Saturday, June 29, 2013

Balkans II

Saturday, June 22, 2013
Staying at relatively-upscale hotels abroad, you can depend on having CNN International and BBC International for something broadcast in English.  Even though you can't find a Mets score if your life depended on it, I still turn these channels on for a strangely-accented touch of home.  As a result, my scant knowledge of the latest cavortings of Hollywood starlets and New York fashion models is at an even lower ebb than usual.  These channels seem to have more interest in a Kosovan than a Kardashian.  Therefore, I'm hearing a lot of international stuff, even about countries which have few good restaurants in New York.  This has led me to recognize that the Russians are the Republicans of international politics.  We know that Vladimir Putin grew up in the KGB, mastering deception, intrigue and dishonesty.  Possibly, disguise was another subject that the KGB taught him, which leads me to ask, "Has anyone ever seen Vladimir Putin and John Boehner together at the same time?"

We returned to the Sofia's grand synagogue for Saturday morning services.  In spite of the bright picture yesterday from a leader of the community, we found only a dozen adult Jewish men, two above a quorum (minyan), at prayer.  The grand sanctuary was not used, but instead we were in a small prayer room, about 20' by 30', with a section for the women curtained off.  In fact there were almost as many local women as men, but, of course, they don't count or, slightly more politely expressed, they are not counted.

I was at a great disadvantage throughout the service, although its contours were familiar to me.  The prayer book was entirely in Hebrew, with no prompts, transliterations, translations or footnotes in English.  The prayers and all spoken commentary were in Hebrew with a tiny smattering of Bulgarian. There were no interjections of psychological insights or contemporary analogies.   I spent the time flipping through the pages of the prayer book looking for the familiar words of the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning, which I continue to recite for my mother, sure to occur somewhere during the service.  I found several versions, and, to insure that I used the hometown favorite version when the right time came, I piously poked the man sitting next to me, pointed to a page and asked "Is this your Kaddish?"  In only mildly-accented English, he replied, "I don't know; I don't read Hebrew."  I finally found a usable version of the Kaddish, but the rapid chanting rate of the conversant congregants left me far behind when the time to recite arrived.

My greatest disadvantage at this service, as my fellow West End Synagogue members will appreciate, was the absence of room to roam, since I am a devoted shul walker.  That is, I spend most of a Saturday service perambulating, schmoozing, joshing, carping and often simply annoying the more observant attendees.  The small space of the prayer room, filled with tables, chairs and a podium, would not allow for such wandering, and, even if I could circulate, the only people I could target I had just seen at breakfast and would see again for hours at a time for the next 10 days or so.  It's not the same as catching up with friends and acquaintances whom I might have missed for weeks, or might miss for weeks to come.

The rest of the day, America's Favorite Epidemiologist and I separated from the group and spent most of the time in the company of Nikolay V., his wife and 5-year old daughter, Sofia residents.  I first met Nikolay in the mid-1990s, when he was the graduate school roommate of a young friend of mine.  After graduation, which I attended as the honorary older relative for both young men, Nikolay worked in New York, London and Tokyo before returning to Bulgaria to serve in high government posts.  A few years ago, he rejoined the private sector. 

First, he took me to the family dentist to glue my tooth back in for the second time.  The young lady dentist was very careful, shaped things a little for a better fit and charged me some amount that one day I will see translated into dollars on a credit card statement.  The young Greek male dentist did not charge me, but we saw what the results were.  I thanked her and bid goodbye in several languages that had no relationship to Bulgarian, before Nikolay and I retrieved my young bride from the hotel and drove off to meet his wife and daughter at Sofia's newest and largest indoor shopping mall.  With the hot temperature, this was a practical choice for spending some time.

Later, we went to dinner at the Panorama, atop the Kempinski Hotel, one of the finest and most luxurious restaurants in the country.  Don't miss it if someone else is paying.

Monday, June 24, 2013
We had a busy and tiring couple of days, with a lot of time spent on the bus seeing far more of Bulgarian countryside than most of us had bargained for.  However, in the town of Samokov, nearly due south of Sofia, we visited the beautifully-restored 19th-century mansion of a Jewish merchant family, actually the smallest of three that they owned.  The government restored the property as a national legacy without any religious bent.  In dramatic contrast, immediately adjoining the mansion was a deserted synagogue, built at about the same time as the mansion.  The synagogue fell into disuse at the end of WW II, when the Communists came to power, and, while Bulgarian Jews mostly survived though living under a Nazi ally, they left for Israel and points west by the thousands soon after the war.  Samokov also holds a lovely mosque, now operating as a simple museum and performance space. 

We went to Sofia's central cemetery, which has sections for each major religion.  Because of the overall integrated character of the cemetery, the Jewish section was mostly spared anti-Semitic vandalism during the unfriendly decades under Fascist and Communist rule.  The cemetery only dates back to the late 19th-century, which also meant that it was generally orderly and the tombstones were not weathered beyond comprehension.  The inscriptions in a variety of languages, our Bulgarian-Jewish guide is multi-lingustic, and symbols carved into the stone, told fascinating stories.  Not only the Jewish section offered interesting sights.  Several newer graves in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic sections used modern photo-engraving techniques on the tombstones.  I saw portrayals of a youngish man standing in front of his van, and at least two showing the decedent sitting at a table with booze and a cigarette in hand.  A bottle of Johnny Walker was clearly reproduced on one of stones.

We drove high onto the mountains southwest of Sofia to visit the monastery at Rila, an enormous complex which contains the single most-decorated church I have ever seen.  I must pause to apologize for the absence of any visual evidence of our explorations.  I took some pictures along the way with my smartyphone, but  some subtle interplay of hardware and software between my phone and the computers I have been using to record these observations has left me wordy and pictureless.   

Today, we drove to the extreme northern edge of Bulgaria, to Vidin, on the banks of the Danube, directly across from Roumania.  The town has examples of Roman, Bulgarian, Turkish, Communist and modern architecture, a microcosm of Bulgarian history.  Notable was the ruins of a Jewish synagogue, once grand and now rubble-filled with scant hope for resurrection to any purpose.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Bye-bye Bulgaria, hello Macedonia.  After about four hours on the bus and an uneventful border crossing, we got to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia.  In a strange way, Macedonia reminds me of Israel in the very denials of its existence by some of its neighbors, particularly Greece and Bulgaria.  Both claim that even the name of the country is inappropriate, because whatever or wherever Macedonia was, it was theirs.  Greek maps label this land as FYROM, Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia.

Allow me to backtrack a moment.  While the border crossing and the bus ride were uneventful for everyone else, drinking a Coke Zero (more common that a Coke Light in these parts) at a rest stop near the border was sufficient to make my Bulgarian-glued tooth fall out, lasting about four times longer than its Greek-glued predecessor.

Our luxurious hotel is plopped down in the middle of the Turkish (Muslim) quarter, surrounded by twisting alleyways full of cafes and jewelry shops.  Several minarets are easily seen from our room's window, and the amplified call to prayer is heard throughout the day.  The genuiness of the neighborhood is more than offset by the regime's aggressive development of the city center, at the Stone Bridge.  In just the last few years, and continuing, the most improbable statues and buildings are going up, in this poor country.  Obviously to counter the antagonism of its neighbors Macedonia, at least the entrenched political elite, has been inflating its history to grandiose scale.  Huge statues of Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great and Alexander's mother (in four poses) are placed in the middle of a large plaza, each surrounded by dancing waters illuminated by colored lights at dusk.  But, it doesn't stop there.  Near the Stone Bridge itself is a seemingly-exact replica of the Charles Bridge in Prague.  Around the corner is a copy of the Arc de Triomphe.  It's worse than Las Vegas.  Buildings evoking other great edifices are under construction.

On the other hand, the government (actually the left-wing predecessor to the current regime) built a credible Holocaust Museum just a few feet from the Kitsch Parade.  That's significant because Macedonia lost almost all (98%) of its Jews.  However, instead of simply moving on, as other countries have done, Macedonia recovered stolen Jewish property and used the funds (maybe not all) to create the museum and sponsor related Jewish activities.  Now, here's where it gets interesting.  Bulgaria proudly proclaims (and we heard it repeated a couple of days ago) that it saved "its" Jews.  That's true.  But, in 1941, Hitler turned over Macedonia and Thrace to Bulgaria, its fascist ally.  In 1943, Bulgarian police and army units rounded up all the Jews in Macedonia and Thrace, packed them into cattle cars and sent them to Treblinka for extermination.  Over 7,000 Macedonian Jews and 4,000 Thracian Jews died.  This distinction between "us" and "them", our Jews and their Jews, my people and the others, seems to be characteristic of the Balkan mindset.  One modern, young, educated Bulgarian woman that we met explained that her grandparents were born in Hungary, her parents were born in Hungary and she was born in Hungary, but they all are and were Bulgarian.  In Madedonia, we met two young men, one identifying as Jewish, the other as Muslim, both though proclaiming that they were "ethnic Albanians."  This nationalism was rife; I heard it in each of the three countries that we have visited.  No one spoke of a neighboring country with an ounce of admiration or affection.  Last year at this time, we were in Jordan and Israel, where we heard people saying a few nice things about their neighbors.  I don't underestimate the divisions between those particular Arabs and Israelis, but, at least, they chose not to piss on each other in public. 

Friday, June 28, 2013
Another long bus ride and border crossing yesterday brought us to Ioannina, Greece, the spiritual center of this trip.  Ioannina, a city of about 120,000 in northwest Greece has a beautiful natural setting, on a large lake with mountains behind it.  Our hotel room provides us a great view of this.  Again, though, it was Jewish stuff, not the landscape that brought us here, but I'm running out of steam, and you likely patience, so I'll pick up the thread later. 

I've not seen a tangible copy of the New York Times or the International Herald Tribune so far on this trip.  However, whenever I'm able to get to a hotel's computer, or the rarer moments when the alchemy allows my smartyphone to link to anything, I read  So, I was sad to read the following obituary. 
I knew Sam Most briefly at CCNY, when I staged a coup and took over as president of the college's Modern Jazz Society.  I was assisted by a weird guy named Arnie, who looked like a young Lou Jacobi, not Derek Jacobi, and had a beautiful Negro wife (the most polite description at the time).  Arnie was friendly with Sam and other jazz musicians, and the three of us discussed holding a concert at the college featuring Sam.  As an interesting aside, I should point out that Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs got his start promoting events at City College more than 30 years later, even though he was not a student.  Most notoriously, he advertised a celebrity charity basketball on December 28, 1991 that drew thousands of fans, who pushed into a small lobby and down a small staircase, resulting in the death of nine people, and injuries to 29 others.  According to the New York Times afterwards, "Questions were raised about how City College could have approved the event, whether the promoters were adequately prepared, and whether the Police Department moved quickly enough to stop the disturbance."  The ensuing law suits did not inhibit the growth of Mr. Combs's career in music, fashion, on Broadway and almost anywhere where flash substitutes for talent.  By contrast, we never held the Sam Most concert and my career as an impressario morphing into an icon never got started. 

What I recall about my conversations with Sam, who was acknowledged as the first notable jazz flutist, was the muted bitterness that he felt towards Herbie Mann, the then far better-known jazz flutist, who achieved great success playing Latin jazz, an opportunity that Sam claimed had first been presented to him.  At this time, Sam was living in a rundown SRO (single room occupancy) building somewhere between City College and Columbia University, a short distance in geography only.  In the following decades, Mann continued as a popular figure in jazz, leading different groups and turning out many recordings, while Sam retreated to working as a sideman in Hollywood and Las Vegas.  R.I.P. Sam.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Balkans I

Monday, June 17, 2013
A short time ago, a bet that America's Favorite Epidemiologist would be spending her birthday in Thessaloniki (Salonika), Greece would have drawn long odds. But, after a pleasant nine-hour transatlantic flight to Athens, an uncomfortable three-hour layover in its airport, a 40-minute flight to Salonika and then an additional one-hour delay in the Salonika airport waiting for Marcia, our group's leader, to trace her suitcase back to JFK airport, where it never left the ground, we arrived at a beautiful hotel in the center of Salonika after a short bus ride. The hotel is one block from the Aegean Sea, and our fifth-floor room has a perfect view of the water. After a restorative nap and shower, our group of 13, went no more than 5 miles to Yialos, a restaurant on the Aegean Sea, for an outdoor dinner where the food was even better than the view -- an unusual balance, rarely achieved. Dish after dish kept arriving. There were five types of fish, served cold smoked or marinated, or hot fried. There was a spinach salad and a Greek (surprise!) salad. There were fried zucchini chips and French fries. There was baked cheese, taramasalata (fish roe), skaradalia (garlic spread) and tzadiki (yoghurt and dill). Fortunately, I cannot recall either eating or being served plain vegetables. A dessert plate contained mini ice cream pops, Greek halavah, made from semolina, not sesame seeds, and some phyllo-honey combinations. Additionally, Marcia, without any complicity on my part, produced a delicous chocolate birthday cake for you-know-who. Even better news was that the cake came from a bakery/cafÄ—/chocolatier in the lobby of our hotel, that might be willing to accept my patronage at random times of day or night. Happy Birthday, Beloved. An extra dinner treat was the presence of Heinz, Shelly and Hella Kounio, a prominent local Jewish family. More about them later.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
After the long day yesterday, which really began the day before with our departure from New York, Marcia, our leader, got us going at the very civilized hour of 10 AM, after a buffet breakfast on the hotel's roof garden, an even more civilized start of the day. We spent the next four hours guided by Hella, a beautiful, local Jewish woman, an insurance broker, whose family dates back hundreds of years in Salonika. Last night, her parents were at dinner with us and any distance between me and recent tragic Jewish history disappeared as Hella and Marcia told part of their story. Her father Heinz Kounio, just 13-years old, his sister, his Jewish German-Czech mother and his Jewish Salonikan father were on the first transport from Salonika to Auschwitz in March 1943. When the cattle cars were opened at Auschwitz, after more than one week on the rails, the longest ride any deportees experienced throughout Europe, the Salonikan Jews were unable to respond to the Germans' commands, because the Jews spoke Ladino primarily and a little Greek. The Germans called out for any German speakers. The Kounio family responded, although volunteering at Auschwitz had to be a dangerous venture. They were used as translators and clerks thereafter, and survived the war as a result, the only Salonikan Jewish family to survive intact. They returned to Salonika, among the 4%, allow me to repeat, 4% of the 50,000 Salonikan Jews to survive. Before the war, about one quarter of Salonika's population was Jewish. Hella's mother had been hidden as a child in Salonika and Athens, which was precisely the history of Dr. Laura, another member of our tour group, who eventually trained as a physician in Salonika and moved to New York City.

Since Salonika had once been such a big Jewish city, it had had an enormous Jewish cemetery. We rode around its perimeter today; it must have been at least 8 city blocks long (to me, a universal measure) and 4 city blocks wide. It reportedly contained about 500,000 graves. One of the first things that the occupying Germans did was to dig up the grounds, after giving the Jewish community six days to remove whatever (whomever) they could. Thousands of marble tombstones and slabs were disbursed throughout the city and wound up covering horizontal and vertical surfaces of all sorts, a swimming pool in one instance. Many remain in (dis)place until this day. Remarkably (is this the right word?), the complete area of the Jewish cemetery is now the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, the largest university in Greece, looking like any other architecturally nondescript campus built since WW II.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Last night, most of us went to dinner at a big outdoor taverna just a few blocks from our hotel. Two musicians played Greek ballads for hours as we ate a large number of dishes made up of tomatoes, cheese, olives, peppers, onions and olive oil in various combinations and permutations. Two special events occurred during dinner to me alone. A large tooth, one of those treated in exchange for the Toyota Camry ceded to my dentist, fell out while chewing my food. I captured it and, with Marcia's help, found a dentist just two blocks from the hotel, who glued me back together in an efficient, friendly and complimentary manner at midday today.

Moments before shedding a tooth, a bird made a deposit right at the neckline of my plastic polo shirt, something that has never happened to me before in spite of the legions of Manhattan pigeons I have lived beneath for decades. My fellow diners noted my good luck, a distinction that I would have eschewed given the choice.

This morning, before visiting the dentist, Hella escorted us around the central city area, once densely populated by Jews. We went to the Jewish museum, where we met with Heinz, her father, who discussed his experiences and answered our questions. In the Hagaddah, the story repeated each year at Passover, we are told to regard it as our story, as if we were the ones leaving Egypt and spending decades in the desert. Heinz's memories and passion were as fresh as the day that 109565 was tattooed on his arm. Hearing the stories from Heinz, Hella, and Laura (who found a picture of herself at a children's camp in Salonika in the early 1950s on the wall of the Jewish museum) brought me nervously close to the terrible events that transpired in my life time, not thousands of years ago. I hope their stories are repeated at least as long as the Hagaddah has been, so that all of us, regardless of our background, will honor them as our ancestors and adopt their stories as our own.

Thursday, June 20, 2013
Last night, we drove to the highest point above Salonika, to see the ruins of ancient walls. Then, we went partially down the hill to eat at a restaurant with a lovely view, but with food closer to earth. Notable was the duration of my glued-in tooth -- one bite into my order of grilled shrimp in the shell. I'll try once more in Sofia over the weekend to put my mouth back together.
We got on the road at 9:15 AM and spent the next 10 hours in or in the immediate vicinity of our bus as we headed into Bulgaria. The ride was supposed to be 5 hours, but presented with a choice of waiting at a very busy border crossing leading into modern roads, or a deserted border crossing and old roads, we chose the latter and it became later and later as we drove over two-lane, winding, climbing and descending country roads through tiny villages and fields of sunflowers. Rest stops brought us into direct contact with the history of gravity-dependent Bulgarian plumbing. Lunch was at a gas station, where there were just enough plastic-wrapped sandwiches to go around, although not enough to satisfy our hunger for real food.

We arrived at our hotel in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the country's second largest city, almost exactly 10 hours after we set out. After a hasty dinner in the hotel's dining room (without visiting the attached casino), we took a walk through Plovdiv's old town. A parishioner (??) was kind enough to turn on the lights of the grand mosque so that we could admire the elaborate interior. After returning to the hotel after 11 PM, very tired and sweaty, the Upper West Side's Power Couple found that we had to change our room in order to replace a rumor of airconditioning with a suspicion of airconditioning. Although confined to the bus most of the day, we learned that the local daytime temperature here, as in Salonika, was in the mid-90s American, mid-30s European.

Friday, June 21, 2013
We walked again this morning into the old town to visit the only standing synagogue in Plovdiv. Standing, but barely operating. The lovely building, about 130-years old, was completely renovated by an non-sectarian, American NGO, and features an intricately painted interior and an exquisite glass chandelier that seemed to contain most of its original pieces. There is no local rabbi and barely any Jews. Only holiday services are regularly scheduled at the synagogue plus an occasional wedding or other festive event.

At noon, we headed off to Sofia. Road food lunch tip: On highway E80, about 50 minutes outside Plovdiv, near Pazardzhik (sounds very much like the infamous New York Giant quarterback), try Maestro Nedzho's Turkish restaurant. The parking lot was loaded with Bulgarian trucks. We ate collectively fresh parsley after squeezing fresh lemon juice on it, a chopped cucumber, tomato, onion salad (nearly gazpacho), slices of roasted eggplant drenched in yoghurt, a (for lack of a better word) Greek salad, and a platter of grilled, spicy lamb. With drinks, mostly soft, the bill divided up to 10 levs each, about $6. It's worth going out of your way for.

We rolled into Sofia well-fed, and headed directly to the grand (and solitary) synagogue for a meeting with a leader of the Jewish community.  He spoke of the renaissance of organized Jewish life in Sofia, very much in contrast with the situation in Plovdiv.  He expressed special pride in the recent marriage of a local Jewish man to a local Jewish woman, something that is becoming increasingly rare in New York City.

Greece and Bulgaria are experiencing political unrest because of economic and political issues.  However, we have only sat in the Athens airport for a while without going into the city.  That comes next week.  We are in the center of Sofia, however, but only skirted the edges of a demonstration on the way to dinner tonight.  We expect to get closer to the action in the next couple of days.  "Solidarity forever!"

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Great Experiment

Monday, June 10, 2013
I could coast today and simply paraphrase the article from yesterday's New York Times on newer ethnic neighborhoods in New York City.  However, it is so full of interesting facts and figures (37% of New York’s current population is foreign born), as well as food and restaurant suggestions, that you should read if for yourself.  In fact, the article is worth saving in order to plan interesting road (subway) trips all over the City. 

Of course, I can’t avoid one good quote from the paper, from the society pages, my favorite reading.  In regard to the wedding of AB and JH, we learn that they “met in July 2011 at a dinner party for young venture capitalists in Boston.  Ms. B*** had just left a doctorate program in medieval English literature at the University of Texas to give venture capital a try.”  Now, I can sleep better at night.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013
“Americans want to be protected, but not at the cost of vitiating the values that make us Americans.”  Maureen Dowd, New York Times columnist, 06/08/13.  I don’t believe this. 
See, showing that 56% of Americans believe that the National Security Agency’s program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism.  Throughout our history, the majority has shown little concern for the civil liberties of minorities of any stripe.  It has generally been the courts that intervened, sometimes late in the game, in issues such as Japanese-American internment, stop-and-frisk, and Jehovah’s Witness flag saluting, where the public-at-large was hostile, if not indifferent.  

Locally, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has been installing surveillance cameras in busses since 2010.  What I find most interesting is the placard in our busses and subways proudly promoting this program, which may comfort good guys and discomfort bad guys.  With the exception of a few folks down at the ACLU, I suspect the motives of many carping left-wingers and right-wingers about the erosion (is there a word for very fast erosion?) of privacy.  The same poll cited above shows that support for NSA surveillance programs under Bush – 75% of Republicans, 37% of Democrats – has a different profile under Obama – 52% of Republicans, 64% of Democrats.  Home of the Free and Land of the Brave?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Yesterday, I had lunch with Irwin Pronin, 1962 CCNY student government president, at Wo Hop, which he said that he had never been to.  That gap has now been successfully filled.  Today, Stony Brook Steve and I had lunch at New Yeah Shanghai Deluxe, 50 Mott Street, pretending that we were three people so that we had three lunch specials, shrimps with lobster sauce, chicken with cashews and orange beef for about $16 before tax and tip.  Good by any measure.

Friday, June 15, 2013
For the second day, I stayed home from work trying to clear my head before we take off for a big trip.  On Sunday, the Upper West Side’s Power Couple are flying to Greece, then proceeding over land to Bulgaria and Macedonia, which for political reasons is internationally designated as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, abbreviated as FYROM.  This trip has a strong historic and cultural bent, so there will be very little exploration of sandy beaches and quiet coves.

The biggest challenge posed by this trip is in my packing. For the first time, I’m going away for more than three days relying only upon carry-on luggage.  In the past, it hasn’t been an excess of caution that bulked up my luggage, but the sheer size of clothing needed to cover my (how might you say?) large frame.  Additionally, I don’t need an excuse to perspire, so my cotton casual wear needs laundering after each use.  Rather than spending my time doing laundry by hand or searching for laundries in foreign settings or tolerating the extraordinary expense of having the hotel do my laundry, I usually packed loads of underwear and shirts to carry me through most, if not all, of my days on the road.  That dictated large luggage, needing to be checked through, risking delays, loss, confusion and, these days, extra fees.  There is another alternative for some folks that I would not use.  They shed clothing as they travel, starting out with usable but worn items that they abandon stop-by-stop.  That eliminates laundry as a concern, and, at least, towards the end of the trip, frees up lots of room in their luggage.  However, my clothing, even underwear and T-shirts, are generally in very good condition, carefully selected in the first place and treated carefully thereafter.  How can you throw them away?

Anticipating this trip, I’ve taken steps to go all carry-on.  First, I bought a wheeled duffel bag, inches shorter than the one I have, and therefore allowed into the passenger cabin.  Next, I purchased underwear and polo shirts made of man-made fibers, less bulky than my cotton goods and easily washed and dried in a hotel bathroom, just the way that ladies have done since the Israelites crossed the Sinai Desert.  That translates into transporting six to eight pieces of clothing instead of 20, and having them available on a rapid turnaround.  Finally, I bought small containers of shaving cream and mousse, the only cosmetic/grooming items that I normally possess in sizes that would be condemned to the garbage by our friends at the Transportation Security Administration.  I have to admit some pain in the purchase of these shrunken containers.  For decades, I cruised the aisles of supermarkets and pharmacies, reading labels, comparing ingredients and prices, choosing the best bang for my buck.  As a result, my pantries and cabinets hold multiple packages of the items that I require to look and feel lovely, usually in large packages reflecting the best value.  Now, instead, I went shopping for package size, rather than unit-price, to fill up my toiletry kit to government standards.  It hurt, at first, but, starting at the check-in at JFK on Sunday, I hope that the benefits of plastic clothing and miniaturization will outweigh the extra initial expense.  Stay tuned.   

Friday, June 7, 2013

Rolling Along

Monday, June 3, 2013
I reconciled with Dim Sum Go Go, 5 East Broadway, which I long touted as the best dim sum joint in Chinatown.  However, on my last visit, August 30, 2012, I had the worst and most expensive scallion pancake that I ever had.  This kept me away for the next 9 months, until today when I was meeting someone for lunch who knew his way around Chinatown, but had never been to Dim Sum Go Go.  We each ordered the dim sum assorted platter ($11.95), with 11 pieces, and it was as good as I recalled from happier days at Dim Sum Go Go, each piece unique in shape, color and contents.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013
New York City introduced a bike sharing program last week.  You can participate by purchasing an annual membership or daily or weekly access.  Many bike parking stations have been installed in Manhattan and Brooklyn, although a look at the map shows that they are all concentrated where the white people live.  The program is intended “for short, quick trips around NYC,” with overtime charges incurred for rides longer than 30 or 45 minutes.  I guess this is partially intended to get people off busses and subways for simple commutes.  Objections arose even before the program began, before any tourist on wheels encountered a garbage truck.  Most objections centered on the parking stations, 50 to 100 feet long.  Neighbors jumped up to complain about the unsightliness or the sanitation hazard of a fixed object on the street collecting schmutz at its base.  The more political folks objected to the sponsorship of the program, named CitiBike, by CitiCorp, a/k/a Too Big To Fail, with the bikes prominently displaying the name CitiBike.

Right now, I hope the program succeeds under almost any name, in order to lessen air pollution and ease traffic, although there may be more emergency vehicles running around picking cyclists off the pavement.  I won’t be using it for several reasons.  My commute to work is reasonable, relatively comfortable.  Were I to pedal even one block, a cool shower and highly-absorbent towels would have to be made immediately available.  Also, I own a bicycle, which has resided quietly in the basement of Palazzo di Gotthelf for about a decade.  In fact, it is the fourth bicycle that I have owned in the last 30 years.  Two were stolen and one I sold during the years when I rode frequently on weekends in Manhattan, during that arid period before I met The Love Of My Life.

In those days, I usually spent weekend afternoons, if the weather allowed, pedalling my carcass up and down Manhattan Island, dipping in and out of Central Park.  Often, the last leg of the day would take me to Zabar’s or Fairway (on the Upper West Side) to re-stock my kitchen in East Midtown.  As a single man at the time, awaiting Cupid’s arrow, I went out on dates – many blind dates, rarely second dates.  I recall particularly one Tuesday evening about 20 years ago.  I had a first date with a woman who lived on the Upper West Side; I almost always arranged first dates on a weeknight because I would usually be generally presentable after a day at my desk.  We met and sat down somewhere for a drink.  I admitted that I was not my normal bubbling-with-joy self because my bicycle was stolen that weekend.

“When?” she asked.  
“Sunday afternoon.”
“In front of Fairway.”
“What time?”
“About four thirty.”
“Was it red?”
“Yes, a red mountain bike.”
“I saw it.”
“What did you see?”
“I saw the guy steal the bike.  He broke the lock and took it away.”
“In front of Fairway, in the middle of the afternoon, on a nice day, and no one did anything?  I was in the store walking around in a helmet and biking shorts and no one said anything?”

I left soon thereafter on foot, needless to say, and, although the woman was tall, slender and dark-haired, not unlike the one I married before and the one I married after, I never saw her again.

While I never expected to eat at over 200 Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, I’m more surprised by the number of new hotels I’ve seen all over the area.  There are more than 10 new, almost-new or brand new hotels where there were none in the recent past.  The Wyndham Garden Chinatown, 93 Bowery, for instance, is open 6 months and stands on the site of the Music Palace, a Chinese-language movie theater, the last one in Manhattan, which closed in 1998.

The hotel contains the Elevate Restaurant & Lounge, and, in case you forgot, Jake, it’s Chinatown, which means that Elevate is a Japanese restaurant located in the basement.  The place was near-empty; a man left shortly after I entered, and two women later, leaving me alone.  Its underground location was reinforced by low lighting and the beige grasscloth-covered walls did not manage to brighten up the room. Elevate has two menus, "regular” and Japanese.  Since I was on duty, I ordered from the Japanese menu – Edomae Style Sushi ($26).  A little research tells me that Edomae means in the manner of Edo, the old name for Tokyo, where the bay yields many of the most popular fish and shellfish found in sushi.  The platter contained 2 pieces each of tuna, salmon, yellow tail, striped bass, and white tuna (something new to me), a tuna roll cut into six small pieces, and standing cylinders of salmon roe and something awfully close to real (black) caviar.  While waiting for the food to be served, I realized that I might be taking a huge risk eating raw fish in a place that did almost no business, and I considered calling the waitress back and asking for a Kobe beef burger.  However, I placed my mission over personal safety concerns and persevered.  The pieces of fish were good, the tuna roll fair.  But, unless the white tuna and the near-caviar were particularly costly, the meal was not worth the price.  You might want to Elevate down to the basement, though, if you value your privacy.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013
Chinatown market report: Bing cherries are holding at 2 lbs. for $3. Large size Queen Anne cherries are widely available at 2 lbs. for $4, and that’s where I put my money today.  
Friday, June 7, 2013
Today is the court’s Annual Caren Aronowitz Unity in Diversity Program, where the courthouse’s stunning rotunda is occupied by about two dozen groups of court employees and related outsiders serving food rooted in their identity, or simply expressing their generosity.  It is a gourmand’s delight and always threatens any semblance of self-control that remains to me.  I tried to pace myself and managed to ingest, in bite-sized portions, a dumpling, quiche, Vietnamese summer roll, Mediterranean cigar, sushi, potato knish, ribs, shepherd's pie, Irish sausage, smoked salmon, Korean chicken, southern fried chicken, sticky bun, jerk chicken, shrimp lo mein, franks in a blanket, macaroni salad, before ending with tiramisu, a chocolate chip cookie, chocolate pinwheel, and a cream puff.  All for diversity.  In fact, I had both a Diet Coke and a Diet Pepsi to wash it down. 

These offerings, among others, were provided by Puerto Ricans, Jews, African-Americans, Irish, Dominicans, gays, Italians, Asians, women, and Catholics.  Canadians apparently went unrepresented, as did plain old Americans, who, almost by definition, do not live or work in New York City.  When a program like this is conducted outside of certain urban areas, it usually represents an effort by Them appealing to Us by displaying their folkloric and culinary charms, as well as their lack of horns, tails, extra limbs and noxious breath.  In New York City, however, Them is Us, in that Us is no more than a bunch of Them.  This does not necessarily breed harmony and congeniality; it simply makes intergroup battles less conclusive because none of Us can dominate all of Them.  So, I spent my lunch hour celebrating diversity after a fashion in recognizing that there is, at least, a place for Them in the kitchen.