Monday, 25 June 2012

A birthday by the sea

So I've been 32 for just over a week now and so far it’s been spectacularly unexciting. Which is not to say dull – work has been reee-dic-ulous – but unexciting in the way that, frankly, 32 was always going to be.

The birthday itself though, was lovely.

I hadn’t put much thought into what I wanted to do, probably because I knew I didn’t really want to do anything. Something definitely, just not anything. No party, no drinking, no gang of friends. Thoughts of Nan and last year’s birthday made things not solemn but quiet and so all I really wanted to do was mark the day with my Lovely Boy doing something, well, lovely.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

A long reign and a wet weekend...

London two weeks ago...

New York feels like forever ago. We arrived back dazzled by the rare London sunshine and not even two and a half hours of re-root canal the day we landed could diminish the warm, soul polishing embrace of the sun. I don’t really want to relieve my dental disaster so I won’t, suffice to say that I feel unwittingly dragged into adulthood for having been mature and (mostly) brave throughout the whole ordeal. Jetlag and temazepan may have helped.

We had an – god, do you know, I was about to write “an unseasonably beautiful four days” but then realised that actually, it’s freaking June and four beautiful days should be seasonably, reasonably expected. But then this is London. And this, currently, is London Summer:

This afternoon, crossing Vauxhall Bridge. Normally
you would be able to see the London Eye from here
Anyway, we had a lovely four days back in London before returning to work, which we spent mostly with Lovely Boy’s brother and his kids, who were at the start of a holiday through Europe. Lucky for them. We took them for a gourmet lunch at Borough Market before spending the afternoon drinking Pimms (lemonade for those without the necessary id….) in the wildflower garden atop the Southbank Centre. It was so delightful.

Preparing for the Jubilee. Pre-appalling weather.
Fiona Banner's boat atop the
Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank
And then it was work for a week (busy, mental, stressful, changes ahoy) before another four days off to play in honour of the Queens Jubilee. I have to confess to be totally fascinated by the royals – not fascinated enough to brave 70,000 on Pall Mall for a fleeting glimpse of them and certainly not fascinated enough to spend seven hours on the side of the Thames, wedged in a crowd and getting totally drenched. But you know, fascinated. As I’m sure every man and his corgi already knows, in the greatest of British traditions, it rained. ALL weekend.

The neighbours getting their Jubilee on
Lovely Boy and I spent most of it on the sofa watching the pomp and pageantry on the television. Though on Saturday, when it was only mildly miserable, we went for an amble along the river towards Putney, where boats were beginning to muster for Sunday’s flotilla and snooped in a neighbourly sort of fashion on all the street parties going on around us.

Quite a bit of bedraggled bunting is still about the streets even now and all the flags throughout central London hang limply – like depressed wet washing. It’s a bit tragic really and only makes me wonder what kind of weather we can expect for the “Summer” Olympics next month. It would be churlish to say I hope it rains, yes?

A moment of forlorn homesickness when I spotted
this on a bench along the river near Putney

The long weekend wasn’t a total bust though. On Sunday Lovely Boy recreated Clinton St Bakery pancakes – DELICIOUS – and on Tuesday I moseyed down to Crystal Palace with a work colleague for a swim. I can’t remember the last time I swam laps in a 50m pool, and it was pre-Easter chest infection that I so much as gazed at my swimmers so it was quite the return but I loved it. Loved feeling totally pooped at the end, loved being able to just swim, and loved the company actually – because let’s be honest, sometimes swimming laps is fucking boring.  

A three day working week can only be sweet (and swift) and the weekend just gone was intermittently windy and wet but on Saturday Tori took me for some mani pedi pampering as an early birthday present. Shiny new nails and lunch at Hix in Selfridges to follow before some window licking on the third floor. It was the ideal girly day.

Lovely Boy's Clinton St tribute. #impressive
And today, for a wet, cold Monday, wasn’t actually bad. There’s a lot of things on the work horizon, most of them busy-making, but a constructive, exciting meeting first thing has given me a renewed sense of direction about work and my role and opportunities to really learn. There’s also a huge new professional development that I’m reluctant to talk about lest it disappear again but once I know for certain I’ll be shouting modestly from the rooftops about it. So stay tuned for that news broadcast.

Spotted on the corner of New Oxford and Museum Sts on Saturday
In the meantime, I have 32 to prepare for. I’ve stopped looking for grey hairs in case it becomes some sort of self-fulfilling prophesy and am preparing myself, Zen-like, for a philosophical sort of birthday. I don’t care much for the even numbers so this year is going to be mostly about consolidation. Dead sexy I know but this is what getting old does to you.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Last Days of New York

So on Monday, just to remind us we were heading back to London in two days time, it decided to pour with a kind of rain that can only be described as torrential. Because we hadn’t brought our swimmers and snorkel we ditched our plan to walk The High Line and consoled ourselves with a serve of blueberry pancakes from the Clinton Street Bakery on the Lower East Side. 

Tori had told us about this place and we were under strict instructions not to be swayed by anything else on the menu as it would only lead to order envy. Pancakes and ONLY pancakes. And so we did as told and predictably Tor was right. We probably didn’t need the chocolate and peanut butter milkshakes that we ordered with them but it was in keeping with the chocolate salty sweet theme of calorie badness we’d established earlier in the trip at the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck. Faffing about under awnings and trying not to get any wetter than we already were we then headed to MoMA to meet Bethany, whose convenient membership meant it was five and not twenty bucks to get in.

MoMA is the only museum open on a Monday and so it was predictably busy but we had a good couple of hours breezing through the major art milestones of the 20th century – Pollock, Picasso and the pop boys, including a rare chance to see James Rosenquist’s room installation billboard-esque painting F-111 from 1964-65. This extraordinary painting, that I remember studying in high school, is a brilliant damnation of what the artist has described as “the collusion between the Vietnam death machine, consumerism, media and advertising.” 

James Rosenquist, F-111, 1964-65
The F-111 was a fighter-bomber plane developed and paid for by US tax dollars during the Vietnam War and in Rosenquist’s immersive painting parts of the impressive fuselage pierce through a series of disconnected commercial images that bear increasingly sinister overtones the longer you look at them, from a mess of visceral spaghetti to a young blonde innocent under a hairdryer that looks suspiciously like a missile-head - all in bright cheery hues. It’s an iconic work that was first exhibited in 1965 and to see it here was kind of awe-inspiring.

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios, 1992-93
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Placebo), detail, 1991

We did the Cindy Sherman retrospective in a tidy 15 minutes, Bethany and I spending most of it putting out masters degrees to good use and discussing everything she’s made since about 1980 in a derogatory fashion. It wasn’t great. But we then had a pleasant 15 minutes twirling through the gift shop - of course – and so despite the soggy nature of the day it was good mix of food and culture and set the scene quite nicely for dinner that evening.

Several people had told me about Beauty & Essex and I’d booked us a table at this Lower East Side establishment several weeks ago. Lovely Boy wasn’t too happy about having to put a shirt and his Going Out Shoes on for the occasion but I assured him he’d be in good sartorial company once we got there. And as per, I was right. Beauty & Essex is as regarded for its menu as it is its location, at the back of a very cool pawnshop. 

You enter the storefront, selling antiques, old jewels and assorted musical instruments and head through an unassuming back door and into the bar. A huge chandelier hangs from above and plush dark sofas entreat you to sit back and get smashed on a roster of killer cocktails. Thankfully we had but one drink here before being seated in the restaurant, beneath beautiful old light fittings and a huge glass atrium roof.

The food is a tapas-style sharing menu in a range of culinary styles. We had five plates between us and it’s no exaggeration to say that each of them was exquisite and if the moment was in animation our eyes would have been consistently out of our heads in delight and ohmygodness. Tuna sashimi, beef carpaccio, braised short rib tamales, oven braised chicken meatballs and grilled cheese, smoked bacon and tomato soup dumplings that were so ridiculously good we had to order a second helping. 

And for dessert - warm cinnamon sugared donuts full of hazelnut creme and raspberry jam respectively, delivered in their own beautifully designed box. Holy hell they were good. I’ve had a lot of world-class meals in mind (yes, El Bulli, Fat Duck, I’m looking at you) but this was up there with the best. Great cocktails, incredible food, good service, in a brilliant, quirky, cool but not pretentious environment. We couldn’t have asked for a better penultimate New York night. Oh, and I forgot to mention the free champagne bar in the ladies bathrooms. Yes, seriously.

Side dishes as accessories #love

Tuesday was our last full day and thankfully the rain had all but disappeared, leaving a humid, temperamental, cloudy sort of mess in its wake. In the morning we set off for the financial district once more, this time to visit the WTC Memorial. I remember acutely being here in November 2001, about to start my internship and feeling intensely the grief, vulnerability and horror of New Yorkers everywhere. I also remember wandering around this area and trying to absorb the enormity of what had happened here and standing with great sadness in front of the fences of Trinity Church, overwhelmed as they were with photographs, tributes and missing person posters. Just two years earlier I’d stood at the foot of the twin towers and marvelled at their architectural bravado. Now, well it’s hard to get your bearings amongst all the construction but in the middle of all this rebuilding is the memorial plaza and the two reflection pools – this strange oasis amid the chaos.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the visit but I’d followed the controversy and ongoing debate around the design competition for years and was curious to see it. The two reflection pools that sit in the footprints of the two towers are enormous, nearly an acre each, and incredibly deep. The second drop in the middle is so deep that you can’t see the bottom, no doubt a deliberate part of the design. The flowing water, the space, the depth all brought a beautiful gravitas to the encounter and I was both moved and impressed by the poignancy and simplicity of the space. 

There was no one way to read these gaping holes, that so many people feared initially would be read as unhealed wounds, but the flowing water had a meditative, soothing quality and a life force that gave space to reflect but that also gently insisted on the inevitable moving forward of time. The bronze lip around each of the pools is etched with the names of all those who lost their lives that day, in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. 

Some people had left flowers and messages but largely they were unadorned. Rows of trees offer shade and space to sit and while it’s currently ensconced in fences, when the surrounding buildings are completed it will be open to the surrounding streets and accessible from every side and its significant beauty will be fully realised. I’m really glad we went to see it and gladder still that politics, religion and frightening ideologues were so deftly negotiated (or indeed avoided) to create a space that can be interpreted, respected and remembered by everyone in their own way.

If the WTC Memorial offers one way to reflect on Manhattan’s architecture – past, present and future – The High Line is another. The initiative of a group of conservationists, architects, historians and local residents, The High Line is a public park built along an historic above ground freight rail line that tracks down 10th Avenue. 

It opened in 2009 and was extended in 2011 and now runs from W30th St all the way down to Gansevoort St in the Meatpacking District. The old rails are visible most of the way and it’s been beautifully restored with a wooden walkway whose width oscillates between the buildings and gardens of wildflowers the whole length. There are benches for birdwatching, a dedicated stream for cooling your feet and art installations along the way – from billboards to sound pieces to a very unique zoo and a very naked peeping man, the last two unofficial contributions…

We had a gorgeous stroll down these 20 blocks despite the malevolent weather above and Lovely Boy rewarded himself with beer and bratwurst at the Standard Hotel’s biergarten at the other end for a walk well done. If we hadn’t lost the best part of Monday to the weather I’d have loved to have spent some serious time around Chelsea and the Meatpacking District but all we got was a walk along 14th St towards the subway. Something else for the Next Time List…

Spot the naked waving man...
The High Line Zoo 
Getting back to Brooklyn we ambled along Smith St looking for Brooklyn bargains and working up an appetite for dinner. I was seriously tempted by the blackboard offer out the front of Beauty Bar – 10 bucks for a martini and a manicure but hard liquor before 6pm is never a good idea, even when the bar is exceptionally cute and the seats are old 1950s hairdryers. Next time.

The view up 10th Ave from The High Line
We’d saved Calexico, an award-winning Mexican joint for our last dinner – another food truck turned permanent residence in Red Hook but getting there, we were told there was a half hour wait for food and no-one, including the staff, seemed to have much of a clue what was happening. Which is a shame, as the guacamole was excellent and bode well for a good meal. Giving up after 40 minutes of mild confusion we went back to the Mexican place of our first evening and had a grand time eating too many mouth-watering soft tacos and enchiladas before rolling home yet again.

By the time our last day rolled around all of Lovely Boy’s list had been ticked – hotdogs, baseball, Times Square, Rockefeller Centre and the rest of the Big Buildings, Central Park, the High Line, the WTC Memorial and shitloads of Mexican food. I still had a couple left, chief among them the Guggenheim. They were mid-instal of their next major exhibition so tickets were half price - which made me twice as happy as the exhibition I wanted to see was the Francesca Woodman retrospective anyway. 

Francesca Woodman, from the House series, 1976

Woodman was a young American photographer working in the late 1970s and early 1980s who tragically took her own life at the age of 22. I can’t remember the first time I saw her work but I was drawn then, and again now, to her haunting images – studies of the female form, explorations of constructed and emotional spaces and self portraits that in retrospect perhaps offer a beautiful and desperately sad insight into her imminent fate as she seems to fight to disappear into herself and her surroundings.

Francesca Woodman.
Another obligatory spin through the gift shop, we then headed back to Brooklyn to check out deKalb market. DeKalb Market is a unique mini market metropolis made out of old shipping containers. It’s a mix of food, design, vintage and homewares and I can imagine when the weather is a little brighter the crowds descend on this place – but on a wet Wednesday afternoon we had it basically to ourselves. Lovely Boy stalked the food while I went in search of last minute Things I Didn’t Know I Couldn’t Live Without. Which, it turns out, was a vintage bauble ring.

By now we only had a couple of hours left before we had to leave for JFK which meant time for one last thing: a visit to the Brooklyn branch of David Chang’s Momofuku Milk Bar. We’d planned to swing by here for dessert the night before but having gorged ourselves on Mexican it seemed insulting to partake of world famous pie and not enjoy it. And so we went back for some candy bar pie. Think chocolate, gooey toffee, nougat, chocolate cookie crust and pretzels on top. It was so fucking delicious we couldn’t even stop to photograph the experience for posterity once we'd opened the packaging.

It was an appropriately sweet ending to our brilliant, inspiring, memorable week.

Getting back to London was totally tiresome but serendipitously I managed my third celebrity sighting in the dying minutes of our trip, clocking Clive Owen as he sauntered through customs at JFK. Holiday well done. See you again soon New York. Yes?

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Where was I? Oh yes, The Met.

I love the Met. In all four visits to New York I’ve still not seen all of it but the two constants have been the Impressionist Wing and the apple martinis on the balcony overlooking the grand foyer. As far as first impressions go this not so humble ticket hall certainly sets the agenda for everything else you see/do/consume/bow down before while here. I remember reading years ago that a wealthy widow bestowed a considerable chunk of her fortune to the Met on the proviso that it was spent filling the foyer with enormous arrangements of fresh flowers every week. So Upper East Side. So fabulous.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Let me begin to tell you about New York...

If the swift hand of fate (or a better application essay) had sent me to NYU six years ago who knows where I’d be now. In all likelihood, probably still in Manhattan. The whatifs are always fascinating as long as they don’t come tinged with regret and while I’m not sorry for the alternate life adventure that’s since come my way, a large chunk of my heart is still firmly spiked atop the Chrysler building and refusing to budge.

Everything and nothing has changed about New York since my last memorable visit 10 years ago and the only disappointment was not having enough time to get totally entrenched in every nook and cranny of the city. As the husband said, well we’ll just have to come back. This was Lovely Boy’s virgin visit and even he had his nigh-insurmountable expectations met and then exceeded, which was simultaneously a relief and not remotely surprising given the weather, the architecture, the adventures and the cocktails we suffered through in the name of a good time.

My favourite photo from the whole trip
and taken completely by accident...
We opted to stay in Brooklyn for the week because I’d found a brilliant loft apartment in Carroll Gardens for the bargain price of £60 a night (good luck trying to find that on Manhattan) and everything we’d read said the Brooklyn that was edgy and fledgling 10 years ago was now thriving and hip in that kind of almost-yucky-but-still-definitely-cool-despite-it’s-hipster-hipness hip. You know what I mean. Leafy streets with brownstones, streets populated with great little restaurants and pop up bars and quirky shops – Like Soho and the Lower East Side but without the frenzy. And all only 20 minutes from Manhattan. I mean, total no brainer as far as I was concerned.

Our first cultural outing the afternoon we arrived was to the supermarket where the proliferation of EVERYTHING made for a pop tarts do pop art shopping experience. Fridge stocked we then went for a meander down to the Brooklyn promenade to make the most of the balmy sunset. On the way I had my first celebrity spot of the holiday. Nothing will topple the experience of standing in front of Christy Turlington in Starbucks 11 years ago but I was determined not to let the week pass with anything less than three sightings and just two hours in I clamped eyes on British actress Emily Mortimer, pushing a stroller full of screaming child down Smith St. It was a promising start but the flutter was forgot the minute the skyline came into view... 

We spent a good hour ogling the city from afar before heading back to Smith St and after a mortar full of guacamole (and some exquisite pulled pork tacos) for dinner the day was done.

Being LB’s first visit to the city there were a few imperatives we needed to check off the list right at the start of play. So, Thursday morning, bright and relatively early (for me at any rate…) we headed into Manhattan and straight to Times Square. Glitzy, trashy, super touristy – tick. 

From here it was to the Rockefeller Centre and the express lift to the roof. The views atop the rock are arguably better than those from the Empire State Building if for no other reason than from here you can actually SEE the Empire State Building in all its architectural glory. 

Being a gloriously sunny day you could also see miniature people strewn all over the lawns of Central Park enjoying the weather. Clambering back down to street level, we meandered down Fifth Avenue to the New York Public Library and then had lunch in the shade in Bryant Park. If the gallery and not just the gift shop had been open next stop would have been the International Centre of Photography but it was and so it wasn’t and thus we took off for Grand Central Station (and the free wifi in the Apple Store as it turns out). 

The view towards Central Park from the top
of the Rockefeller Centre. Not bad...
A reading room at the New York Public Library
With over 100 platforms it’s the biggest railway station in the world but delightfully, all that chaos is elegantly tucked away and so all you’re left with is clocks, oyster bars, grand staircases and one seriously breathtaking roof. Grand by name…

By this time I was in desperate need of a sit down and a drink and thanks to my extensive pre-trip research we ended up at a bar on Lexington Avenue with a rather lovely view:

(Un)fortunately this only whet our collective appetites for rooftop drinks-with-views so after an accidental ground level by-pass of the Empire State Building we took ourselves to a bar aptly called 320 Fifth, being as it was, at 320 Fifth. This view was just as impressive and getting there before the post-work crowd set in meant we had prime seats among the palm trees.

Because I’d been tour guide and mistress for the day, dinner decisions were Lovely Boy’s and so after some more accidental architectural encounters (this time the Flatiron Building), we found ourselves on Canal St, heading downtown to Chinatown for Peking Duck on Mott St. It would be safe to say we rolled out of there after inadvertently ordering a banquet but it was a fitting end to an epic day.

Flatiron Building in all its loveliness
Canal St in all its madness
Friday morning we’d planned to tick off another major tourist must-do: the Statue of Liberty but we’re tourists, not idiots, and there was no way we were going to stand in queues for up to two hours to get tickets and then onto a bloody boat and so, after a wander around Battery Park, we kyboshed that plan and headed to the Financial District. Wall St, the Stock Exchange, Century 21. All the highlights. The art deco buildings throughout Manhattan are so truly beautiful and even amongst the ugliness of all that commerce the buildings insisted on a grand elegance that gave the area a sort of romance not typically found in financial centres...

Mott St, Chinatown
From here we headed to Soho for sunglasses and a hotdog from a street vendor - both high on LB’s shopping list (and/or the only things…) Prince, Spring, Wooster, Broome – cobbled streets and beautiful buildings cosseted in old metal fire escapes like a mouth full of orthodontics. So lovely. And after a lustful wander around here it was lunchtime and so to Katz’s Deli on Houston St we went. This was another LB request – in case you haven’t jigged by now most of the must-do’s on Lovely Boy’s list were actually Must-Eats and because he’s a boy a plate full of meat between two bits of rye bread was a non-negotiable addition to the itinerary.

Katz’s is an iconic institution and the walls sag with photos of all the celebrities who’ve stopped by for a corned beef concoction. It’s the “I’ll have what she’s having” deli of Meg Ryan lore but I think even without that orgiastic claim to a piece of pop cultural history the place would still be slammed with people every lunch time. We had the misfortune of sharing a table with an obnoxious American man who, in the course of a sandwich, managed to tell us how obscenely rich he was, about how many houses he owned, which he’d paid for in cash btw, about his cosy relationship with several whisky distillers in Scotland who “like to look after him” on his twice-yearly visits and then about how hungover he was from the all night bender he was still coming down from. And if that alone didn't sour the sandwich experience then his temerity to bitch about the price of said sandwich given his apparent millions certainly finished things.

It was the kind of encounter that could only be fixed by a chocolate salty pimp, also known as the signature creation of the Big Gay Ice cream Truck, which now thoughtfully also has a shop on E7th St. I’m not sure if it was the rich vanilla ice cream, the salted caramel, dulce de leche or chocolate coating but I was completely unable to finish it - though not without effort I need to add. It was a serendipitous defeat though because heading to the bin meant walking past the window of a little vintage shop that had in the window what would be my first New York purchase: a white leather 50s clutch with turquoise and marcasite detailing at the clasp. Happiness can be bought and it only costs $20.

After all that bread and meat and icecream and dulce de leche the only thing that was going to counter all these calories was some culture and so next was one of my Must-Do’s: The Met. 

Emerging on the Upper East Side, inadvertent celebrity spot no.2 was Tea Leoni walking her dogs. It was a blink and miss it moment but for my money, in this part of town, A-list means Monet, Van Gogh and the rest of the gang in the Impressionist Wing of the Metropolitan. I’d lured LB here on the promise of two things: an apple martini and a carefully curated tour through just the highlights............

(Things I Still Have To Tell You About: Tomas Saraceno, Brooklyn Flea Markets, Rooftop Cinema, Other Flea Markets, Blueberry Pancakes, MoMA, The WTC Memorial, the High Line, the Guggenheim and One Seriously Amazing Meal in a Pawn Shop.)