July 11, 2012
It’s fascinating to watch the focus of interest move from one gentrifying neighborhood to another in greater metropolitan New York. Once upon a time it was SoHo and Park Slope, Brooklyn; today it’s DUMBO, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and the Lower East Side, where hip shops, stylish new hotels and restaurants have replaced garment workshops and pushcarts selling fruit and vegetables.
Days gone by in that neighborhood—east of the Bowery and south of Houston Street—come alive at the Tenement Museum in an Orchard Street apartment house where a long chain of German Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants tried to make good in America. Tours of the building reveal how they lived from 1863 to 1935 with no electric lights, heating or indoor plumbing. Some made it out of the Lower East Side, while others who couldn’t manage to pay the rent moved to even worse neighborhoods.
The Tenement Museum also offers walking tours, one of which I recently joined. The first question I asked the guide on the pavement outside was what exactly is a tenement? I wanted to know because I live in what I assume was a West Village tenement building, characterized by its layout—two apartments in back, two in the front, on each floor—a fire escape climbing the facade and a tight, narrow internal staircase. The guide elaborated on the definition, describing a tenement as a building housing three or more unrelated families, originally with exterior wooden steps linking the floors, where housewives dried the laundry.
In the 1860s the Lower East Side was deluged by a wave of immigrants from Germany; known as Klein Deutschland, it had the fifth-largest German-speaking population among cities in the world at the time. The garment industry provided jobs, along with cigar factories and pushcarts. At 86 Orchard Street, a sign that says Max Feinberg identifies a brick building that now hosts a chichi Mexican restaurant as the former home of Majestic Hosiery.
Around the corner at 133 Allen Street, where there was once an elevated train and the city is building a bike lane—back to the future, as they say—we stopped in front of the Church of Grace to Fujianese. It’s a Christian worship place for fairly recent immigrants from China’s Fujian Province, but before that the building served as a bathhouse for the district’s great unwashed.
More characteristic of the Lower East Side in the late 19th century are the myriad synagogues tucked between storefronts like the Kehila Kedosha Janina temple at 280 Broome Street, home to a small, obscure sect of Judaism that grew up in Greece during the Roman era, and the former Congregation Poel Zedek Anshe Ileya, now a Seventh-Day Adventist church at the corner of Forsyth and Delancey streets, which actually began its long life as a German Presbyterian Church complete with a rose window around 1890.
Across the street Sara Roosevelt Park, named for FDR’s mother and opened in 1934, runs in a narrow strip between East Houston and Canal streets. The city established the park at a time when it hoped to provide one acre of green space for every 600 people. Now the ratio is more like one acre for every 12,000 in the densely packed neighborhood, and the park has welcomed serendipitous new enterprises like the Wah Mei bird garden and the M’Finda Kalunga community garden, opened in 1982 partly to commemorate an abandoned nearby African cemetery and partly to stem drug dealing that was rampant in the area.
Just east of the park at the intersection of Rivington and Eldridge streets, we stood in front of the University Settlement, a welfare organization founded by wealthy, educated New Yorkers in 1886 to aid immigrants by providing education and social services. It continues to do so now, though the clientele has changed since the neighborhood’s German immigrant days.
The Tenement Museum walking tour lasts for two hours and covers much more ground than this. I was exhausted by the time I finished. Fortunately, places for refreshment abound in the neighborhood, from cool cafés like 88 Orchard to Yonah Schimmel’s knishery at 137 East Houston, which has been baking authentic knishes filled with potato, cabbage and spinach since 1910.
July 3, 2012
Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia, a place where history lingers on as the spirited people of Vietnam charge into the future. I love especially its French colonial character, a vestige of decades when the tricolor waved over the country. Badly beaten by nationalist armies, the French finally pulled out of Vietnam in 1954, but the U.S. took up the battle against the same enemy in an effort to stem the spread of communism.
When the last American troops evacuated and the north and south reunited in 1973, Vietnam seemed to disappear behind the red walls of its communist regime, stagnating economically until free market reforms were instituted in 2005, stimulating an explosion of growth, with unbridled development in its wake. Saigon shot up, but Hanoi lagged somewhat behind, which helped keep its French colonial architecture and ambience intact. So travelers can still feel the subtle, seductive French-Vietnamese cultural blending that infused couture, art, literature and cuisine during the colonial era in Hanoi.
Embarked on a grand mission civilisatrice, the French colonial administration laid wide, tree-lined boulevards patterned on the Champs Élysées, installed electric lights and built villas in a hybrid style known as Norman Pagoda. With them came the language of Voltaire, Impressionist art, café society and Catholicism, a faith still practiced by an estimated six million Vietnamese.
A first stop for flâneurs is St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a neo-Gothic edifice with twin bell towers to match those of Notre Dame de Paris, completed in 1886 several blocks west of Hoan Kiem Lake. Black Flag guerrillas laid siege to the neighborhood in 1883, forcing harassed French colonists to hide in Ba Da Temple down the block; later the communists closed the cathedral, though worship resumed in 1990, reaching an annual climax at Christmas when choirs sing and little girls wearing traditional red and yellow ao dai tunics perform in a pageant.
Next catch a bicycle taxi—known as a pousse-pousse, which means push-push in French—to the Hanoi Opera House, inspired by the beautiful Palais Garnier in Paris. A yellow and white neo-Classical confection on August Revolution Square, it celebrated its centennial last year and often hosts performances by the Vietnam National Orchestra and Ballet. You have to attend an event to see the marble staircase, French murals and chandeliers inside, as well as the balcony where the Vietminh took control of the city in 1945.
Nearby is the Hotel Metropole, which opened in 1901, one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia, attracting luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on honeymoon, Graham Greene and Joan Baez, who had to take refuge in an underground shelter during U.S. bombing raids in 1972. American war correspondent Stanley Karnow saw the hotel at its nadir during the war. “Paint flaked from the ceilings, its bathroom fixtures leaked and rats scurried around its lobby,” he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam: A History.
But the Metropole re-emerged victoriously after a 1990 restoration, a perfect evocation of the colonial era, beginning with the vintage Citroën parked in the porte- cochere. The three-story lobby yields to intimate sitting rooms lined in dark, precious wood, prints, chinoiserie furniture, orchids and silk, where it’s easy to imagine men in white linen smoking opium-laced cigarettes. Additions were built to the rear, but the rooms in the old section summon up the colonial era best with elegant entryways, sitting areas and beds underneath slowly revolving ceiling fans.
It’s unwise to romanticize the colonial period, of course. French rule impoverished landowners, encouraged opium addiction and almost broke the spirit of a people with a long love of independence. All that’s behind the country now, but the French-Vietnamese style perseveres, a special enchantment for visitors to Hanoi.
June 13, 2012
This year the Hotel Astoria celebrates its 100th anniversary in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’m celebrating, too, because I got to stay there one white winter shortly after it was purchased and refurbished by the British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte in 1997. Other grand hotels may be more famous, but the Astoria holds its own place of pride among them.
A Russian icon in the Art Nouveau style on St. Isaac’s Square near the Neva River, the Astoria evokes a Belle Epoque world of grand dukes, ballerinas and Fabergé eggs. Everyone from Rasputin to Isadora Duncan stayed there, drinking tea from gold-rimmed teacups made by the czar’s favorite Lomonosov porcelain factory or swilling Russian Standard vodka at its velvet and wood-lined Kandinsky Bar.
All that was swept away by the Bolshevik Revolution, but the hotel soldiered on. Lenin gave a speech from its balcony in 1919 and during World War II Hitler planned to mark the city’s surrender in the Astoria, though Leningrad endured the 900-day German siege, proving the Führer premature.
The Astoria is sumptuous in an Old World way, not over-the-top like other modernized grand hotels, with soaring, chandelier-bedizened ceilings, voluminous swagged drapes, vanilla ice cream-colored molding and red-carpeted staircases. My room had a foyer separated from the sleeping chamber by etched-glass doors and a hand-embroidered bedspread, blissfully quiet even though its window looked directly over busy St. Isaac’s Square. There I watched snow coat the gold dome of the cathedral, sat reading Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra or dressed for the ballet at the nearby Mariinsky Theatre.
As part of the centennial celebration, special boxes at the Mariinsky are available to hotel guests, and jazz evenings return to the Astoria, a tradition begun in the 1920s. If you go, please raise a Russian Standard on the rocks in at the Kandinsky Bar. I’ll be doing the same in spirit.
June 11, 2012
Some scholars say Bermuda inspired Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Others claim it was modeled on the Mediterranean’s Corfu. But I’m pretty sure that the exiled Duke of Milan turned sorcerer in the South Pacific. “Be not afraid, the isle if full of noises,” says Prospero’s woebegotten slave Caliban, a description that admirably suits the island of Huahine about 110 miles northwest of Tahiti.
It’s a mecca for the sunburned, barefoot crew who drop out for a spell to pilot sailboats among the 130 islets that make up French Polynesia. Otherwise, most tourists head for Bora Bora with its fabled lagoon or the diver’s paradise of Rangiroa, leaving Huahine a lazy, slow-lane, off-the-beaten-track South Pacific backwater with only a handful of resorts, a half dozen sleepy villages chiefly populated by mangy dogs and one main town, Fare, where there’s a ferry port, airstrip and hordes of mosquitoes.
Huahine is actually two islands—Huahine Nui, the bigger one, and littler Huahini Iti—connected by a bridge. Both are ringed by skinny sand spits known as motus, where islanders grow watermelons with sweet, yellow meat. The interior is all volcanic mountains carpeted in tropical jungle that can only be broached with machetes, where early settlers, possibly from Samoa, built temples—or marae. Now atmospheric ruins covered in creepers, they are the island’s only tourist attraction, apart from yacht harbors, wild beaches and noises that I started to hear almost as soon as I got there.
I hove-to in a perfect Lord Jim sort of place, the Pension Enite outside Fare, where the room rate included a perfect French Polynesian dinner, headlined by steamed clams, sautéed fish and a half carafe of table wine from Burgundy or the Rhone; oenophiles are lucky for whatever they get on Huahine. My room in a garden-framed bungalow had well-mopped linoleum floors, Polynesian fabric curtains and a slowly circling ceiling fan. Still, it was hot, so I left the door open.
I was in the middle of a Jungian dream about my childhood when the sound of heavy breathing made me rise up from unconsciousness and open my eyes to see two bare feet underneath the curtain at the room’s entrance. Size 3, maybe. Then a little hand reached to the hook just inside the door, where most guests must have left valuables in the past, though I didn’t. My money belt was under my pillow and I still marvel over the instinct that brought me out of a deep, tropical sleep to shriek get out of here in high-school French.
Pat, pat, pat went the little feet, in retreat. The next morning, I told the pension’s unflappable French proprietor about it and found that the little sneak thief had made off with the lower half of my two-piece swimming suit, which I’d left to dry on a line outside. God knows what he wanted with my bikini bottom.
After that a lot more weird things happened to me on Huahine, not least getting chased by a pack of wild dogs on a path leading through the jungle to temple ruins and some misadventures on a motor-scooter ride around Huahini Nui. I could tell you about them, but instead will call to mind what Prospero said at the end of the play: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”
June 7, 2012
Did anybody else see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the Memorial Day weekend? Somebody must have because the film, which opened on May 4, continues to do well at the box office, and that’s compared with a slew of big-budget blockbusters—Men in Black 3, Battleship, The Avengers—that have come along since then. Marigold’s popularity has been credited to John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love, and to its 24-karat gold cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, all of them over 60. (The film is based on These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach about a group of English oldsters who move to a retirement hotel in India.) But the movie’s reception is also seen as proof that there’s a market for movies about people who aren’t young and beautiful, just interesting—as are the characters in Marigold, coping with end-of-life transitions in a drastically foreign place.
And let’s not forget another major factor in Marigold’s success: India, specifically the western state of Rajasthan, long a favorite with travelers for its mighty hill forts, bedizened palaces, teeming markets and lost desert villages. The hotel in the book—Moggach called it the Dunroamin—is located in the dreamy lake city of Udaipur, though the movie was filmed in Jaipur to the north. I recognized the setting immediately because I began a tour of Rajasthan there ten years ago.
It was in Jaipur—known as the Pink City for the color it was painted when England’s Prince Albert came to visit in 1876—that I learned how to take wild rides in auto-rickshaws without fear, tasted my spinach paneer at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, climbed to Amber Palace built by Raja Man Singh in 1592, and had a fine gin and tonic in the style of Prince Albert at the Polo Bar in the Rambagh Palace Hotel, where the Maharani of Jaipur lived until 1957. And I only have to look as far as my bedroom to remember a daylong shopping expedition aimed at finding the perfect quilted cotton spread, decorated in woodblock prints, a specialty in Jaipur. Mine is in shades of blue—soft and beautiful, albeit somewhat threadbare now.
I went on from there to Udaipur, the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Fort and Jaisalmer, the last Thar Desert outpost before the Pakistani border. But Jaipur remains most deeply etched in my memory, which is why I took so much pleasure in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The $13 ticket price is a small amount to pay for a trip to Rajasthan.