Monday, January 30, 2012

Celebrating Chinese New Year in Brooklyn

The Chinese Lunar New Year was technically last Monday, Jan. 23, but most celebrations in New York marking the Year of the Dragon seemed to take place this past weekend.

That includes the Chinese New Year party we held at work on Thursday -- a couple of coworkers collected donations from us all and brought back a feast from Chinatown: all kinds of candies, pastries and pretty much every dessert that incorporates sesame seeds. The mother of one of my coworkers even made turnip cake and a kind of sticky rice pudding. Signs on the wall helped us determine where our birthday falls in the Chinese zodiac, along with our elemental sign (water, wood, fire, etc.). I'm a metal rooster, which I take to mean that I'm basically a weathervane.

Of course, New York City's various Chinatowns held their own, more official celebrations, and we went to one of them on Saturday. Paul frequently works with bank branches and businesses in Brooklyn's Chinatown, and he heard about a Chinese New Year festival going on at the recreation center in Sunset Park, the neighborhood just north of Bay Ridge and also the neighborhood where the Brooklyn Chinatown is located. A few of his colleagues were going to be there, and we decided to check it out.

We arrived a few hours after the festival began, and hundreds of Chinese families were already there. We didn't even peek into the children's area to the right of the main entrance, instead making a beeline for the performances in a gymnasium on the left.

The stage and performance areas were alternately filled with presentations both traditional and modern. We saw Chinese calligraphy and dancing, as well as your typical school recital fare, like performances from a ballet class and band. The festival also felt a little like Halloween -- snack-size chocolates were readily passed around to everyone in attendance.

Yep, that's a dog on the man's head

The festival was free and open to the public, but Paul and I were one of the few people there who weren't first-, second- or some-generation Chinese. By now I'm used to being surrounded by multiple languages and ethnicities, but it was still one of the few times I've ever been so clearly in the minority without leaving the country. (Just the fact that I noticed this probably proves this is so.) But of course, we never felt anything other than welcome, and I'm very glad we went.

It still amazes me that events like this can happen two miles from home, and I usually don't have even the slightest inkling that anything is going on. Who knows what else I am missing?

Friday, January 27, 2012

In New York for Half of Our Marriage

Paul and I have now lived in New York for more than half of our marriage.

It's a milestone for no one but me, but it seems like I should mark the occasion somehow. It's not quite worthy of a glass of wine or a piece of cake, so a short blog post will have to do.

I'm not sure which is harder to believe: that Paul and I have been married for more than eight years, or that we've lived in this Brooklyn apartment for more than four.

When we stowed away boxes of books, knick-knacks and who-knows-what-I-can't-remember in my parents' attic in preparation of downsizing from a bi-level house to a small apartment, we thought we'd be reopening their dusty covers in two years, tops.

Time flies, and I'm still having fun.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Living Above a New York City Restaurant

A recent article in the Real Estate section of the New York Times hit a little close to home (insert a "har, har," "lol," or your favorite smiley emoticon here).

"Living Above the Stove" was all about residing above one of New York's 23,000+ restaurants -- the good, the bad, the smells and the sounds.

As the reporter explained, there's no one thing you can expect from living above a restaurant. Take it from one who knows. The first restaurant/bar below us was horrible -- thumping music with a heavy bass shook our floor and kept us awake many nights. Drunk customers would pile into the streets fighting, surely not caring that the people upstairs were now aware of their painfully loud break-up. When the place closed at 4 a.m., more often than I care to remember someone would go warm up their car's engine -- or was it a jet engine? It thundered so horrifically that it was difficult to tell.

I preemptively apologized to overnight guests, sure that they would be awoken in the middle of the night by something loud and embarrassing. 

Now, however, there's a nice seafood restaurant that we've never had a lick of trouble with. It too has a bar in the front, but it seems to attract sports fans and even families. I've heard music once or twice -- certainly the exception more than the rule. When we get home after midnight on the weekends, the place is generally closed or in the process of shutting down for the night. The restaurant's summertime outdoor seating abuts the entrance to our building, but no matter. I enjoy the liveliness that comes with being surrounded by people having a good time -- quietly.

Thankfully, with neither restaurant have we had to deal with smells, good or bad. You'd think this would be especially worrisome with a seafood restaurant, but I haven't had even the faintest whiff of fish. As for the offer of free food that the article says sometimes accompanies living above a restaurant -- well, we've had none of that, although our landlord (also the restaurant's owner) has covered a beer or two for Paul when he's been there with friends. That's generous enough and already more than I would expect.

When we first moved to New York, a bitter real estate broker -- whom I told over the phone that we chose this apartment and not the one she showed us the day before -- berated me by claiming that we'd certainly have problems with cockroaches. No such thing. And we had troublesome vermin issues only when some upstairs neighbors moved out, leaving a trail of problems behind that surely weren't helped by the simultaneous construction on the building before the new restaurant opened..

A few years ago I would have warned anyone and everyone to stay away from apartments above restaurants. Now I have a much better view and might even recommend it, depending on the location and the restaurant. I certainly have a list of things I don't like about New York City apartment living (space, no washer and dryer ...), but living above a restaurant isn't one of them.

Monday, January 23, 2012

NYC's First Snow of Winter 2011-2012

New York City got its first real snowfall of the season on Saturday, but as far as I was concerned we could have kept on waiting.

I was beginning to think (read: hope) that we just might escape winter without the sounds of shovels scraping the sidewalk. It's been an odd season. After all, the first Saturday of January was so warm that some people were walking around Bay Ridge without even wearing a coat. The only real winter-like weather was way back in October, when a freak snowstorm dropped big, wet flakes that made a slushy mess on the sidewalks and roads.

But when I awoke Saturday morning, there was a thick layer of white on the cars and streets. When all was said and done, about 4 inches had fallen. But I won't complain too loudly -- today we're supposed to return to unseasonably warm weather in the 50s.

January is typically my least favorite month -- the holidays are over, the decorations come down and the weather is frigid. If every January were like this, however ... well, I could get used to that.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Updating Blog Posts from the Last Few Years

What's new? Nothing and everything.

Everything big has stayed the same -- same job, same apartment, same husband -- but there are a few changes here and there. Release your bated breath. Here are some updates to a few of the events I've written about over the last few years.

February 2009: Yep, Paul and I are still reading presidential biographies, although at a significantly slower pace. We're finally in the 20th century, at William Howard Taft. In addition, Paul continues to update his blog chronicling the project, Presidents by the Book. My favorite president so far? John Quincy Adams.

May 2010: When the bar below our apartment suddenly closed, we unexpectedly get some restful nights of sleep all summer long. I was nervous when a new seafood restaurant moved into the space in 2011, but it's been a good neighbor. It's become a popular neighborhood joint, and the bar neither stays open too late nor attracts the same kind of loudmouth clientele that the old bar did. I wasn't sure how I'd like walking by the diners enjoying the outdoor seating every nice day, but it's not bad at all. In fact, I like it. It makes our block pleasantly lively. I haven't tried the place yet, but Paul's had a drink or two there with a friend. Not bad at all.

January 2011: I was sooooo excited when I found the one and only restaurant in New York City that served Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. It was cheap and delicious, and I was craving it only a few months later. And thus I was sooooo disappointed to find out that that Go Japanese Restaurant closed its doors. Other restaurants in town serve the inferior (my opinion only) Osaka-style okonomiyaki, which is more like a pizza or omelet to Hiroshima's layered version. The search continues. Paul says he's going to try making it at home.

April 2011: When we visited St. Patrick's Old Cathedral one snowy Saturday last year, I had to keep my gloves on throughout the entire mass because it was so cold. When we repeated our visit one hot and humid afternoon last summer, we found out that it doesn't have air conditioning either. If there was an award for buildings that are the least comfortable at all times of year and in all forms of weather, it would be a top contender. I think I've blocked from my mind that I lived without air conditioning until I went to college.

October 2011: Occupy Wall Street protesters were officially evicted from Zuccotti Park, a short walk away from where I work, in mid-November, about two months after they took over. When I visited the camp last fall, the weather was still fairly mild. But when Paul and I walked by a month later, the park was a canopy of tents. Not long after the protesters were given the boot, Christmas lights decorated the park's trees as they seem to every winter, and everything went back to normal. Almost. You'll still occasionally hear of protesters trying to re-occupy the park, but nothing seems to last.

Present: We still own our house in Galloway, and we once again have some people there who will actually pay rent. That's a big improvement over the last tenant, who shorted us several months of rent. This is the third family there since we moved to New York more than four years ago.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"All" of Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim

The Guggenheim typically has at least as many people peering over the edge of the dramatic giant ramp encircling the main exhibit space as looking at the art on the walls.

When we were at the Guggenheim last weekend, however, all eyes were looking over the edge -- because that's where the art was. The walls were empty. Instead, the art was hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the building.

"Maurizio Cattelan: All" is a retrospective of more than 130 of the Italian artists' works, all suspended with strong ropes and ingenuity. The Guggenheim has a tantalizing time-lapse video showing a little about how it was created.

I knew very little of Cattelan's creations before visiting; I had heard only of the most notorious -- a sculpture of Pope John Paul II hit by a meteorite (seen below in the top photo, on the bottom left) and another of a kneeling Adolf Hitler. So I knew we weren't in for watercolors and rainbows. But I didn't enter the exhibit intending to dissect it with an art historian's eye. Paul and I simply made our way up the ramp slowly, stopping every 60 degrees or so to see the sculptures at every angle -- above, below, behind, to the right and to the left.

"Maurizio Cattelan: All" runs through this Sunday, January 22.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bleecker Street Pizza, in the Heart of the Village

Anyone making a tour of New York City's must-eat pizza parlors would sooner or later stop at Bleecker Street Pizza.

Not only does it get accolades from the New York Times and the Food Network, but its location at Bleecker Street and 7th Avenue puts it in the heart of the West Village. If you've spent a week in New York and haven't passed within a few blocks of it, I'd be shocked.

Paul got a gift certificate to Bleecker Street Pizza last year, but we hadn't been both in the neighborhood and without dinner plans on any weekend since. But when we planned to see "Norwegian Wood" at the IFC earlier this month, we were going to be just a few blocks away. So our dinner and a movie was really pizza and a movie.

And the pizza is good. I detest folding my pizza in half like so many New Yorkers do, and Bleecker Street's sturdy thin crust gave me no reason to. But the mozzarella sticks stole the show. They were firm and crispy and almost delicious enough I could have forgotten the pizza for another order of sticks.

The location couldn't be any better, but inside it's much closer to your typical hole-in-the-wall restaurant: cramped tables, bad lighting and no space. But none of those things affect the food. While you eat off of paper plates and aluminum containers, you can gaze at the line of photos of celebrities who have given Bleecker Street Pizza a try: Anderson Cooper, Edward Norton and many, many more I barely recognized.

Overall, Bleecker Street Pizza was a quick and cheap stop, with slices much superior to the typical pizza-by-the-slice joints around town. Try the mozzarella sticks.

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Norwegian Wood" Finally in New York

"Norwegian Wood" took me out of my movie theater hibernation.

Before Paul and I saw this Japanese film last weekend, the last time I had been out to a movie was more than two years ago, when I was visiting my family in Defiance over Christmas and we sent to see "Avatar" during a Tuesday buy-one-get-one free matinee that made each seat $1.50 apiece.

Before "Avatar" -- and the only movie I'd ever seen at a theater in New York -- was "Sex and the City." That was an ill-advised expedition to the theater, and after the movie was done, I wished I had followed Paul into the latest Indiana Jones flick.

We occasionally saw movies in Columbus, but the last one we could definitively remember seeing alone together, without any friends or family, was "The Painted Veil." Five years ago.

While the skinflint side of me balked at the $13 ticket price to "Norwegian Wood," it was the sentimental side of me that finally won out.

Seeing limited-release films is one of the perks of living in New York. "Norwegian Wood" opened last weekend in the U.S. only in New York and Washington, D.C. -- and only in one theater in New York at that. Not having access to foreign language and limited release films growing up in northwest Ohio was a matter of some regret when I was in high school. I can still remember how excited I was when Dad took me to see the Italian film "Life Is Beautiful" -- when we were on vacation in Orlando. And just a few weeks into my freshman year of college I got two of my roommates to trek across Columbus to a tiny theater showing the German "Run Lola Run."

Besides, by seeing "Norwegian Wood" Paul and I could have a true and traditional date night: dinner and a movie.

"Norwegian Wood" was playing at the IFC Center, a 5-screen theater near New York University that I've passed a million times. When we got there at 5:15 p.m. Saturday, the 7 p.m. showing was already sold out. As we filed into the 9:45 p.m. (also sold out), I could see why -- there were only about 50 seats in the theater.

I was excited to see one of my favorite books being translated into a movie. "Norwegian Wood" was released in Japan at the end of 2010, and I'd been keeping an eye out for a U.S. release date nearly as long. I hadn't checked since before the holidays, however, so I did a quick Google search a few days after returning to New York. It didn't take long to learn that it was to be at the IFC in just a couple of days, on January 6.

The cinematography was beautiful, and the movie was fairly faithful to Haruki Murakami's book (although a large non-essential chunk was, in fact, eliminated in the movie). Still, somehow the movie didn't evoke the same feeling of wonderment, and was at times a bit clunky. So while my first trip to the theater in such a long time wasn't a total success, "Norwegian Wood" was still a must-see for me both as a Murakami fan and as someone with a childhood dream of being able to see foreign films in my own backyard.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Brunch in Bay Ridge: Pegasus Pancakes

Bay Ridge has a lot of diners.

Although I've only been inside three or four, most of them look exactly the same from the outside. -- no-nonsense vinyl seats, a few old-timers on the stools in front of the counter, and even more behind the counter, serving up grub from a 12-page menu that includes everything from bacon and eggs to spanakopita.One neighborhood outlier has men in tuxedos serve drab food in a large dining room straight out of the '60s. We went there only once.

But one diner worth a repeat visit, however, is the Pegasus. First of all, who can resist a name like that? And second, there's the food. You know it's good when there seems to be a line every weekend for lunch (and forget about supper -- it closes in the middle of the afternoon).

What I really love is what I call the fried delight -- fried chicken fingers, curly fries, onion rings and mozzarella sticks, all on one plate.But I'm getting old and responsible, so the last time we went I ordered blueberry pancakes and a glass of carrot juice.

Blueberry pancakes and carrot juice.

The carrot juice was nothing special. It literally tasted like a liquefied carrot. (Paul had me excited about a delicious carrot drink he had at a different neighborhood restaurant, so I haven't give up hope on the beverage yet.) The pancakes, though, were delicious, something I can barely match even on my best pancake-making mornings. Light and fluffy and filled with a smattering of big, juicy blueberries.

Pegasus isn't particularly atmospheric, although I am fond of the chalkboard signs. But it's the bustling crowd as much as the food that's this Bay Ridge diner's real draw.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Big Gay Ice Cream Shop: Not Your Average Dessert

Bea Arthur and Salty Pimp cones

New Yorkers love their food trucks, and one of the city's most beloved is the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck.

Sure, it looks like your normal ice cream truck, but if the image of the cone beside the order window has rainbow stripes where the soft serve should be, you're in for a treat. Your options are no longer merely sprinkles and dips. No, indeed. You've entered the Big Gay Ice Cream world of sea salt and wasabi pea dust, dulce de leche and olive oil.

And so it is that the name grabs your attention, but the menu convinces you to grab your wallet. And while Paul and I haven't yet ordered ice cream from the coolest truck in town, we did recently shed our Big Gay Ice Cream virgin status with a trip to the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop, which just opened in the East Village in September.

Follow the unicorn to place your order.

Paul ordered the popular Salty Pimp -- vanilla soft serve, with dulce de leche and sea salt, covered in a chocolate dip. I got the Bea Arthur -- vanilla soft serve covered in a layer of dulce de leche and crushed Nilla Wafers. 

Truly this was ice cream heaven, not fit for mere mortals. Smooth and creamy and delicious. We barely even minded the bite in the air as we took our cones to go. The chill was worth the treat.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Getting Back to Normal

Christmas, photo by Jason K.

OK, so Wednesday's blog post was sappy. But I'm always sappy and depressed when I have such a lovely time in Ohio with my family and friends. After about a week I'm back to normal.

It doesn't come as a shock. Every year it's the same. I eagerly await seeing my family for the first time in months. I stuff myself with delicious homemade food and go to my favorite restaurants. I make plans with good friends. I dig my toes into the carpet and put up my feet, cursing my hardwood floors and old couch. I dawdle in Meijer and Kroger, newly shocked at the space and selection.

And because it's Christmas, everyone and everything is at their best. The sadness at returning to New York after the holidays isn't quite like coming back at any other time. If the highs aren't as high, the lows aren't as low.

This year, of course, was no different. Nevertheless, we were back in Brooklyn on Monday night, and Tuesday was just a normal day at work, except with more emails. But I had a good book to read on the subway, and a cheery snowman doormat from my sister greeting me when I got home. Almost back to normal.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Where I Went on Vacation: Ohio

I miss the land of carpet and recliners, where the fridge is full of food I didn't make and tubs are full of cookies I didn't bake.

Where cookies are as close at hand as fleece blankets, and responsibilities are as far away as disappointments.

Where in-person silence is as good as animated phone conversations with my parents.

Where I can see four grandparents, 10 aunts and uncles and more than a dozen first and second cousins in a three-day span.

Where my sister and her husband are putting the final touches on the second floor of their home, but the first floor is warm and cozy enough as it is.

Where a crackling fire at my brother- and sister-in-laws' extends the holiday cheer into the new year.

Where things change fast -- not only the height of my 11- and 6-year-old nephews, but also Ohio State's so-called Ghetto Kroger, ghetto no longer, but rebuilt into a yuppie's dream grocery store.

Where I spend the week watching the entire first season of "Arrested Development" with my parents, in between eating, sleeping and reading.

Where I hear country music at home and alternative and '80s songs on the radio.

Where inside shiny boxes are presents I wanted and those I didn't even know I wanted.

Where I arrive and never want to leave, and leave when I've barely arrived.


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