Every day life, food & strangeness in a big city

Category: Strange days, stranger people

Baddie and the Galette des Rois


“Be a King / Queen for a day!” – an utterly irresistible invitation if I ever heard one. And it involved some golden-looking puff pastry called “galette des rois.” So lured, I followed the seductive whisper from the homepage to the actual physical home of the Galeries Lafayette Berlin. None too soon, I stood before a small improvised counter in their gourmet section, bountifully  laden with all manners of gleaming galettes: marzipan, chocolate and hazelnut, or apple flavour, all beckoned equally. As I reached out to the tasting tray to enjoy a free sample of the latter, a trio of blushing girls asked the madame for assistance. After some confusion, it turned out that they were not looking for a French “galette” but for the rhyming German “toilette”, proving indubitably that sometimes life is sillier than fiction.

In any case, it wasn’t long before I was the pround owner of a galette au pommes, which I proceeded to scoff down with coffee and glee. Oh bless its yummy fluffy pastry nature!  Soon this much (little) was left:


Feeling generous, I decided to share the rest with Mr. B.  So he had a slice, and I had a slice… and spotted something black peeking out from mine. Now, you, gentle reader, might have recoiled at the sight, and thrown away the piece of galette in disgust. You might have thought: “Bug!” or somesuch abomination. Not I! My first (and only) thought was: hmm… maybe there’s a raisin in there… and proceeded to joyfully bite in. But hark! My teeth encountered a hard obstacle – one end quite white and ceramic and… “Oh God!” I thought rapidly. “Someone’s false teeth?” But no. It was long and thin and … “Some object they used for cake baking? And dropped in by mistake?” I was getting pretty nauseous by this point, so I quickly spit it out…

… and discovered it was a figurine of a stout little man. Dressed in yellow:


“Oooohhh” I cooed in total incomprehension. Mr. B looked at me like I had lost all my marbles. “Uhm… what do you think it is?” we stared at each other. “He’s not the king, that’s for sure” he offered decisively. “Maybe he’s… a citizen” I mused. “Maybe it’s a game, and there are others hidden in the other galettes. Like, his people. His wife …. His horse…. Maybe a castle!” Mr. B was by this time snickering and I’m pretty sure I heard “a castle” repeated in a disrespectful tone. “Or maybe I am special.  And I will get a special prize from the Galeries for finding the little man. Like a 500 Euro prize!” I was getting more and more excited about this. “I must know what it all means!” So of course, I went to check it out online.

This is what I found out: that the galettes are traditionally eaten in France around the beginning of January in honour of the three Mage Kings and the epiphany (hence the “rois” appelation). That there are different types and fillings customary in different regions of France. That master pattisiers from  places such as Ladurée and Lenôtre come up with most original and mouth-watering interpretations of this dessert. That there’s a loooooooooooong history behind the whole thing And while they were even served at the table of Louis XIV, after the revolution the whole monarchy-symbolism thing has gone a bit sour… but you can read all about it somewhere else. Well I guess the connection to royalty is still represented by the fact that the galettes come with a shiny golden paper crown. This I tried to place around the pastry and then on top but couldn’t get to retain shape so I sheepishly ended up throwing away.

But most importantly, that traditionally a figurine of baby Jesus was hidden inside – and whoever found it had mysterious responsibilities – never got to reading that far, so if anyone ever finds out exactly what those responsibilities might be, do let me know. Some time ago though, someone decided to switch baby Jesus to some other theme-based figurines… Including smurfs and geese, according to my in-depth research. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, there’s nothing unsual about finding such trinkets – called fèves – in a galette. For those of you who play Trivial Pursuit, there’s even a name for the impetus to collect them: “favophilie“. And no, sadly it does not come with a prize from Galeries Lafayette.


On Gardeners

They say there’s a thin girl living in every fat girl’s body. In me, however, what is deeply, shamefully hidden, is the dream of being a competent gardener. Gardeners, especially if you ask the average British person, are the epitome of all that is good. During their mild summer evenings and long weekends, they can be found pottering around in their little green patch, outfitted with a charming, wide-brimmed straw hat, a pair of gardening gloves and a flowery apron. They will hum as happily as solitary bumblebees and smile as warmly as sun-kissed daisies. Come Monday, they will exchange said outfit for a dark three-piece suit and start a long commute to their office. Fortunately, work will be little more than a blissful space where they can meet fellow enthusiasts. No tea-break will go by without an animated conversation on the state of their darling hydrangeas or the fertility of their cherry trees, and advice will be swapped on the best fertilizers or the recipes to get rid of pests. Gardeners are even-tempered, and tend to take things calmly, whether rain or sunshine. They are industrious, gentle creators, basking in the love of their vegetal offspring. Such a communion comes naturally. Or does it?

It would certainly appear that way – perhaps because what no one likes to talk about are the black sheep of the talented gardening family. Although, in all honesty, a single good look around would reveal that they are legion. The ones who, despite their best intentions, make a right big mess of it, time after time. The ones who weep in the shadows, wondering why their fairy godmothers could not award them at least one green thumb. The clumsy, the careless, and the downright criminal. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it.  I myself belong to this dark side and so may have the questionable pleasure of introducing my blighted relatives to you, one by one.

First, there is the lazy gardener. This distant cousin of the good gardener enjoys having a green oasis, yet would prefer to get no mud on his well-manicured hands, or let even one droplet of sweat mar his smooth brow. The lazy gardener could, of course, employ someone to do his dirty work for him, yet more often than not the solution to the problem seems to lie closer to home. If you ask for his secret, he might advise you to produce a few infants, pray fervently that they grow up at an alarming rate, and then start bribing them with candy in exchange for mowing the lawn and pruning your plants. Small children adore dirt anyway, and in order to develop social skills, what better playmates than a few bugs and twitching worms? Exercise is also necessary, and carrying big heavy water pots will serve to develop those tiny muscles. It’s a win-win situation, and his children will thank him for it later.

Equally reluctant to don the gloves and pick up the shears and shovels is the laid-back gardener. She will look out her window to the wilderness that used to be a neat little garden and now abounds with rodents of all size and shapes, birds ranging from shy sparrows to plump pigeons, and all manner of other creatures, and grin indulgently. The uncut grass will grow to savanna-like proportions, and foxes will twitch in outrage and take offence at the merest suggestion that the wall is not theirs to patrol day and night, or the ground theirs to burrow in. The small stone fountain will be chipped and full of cobwebs, but the lively robin will still love to bathe in it, wings a-flutter, after a good rainfall. The rosemary bush may be something out of a witch’s tale, crawling with spiders, but that’s all part of the derelict charm. The laid-back gardener will glance on it all and find it good.

Last but not least comes the worst of the lot – the garden killer. This specimen need only look at a plant with an ounce of interest, to ensure its speedy and certain demise. The garden killer means well, yet somehow manages to achieve disastrous results. His are all the dreary empty pots of flowers on the concrete balcony, cruel reminders of the relentless heat of summer and the unexplainable withering that followed. His is the incriminating, empty patch of scorched earth on the lawn. That patch that never fully recovered after he thought it might be a great idea to grill directly on the grass. Also his are the nervous-looking thin blades of grass emerging from said bald spot, after desperate attempts involving countless packets of seeds and sprinklings of purified water. His are the shriveled roots, the fly-ridden stalks, and the yellowing leaves. His is the hope that never dies.

So there you have it then – the delinquents of the gardening community. They are the ones whose clumsiness hangs to their fingertips as firmly as burrs to a sheep’s tail. They are the secretive ones, whose love of plants never dares speak its name. Yet this need not be so. Speak up, my brothers and sisters. Raise your chins high, and wear your names as a badge of honour. For every Lord Vishnu the Creator, there must be a Shiva the Destroyer. For every spot of light, there must be one of darkness. And for every one of them, there are a thousand of us.

The Cronut

Just as I was thinking that my meetings with strangers have dwindled to an unsatisfactory degree, something that surprised even my blasé self happened this Saturday. It started with me going to my favourite bakery very, very early in the morning. It was around 8:15 when I left home and 8:45 when I got there, and quite an experience to walk through the empty streets of Soho at that time of the day. I had to go this early, you see, because they had only a week before come up with a new sweet that was an instant hit.

It’s called a Cronut, and it’s a weird breed between a croissant and a doughnut, which is apparently pretty hard to make – deepfrying all those layers of pastry is a bummer, or so say the experts.  Now all the reviews were raving about it, and since I love all their stuff I was literally drooling to get one, but the first two times I got there last week (around 1 pm and 12 respectively) they were sold out. I was helpfully told that these things need to be prepared 3 days in advance, and so the bakery has only a limited number, which usually sells out within the first hour of their opening. And that there’s always a line when they do open (at 8 am) and that some people just get the whole tray. This mythology predictably just contributed to its allure and made me want it more.

So then, here I was, on that fateful Saturday morning, and miraculously, here it was, too…Well. As I was queuing for my cronut, I must confess to my shame I did listen carefully to what the three customers ahead of me were ordering, praying fervently they wouldn’t be one of those “tray people” … when I got to the counter, and I ordered a cronut, mentioning it was the third time I came and the first time they had it, the guy smirked and uttered the dreaded words: “we’re sold out!” But no, it was just a joke (one in very bad taste!). Anyway, just to be on the safe side and get my fill of this little wonder, I ordered two. I ate one…

IMG_1905 IMG_1907 IMG_1910but  – shock! horror! – didn’t actually enjoy it so much. It’s ok, but filled with a lot of cream – which if you remember from my other post is not my thing. I actually had to force myself to eat it, and would not buy it again. Give me a DKA anytime. So anythow, now I was thinking what to do with the extra one I had, which was in a paper bag. I didn’t fancy carrying it around with me – to the NYC ballet box office, and then up to The Cloisters. The bag didn’t even have handles! So then I figured I might offer it to a homeless person, who might enjoy it and would probably not pay over $5 dollars for an over-hyped type of pastry.

Little did I know that fate had something else in store for me. Briefly after getting on the subway to go uptown, I noticed an interesting ad and got up to take a photo. As I was doing so, this girl sitting underneath it piped up to tell me she liked my dress. I smiled, thanked her, and retreated back to my seat and my book. A few minutes later, still concentrating on my reading, I had the niggling feeling that someone was trying to capture my attention. I looked up, and lo and behold! it was indeed the selfsame girl, who had been saying “hey, how are you” to me a few times now. I looked to my left, and then to my right… yep, no one around. Interesting that she would not be deterred by my book – or by anything else!

The short conversation that followed was along the following lines: she asked me where I was from – I replied Europe. She wanted to know what I was doing in NYC and how long I had been here for (a bit like an immigration officer, come to think of it). If I had made many friends. If I went to many parties. If I would like to go to parties with her. If we can hang out, since I looked very cool. If I could give her my phone numnber. If we could be friends on facebook. I did answer all her questions truthfully, and we ended up talking about what she was doing in town, and shopping, and all sorts of things. I had to disappoint on the hanging out front though, since I revealed I was about to leave New York in a few days. So I declined sharing my number … but instead,  I asked if she would like a cronut.

I’d like to think the second cronut has found a happy home. And that there are more people who would fearlessly approach strangers they deem cool.

How do people floss?

Today, as I was in the process of trying to pass my white minty mental floss through the gaps in my teeth and failed repeatedly, I realized how utterly rubbish I am at flossing. Until recently, I was a faithful user of those little tooth-pick like things with a semi-circle on top which holds a bit of string – like, say, a mini scythe / archery bow. They are practical and easy to employ, and my mom swears by them. You can’t really find them in good ol’ vampire land (or so she claims) so whenever I go home I take her a few packs containing a couple of hundred or so. Just so that she doesn’t re-use them (which she has confessed to doing in the past). Which is kinda gross.

When I came to New York City though, upon my inspection of the dental hygiene section in Duane Reade’s (local ubiquitous drugstore) I found out that the little floss-picks were very, very expensive. Well, no surprise there, everything in NYC is. But, determined not to get fleeced for the sake of my flossing, I decided to buy the slightly cheaper normal floss. I was taken a bit aback by the options – waxed versus unwaxed…(I still don’t know what that’s about) but figured that what’s nice for my legs can’t be all that terrible for my floss. Also, I was rather excited about the whole affair: on the one hand, because my mom insisted she could never use anything else than the picks, as normal floss is too impractical – so I really, really wanted to prove how much more technically gifted I was. On the other hand, this image of Dexter in the opening of the series was running through my head – all semi-sadistic yet precise floss-pulling until his fingers turn white… I wanted me some of that!

With me so far, right? so, all happy with my new dental floss which comes in a neat little packaging – I pull on it to get it out of its white box and cut it with my scissors… and then realized I might have cut too little to wrap around my fingers. Hmm. I cut more, wrap enough around my fingers, floss a gap between my front teeth – hey, this is easy, look mom, no hands!- when I realize something. I don’t want to continue flossing using the used part of the string. But in order to move it along, I would have to wrap a 1) used and 2) damp part of the floss around my finger. Yeew. I look, ponder… would scratch my head if my hands weren’t (literally) tied up. I see no other way. So I do it. And then repeat – and get more and more grossed out.

It’s not just that. It’s that the stupid floss gets slippery when wet. Also, some of my teeth (especially back ones) don’t seem to have any freaking gaps! it’s like some evil tooth fairy soldered them together when no one was paying attention one night. So I really, really need to try hard to get in there. Which involves a lot of bending and contorting, and weird hand and arm movements – but the worst of it is that my fingers tend to get in places they shouldn’t and end up scratching my gums or the roof of my mouth. And its counterpart. (Is that called the floor of the mouth?) Anyway. Also, because all this happens with my mouth wide open, saliva tends to trickle down my hands, to my wrists, and then slowly but surely down my arms to my elbows. (So that my main tip to anyone who attempts to floss is to wear short sleeves). After all this, I sometimes (rarely) manage to get that floss in. And then… yep. It won’t come out again. Seriously. For minutes. I pull, and pull, and pull, until I think I might pull a tooth or two, or break the floss and be left with just a little bit of string hanging seductively between a second and a third molar. At least it’s white, so no one will be able to tell but me, right?

Come to think of it, I have similar problems while brushing teeth. I tend to have problems keeping toothpaste on the toothbrush in the first place – the little bugger has a mind of its own and tends to tilt when I’m not looking and then fall down. And if you are wondering exactly where I would direct my attention in the second between placing toothpaste on the brush and actually beginning to brush, I am afraid I don’t have a very intelligent answer. Anyway, so more than half of the toothpaste has left the brush and is now in the sink, and before more of it can go on its jolly way, I start to brush in earnest. With my mouth open (although Mr. B keeps telling me that’s the wrong way to do it. But what does he know?) Not before long, the toothpaste is on my lips, on my wrist, and possibly on my leggings. I stop brushing. At which point Mr. B admonishes me that I hadn’t done it for long enough. But really, what’s the point?

There is one thing I do well however, and that is use mouthwater – the happy gurgling, the feeling of freshness afterwards – bliss! At least … I think I’m doing it well. Maybe someone should come and supervise me…

Moving platforms and Shabbat elevators

I could swear that I saw a “watch the gap” sign somewhere in an NYC subway station. Or was it a figment of my overactive imagination, a product of a mind so overwrought with the narrowness of the platforms, the stories of people being pushed down on the electrified rails, and the sight of rats cheerily running around everywhere it will just refuse to stare reality in the face while sending a perverse message urging me to do just that?  I had a whole speech prepared about cultural differences – musing on how the British say “mind the gap” and wondering why it may be so – is it that they have a fondness for the word “mind”? Mind your manners / I don’t really mind / why on earth would I mind / would you mind… why, no, I don’t mind at all! Is there an ingrained reluctance or absolutely terrifying fear to admit that one does mind something, so that when one is urged to mind an object, one is absolutely shocked and compelled into doing it?

And what about Americans and watching? true, the Brits have CCTV everywhere. But in the US you have to watch your kid / your dog / your cat that you might accidentally cook up in the microwave; watch it, buster, or I’ll… what? what could the incentive be to watch, when New Yorkers prefer to stroll rapidly, and give nothing more than short, furtive or impersonal glances? Alas, those questions are better left to minds on a more enlightened path than mine.

What I can offer you though is this:



Have you seen one before? It actually looks like this if you want a fuller picture – and yes, folks, there is a metalic grid / platform in some stations of the subway (14 St Union Square for example) that moves out to bridge the gawping abyss between the train and the itsy–bitsy platform. It’s kind of cool:


Another thing I have first laid my eyes on here in New York City is the Shabbat elevator. You are now in the process of scratching your head and wondering what that might be? Fear not, Baddie to the rescue. Listen, and listen well: the Shabbat elevator, as discovered in one of the NYU residential halls (which shall remain unnamed at this time) is an elevator programmed to stop at certain floors automatically from Friday evening to Saturday evening. It is involved in a “Shabbat cycle” meant to facilitate Jewish religious observance of the prohibition to actively use technology. I sincerely applaud this – because it’s probably a small change for the institution but a great thing for the religiously observant residents. And yet. I have SO many questions about how this actually works. I mean, I got it that when I got on it and pressed a button, it stopped on the 7th floor automatically (although there was no one there anyway and no one wanted to get off there). Alright. But what if you are on the 7th floor and can’t press the button. And there’s no one around who is not observant. How does the lift know to come? I mean, ok if you take it from downstairs it might have a weight sensor inside (don’t know if this is the case, just guessing it might be an idea). But if you’re outside it, then what? do you wait eternally just in case someone might come by with your elevator? it boggles my mind. Also, I hope that’s not true and that there isn’t someone, somewhere, still waiting for a Shabbat elevator to arrive. I really, really, hope not.


A tale told by an idiot – Alan Cumming on Broadway

Tonight, I went to see acclaimed Scottish actor Alan Cumming in the one-man show version of Macbeth currently at the Barrymore theatre on Broadway. The play itself premiered in 1985 in Glasgow, and was a smashing success at the Lincoln Center in New York last year. I had high expectations, to say the least.

I knew this would be an evening to remember from the moment I set foot in the (classical-looking) theatre. I was passed on from usher to usher like an unwanted old relative – and what was even more extraordinary was that said ushers were dispersed at 5-meter intervals from each other. Now, you’d think I would be passed along linearly – as in “yes miss, please proceed to my colleague.” While this phrase was indeed heard by me – and often – I was passed like a ping-pong ball along a string of four people, back and forth, for about ten minutes. Finally, as I was nearing the end of my tether and getting ready to snap, one of them decided to take mercy and allowed me to go up a certain path, pointing out it was the best way. Kind reader, that it was not. As it turned out, I had to literally jump up a very tall narrow platform which I was pretty sure is not supposed to be jumped on in order to reach my seat. There were steps at the other side of the row. But never mind all that. I was there. On the top of the world. Aka last row mezzanine.

My second little surprise came from when I opened up the playbill and started reading about the main (and sole) actor of the play. I quote: “Since he exploded on Broadway [he] has published a novel; directed a musical condom commercial; provided the animated voices for a Smurf, a goat, and Hitler; and released the fragrances Cumming and 2nd Cumming, along with the bar soap Cumming in a Bar and body lotion Cumming All Over.” Excuuuuuse me? I looked again, and there it was, white font on a green background – “released the fragrances”… oh. my. I swiftly made a mental note to a) be prepared for the unexpected and b) try to look into some sort of PG-rating for my blog just in case. According to my new precious oracle aka “the Playbill” Cumming is also “one of the three most fun people in show business.” Huh. At a loss about what that could possibly mean, precisely. So as the lights dimmed, my curiosity had reached a burning point.

Without giving too much away, there is a frame to the well known Scottish play – the setting is an asylum. Cumming – the only patient – is confined within a bare, clinical looking room with very little furniture – and is left mainly to his own devices by (we assume) his silent doctor and nurse. Apart from matter-of-fact interventions when the patient gets agitated, and some delivery of meals or injections, the duo seems happy to observe the patient from above through a glass window. This takes place in a highly disturbing manner which not only brings to mind Foucault’s thoughts on the institution of the asylum, and Deleuze’s further notions on the societies of discipline, but also uncannily mirrors the positions of the members of the audience found in the mezannine. My position, to be more exact.

Cumming is truly an incadescent actor. He can weave seemlessly through multiple characters and characteristics – although his transformations from one character to another are sometimes so rapid, that if you either blink, or if you don’t know the play very well indeed, you will have missed who is speaking. He does amazing work with limited props – just raising and dropping a sheet can signal – effectively – the change between Lady Macbeth and her husband. His mastery of accents, tones, and modulations, is admirable. He clothes the characters in vivid mantles. And yet there are notes of discrepancy. Lady Macbeth is played at times as a lush, enchanting woman, and at others as a stereotypical nag. Good King Duncan is so much of a charicature – of either an English toff, a somewhat backward fellow, or an utter fool, one is uncertain which  – that one is led to think Scotland is probably better off without him. Expansive gestures and drawn-out vowels cause laughs, and while far be it from me to suggest that laughter is out of place in a Shakespearean play, one is not quite sure what to make of this kind of laughter and mockery, which is that of the farce.

It is not the humour that stays with you though. It’s the poignancy of Macbeth realizing he has lost everything; of lady Macbeth descending into madness; and most of all, the utter vulnerability and darkness of the poor lithe madman in whose mind we are allowed to glimpse. The fits, the despair, the inexorability of the workings of an unhinged mind – and the realization that we, as the audience, knowing the story beforehand, especially without the frame, are as trapped in it as he is. For us, the story he plays out is more real than his reality of the asylum – despite what we see. There is no escape – and the experience becomes transcendent – we are completely immersed inside the mind of a madman.

The play starts with the patient posing a question to the doctor and his nurse. “When shall we three meet again?” he asks pitifully. As the two depart, the madman embarks on his enactment of the story of Macbeth. 140 minutes later, half dead after what looks like a purging bath or attempted suicide, he restores the doll which stands for Malcom to its wheel-chair throne, proclaiming it to be the King of Scotland. His caretakers rush to his wrap his shivering naked body in blankets, and as they make to leave, the same question leaves his lips, signalling the commencement of a new cycle: “When shall we three meet again?” Every night, I would like to say. I would be there every night, and each night I would revel exponentially in the entrapment.


The Brilliance of a British accent

For all of the three and a bit years I lived in London, all people could hear was my American accent. They picked up on it in an instant, and gave me slightly accusatory looks – or as accusatory as the British can get, in their aren’t-we-all-lovely-even-if-you-sound-American-let’s-have-a-cuppa-anyway manner. I gave my usual excuses – I had been brought up on American TV, and I did have a Peace Corps volunteer as a teacher in school at some point… my sheepish mumblings were accepted and the topic was never mentioned again, but I still felt as if my voice had committed a faux-pas to be frowned on. A bit like Mr. Darcy refusing to dance with Lizzie Bennet – it was all swept under a rug of smiles on the surface, but we all knew something was irretrievably wrong.

By contrast, almost since the first moment I set foot in New York, everyone – and I do mean everyone – has been asking me whether I’m British. Or commenting on the loveliness of my accent. Shop assistants, waiters, people at parties and social events, I swear even the ubiquitous rats perk up their ears and twitch their whiskers in appreciation. It’s incredibly flattering – and while I don’t think that I sound particularly British, I guess I do tend to go “aah” instead of “ehh” and throw in a flowery non-American phrase now and then – because… well, that’s how I speak.

I have yet to see any real effects of the British Accent™ here in the US, but I do suspect that its power might be real. I am also afraid that there are some out there who wouldn’t shy away from misusing that power for …(gasp)… their own wicked purposes! You snicker, beloved reader – but mind my words, they are among us. They are sneaky. And they are putting on outrageous accents!

I already have a suspect on my list, you see. It’s someone from my residence hall. As I was picking up a parcel (“you mean package?” ” no, I mean parcel”) from the mail room downstairs the other day, I heard this bloke behind me chatting with the girl at the desk. “Oh yesh, I live on the elevunth floor, my deaaaarh” he trumpeted, laying it on as thickly as vocally possible. “Would you sign here?” the innocent gal inquired. “I would love to!” came the enthusiastic reply. Love to? LOVE to? it’s a pen, you move along on paper, to scribble something as proof you picked up your stuff. What’s there to love? Unless a pen-fetish is involved (not judging here, really, if you’re in a serious relation with a pen, please move along, this is not addressed to you).

I cringed at this guy’s flamboyance, put it down as some lame effort to flirt, and went out. Ten seconds later, as I was waiting for the lift, guess who sidled up to me. You’ve got it. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that a) he was carrying a rather big box and b) he wasn’t ugly enough to need an accent; actually, he wasn’t bad looking at all. “Hmmm” he goes; and then sighs loudly. And then: “I really don’t want to wait for this elevator.” Oh really? don’t you just love waiting for it? goes the evil part of my brain. “Well, you could always take the stairs” I suggest snarkily. “I could … to the 11th floor?” I nod slightly, in a do-as-you-please-and-stop-bothering-me way. “With THIS box?” Oh for heaven’s sake. He obviously wants me to commiserate. “So what’s in the box? Is it a lamp?” I ask casually. “No, it’s an electric guitar” he proclaims, filled with pride. Hmm. There it goes. “Oh, do you play?” I continue, as non-committally as possible. “Yes” he beams with all his might. I am supposed to be impressed, I can tell. I stay as quiet as a church mouse.

“Say, where are you from?” is his next question. “Because I overheard you in the mail room… and I was wondering.” “I’m kind of… from all over Europe.” “But exactly?” he persists. “Born and raised in Romania, lived for many years in Germany, spent some time in the UK…” “Ah, I thought I heard some Eastern European accent!” Oh please. I highly doubt it. My accent sounds nothing like a Eastern European one. “And some British.” I shrug. “I’m half British myself. Born and raised in London.” Oh really. I nod, and say that I thought as much. Even with the obvious pains he was going through in order to hide it. No, I didn’t say that last bit. He looks crestfallen. How can anyone fail to swoon at his musical skills or his heritage? I can feel a palpable quivering of discontentment on my right but I look pointedly ahead and ignore it.

Because …what I would absolutely love is for accents to be enjoyed, appreciated, revelled in – and left completely agenda-free.

Random acts of meanness

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s often that I take a hard long look at myself and find myself lacking in compassion and tender feelings for my fellow men. (And women. And intersex persons. And everyone else. Let’s not go there.) My cynicism gets the best of me – so much so that I tend to read Wordsworth’s “No – man is dear to man” line without the dash.  And yet. And yet.

The day before yesterday, as I was settling in for the ride from Grand Central to Poughkeepsie, getting all snuggly in the window seat with the view to the Hudson river, this elderly couple sat down to me. She, looking down at me sternly, addressed me in a nasal voice, conveying by the stressed “excuse me” that she wanted me to make myself as small as humanly possible. I complied, and mentally cursed the designers of the narrow, uncomfortable commuter train benches. But they were soon cosy enough – she, elbows spread widely, leafing through a tourist guide, and him, a bemused white-haired fellow, twiddling his thumbs in appropriate silence. I shortly thereafter became engrossed in my book, throwing the occasional look out the window to the expanse of silvery water languishing under threatening clouds.

About ten minutes into our ride, a young girl plonked herself on the bench parallel to ours and, hiding behind a waterfall of chestnutty hair, continued a conversation on the phone that had obviously started a while ago. So, in media res then, we get that the girl is very distressed. How do we get this? Well, she is actually crying. Hiccups and all. Piecing things together from her protestations to her friend at the other end of the line, I gathered she had been denied a coaching opportunity (reason unknown) and she was taking this very badly. “I don’t understand” and “He doesn’t understand” and “My life is ruined” were repeated at regular intervals, along with a few imaginative “wtf”s. And a lot of sobbing. And I do mean a lot. Now, people constantly being noisy near me on a train / plane / donkey ride is something I would get annoyed by. Or blog about. Or both. But I couldn’t really – how can you get pissed off at someone pouring their heart (and all their tears) out like that? I wanted to pat her on the head and say it will be better. I wanted to offer her a handkerchief. I wanted her to stop crying. As it turned out, so did my neighbours.

“I can’t believe it” snickered my female neighbour in a vinegary voice. She made some “tut-tut” noises of disapproval, and shuffled her feet in a disapproving manner. I give her the tiniest smile of understanding and commiseration, and at this she feels encouraged enough to remark: “She’s been crying this whole time. It’s ridiculous. She’s got nothing to cry about. It’s all just drama. Children having cancer, that’s serious, that’s a reason to cry about! She should just get over herself!” I do a mental double take, a bit like someone caught on the lake ice-fishing on the first day of thawing. What? What do children with cancer have to do with it? I mean, yes, that’s tragic, of course, I don’t mean to suggest differently. But are we really only allowed to cry at things like that, regardless what happens to us in our lives? Now that would be sad. I shake my head, and try a diplomatic rebuke: “Well, it’s all relative…” My neighbour snorts in disdain: “Obviously.” She then (mercifully) stops talking to me, but proceeds to do the passive-agressive thing by commenting non-stop with her husband about the insufferable girl. Who, it must be said, did spend at least an hour on the phone doing more of the above. No dead battery, no tunnels, no drying up of tearducts. In the meantime, my neighbours got so worked up – she vitriolically goading her heeding partner – that he went away to seek a conductor as “something had to change, one way or another.” I never got to know what – as the conductor never did come, and they got off a few stops later. After which the girl continued her conversation, in a perfectly normal, calmed voice.

The exchange I witnessed yesterday was not much better. At my university cafeteria, we have an all-you-can eat system. As I was queueing for my favourite, chargrilled chicken, near the grill station, the lady preparing the food addressed the boy standing in line behind me: “What do you want?” The gangly youth holding a plate piled high with an assortment of dishes replied in a lazy stammer: “I … uhm… could I get another piece of chicken?” The lady gave him an icy look, and retorted: “But I’ve just given you two pieces.” The youth shifted his weight from one foot to another. “Well… could I get another one?” “You’ve just gotten two. You may want to go and come again to order some more later.” she snapped at him. Now, remember, this is an all you can eat. And there was no shortage of chicken breasts – I could see them all neatly aligned on the grill, and ready. And there were just two people in the queue – me and him. And I sure as heck didn’t want 15 chicken breasts – not that anyone had asked me. I just could not understand this, for the life of me.

The young man skulked away, defeated. And proceeded to eye the unattractive-looking rice at the next station. “Well…” I venture “maybe he was just really, really hungry.” The lady notices me for the first time. “You know what?” she barks at me in her strict tone, and I quiver inside, expecting that because of my foolishmess my own chicken portion is nothing more than a pipe dream at this point. “… maybe … you’re right. Maybe he is really hungry” she concedes in a softer tone, and picks up a piece of chicken, moves along the counter and calls out “Young man! young man! here, have another piece” The youth looks startled, and mumbles his thanks, and I smile a bit inwardly.

How Baddie got to hold a stranger’s collapsible bike

And that, gentle reader, is not a metaphor. This afternoon, as I rushed to catch the lift (elevator?) after one of my classes which is held in a very strange old building* I almost bumped into a red collapsible bike. “Oh, sorry” said the owner of the thing, who was alone in the moderately-sized lift at the time. As I waited for the doors to shut, he proceeded to make his bike smaller. And smaller. And smaller.

“How small does that thing actually get?” came out of my mouth before I could swallow the words. Whaaaat? I was only supposed to think that. Think, not say it.

“Just about … this small” the stranger replies with a final click, and the bike is now perfectly collapsed. It looks pretty neat.

“And is it heavy?” I follow up. It’s like my tongue has evil powers or is on a five-minute strike from my brain.

“No” the stranger chuckles. I look down in shame. And I notice that he’s extended his bike for me to take hold of. I look at him. I look at the bike. What the heck, it’d be rude not to, now that I’ve been pestering him about it for the last three floors. So I grab the thing under the saddle. It’s heavy.

“Well, I wouldn’t want to lug this around with me, but it’s not too bad” I conclude and hand it back.

He takes the bike and half-covers it with his coat. I glance at him, uneasily.

“I have to make it smaller” he explains. (And hide it? I wonder) “It’s because every time I come down with the elevator and it’s big, the security guard starts shouting at me.”

I picture it and begin to smile. A delinquent collapsible bike. Now that has made my day.


* strange building because it is not 100% rented out / owned by my university; they just have one or two of the floors – the rest are occupied by firms or other organizations so I keep seeing all sorts of interesting people in the lobby; on the upside, it does have a gorgeous wooden staircase.



Today’s Bit of Weirdness

5 minutes after walking into my class today, this lady in her late 40s / early 50s sitting on my right, whom I had never seen or met before, oggled me intently, and declared: “I can just picture you as a little girl.” Pause. “It’s because I’m a mother, you know, and with some people it’s really hard, but with you it’s easy – I can just imagine what you looked like as a little girl.”