll forgive me for that. And the assistant went without because how do you tip a person for simply rubbing cream around your hairline (to stop the colour staining my skin, you understand)? I think I erred there, too, but there’s always a next time…

The yoga classes are interesting to say the least. I’ve genuflected, bowed to the sun and struck a warrior pose from Hatha to Vinyasa to Alignment yoga, joined stretch and centering classes, and even a session called Tong Ren with a bit of Chi Gong (or Tai Chi) thrown in. And I haven’t made a start yet on IntelligentYoga, Yogasculpt, Anusara or Meditative Yoga…

Some of my classes involve yoga poses I recognise, others are intensely energetic sequences practised seamlessly with few pauses and combined with breathing, yet others involve energy healing with a gadget flashing infra-red rays at us and a teacher tapping rhythmically on the acupuncture points of a wooden maquette.

When I become bored with that, my gym also offers Pilates (and various offshoots of it), Feldenkrais Method, Jazz Dance, Dance Fusion and NIA. And for the extremists (which I’m not), there’s the Cardio Bootcamp & Sculpt. New Yorkers need a LOT of distraction, and a looott of choice. They’ve sure got it here.

[Image: Andre Neethling]

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Trading places … um, apartments

So … it is possible to furnish (from scratch) and move into a new unfurnished apartment in NYC in two brief weekends. We’ve proved it and done it and even surprised our NY cousins. We couldn’t have managed, though, without home delivery and the oiled wheels of an intensely competitive techno service industry.
You want a phone, ADSL or wireless connectivity? Just breathe the word. Make a call, set a date and confirm your details. A week later, they’re standing outside your door, armed with toolbox, spanner and cables. In under an hour, you’re wired and connected and in touch with the great big world outside.

After two weekends of trawling the streets of lower Manhattan for furnishings and fittings, ranging in depth and seriousness from teaspoons and a garlic press to beds and a dining room table, we eventually collapse, the soles of our feet as calloused as a terradactyl’s. But that’s the hard part. The easy part is saying to the store consultant, ‘I’ll have one of that, two of those and a dozen of them, all to be delivered to my apartment, please.’ And provided there’s enough cash on your credit card (your South African one, that is – getting an American one is a long, long story…), you’re tripping over your front door because everything’s been delivered before you can catch the subway home. Really.
There’s such a sense of power, and anticipation, too, in starting with a completely new slate – it’s like being newlyweds.
Okay, so I forgot … we are newlyweds (cough).

Then, our apartment. Oh, the pleasure of light and space and high ceilings. Don’t get me wrong, we were intensely grateful to have been able to stay in our interim apartment. But there was a teeny issue of space. Being able to swing a cat didn’t quite apply. It was a case of not being able to turn in the shower because the plastic curtain was glued to your back on the one side and the soap rack jammed up against your chest on the other. The kitchen didn’t feel much different either. No matter, that’s the challenge of so many one-bedroomed apartments in the city; space is premium and you gotta get used to it.

Our stroke of luck is that, on the 15th floor, we’re the last apartment before the building steps back to accommodate the penthouses and somehow we have particularly high ceilings and three-tier windows that start at your feet and end somewhere in the lower stratosphere. Those who suffer from vertigo need not apply.

I stand in the mornings, suspended 15 floors above Broadway, watching miniature Toy Store people huddled in their padded coats, all striding purposefully somewhere (New Yorkers are always striding purposefully somewhere) while yellow streaks mark the passage of lines of taxi-cabs. If I didn’t have slices of glass between me and thin air, I could step off the edge into nothingness. I look onto the tops of buses, the untidy roofs of magazine kiosks, the water towers of apartment buildings lower than our own. I’m a voyeur onto private roof gardens, their trees and plants still leafless in the cold air, yet I can sense the shiver of spring in the tiny buds pulsing in the plants’ veins. Lonely stretcher beds wait patiently for sun-warmed bodies to revel in summer's heat.

Each morning, the eastern sun streams into our lounge, artfully gilding the light wood floors, and although we’ve taken minimalism to the extreme (blinding white walls, no artworks to speak of, a few carefully placed pieces), colour there's no shortage of. Cherry-red dining room chairs, Morse code carpet (in a riot of rainbow-hued dashes) and flaming scarlet, fuchsia and tangerine scatter cushions – Crate & Barrel, we love you!

And so it strikes me that however much I fight it, we are creatures of habit -- never more happy than when there is some sameness, some stability and routine in our lives. A beautiful secure place we can call home, a refuge to come back to when we're tired, or inclement weather drives us inside, or we've had enough of the hustle and bustle of humanity outside.

Where to shop!
Crate & Barrel (easy-assemble-yourself furniture plus cutlery, crockery, kitchen equipment, houseware),
CB2 (affiliated to Crate & Barrel, but younger, funkier and lower price range),
Design Within Reach (upmarket, still quite expensive despite its name),
Environment (very expensive but very swish),
Room & Board (furniture and fittings),
Bath, Bed & Beyond (furniture plus linen and houseware),
Ikea (New Jersey), a Swedish self-assembling furniture company,
Pottery Barn,
The Door Store (ironically, no doors but everything else!),
Jennifer Convertibles (regular and convertible sofas),
Sleepy’s, best prices for beds and mattresses,

lesser known but great things in NYC

* Mosaic art The mosaic murals at the subway stations: my favourites are the glitter and gilt mosaic chips of the performing arts and operatic figures at Lincoln Centre/66th St (red subway line).
On the yellow line, the series of hats in a variety of models and shapes at 23rd St.

And, at Prince St, a single file of figurines treading a mosaic line, some chatting or congregating, others pulling luggage on wheels, a few pausing in isolated silhouettes.

50th St (red line) surprises you with blue profiles of characters from Alice in Wonderland and there’s also a series of weird, pliable Daliesque shapes that wave and bend and interweave, morphing into imaginative new shapes. In the interconnecting hallways underground at 42nd St I love to muse over the glass wall boxes with burlesque theatre tableaus of feathers, masks and jesters. And commuters can’t miss the giant-sized Roy Lichtenstein mural running above their heads.

* Subway musicians One thing you can be sure of: musicians playing at 42nd St or on the subway platforms in an effort to earn a few extra dollars. When you take the time to stop and listen, some are really good!! They’re often music college students or aspirational band musicians. One morning, the haunting notes of South American flutes and panpipes were chillingly beautiful; another day, a tall dude dressed as a Victorian dandy in head-to-toe cream right to the satin cravat, and with dreadlocks pinned up high on his head, picked on his electric guitar Jimi Hendrix-style.

* Le Pain Quotidien (throughout the city) is the best for freshly baked organic breads, pastries, organic granola and great coffee.

* Tarallucci e Vino at Union Square/18th St is a coffee bar that comes over all Italian in feel and flavour (coffee’s good). It’s also full of pretty young Italian things in cutting-edge style.

* 24hrs nonstop Besides the many, many eating joints, the most regular of stores remain open 24 hours. Case in point: NY’s most recognisable grocery stores Gristedes and Food Emporium (select stores only), most delis (the wondrous Fairway in particular), as well as giant pharmacy chains Duane Reade and CVS. The pharmacies in fact stock everything else, too – from food to sodas to electrical appliances in an effort to tap into the needs of a lucrative after-hours market.

* The Container Store
The best thing since the demise of floor space in shoe-box city pads … Whether you’re helplessly chaotic or a neat freak, the level of organisation and space efficiency this store offers you reels you in like a child lost in Charlie’s chocolate factory. You’re surrounded by tiered mini-towers, orderly vertical stacks, modular rows, shelved and hooked stands. There are drawers and baskets, chests and boxes, shelving, pockets and compartments. Opaque and transparent, perspex and plastic, birch and steel, wire mesh and canvas, their ordered lines and ingenuity have a certain graphic beauty. And in an instant, mess becomes order. This is absolutely my favourite store! (

Crazy things about NYC

New York is a city where...

People blithely (and loudly) discuss their best friend’s (and their own) personal therapy sessions in a crowded Starbucks. The next occupied chair is a couple of feet away, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem.

People stand in line, cellphones permanently glued to their ears, and engage in baby-talk with their kids in a voice strident enough to hail a cab. Actually, they dispense their opinions on anything and everything on the phone to their BFF (best friends forever, for those who don’t do acronyms), colleagues, mom or gran, at the same decibel, wherever they are, be it in the street, an upmarket restaurant, the deli, the bank. There’s no sense of personal space in a city like New York.

It seems to be the done thing to conduct a job interview in a coffee shop, within clear earshot of 20 other curious people.

People are afraid to touch you in case you sue them for sexual harassment. Even in a yoga or Pilates class, the instructor diffidently asks your permission to place his or her hand on the small of your back or your shoulder or your thigh in an effort to gently correct a misaligned posture. As my personal trainer commented dramatically, ‘America is the most highly litigious country in the world.’ After a hectic training session, she was gently tugging and manipulating and stretching my legs (heaven! It was like a personal massage therapist) but she had to constantly ask whether I was comfortable with what she was doing!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

broadway, street grids and food. . .

I’m getting to know my way around the streets, avenues and subway lines surrounding our newest NY address (more on that later…). I have a Starbucks directly opposite us (luxury!) on Broadway, an uptown/downtown subway stop across the street, a chaotically jam-packed but characterful deli called Barzini’s on one side and another (neater, more ascetic, pricier) called Gourmet Garage on the other. Korean fruit and flower markets are everywhere, neon fruits piled high, spring flowers flirting prettily.

A magazine kiosk stands on the corner. For our supermarket needs, New York stalwarts Gristedes and Food Emporium are within loping distance. And I think I’ve found a rival to Starbucks for coffee … Called Le Pain Quotidien (French for ‘your daily bread’), this French-inspired chain (they’re all over the city) has the most delectable raisin-whirl pastries and crunchiest, nuttiest organic granola around. Their double-espresso cappucinos ain’t half bad either.

I experience a quiet sense of familiarity in recognising landmarks and storefronts – although I still lose my sense of direction in a second. Luckily for a non-arithmetically literate dame, the streets are entirely logical. Manhattan is designed on a grid of streets … 71st, 72nd, 73rd … that march at right angles to the avenues, Broadway being one. Not many South Africans may know this, but Broadway Avenue runs the full length of Manhattan. (No, it’s not only about theatre, bright lights and broken and mended hearts.) It actually starts in The Bronx, crosses the Broadway Bridge onto Manhattan Island, then cuts its course from north to south down the West Side, ending at South Street Ferry. That’s the one great thing about New York. Once you’re familiar with the major avenues, it’s not that difficult to find yourself…

I’m becoming quite adept, too, at catching the right buses on the right side of the street (some veer off in directions you’d never have considered), knowing the difference between uptown and downtown subway platforms (once I almost ended up in The Bronx), even negotiating the maze of underground tunnels leading to different colour-coded subway lines. (You have to ask a lot of people a lot of questions, but they’re all quite willing to assist. A yellow cab driver happily consulted his Blackberry for a street address I seemed to be blindly passing by.) Isn’t satellite technology fulfilling? Makes me think maybe I need one of them Blackberrys…

Then there are the food stores. I have to say, we never really lack for anything in our supermarkets back in South Africa but, here, it’s all about absolute, overriding, over-the-top abundance. Every city grocery store presents such an oversupply of options, available in limitless brand names in every size, colour, fragrance or eco-option, that it’s a total bombardment of the senses. It’s hard to explain the utter delight you feel when you see a familiar product on the shelves. It’s like hitting the jackpot.

At the delis, exotic fruits of every description and from every corner of the world are piled into colourful pyramids on the racks outside, while inside, tumultuous mountains of cheese and the fresh fish and meat counters overflow with such mouthwatering variety and choice that they remind you of the most inspiring delicatessens from around the world, filed away lovingly in your mind’s eye.

The fruit pyramids are so overwhelming, in fact, that first time round I managed to locate the most expensive oranges in the city. Despite the plenteous orange, nectarine and clementine waterfalls advertised at five for $2, I homed in on the sweet sun-kissed Californian oranges, blind to the ‘$5 for 1lb’ sign heading them up. I paid $7 for four oranges.
Okay. So it’s a mistake I won’t make again.

It’s the freshness of the produce and proliferation of deli stores that drive a new way of operating here in New York City. Instead of doing a weekly food shopping expedition, we stroll down to the deli most evenings to stock up on the freshest tomatoes ripened on the vine, bundles of green asparagus, Shitake mushrooms and a few slices of smoked salmon or prosciutto (or any of the other fifty cured and smoked meats on display). Bet I’ve got your juices working!
Something that’s hard to get over, though, is how packed with people the food stores are, particularly in the evenings when everyone’s home from work. Particularly, too, when it’s a deli like Barzini’s (or even the grand-daddy of them all, Zabar’s). Barzini’s aisles are as narrow as the tunnel to King Cheops’ burial chamber in the Great Pyramid. And they’re packed so tightly that you have to hold your breath while manoeuvring along them. Add in a couple of people and you’re in serious trouble.

You have to work out how the checkout lines work, too. In every store it’s different – there’s either one long line that feeds a bank of tills or you hover in lots of short lines, or they start on the left, or they begin on the right… The important thing is to figure it out, because if you don’t, you’re put in your place very quickly. New Yorkers aren’t afraid to speak out and they do so with impunity. They can be brusque, curt and downright rude; but they are also helpful, friendly on the surface and quick to give advice if it’s asked for.
So much to work out, so much to experience…

Facts you need!
Le Pain Quotidien,
Barzini's, Broadway & West 91st St