Friday, 27 August 2010

Walk like a Parisienne...

We're in Paris for the day, treating my four (and a half) year old niece to a grown-up lunch. First we picked up her mother from work and took them both to Brasserie Bofinger (it was plan B. Turns out plan A, a neighbourhood caf near La Bastille was shut for the month of August - a typical occurrence amongst French businesses).

The Brasserie was everything you'd expect and more: beautiful art nouveau design, first class service (they didn't bat an eyelid at our casual appearance nor did they react to the diminutive stature of  the fourth guest in our party) and the food was great. More about that in a moment.

My niece was treated to a child's menu, complete with crayons and enough games to keep her amused on a transatlantic flight. After lengthy deliberations with her mother (salmon and string beans are a staple favourite at home so she wanted to branch out gastronomically... this is a child who asked to sample our bressaola last night and declared it "délicieux") she settled on an "assiette du terroir" consisting - I kid you not - of smoked ham, foix gras de canard on Poilane slices, and terrine de campagne (a jellied concoction with bits of cooked offal). Meanwhile, I ordered Escargots de Bourgogne (that's snails for the back of the class) as a starter. She ate everything on her plate - minus the terrine - with relish. When the waiter brought my  6 snails, her eyes lit up so being a good aunt I offered her one. Precariously perched on its chunk of bread, the snail (out of its shell), in its garlicky parsley coating (it tastes of garlic bread - get over yourself and try them sometimes) made a bid for freedom bouncing first onto her plate and then her lap. It was reminiscent of Steve McQueen on his motorbike in The Great Escape - except the snail was succesful and eventually landed somewhere under the table, never to be seen again. My niece was mortified and it took her a few red faced minutes to compose herself.

We proceeded with snail number two which we shared without incident. However, not to be outdone in the snail flicking context, I promptly let shell number three fly out of my grasp into a dazzling pirouette. It landed on the pristine starched tablecloth in a flourish of parsley butter splatter that miraculously spared both our party and our rather prissily attired neighbours. A lucky escape. I had a main of Andouillette (that's tripe sausage to you) and some chips (celebration meal of the week on the Dukan Diet...). Yum.

Then we took her for dessert to Les Deux Magots in St Germain des Prés where she sampled the delights of a thick hot chocolate and chocolate ice cream. I had a Mille Feuilles. Double triple yum.

Now, nursing the aftermath of a stonking sugar rush, I am slowly peeling myself off the ceiling.

Vive la France! See you on the other side.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Losing my panties and falling down

I dropped my black yoga panties just outside the 5th floor lifts this morning. And although they were there for no more than 30 seconds, there was a (male) witness when I snatched them back up. Luckily a perfect stranger (hopefully not our CEO whom I get to meet on Thursday... but who else would have been in the otherwise deserted office at 8:30?)

I guess I owe you an explanation.

Let me take you through my new morning routine: I power walk to work in my gym clothes, take the lift to the 5th floor, and change into my work gear in the spacious loos (which are strategically placed on the other side of the lifts from my desk) and then carry my damp gym clothes back to my desk to air dry. Hence the yoga panties (it's ashtanga tonight) dropping (what were the chances of my yoga top slipping instead?) onto the floor unnoticed for the 30 seconds it took me to walk over to my desk...

Now about the falling down. That's just a play on words for dramatic effect. It's about the fact that although it's another 8 days before it's officially Autumn (or Fall in American English... Get it ? Get it?) and despite the fact that today is a rather glorious day in London - it no longer feels like Summer. Something about the air, and the light and the angle of the sun. If I were a bird (which technically speaking I am in English parlance... that's what they call girls here) I would be planning my trip home to sunnier climes right now. If I were a swift for example, preparing to fly back to Africa. Swifts are very common in France (or at least they were when I was growing up. When I was a kid, endangered species were exotic animals like tigers and pandas... now endangered species include sparrows and hedgehogs. What's the world coming to?) and harbingers of Spring. They used to build these very distinctive nests under the roofs at my school and my first teacher took the opportunity to tell us about how they fly all the way to and from Africa. And to me Africa was a bit of desert with yellow sand and a palm tree (an oasis really) or rather a date tree full of dates as food for the swifts.

Life was simple then. Unencumbered. I was 5 years old in first grade. My biggest dilemna was struggling out of my dungarees to go to the bathroom. Like I said, life was simple.

Back to Autumn if I may... about 5 weeks ago, it was a lovely Summer's afternoon as I walked through my neighbourhood but there was something in the air... the smell of browning leaves, the faint smell of burning leaves, a particular golden light and I remember thinking to myself  "that's Autumn coming." And the next day it went back to being Summer.

August is a funny month that way... you think it's the middle of Summer but if you look around there's back to school promotions, and fashion magazines are full of autumn/winter clothes... August is the beginning of the end of Summer. In the same way December always sounds like it's the middle of Winter and that somehow, come January, things will warm up. But no! December is the end of Autumn. Winter starts in earnest in January. They don't tell you that because they don't want to depress you and put you off the January Sales. But now you know.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Gimme a New York Minute!

My New York visit is finally coming to an end and I'm about to board the plane home with mixed emotions (not least because I discovered at the last minute that due to a typo, I had been booked on tomorrow's flight instead of tonight's - so a big thank you to the people of BA Club World  for sorting that out.)

I love New York and all of its idiosyncrasies and it makes it hard to leave. Especially in the summer time: the warm humid air - like hopping into a hot bath - and the repeated thermal shocks from the icy blast of air conditioning. The streets filled with light and reflections, the rhythm of traffic, the crowds that move with purpose. The mix of the old - circa 1950 - with the new. Everything in flux. All of us alone yet together.

Still, 9 days is a pretty decent amount of time and everything must come to an end. The people I work with booked me a private car to take me to the airport. My driver was Ron, an impressively very large man. 55 and an ex NYPD detective (he hinted at some dark and mysterious legal goings-on surrounding his early retirement - apparently Mayor Gulianni was involved. I figured he got shot on the job and they didn't want him to sue) it turns out Ron is a romantic soul with a life plan. 10 years ago, he bought a house in the mountains on a lake in New Hampshire and next year he and his girlfriend will be retiring there, leaving NY and their whole life behind. He wants to enjoy his old age the old fashioned way: nice and slow and peacefully. There's a man with his priorities straight. There aren't many like him about. Are you a Ron? I know I am.

I'm writing this as I sit in the sad little time warp that serves as the BA lounge at Newark Airport. Nothing wrong with it: it's air conditioned and they have free food  and drink - although nothing I can eat on the Dukan diet - so  I've drunk enough Diet Sprite to fill a bath tub.

They're calling my flight: time to board. So it's a New York goodbye for now.

A last gulp of Diet Sprite: here's a toast to Ron and all the kind people who made my stay such a good one.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Take me to NOBU baby!

Last night we went to NOBU. It was a business dinner. Another golden opportunity to make an impression (perhaps not the best one) on the new Clients with my Dukan Diet dietary requirements.

- Why?
- It’s the stabilisation phase… I’ll be able to go back to eating normally in a few months, but for now it’s about not putting back on the weight that I have lost.
- But why?
- Why what?
- Pardon me for saying so but you don’t look like you need to lose any weight.

Bless their little hearts.

- Well, I’ve lost the weight now. I like the way I look now. I was bigger before. One if not two dress sizes bigger.
- But you don’t look fat.”

Oh for goodness sake…

Still, there I sat in NOBU. The original one down in Tribeca. (Notice how that rolled off the tongue like I’ve lived here all my life.) I had the sashimi. It was very nice. I was real hungry (we’d been in a meeting from 9:30 to 5:30) so I also had the shredded radish and even the mint leaves decorating the plate. Those were real nice too. Oh and all the picked ginger and most of the wasabi. Like I said, I was real hungry.

Didn’t spot any celebrities. (Sorry.) It was an odd combination of business types and young-ish couples out for a nice dinner. Like I said, it's was lovely, and you couldn't fault the service (except for the eagerness of the waiters to wisk away food platters before people were done picking at them), but - and I'll say it at the risk of sounding like I'm channelling some MidWest farmer's daugher - you can’t beat the Outback Steakhouse for the friendliness of the staff... and the prices of course.

(Apparently it’s a chain… the people I work with have helpfully pointed out the one that’s around the corner from the office. They think it’s tragic that I frequent such a low brow establishment but I think they want to keep me happy.)

Monday, 16 August 2010

The Slow Motion Panic Attack

The past week has been a breeze – I’ve been in the zone – things have been taking care of themselves: dinner at Serendipity, finding a bathroom in Central Park, purchasing a size 2 (!!!) pair of skinny stretch pants (trousers) from Ann Taylor for $12.99 (I’m wearing them right now and boy it caused no end of rubber necking on my way to the Subway – American men are so much more obvious about it) and an immaculately cut wine coloured sleeveless shirt for under $9. And last but not least, the discovery of a friendly little steakhouse around the corner from my hotel that caters to my Dukan Diet requirements (grilled shrimps and sirloin steak for $20). It’s called The Outback Steakhouse and although the menu was speckled with pseudo-Aussie terminology the TV screens and the waiting staff were decidedly American and very friendly in a small town in the Midwest kind of a way. It was strange but endearing. A bit like Elle Macpherson’s accent.

I liked it so much I went back a second time. And here's the thing: the waiter from the night before (Carlos) came over to say hello… I’d ordered the same thing with the same requirements (no salt, no butter or oil, no seasoning, no nothing…) and he'd recognised my order when it was called out in the kitchen! We had a nice chat. Like I said, they’re real friendly folk. That means a lot when you’re alone in a big city.

Anyway, all that good feeling, that was last week.

This week may turn out a bit differently. For one, the weather’s turning. That unsettling combination of high UV and overcast skies, with violent showers hovering around the edges of town and the relentless return of the humidity. Add to that the fact that it’s Monday morning and the rather anti-climactic rescheduling of a client meeting from early this morning to this afternoon, and there you have it: the classic set up for doing things the hard way, wrestling control from the universe and feeling small and anxious. Because although all bad things come to pass, so do all good things.

What can I do about it? Nothing. That’s the whole point. All I can do is sit pretty (in my Ann Taylor skinnies, white sleeveless top and red patent leather shoes) and let the times roll…

Bring on the day!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The hands-on approach and the laws of Serendipity

Today is Saturday. Still sitting pretty in the Big Apple. Treated myself to a  "Hallucination Deep Tissue" 90 minute massage at H Spa on 34th Street and as the song goes "I'm feeling goooood..."

Like all the best things in life, it was completely unpremeditated. I was actually looking for a post office. In this land of plenty, in this town of late night opening hours, they have a rather quixotic approach to their post offices: they just don't have any.

What's the matter? Don't these people write? Are they all on Facebook? I walked over one hundred blocks today and zilch, nada, zip. I vaguely remembered one in the Meat Packing district but couldn't find it. Nor did I see any of the mobile post office units that used to line 5th Avenue in Midtown.

Why did I need a post office? Because I had diligently purchased some postcards of NY to send back to friends and family and I wanted to avoid the usual I'll-just-mail-them-from-London trick - which always runs the risk of people thinking that maybe you didn't go on a trip afterall and that you're just pretending. (Worrying about what people might think is a Middle Class trait - I've tried to replace it with the "I don't give a damn" attitude of the Aristocrat but for now the Bourgeoise in me won't allow it. It's a work in progress.)

At Union Square I asked a traffic cop for directions to the nearest post office. She looked rather bewildered. (Why on earth would anyone be looking for a post office? Why indeed...) "Well 34th street is the closest... (we were at 14th street), but that's really far!" I reassured her that my intention had been to walk to Central Park (which starts around 58th Street), thanked her profusely (I always overdo the politeness with NY cops, I don't want to get arrested) and made my way uptown in search of the elusive post office.

Turning onto 34th Street,  a sign caught my eye. It was for H Spa, at Club H Fitness. I walked in, checked their Spa menu, spotted a 90 minute deep tissue massage and asked if I could make an appointment for - well - now. I figured if the Universe meant for me to have the massage, they would accommodate me right then and there. Summer (for that was her name) checked her computer, booked me in and - before I knew it - I was wrapped in a towel and sitting in the steam room. 20 minutes of aromatic bliss with steam billowing around me. Then a shower. Then a walk down to the treatment room, dressed in an oversized terrycloth lined robe to await my massage. With Andrew. He pummeled and stretched and poked every inch of available tissue. I must have grown at least 2 inches taller. Then before I knew it it was over. I got dressed, paid for the treatment (which was more painful than any of the poking of my pressure points - especially with tax and tip added onto the total)  and retreated to their outdoor terrace to lounge about in my newly relaxed body. For the girls out there, it was like I'd had an all body Brazilian blow dry. (No, it's nothing to do with waxing the nether regions, it's a hair relaxant treatment that leaves your hair permanently straight - like a perm but in reverse.)

You'd think this was the highlight of my day. You'd be wrong.

As I left Club H, rather reluctantly, I wanted to get my money's worth... could have done a free yoga class at 6 but didn't have my gear with me... I started walking home, up 3rd Avenue.

Guess what I found around 50th street? That's right, a post office! It was closed of course (shuts at 4 o'clock on Saturdays. Just thought I'd mention it - you never know when that kind of information might come in handy) but... and here's the beauty of it... they had an automated post office annexe and it was open! I played with the touch screen for a while in a mindless fumbly Bill Bryson sort of a way and finally managed to purchase 6 stamps worth 98 cents each to mail my postcards to Europe.

Then just when I thought things couldn't possibly get any better, they did...

As part of the Dukan diet, consolidation phase part 1, I can enjoy a celebration meal once a week. This meal does not have to adhere to any of the diet's restrictions. I can have what I want as long as the portions are reasonable and I don't have second helpings.

I fancied a hamburger and chips.

There's a place not far from where I'm staying called Serendipity 3. It's on 60th and 3rd Avenue. They're best known as a surreal grotto of ice cream sundaes and for their ridiculous policy of keeping people waiting for anywhere between 1 and 3 hours before they can get a table... even though once you're inside, the place is pretty much only half full.

For the second time today, I put myself in the hands of the universe: if I could get a table right away, I'd have a cheeseburger with French fries and a banana split. I walked in. "Can I have a look at the menu please?" "Are you on the list?" (Honestly, it's not like it's the hippest club in NY, it's a place where mothers who lunch take their daughters and posses of elderly women come for the gastronomic equivalent of a quickie with the gardener in the potting shed) "No. I just want to have a look at the menu." "OK." "I'm on my own." "Oh, in that case you can have a table right away, no waiting."

And this is how I found myself sitting in the grotto of ice cream sundays, next to a rather kindly man. All this acting malarkey has improved my social skills no end and so we had quite a pleasant chat about waiting times and the yummy desserts until his girlfriend came back from the bathroom. She glanced at him as she sat down and then got that look on her face. You know the look: "hands off bitch, he's taken." Honestly, I was just making conversation, he was kindly but really not my type. Not anyone's type really. Just a nice sunny personality. So I desisted from making polite chit chat and promptly ordered my celebration meal. My waiter - now that's a different story - he didn't have a such a sunny personality, seemed rather fed up if you ask me, but none of that mattered because if Cleopatra had a brother (she did actually, had several - I just googled it - one of them was called Ptolemy), then my waiter would play him. That's all I'm saying.

I had to wait for my meal for quite a while. Got me rather restless... don't like things standing between me and my food but put the time to good use by doing some people watching. There was a stunning couple (it turns out they were Haitian) who looked as though they had stepped out of the pages of a glossy upmarket magazine. There were 3 generations of Upper East Side women: grandmother, mother, and child (I guess about 6) accompanied by a 4th woman who turned out to be the mother in law. She was rotund and chirpy. The child and its relations were skinny, neurotic and they drove Cleopatra's brother to distraction with their off the menu requests and substitutions.

I had 3 enormous glasses of ice tea whilst I waited for my meal. Testy doesn't begin to describe it. I think word got back to the kitchen that the brunette in the hairband on table 3 was about to go nuclear because my cheeseburger suddenly materialised. Yum. And then my banana split arrived. Double Yum.

The couple (no, not the beautiful one, the mousey one with the kindly boyfriend) had finished their meal and got up to leave. They were taking pictures of the place and of each other. I took pity on them and offered to take their picture. It turned out pretty well. And she was delighted. All was forgiven. Lucky she didn't see her boyfriend turn back with a big grin and wave goodbye.

I ate my banana split with commendable restraint. Taking pauses. It's a bit of a shock to the system let me tell you when you've been pretty much living on salad leaves and turkey slices. But I perservered and polished it off.

I left Cleopatra's brother a decent tip and emerged full of renewed optimism and love for my fellow man onto 60th Street. I love this town.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Going Native

I love my new job. Seriously. Well especially the bit about having to spend all this time in New York.

Life here is easy, you know? Just finished my grocery shopping and it's 8 o'clock at night and all the stores are open and they sell everything you could possibly desire or hanker after and then some. And people look happy, floating on a combination of contentment and a total absence of awareness of the outside world.

There's money here, lots of it. And a sense that if you work hard you'll succeed. No matter who you are or where you come from. There's a sense of expectation and of a greater purpose - we're all going somewhere on the great ship of life, and it's going to be great!

I find myself floating too, and smiling with a sense of relaxed detachment which is decidedly pleasant. But that could be the effect of the jet lag. I don't even seem to mind the prospect of having to work this Sunday. Do you think maybe they sprinkle prozac in the tap water in addition to the fluoride? Healthy happy teeth (oh dear... did I mention that my job involves working on a wellknown brand of toothpaste?) courtesy of the NY City Water Supply.

I don't know. But that's what happens to me every time I spend any length of time in the States (and I lived here for 7 years during my formative years). A kind of assimilation into the Borg of Capitalism.

In Europe, the sound of an American accent (usually from a whinning middle aged tourist complaining about things not being "like back home") can raise my hackles. Their politics appear simplistic if not downright bigoted. Their societal woes echo the final decades of the Roman Empire.

But hop off that plane, run the gauntlet of immigration, retrieve your luggage, brave the tedium of the queue (they say "line" here) for a cab (they say "taxi) into town, settle into your hotel room, unpack, take a shower, step out for a bite of dinner and presto! you're home. Except it's better than home. It's bigger, cheaper, with more options, and if you can't finish your meal, they'll give you a doggy bag.

I don't think it's universal. Two blocks from here I walked past a homeless woman who was crouching on the pavement. She seemed to be in opiate-induced semi coma. Her wordly possessions distributed into two of those stripey canvas bags. She held her hands out. Everyone ignored her. Not in an embarrassed I'd-rather-look-the-other-way fashion. No one seemed to see her. The invisibility of the dispossessed and the unlucky.

No wonder it's such a happy place. They can't see the monster within. Well, with the exception of Lady Gaga who embraces all monsters with gusto and generosity.

Me? All I know is that  - right now -  I'm feeling good.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Suck my toes!

I may be developing a toe fetish. The jury's still out... But you've been warned. I was walking down 5th Avenue this morning - did I mention I was spending some time in New York? - and my gaze alighted on the painted toes of the woman standing beside me at the crossing.

They wear a lot of open toe shoes in Manhattan this time of year. A lot of flat sandals. I guess it makes easier to get around. The fashionistas answer to the trainers and socks over pantyhose horror combo.

But I digress.

Her toes, burnished just the rightly judged shade of brown - the tan of the wealthy rather than the tanorexic's - were lacquered an exquisite cream colour. And it got me thinking : what does your choice of nail polish colour say about you?

Here's my theory:
Cream to mother of pearl is wealthy, pampered, elegance. Big flat in town or townhouse.
Hot pinks to bright reds: young, dynamic office worker to professionals. If they can afford to live in the city centre, it's a small flat.
Dark red to Chanel Black: Upscale burlesque dancer or suburban housewife.
Traditional Pastels: romantics, lovers of nature
Unusual pastels (white, mint green, baby blue etc... ): students
Metallics: artists, free spirits, originals
Odd colours: older women using their daughter's experimental nail polish to fight the insecurities of inpending middleage.
French Manicure: young secretaries who aspire to be WAGS (aka and girlfriends of football players, ie Posh Spice)
No polish: likely to wear cotton briefs, unlikely to sport a Brazilian

So what am I wearing? Fushia pink. Why? Because it matches my Havaiannas colour scheme (fushia strap with white sole) and the piping of my favourite yoga top.

Make of that what you will.