Archive for December, 2010

London Calling

December 17, 2010 is my last official day in the office.  I don’t think I really believe it yet.  I’m still going to be there during the “transition period” for four to six weeks when I return, but my time as ships counselor, hirer of  people and office woobie is coming to a close.  It’s been an incredible five-year run, but all good things must come to an end in order to make way for new good things.  Early Friday evening I fly off to England to spend Christmas in the land of quaint villages, cottage pies and shortbread biscuits. I love London no matter how many times I’ve been there, I always get excited before a trip to the seat of the once great British Empire.  I’ve always liked the phrase “The sun never sets on the British Empire” it’s just romantic and cool. Others might think it more imperialistic than cool, but I say bah humbug to them. 

As that phrase entered into my head, it made me start thinking about the U.S’s dominance in the world and where it’s heading. Is our time as the world’s defacto leader coming to an end? Is the sun setting on our empire, are we the next great civilization to be marginalized in order to make room for the new kid on the block?   The Mongols, The Greeks, The Romans, The Dutch, The French, The British, all had their turn as the dominant empire of their day and then it ended.  I would wager that they never saw it coming until it was too late. Is our tenure about to expire?  Will China become our successor?’

I’ve always loved wandering along the Thames, looking at the gray water and watching the barges float effortlessly down river.  There’s a spot where you can actually still find pieces of old Victorian pipes on the riverbank, which I find utterly amazing, there’s nothing nearly that interesting floating in the Hudson. As you walk further along, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben appear.  I never care that I’ve seen them dozens of times before–the sight of them always thrills me.T hey’re like the White House,  The Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building,  cool every time.  I love to wander through the National Portrait Galley looking at  the faces of British history and imagining what life in London was like a hundred, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand years ago. It’s a shame really that we only get to live in one time period.  How amazing would it be to see what life was like in England under the Tudors or the Stuarts, under Genghis Kahn in Mongolia, the roaring 20’s in America, Tsarist Russia? 

Last Christmas I got as close as I can imagine to  being transported back in time.  I  stayed in a house in Kent about an hour outside of London. The foundations of said house dated back to the 1400’s!  We all gathered to enjoy a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, the main course being fish pie– I still have nightmares about that hideous concoction. It was a big fleshy mass buried in a white creamy sauce. I’m not very good at masking my feelings which display themselves quite obviously on my face, I just hoped no one was looking at me as they set the dish down on the table.  I’m sure my face was saying ” uuccchhh no way I’m eating that horrid looking thing and by the way what the hell is it, since I had no idea at that point” Fortunately  my mouth engaged and said “Mmmm that looks good”  A bigger lie was never told.   Luckily for me I had the foresight to make a turkey sandwich and hide it in my room earlier in the day for just such a culinary emergency–we bonded later that evening.  Also, very fortunately there were  two dogs who apparently did not share the same revulsion of  fish pie that I did.  Here, puppy, puppy, puppy. I did manage to choke down a few bites and then remove the taste from my mouth with other things on the table.  My sage advice is to keep the roast potatoes near by when eating Christmas dinner where an unknown entrée is served.

 The overall evening improved tremendously after the unfortunate entrée choice.  We set off for the thousand-year old stone church to attend Midnight Mass.  The whole scene was something out of a Dickens novel.  The entire church was illuminated by candlelight, not an electronic bulb in sight. Candles in the chandlers, on the walls and held in everyone’s hands. The faithfuls hands were protected by perfectly rounded cardboard holders to catch the dripping wax, very clever those Victorian Englanders were. I’m assuming they invented them–go with it.  It was absolutely magical singing traditional Christmas songs in this tiny village church surrounded by cheerful, red-cheeked, good-natured, festive English folk.  After the service concluded, everyone spilled out onto the street to partake of some holiday mulled wine. It looked like the set of a Merchant Ivory film.  I’m such a goober for authentic travel moments, I get all weepy and nostalgic–I suppose one of my favorite Brit expressions would be appropriate to describe it–I act a little bit like a “big girls blouse”.   I don’t know exactly how to explain it or what the American equivalent is but, it makes me laugh every time.

If Christmas Eve wasn’t authentic enough, Boxing Day arrived two days later and  we set off to the local Lord’s Estate for the fox hunt, seriously we went to a fox hunt!.  Riders on horseback in their official fox-hunting outfits and excited villagers by the hundreds milling about ready for the event to begin. Fox hunting hounds everywhere, the thrill of the chase in the air.  Of course officially fox-hunting has been outlawed in England– by some boring old governmental kill joys.  However, being that this particular hunt was on private land, not really much anyone could do about it, or for that matter really cared to do anything about it. The oddest part about the hunt, is that it’s not really spoken about whether there’s an actual fox of not, you just assume there is, or isn’t depending on how you feel about the whole thing.  The trumpet is sounded and off everyone goes, hounds, riders, horses, children running after everything until their little legs no matter how enthusiastic give up the pursuit. The crowd cheers them on as they disappear over the horizon in search of their prize. Once out of sight,  all remaining eyes turn to the beer tent and the drinking begins for the rest of the day and probably well into the night. It was an authentic travel moment for sure as this New York city dweller, looked around with a big goofy grin, thinking how many people get to see this and how lucky I was to be there.  We proceeded to  gather up friends, parents, children etc and headed in the opposite direction of the beer tent to go back home and bake some cookies, play with presents and watch holiday family dysfunction in full bloom.

It’s always more enjoyable and amusing when it’s not your actual family creating the drama–but every family has it. Luckily it was all kept to a minimum. There was a bizarre “discussion” around a childhood memory of a drowning lamb that either did or didn’t actually happen depending on which family member was telling their version of the story. I later amused myself by tormenting the sibling who insisted it did happen by following her around, sneaking up behind her and whispering “Can you here the lambs Clarice” in her ear.   But all that gave way to children’s laughter and the smell of delicious quality baked goods wafting from the Aga (a cast iron stove of great importance) .  All in all it was a holiday weekend that everyone surely enjoyed, well except maybe for  the fox who did or didn’t actually exist.  Ho Ho Ho.


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The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found? J. B. Priestley December 1st makes a lot of us think of the holidays. It’s hard not to think about snow even if your climate doesn’t bring it. Once again, we’d like to spread snow around the world through To make it snow on your … Read More

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The Gods Must Be Angry--Apartment #1 Clearly at some point I pissed off the NYC apartment gods.  Why is it that each and every apartment I've lived in has tortured me in its own unique and special way.  My first apartment was located on 74th and York. I moved there in September of 1987. It was an old railroad flat that I paid $750 a month for.  I remember seeing several apartments with a rental broker who looked like he had lived in the city since the Civil War. He was nice enough, … Read More

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A red-hot sky

Clearly at some point I pissed off the NYC apartment gods.  Why is it that each and every apartment I’ve lived in has tortured me in its own unique and special way.  My first apartment was located on 74th and York. I moved there in September of 1987. It was an old railroad flat that I paid $750 a month for.  I remember seeing several apartments with a rental broker who looked like he had lived in the city since the Civil War. He was nice enough, but given my limited budget, he had little desire to spend a lot of time with me. I met him at his office and he asked me where I wanted to live.  “Anywhere but the Upper East Side” was my reply.  He proceeded to take me to three apartments. While I don’t remember the details, I do know that even the excitement of moving into Manhattan could not overcome the horror of these living spaces! 

We returned to his office with me being slightly deflated not having found the perfect NY apt in a span of 90 minutes.  On the way in I noticed a cardboard sign in the window that read “3 rooms $750”  I asked him why we didn’t see that one?  He replied “It’s on 74th and York and that’s the Upper East side”  Well, three whole rooms for $750, I couldn’t just dismiss that without at least taking a look could I.  So off we went.  The building was your typical tenement house, 6 floors, 4 apartments to a floor.  My new apartment was 2FE (Front East) it sounded very fancy to me back then.  I moved  all my “stuff” in and made it home, some peel and stick tiles on the floor, roller shades, a couch, chairs and coffee table from my dad’s office, a couple of air conditioners and the highriser bed from childhood. That was not my first choice,  a single bed, but that’s all that fit in the bedroom.

There I was living the high life on the Upper East side, until the pigeons moved in.  The bed, window and air conditioner shared a physical proximity of about 2 feet. It was my first experience of what goes on in a NYC apt building airshaft.  Do you know how noisy pigeons are when they’re cooing 18 inches from your head?  Then their relatives moved into the pigeon window ledge condo outside the bathroom which faced the back of the airshaft.  Now we were really having fun, pigeons cooing in stereo. Well this just wouldn’t do for my fancy UES pad.  I headed off to the hardware store in search of a solution, I figured I’d buy a board, some nails and a hammer, with which I would construct something so frightening that the pigeons would flee in terror.  Yeah, not so much, these where hearty Manhattan pigeons.  They positioned themselves in-between the nails and I’m pretty sure they used them to scratch their asses.  My trap turned into a pigeon ass-scratching spa.  They were mocking me.  Another trip to the hardware store and the guy at the register suggested I try bird glue traps. This was obviously an urban warrior who knew about this stuff, I had every confidence my problem was about to be solved. 

I opened the window to the bedroom and removed the board now covered in nails, pigeons feathers and I’m sure hunks of pigeon butt and replaced it with a new board that I had lathered with pigeon glue. Ha, I’m ready for you bitches now–bring it. I hid behind the shade peering out to see what would happen when the first unsuspecting flying rodent landed. He or she moved  his or her feet around clearly not happy with what was going on and flew off. This was repeated several times.  Smugly, I went into the living room to watch TV, convinced I was bird-free.  Well about an hour later I heard what sounded like a pterodactyl stuck in a tar pit outside the window. I could not imagine the horror that was about to reveal itself. As I lifted the shade to see what was going on, a pigeon, laying on its side had managed to get its face, body and one wing stuck to the glue and was beating the other wing frantically trying to free itself, it was horrifying.  What should I do?  If I lifted the window and tried to free the trapped creature it would surely scratch, bite, peck or do who knows what other horrible things to me thus infecting me with bird pestilence (luckily there was no such thing as bird flu back then).  The sound was awful and as much as I didn’t want to cohabitate with these horrid creatures, I certainly didn’t want to see them suffer either.  So I came up with the brilliant idea of covering my bed in plastic and throwing a pot of not-that-hot water at the bird so it would loosen the glue and it would be free.  In hindsight, not the best idea I ever had. I think I realized that just as the water was leaving the pot.  The pigeon was not happy, at all.  The flapping got worse and so did the screeching, clearly I was out of my league and retreated to seek out reinforcements.

I went to find the super, who as anyone that has lived in NY knows, is nowhere to be found when you need them, but always around asking annoying questions when you don’t.  I came back upstairs to survey the current situation, when I lifted the shade, I found my pigeon friend dead. To this day I don’t know whether he drowned or had a heart attack, but it was not a pleasant end for him no matter how you look at it. I thought about burying him, but realized that wasn’t going to work, so I got a broom, opened the window and pushed the entire mess off the ledge to the bottom of the airshaft.  I was not proud of myself, it was a hollow victory.  Poor Mr. pigeon, covered in glue and water, left to decompose at the bottom of an airshaft–it was a true NYC murder scene. 

I lived in that apartment for five years and never quite defeated the pigeons, maybe they were seeking revenge for their fallen brethren.  The window ledge outside the bathroom, became the pigeon nursery and no matter how many times I thought about pushing that nest off the ledge and sending those baby pigeons hurtling to their death, I could never actually do it, maybe I was honoring their fallen comrade, who died a hideous death at my hand.  So the pigeons and I co-habitated together for half a decade, I would bang on the window in the morning and chase them away, they would come back shortly thereafter.  Now when I look back, I remember a time in NYC when the worst thing you had to think about was a garden-variety mugging or annoying pigeons outside your window, my how the world has changed.  Next up Apt #2–entitled “Ass slapping through the bedroom wall and other noises of the night. Till then, may you sleep well and be bird free.