May Contain Traces of Nuts.

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So I have definitely lived here too long to get away with not posting about my apartment. But where oh where to begin?? Bugs spring to mind, since one just flew into my face. New York is not immune to the common mosquito and I am delicious, so naturally I’m covered in angry red bites. Thanks for that New York, would it kill you to give a girl some bug netting in her windows? Heat also springs to mind since there were highs of about 90 today and we don’t have air-conditioning. I have been parked in front of a fan since 8 this morning except for a four hour stint in class. Things went the other way on the way back from class though as a thunderstorm broke over my head and I got completely soaked! The weather here is mental. But I’ll let you in on a secret. I love it!

A braggy history PhD called me snooty last night. (The jury is still out if he was trying to hit on me, my roommate thinks he was??) Because I’ve been prattling on about all the whacky things that are different here. But that’s the beauty of it. The things that are different are the ones that thrill me! The way all the packaging on food here has a slightly muted colour scheme. What would be red in the UK is usually maroon here. There’s lots of shades of golden brown and dark blue. To my UK eyes it looks a little dated, close to 50’s packaging back home. Plus for any one product there are about 70 variations. For example: one with sugar, one with no sugar, one with 40% less sodium, one in peanut butter flavour, one in maple flavour, one in french vanilla, one in cinnamon, one in chipotle or jalapeno, or both, one fat free and one zero calorie which is apparently different from fat free. Also the rules on what you can put in the food here are so lax, there could be anything in it at all, likely candidates include but are not limited to unpronounceable chemicals and substances derived from cows feet. Also there’s corn syrup in everything. Even my sweet tooth is struggling to keep up. Mine!

The thing with the sales tax has caught me out a lot and I have to smile through my embarrassment as I search wildly for an extra dollar. I’m considering moving to a state that doesn’t have sales tax! The trains are insane as well! I think I’ve got a vague grip on it, except the other day I was in class and Alex was telling me that sometimes the train can change while you’re actually on it and the only warning you get is an announcement telling you the next stop will be Schenectady and you better get off sharpish. So now I’ve lost all my confidence.

The Columbia neighbourhood is a people-watching nirvana. There’s a guy in the building across who wears dungarees and the kind of flat cap that steam engine drivers wear in American westerns… every day. I feel a bit bad because I just assume he’s in the fine arts programme, which is academic profiling. My building is full of characters too. There’s a very nice gentleman across the hall who laments on my behalf that my apartment doesn’t have air conditioning. Across the air shaft there used to be a Chinese couple with four cats that used to watch me while I boogied around the kitchen making soup. But I woke up two days ago and they’d cleared out. Just gone. Such is New York I suspect.

The main thing I can’t get over is the food! The library cafe has sushi. Really good sushi. And lunch the other day was a spicy chicken wrap the size of my upper arm. Although the people are pretty fascinating too, assuming you mean fascinating in the way that say… a glow in the dark goat would be fascinating. A little bit familiar and a little bit totally alien. Get a load of the following conversation. This a 100% true story as overheard by my own disbelieving ears.

“She was like hahahaha

And he was like uuuuh

And she was like, well I forget what happened after that but it was SO funny.”

Um. WHAT?!

It’s a glorious festival of human craziness here. Take for example the guardian at the gate of the GSAS office.

He’s a little turtle of a man, shiny of pate, with a hunch to his shoulders and a dip to his neck that makes his back look like a shell. He’s got a broad smile but his glasses pinch his nose so he breathes through his mouth, which he leaves slightly ajar for the purpose. This gives his dry lips, so he often pauses mid-sentence to lick them. Overall he’s a very ponderous creature. One of his hips hurts him and some cruel collegiate deity has bequeathed him an obstacle course of a desk. Every time he needs to fetch a file or a form he has to grip the desk and hoist himself to his feet. Then its a half circle around the chair, an angled squeeze past the bin, round an outcrop of desk and at last to freedom. Then the whole process in reverse to get back. While I was waiting for my meeting, this lengthy performance unfolded before me and the man shuffled off out of sight. In his absence a woman walked into the office, looked at the empty station, at me, around the office, back at me. Gesturing at the desk she half-whispered “Is there…?” I just nodded. She settled to wait.

A moment later the Keeper of Forms shuffled back, with a slice of pizza the size of a shovel in his fist. Her eyes bugged out. She looked to me for help, but I was too busy wondering how the assault course would be managed with only one hand. I was disappointed. He balanced the slab of pizza on a pile of student IDs before attempting the maneuver. Once settled he recommenced the slice and peered up at the woman, who had risen uneasily to her feet. She held out a form. I tuned out of the conversation and watched the pizza. It was replaced on top of the IDs. The hand that had held it briefly and ineffectually visited a napkin, then offered to take the form. The woman handed it over, upper lip curling a little. He signed on the dotted line and returned the form to her, quickly retrieving the pizza and talking through a mouthful of it as he gave her directions to the office she need to drop the form off at. She retreated, a signature and a smear of marinara the richer for her visit. 

I’ve got to run. The pizza story made me hungry! See you next time, I have a librarian anecdote ready and waiting.

xxx

A flower for the children.

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I’ve been struggling with this post for a while now. I knew I had something to say but the worm in my brain that tells me how to construct sentences was on strike. However, it was 9/11 yesterday, so I’ve run out of excuses.

My Dad and I came to visit New York before I moved here. We were ostensibly here for work, and to have a cheeky look at Columbia. We are foot-tourists. We don’t have a checklist of sights stashed in our pockets when we come to a new place, we go where we fancy. If we find ourselves near a monument or a fountain, a park or a statue we’ll have ourselves a little investigate. It’s all very enjoyably casual. That was how I knew the 9/11 memorial was important to Dad. He was very determined to see it.

They don’t make it easy. The entrance to the site itself is hidden around a number of corners, the signage guiding you across the  many wide New York streets between you and it leave you plenty of opportunities to get confused and give up. You have to be looking for it to find it and you have to really want to go.

I wasn’t in the best shape. It was near the end of a long week of walking. I’d had to get new trainers with mega support in them and even they had ceased to take the edge off. My feet were throbbing. At the end of the day and overnight they would swell up so that the first steps of the morning were no fun at all. My knees and hips ached, the small of my back radiated a hot pain into my chest. My head was ringing, my eyes having trouble focusing. I wasn’t in possession of enough of my senses to be aware of how childish it was to want to give up on the memorial. All I knew was that I needed a comfy seat and a snickers.

This is another way I knew it was important to Dad. He’s been where I’ve been, in the swirly CFS world of painful exhaustion, dizzy and thick-headed. Nauseous and aching in your very bones. He’s usually the first one to tell me to rest. But not today. Today we were on the trail of the memorial.

After longer than I’d like to admit mentally griping about my own discomfort it finally sunk in that this was serious. I switched to stoic mode. We donated $10 each and rounded a thicket of barriers, presented tickets to about 6 different people, went through a metal detector, walked a gauntlet of police and finally made it to the site itself.

I had no idea what to feel. It’s quite a lovely space. Each tower is marked by a huge sunken arena made of dark stone, exactly matching the footprint of each building. Waterfalls pour day and night into the pools, which never fill up as the water drains into a large square hole at the bottom, where it is sent back to the top of the falls. The cycle is endless. Around the edges of the pools are broad metal plates with the names of the victims cut into them. It’s like much of America as far as I can tell, a place of great dimensions, vast and bold of statement.

I read about how the groupings of the names on the memorial match the groups of the people’s lives. Friends are with friends, families are together, the first responders are each in their groups, fire trucks, ambulance crews, police divisions. Some families have requested that the names of emergency service members who tried to save the lives of their loved ones be placed with them. It’s a wrenchingly beautiful gesture.

I trace the names with my fingers and grope around in my mind for symbolism to ease the starkness of it all. The eternally falling water as the cycle of life, never the same, never truly there and so never truly lost. But I cannot distract myself from people who are having their picture taken with the memorial. Smiling, arms around family members. Backpacking couples, the boys with their hands in the back pockets of their girlfriends’ shorts. Waving at the camera. It feels deeply inappropriate. People are taking pictures of the memorial itself, and that makes sense to me, many have come huge distances to see it and human memory is unreliable. Some are finding names. I try not to look at these people, try to give them a little privacy. I have been walking around the memorial without realizing it, as if my body were intent on reminding me it were alive, while my mind filled up with death. I run my hand across the warm metal, reading the names. So many.

I think I can handle it. I think about the spirit of America, the way she builds back up in spite of everything. In spite of fear and in the face of huge loss America continues to grow. America divides opinion, often very strongly, but no one could deny that it is impressive to stand so squarely on to such a horrible event in a nation’s memory. Not only that, but what has been built there has a value all its own. It isn’t just another building built to mask the space so people can forget. They have crafted a place where people can come to remember. To feel strong. That is how I felt while I was there. My problems are nothing in comparison, life goes on and it’s up to me to go on with it. I think all this, at least until I reach the first blue flower.

Someone has been circling the monument, placing blue flowers in the names of certain people. When I reach the first blue flower I see that the name has an addition: “and her unborn child.” That cracks my heart. I’m surprised at myself, that I hadn’t thought before about unborn children. I take myself off to sit under a tree and think about something else. I am suddenly and searingly disappointed in the human race, the way we fight. I am keen to get back to my silly little life without the deep, deep sadness of dead mothers and their unborn babies. I can’t even imagine the near edge of what their families must have felt and even that tightens my throat with anguish.

I don’t know how to end this post except to dedicate it to the memories of those who died and the honor of those who risked their lives to save others and to the spirit of this city that has taken me in, which is so strong. It makes me feel strong and I am grateful for that beyond measure.

Well hello to you too!

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I am going to start this post with a foreword.  The tale that follows may give the impression that I am not excited about moving to America. I would just like to be clear and say that I have been living here for a handful of weeks now and I am living in a near-constant state of boggle-eyed excitement. Here are some reasons why, in no particular order of importance.

  • Almost every beverage known to man is available to purchase by the gallon here.
  • My apartment is enormous and right round the corner from campus.
  • I have finally got a handle on the metro, well, enough to get to midtown and back at least.
  • There is a shop that delivers cookies to your door until 3am.
  • The library is so huge I can always get a seat (that one maybe only fellow nerds will appreciate.)
  • I have discovered that even after two years away from academics I can still read!
  • I am officially registered for enough credits and will not get deported for not having a full course load.
  • … I live in New York.

Ok, I’m done boasting. 🙂

I was reading Joan Didion on the plane over here. It probably wasn’t a strong choice. She is a total joy suck. Every last shred of happiness or contentment that you have squirreled away she will find and vaporize. A potent brand of misery breathes from the pages of some of her books. This is not your basic favourite-character-getting-killed-off-in-a-rock-slide kind of thing or the downward turning mouth of unrequited love. This is deep, slow, inexorable misery of the existentially moribund beautiful woman in a loveless marriage. Page after sluggish page of interminable depression that throws shadows over the sun and robs the stars of their shine. She’s kind of a downer.

So landing at JFK to start my new American life I was in a pretty introspective mood. Smart move, I know, to cross the Atlantic with an Olympic level buzz-kill on my kindle. But she did get me thinking about one thing that didn’t make me want to spend the next twenty years hiding under my duvet. Nose-deep in a novel you know exactly what to feel. Miserable writing evokes misery, funny writing makes you do that goofy thing where you burst out laughing in a public place. Etc. Here’s the crunch though. In real life it’s not so easy. Real life tends to take its thumb and violently smudge the emotional clarity of a moment, blurring it with things like hunger, having to pee, a long form to fill out, fees, people with the spacial awareness of a fossilized dinosaur turd and the manners to match. I have been known to be uneasy on airplanes: take off gives me the heeby jeebies. But the flight to New York had been fine, minus a few bumps and Tom Cruise’s total lack of sex appeal in Oblivion,  it was a breeze. So we land. I’m officially in America, my life as a grad student is finally beginning. I should be excited, brimming over with giddy happiness, buzzing with giggly anticipation.

I am bored.

Bored. Bored to tears. We are taxing toward the airport at the speed of a centipede with 100 shin splints. Then we stop for a bit and the captain spouts some garbage about being early, which of course means you have to wait until you’re late before you can go anywhere. We move a bit. Stop. Move a bit. Listen to some excuses. Move a bit. Stop. Massage our pins and needles. Move a bit. Stop. 500 years later we’re let off the plane to join the ample queue, sorry, “line,” it’s not a queue here, it’s a line. We move a bit. Stop. Move a bit. Listen to the world’s most inane family compete for each others attention. Move a bit. Stop. Make forlorn jokes with fellow queue victims. Move a bit. Stop. Stop some more. You can see how the excitement, so mandatory in theory when arriving in one’s new home, could get hopelessly lost in transit.

Then I’m a little nervous. That bizarre, unaccountable nervousness that is a glorious part of the customs process. Have I got the paper work right? Am I actually going to be allowed into the country? What if they turn me back? What if I’m falsely accused of some customs infraction and arrested on the spot? What if they go through all my bags right here in the airport? What if I just have to turn around and go home right now?”Welcome to America. Enjoy your stay.”

Phew.

So now I’m through customs, now I can be excited right? Wrong. I’m knackered. And travel-gritty. My eyes are a bit sore, as is my head. I have more possessions than the King of Siam so I am wrestling heavy bags. I keep banging into people and banging my bag against my thigh. My hair is reacting to the NY summer humidity and frizzing into my eyes, which is driving me nuts. I smell a bit like I just spent 7 hours in a confined space with 300 other people. Excitement is on the back burner for a little longer.

I’m at the hotel I’ll be staying in until I move into my Upper West Side apartment. Surely I can be excited now?! It smells like aromatherapy candles, a hunky man is carrying my bag for me. The air conditioning is blissfully cool against my skin. The hotel itself is beautiful, an elaborate chandelier hangs low over the front desk. It’s very modern too, which is good fun: the lobby is approached by an escalator lit in bright lime green strip lights embedded in the frosted glass walls. There are small groups of chairs and benches scattered throughout the spacious lobby. They have that rich organic look: driftwood that’s been shipped in from distant exotic beaches and varnished especially for weary journeyman rumps to rest on. The lighting is low, soothing to eyes strained by fluorescent airport lighting. Behind the front desk is a vast wall of glass, looking out over a kind of zen drinking garden, like a beer garden but for elaborate cocktails involving tequila and blue curaçao. Over the right hand wall is a rambling creeper plant of some kind. Maybe ivy. (Hey, not a botanist.) I am so nearly free to be excited at this point. I’m in my own little world, taking in the hotel, on the lookout for beautiful, sophisticated Americans of the type Hollywood has informed me are abundant in New York. I can feel a grin pulling at my lips, there’s a giggle trapped under my rib cage, tickling me to get out.

But oh wait. Here’s a nice dose of embarrassment to put me in my place. The concierge is chatting away as he checks us in.

“So what brings you to New York.”

“Oh, Lauren’s moving here.” Proud Dad pipes up.

“Oh for school.”

“Yes”

“Which school. NYU?”

“Columbia.” Proud Dad is proud. I am embarrassed… and a little proud, not going to lie.

“Oh great. What are you studying?”

My turn to pipe up. “American Studies.” Nervous giggle.

“Oh, I can give you a lesson in America any day.” Dumbstruck silence on my part.

Hello and welcome to America, where we will level scorchingly inappropriate sexual innuendos at you in front of your Dad. Enjoy your stay!

xxx