March 25, 2012
I spent the first few months I lived in Paris—from 2003 to 2006—seeing almost every sight in the Blue Guide, but after a while I stopped running around and discovered that the true pleasure of living in the City of Light is having the luxury of taking it for granted. A good day started with un café at the bar on the corner, a little shopping and then an afternoon at the American Library in Paris.
On rue du Général Camou near the Eiffel Tower, the library is unknown to most tourists, but deeply embedded in the hearts of expats from dozens of countries, not just the United States, who sometimes need to read and think in English. A quarter of its 2,500 members are French, in fact, drawn to the library’s Anglophone-friendly 120,000-book collection. Compared with other libraries in Paris, it is a quiet, uncrowded oasis offering two to three special events every week, including children’s programs, book groups and author lectures.
With a constant stream of writers from the U.S. passing through Paris, the library serves as a literary center. “There is something about an expatriate library—a tentacle, an emissary, a piece of another civilization residing in an alien one—that is very moving,” says Adam Gopnik, author of the acclaimed essay collection Paris to the Moon.
The not-for-profit library was founded in 1920 as a home for 1.5 million books sent to soldiers in World War I trenches by the American War Service. Its motto reflected the origins: After the darkness, the light of books. American writers who began flocking to Paris after the war were frequent visitors. Young Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish spent time there in the 20s; Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway were among its first trustees and both contributed to its still-published newsletter, Ex Libris. When an even deeper darkness fell over Paris during the World War II German occupation, the library managed to stay open and uncensored against all odds because the French director’s son was married to the daughter of Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval. Unbeknown to the authorities, it lent books to Jews banned from other libraries, though a staff member was shot by the Gestapo.
After the war, a new generation of writers like James Jones, Mary McCarthy and Richard Wright could be found in the stacks and satellite branches opened around Paris. In the 1950s, when the library occupied quarters on the Champs-Elysées, it was the scene of a tense standoff between staff and anti-Communist censors sent by Senator Joseph McCarthy to eradicate Red books from American libraries in Europe.
Its current 7th Arrondissement home was renovated last summer, but still seems unprepossessing compared with nearby Belle Époque landmarks like Jules Lavirotte’s flamboyant Beaux-Arts apartment house at 29 Avenue Rapp. You have to go inside to appreciate its treasures: big biography and mystery collections, DVDs, 500 periodicals, a computerized catalog, books for teens and children. The stacks are open (though you have to be a member to check books out) and eccentrically arranged with secret nooks scattered throughout. Librarians often can be found reading to groups of children; habitués come in for their morning look at the International Herald Tribune; best-selling writers research works-in-progress, rarely recognized by people at the next carrel.
Anyone who grew up in an American town with a good public library will feel at home as soon as he or she walks in. “It feels like a little piece of the U.S.,” says director Charles Trueheart, who came to the library in 2007 after serving as Paris correspondent for The Washington Post.
American tourists, too, are welcome, Trueheart says. It’s a good place to check e-mail and research the next leg of a trip, surrounded by Anglophones and great books in the mother tongue.
February 13, 2012
They say that love makes the world go round. I don‘t know if that‘s true, but you sure do find it in surprising places.
For instance, in 1999 when NATO began bombing Belgrade to stop Serbian aggression in Kosovo, the capital rose up in an unusual act of defiance by organizing a mass wedding.
The ensuing years brought peace to Serbia, but that didn’t call a halt to the mass nuptials, now an annual May occasion. Sightseeing in Belgrade a few years ago, I emerged from my hotel to find the wedding procession underway with over 100 couples headed down Prince Mihailo Street on foot and in old-fashioned, horse-drawn carriages to tie the knot at City Hall—some having decided to marry precipitously so they could take part in the celebration. Extended families, witnesses, ring-bearers and flower girls paraded with them. And every bride wore a fancy white gown, though I hoped an ambulance was standing by because bulging stomachs made it abundantly apparent that they weren’t all maidens.
Somewhat more romantic is the Matchmaking Festival held every September in Lisdoonvarna, a village in western Ireland. It grew up the 19th century when local matchmakers gained renown for their skills in marriage arrangement. Women came to the little spa town near the confluence of the Aille and Gowlaun Rivers to take the waters, purportedly a cure for boils, abscesses and rheumatism. In autumn, with the hay in and the turf cut, bachelor-farmers joined them from lonesome country cottages where a woman‘s touch was desperately needed.
There were always more men than women, according to Willie Daly, the last remaining official matchmaker in the county. “All the men are left because all the women have gone off to Dublin or London or America,” he told me. “They’re good-looking, but a little shy. Some of them haven’t put their arms around a woman since their mother died.”
Internet dating sites have lately taken the place of matchmakers. But the festival persists, attracting thousands every year to what is billed as the biggest single’s event in Europe with plenty of Irish music and whisky to make sparks fly.
Another recipe for romance comes from Alaska, where unmarried guys proliferate, originally drawn by construction of the 800-mile oil pipeline in the 1970‘s. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 114 unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women in America‘s 49th state, way above average.
The statistics weren‘t lost on Susie Carter, who started setting up unattached male friends with women on a casual basis. The need turned out to be so pressing that she launched AlaskaMen magazine, followed by a website, which features candidates with pictures and box numbers so that interested women can write them. To keep things honest, Carter requires the men to inform her when they find matches and updates the list once they’re taken.
It would be just another dating service were it not for the geographical focus. If you’ve ever been to Alaska, you know what I mean. Whales and grizzlies aren’t the only hunks in the Last Frontier. Think fishermen, lumberjacks, dogsled drivers, backcountry homesteaders; even lawyers and accountants have bulging biceps. But a few jaded Alaskan women offered this caveat: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
February 2, 2012
Over 1.5 million people take the train between New York and Washington every year. Some do it so often it almost doesn’t seem like traveling. They get on and zone out; three hours later—actually two hours and 45 minutes on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express inaugurated in 2000—they’re in D.C.
But 225 miles of scenery lie between the Big Apple and our nation’s capital along tracks once operated by the venerable old Pennsylvania Railroad that run roughly parallel to Interstate 95.
Next time you take the train keep your eyes open. There are plenty of sights to see:
1. All aboard at Penn Station, New York, the slap-dash modern terminal below Madison Square Garden, a far cry from beautiful Beaux Arts Grand Central (celebrating 100 years of service next year).
At Penn you have to close your eyes to imagine what it was like when it was built of pink granite in 1910 with a waiting room modeled on the Baths of Caracalla. Its demolition in 1963 was lamented by architects, including Yale’s Vincent Scully, who wrote, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”
2. The New York Jets and Giants play football at the Meadowlands near the mouths of the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. Passing by on the train you wouldn’t know that the 20,000-acre wetland is infamously polluted, the perfect place for Tony Soprano to dump dead bodies. Instead, you see high reeds and water channels visited by snowy egrets and Peregrine falcons—indications that the natural wonders of the region may get a second chance, thanks to an ambitious plan mounted by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
3. The Acela train doesn’t stop in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital. But you’ll know you’re there when you see the big neon sign on the steel-framed Delaware River Bridge. With 9-foot high capitals and 7-foot high lower-case letters, it says, “Trenton Makes—The World Takes.” How‘s that for grandiosity? But back in 1935 when the present sign was erected (replacing an earlier version affixed in 1911) there was truth in the claim. Trenton was a major industrial center, producing steel, rubber and linoleum.
In 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware River nearby for a surprise attack on English-employed Hessian soldiers garrisoned in Trenton. As the train goes over the river about 10 miles southeast of McConkey’s Ferry Inn (now the Washington Crossing Historic Park), it’s worth remembering how he and his ragtag Continental Army turned the tide of the revolution that snow-stormy Christmas Day at Trenton.
4. You get a fine view of the skyline as the train approaches 30th Street Station, Philadelphia. If the windows opened you might even hear monkeys chatter and elephants trumpet because the track goes right by the gate of the Philadelphia Zoo, American‘s first, opened in 1874.
On your way out of town watch for Victorian Boathouse Row, a National Historic Landmark on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, still a major rowing center that holds a big regatta on the Fourth of July.
5. When you reach Wilmington the train passes close to Old Swedes Church, built in 1698 by Scandinavian immigrants who came to the Delaware River delta before English Quakers settled Philadelphia. With a mossy, old cemetery said to be haunted, the church still celebrates Swedish St. Lucia’s Day in early December.
6. There’s fine open duck-hunting country south of Wilmington and you get your first real look at the Chesapeake Bay as the train crosses the mouth of the Susquehanna River at little Havre de Grace.
7. Then it‘s on to Baltimore where mostly all you see are the thick granite walls of the 7,000-foot long Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, built in 1873.
8. Little foretells the train’s arrival in Washington, D.C., a city with almost no skyline, its uncontested high point the 555-foot top of the Washington Monument.
Collect your belongings as you pass through the grimy train shed at the back of Union Station, then disembark into Neo-Classical glory, thanks to an Act of Congress that mandated restoration of the terminal in 1988. The front door is better than the back, opening directly onto the U.S. Capitol.
December 29, 2011
I have always extolled the virtues of traveling light. No matter how long the trip, take one bag you can carry with enough for a week, then go to the laundromat. Traveling with just one manageable piece of luggage means you don’t have to tip bellboys, spring for taxis or pay increasingly strict excess baggage fees at the airport.
Mimi Tanner, a lifestyle expert and author of Declutter Fast, agrees. “The Accidental Tourist, that wonderful novel by Anne Tyler, is about a travel writer who urges his readers to take only one carry-on bag with specific items to make packing as easy as possible. I love his recommendations, and he’s absolutely right,” says Tanner. “If you can go with the clothes on your back and one change in your suitcase, you’re destined for great things.”
But it goes deeper than that. Traveling light is a state of mind engendering freedom, mobility and self reliance. More than anything else, it allowed me to cut the moorings and move abroad, to Paris for three years, Beijing for six months and Rome for three years. During this extremely extended trip, I lived in furnished apartments, moving in with little more than clothes. I left the stuff I’d accumulated in a spooky Hollywood storage unit and after a while didn‘t even miss it.
Before each move I purged my belongings, a habit very useful to travelers because packing light is in a sense very much like purging. Fitness and life balance coach Chalene Johnson says such decluttering includes getting rid of both unneeded material objects (a bag of clothes for each new bag you bring home), unfruitful time commitments and false friends. “When your life has less clutter the things that are most important will stand out,“ Johnson writes.
“Cutting through clutter is exhilarating and exciting,” adds Tanner. “It gives us that sense of accomplishment that encourages us to do even more and frees us for the great tasks we know where are capable of.”
I learned about material and spiritual decluttering from a Tai Chi master-hair stylist in New York’s West Village who observed the ritual of elimination every New Year’s Eve instead of going to a party. One January I discovered that he’d even pulled out his kitchen and was taking meals at a macro-biotic place around the corner.
I never took minimalism to this extreme, but I did adopt ritual purging on December 31, thereby traveling light into the New Year and never having to deliberate over what to take on a trip.
What weighs us down and keeps us stuck in place is excess. We don’t need it. So this New Year’s Eve be it resolved to travel light through life and the world.
November 8, 2011
When I read in USA Today that Occupy Wall Street is the hottest new tourist attraction in New York City, I had to go down to Zuccotti Park. The crowds are there, all right, drawn as much by the rising World Trade Center next door as by the encampment; the two make an odd couple. But I wonder how many visitors know why protesters chose to pitch their tents in the small brick square, or what story the site tells about real estate development in New York.
Like about 400 other little green spaces in Manhattan, Zuccotti Park is privately owned and therefore not subject to city curfews. Its proprietor, the international commercial real estate company Brookfield Properties, makes the rules, keeping it open 24/7.
Brookfield acquired Zuccotti Park in 1996 when it bought One Liberty Plaza, a dour behemoth of a skyscraper north of the square, then spearheaded an $8 million renovation to repair damage caused during 9/11. In 2005 benches were laid and 50 honey locust trees were planted. Seward Johnson’s Double Check, a sculpture of a businessman verifying the contents of his briefcase, was returned to the park after restoration necessitated by the disaster.
The refurbished park was a welcome oasis in the Financial District, though now, because of the protest, it looks like a state park campground on the Fourth of July. Much has been made about trash, noise and unhygienic conditions brought by Occupy Wall Street protesters. But it looked to me about as ship-shape as a tent encampment can be, with a neo-Woodstock vibe and a kitchen dispensing peanut butter sandwiches.
I talked to a few participants, sightseers and passersby, confirming my sense that the carnival nature of the event has eclipsed whatever message it had.
So I looked elsewhere for meaning and found it in the architectural history of the neighborhood.
Real estate maneuvering has long been par for the course in New York and the buildings around Zuccotti Park are a textbook example.
Join me in a little tour, aided by Michael Leapman’s Companion Guide to New York and the American Institute of Architects’ Guide to New York.
1. Approach Zuccotti Park by walking south from Chambers Street along Trinity Place. That way you get to see a replica of the cross found in the World Trade Center debris, Ground Zero under construction and the mossy graveyard at Trinity Church.
2. Stand on the south side of the elevated piazza at One Liberty Plaza to look over the tent encampment at Zuccotti Park and wonder what people saw from the windows of the Singer Building and Tower, a 1908 landmark that formerly occupied the block, demolished in 1970 so U.S. Steel Company could build the bleak tower behind you. At the time the area of a proposed skyscraper’s site dictated how high it could rise. So U.S. Steel acquired the square across Liberty Street, adding its three-quarters of an acre to the total, thereby allowing One Liberty Plaza 54 floors. When Brookfield bought the building it also got Zuccotti Park as a front yard.
3. Cross Broadway on the east side of One Liberty Plaza to see one of the first skyscrapers built after World War II. You can’t miss the 51-story Marine Midlands Bank Building because its mailbox is Isamu Noguchi’s massive red cube, balanced on one of its corners. Look up to be enchanted by the building’s evanescent window-paneled side.
4. South of Zuccotti Park, the U.S. Realty Building exemplifies the best impulses of early 20th century commercial architecture. Its towers and gables were designed to harmonize with nearby Neo-Gothic Trinity Church.
5. Then look across Broadway at its neighbor and contemporary, the infamous Equitable Building. Both first-generation skyscrapers were built when New York was just beginning to adopt the steel frame construction style pioneered in Chicago by Louis Sullivan. But when unveiled, the Equitable’s bulky, sunless, 38-story twin towers horrified New Yorkers, resulting in city restrictions on the height of new skyscrapers, subsequently circumvented, of course.
6. There’s a Starbucks at the intersection of Liberty and Nassau Streets if you need an espresso to get your head around American capitalism. You just can’t hold it down in New York; get a double.