ordinary pleasures: sunday feast

As Spring approaches and the sun shines a bit brighter, my thoughts often turn to vibrant memories of markets and preparations for elaborate feasts - in short, my eternal Parisian Sundays. Each weekend, I would wake early to shop at Place d'Aligre - inventing dishes on the fly, experimenting with new ingredients. Whether it was pancakes (by request), a pork roast or an indoor picnic, each and every Sunday was "family" dinner for twelve.

Since joining the full-time workforce in NYC, my Spring Sunday routine has become simpler - typically beginning and ending with a long bike ride, in which the market is only one of several points of interest. If food is purchased, it's just a few interesting ingredients for the week, moreso than preparations for a celebratory weekend feast.

But on rare occasions - for a holiday or an out-of-the-ordinary reunion - I return to my elaborate Sunday kitchen. The weekends that I escape to my parents' home in Connecticut, these culinary impulses are at their peak, inspired by spacious counter-tops and cupboards (filled with tools for which I lack space in my meager Upper West Side studio).

This Easter was no exception. We spent Saturday afternoon preparing a home-made batch of puff pastry. On Sunday, that pastry was adorned with gruyere, creme fraiche, bacon and eggs - a spectacular and indulgent Easter Sunday brunch.

My sister and I went for a spin before eating, as per our NYC custom. As the sunlight gleamed through the tall seaside grasses, we squinted, rounding the corner for home. Just then, our uncle arrived in a family heirloom - grandfather's 1969 jaguar convertible - the cherry on top of our Sunday CT nostalgia.

ordinary pleasures : café culture

As an undergraduate, I often spent my time in between classes at coffee shops on campus.  On occasion, I made genuine attempts at academic progress, but in truth, anyone trying to work was better off in the dorms or the library.  The coffee shop, in essence, was a not-so-subtle locale to see and be seen.  There I’d sit - staring at the same page, rereading the same line - hoping that my crush-of-the-moment would happen upon me nonchalantly reading Rilke.  (As if the average undergraduate male actually cared what the heck I was reading).

But a true café - that European or Europhilic wonder of the world - resembles neither the collegiate coffee shop (a slightly less commercial variant of your local Starbucks) nor a silent study hall.  It has a character all its own - charmingly unchanging despite generations of regulars, who ultimately leave it high-and-dry after an intense stint of unflinching fidelity.  It’s a quiet, yet buzzing corner of the world, best suited to the grad student, youthful researcher or urban creative - thinkers entrenched in their own ideals and interests, both incensed and mellowed by the fog of sleepless nights.

Which brings me to the subject of sustenance.  Some café creatures seem to live on black coffee alone.  Others drift towards cigarettes or café crèmes.  But my favorite cafés are those who provide a little something more to chew on (as endless hours of reading seem to have a way of cultivating oral fixations).

In Paris, my café of choice was the Café Maure at the Grand Mosquée de Paris.  Built in the years following World War I, La Grande Mosquée remains the only official mosque in Paris, despite the significant growth of the capital’s Muslim population.  The mosque itself is typically closed to all but the faithful, but on the corner of Rue Daubeton and Rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, a Moorish archway invites the curious in - to sip sweet mint tea, smoke hookah or nibble on honey-laden pastries under the shade of fig trees. There I would spend many an afternoon, induling in Kaab el Ghazal (half-moon pastries perfumed with orange flower water) and reading French philosophy).

Back in New York, there’s no shortage of cafés worth frequenting in the city, but unlike Paris, those worth lingering in are a bit harder to come by.  Morningside Heights' Hungarian Pastry Shop is one of these rare gems, located just outside the thumping heart of Columbia’s main campus.

The leaner (and thriftier) among us will rave about Hungarian's free refills, but my indulgence of choice is their baklava – honey soaked and nutty as the day is long, somehow simultaneously flaky and densely chewy. (When I worked at Columbia, the walk home past Hungarian was treacherous.  The only thing that saved me from poverty-by-pastry was the fact that the desserts are not quite viewable from the window).  And with an ambiance fitting of an old Woody Allen film (or Love Story, if the protagonists had attended Columbia), there’s enough 1970s flair to sustain the whole neighborhood’s charm.

True, it can be hard to find a seat here – but in warmer months the sculpture garden at St. John the Divine (just across the street) is an enviable extension of HP’s café culture.  At worst, if it’s too cold or crowded to stay, they’ll wrap you up a snack in an old-timey paper box with striped pastry string.  An adorable consolation prize for your efforts.

ordinary pleasures: squeegee

I'm not sure what it is about a man with a squeegee.  There's just something about watching someone methodically smooth out or wipe off a surface that I find absolutely mesmerizing. It all started in Paris.  In the arched subway tunnels of the city of light, there are massive ads that follow the curve of the wall.  The men who preside over these oversize posters - advertising everything from grocery store discounts to an upcoming theatre performances - are like the oompa loompas of the métro.  Not because they are short or unattractive, but rather because they arrive in bright blue overalls, at unexpected times of the day, to complete a job you almost forgot existed.

Hanging a Parisian subway poster, curiously enough, does not involve the removing of the previous poster.  The new poster arrives, neatly divided into four-six sections, each of which is neatly folded in four.  The bright blue overalled "man of the hour" unfolds one of the four sections, lines it up with the edge of the poster's frame, and deftly smooths out the magically adhesive fabric, repeating this job three more times until the poster is complete.  I have, at times, missed a train on purpose to watch these men at work.  There is something so soothing, almost meditative, about the rhythm and precision of their work.  Perhaps it is just the quiet confidence of a job well done, a small glimpse of the many seemingly simple infastructures that keep our complex world afloat.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVEFVym8XB4 (Upon watching this film, I realized that my memory had omitted that the Parisian poster hangers work with brushes, not squeegees - but the movements are squeegee-like.)

The New York subway holds no such pleasure for me.  I've never seen anyone change out the small-scale advertisements on the subway cars (although I'd be interested to watch them complete one of the full-scale ad-makeovers on the 42nd street Shuttle), and larger advertisements do not hang on the stations' walls.  So far removed from my Parisian moments of squeegee meditation am I, that when I received an email this morning stating that a window washer would be paying my office a visit, I did not - at first- register that there would be a squeegee involved.

I have seen window washers in New York City before.  They are a daring breed, half-hanging out of skyscrapers (and often looking down).  I always fear they'll flinch when a car honks or a garbage truck goes rattling by.  But I've never had a window washer visit my own office or home.

The process is simple enough (with double-hung windows) and not as dangerous as I would have thought.  But the squeegee action is blissful.  Sudsy swirls drag across the window pane, followed by the clean sweep of a squeegee (led by the methodical snaps of a well-trained wrist).

The men who visited my office this morning, squeegees in tow, could never have anticipated the glee I felt while watching their masterful work.  And though they were here for mere minutes, they made my day (not to mention improved my view).

The only irony in this squeegee splendor is that I feel no such joy in manning the squeegee myself.  It is only watching the true experts, the unconscious rhythm derived from their repetitive gestures, that fills me with childish awe and wonder.