Tag Archives: shopping

Christmas in New Netherland

On Sunday, I had brunch with a friend at a lovely French restaurant on the Upper East Side, where, to both our surprise, a simple bowl of berries cost $14. Just some chopped strawberries, blueberries and raspberries in a bowl. No fancy sauces or drizzled purees. I don’t even think the berries were organic—for all I know, they could have been doused in DDT before being spooned into a pretty white bowl. We ordered them without asking about the price first (we didn’t have menus at the time), assuming “How expensive can berries be?” and were shell-shocked when the tab arrived.

This isn’t how most of America dines on a Sunday morning. As someone who has crossed socioeconomic classes, I am acutely aware of this. After my fancy eggs with fruit and a Bellini, I read this, which is heartbreaking. Thirty-five dollars prices people out of therapy. And I’m sitting on Lexington Avenue eating overpriced berries.

I live in New Netherland, which this article encapsulates perfectly. After nearly 13 years here, I still haven’t grown used to the affluenza. New Netherland, as journalist Colin Woodard explains it, is “materialistic, with a profound tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity and an unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry and conscience.”

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This feels very true. I can tell you that it really doesn’t matter what your skin color or sexual orientation is here in New Netherland, but holy crap, if you grocery shop at Wal-mart, if you earned your degree from a state school, if you think Olive Garden is Italian dining, if you don’t have an advanced degree or multiple advanced degrees, which are very common, if you’re not in a certain income bracket, then you are the gum on someone’s shoe. A decade ago, my own boss told me that “state school was the equivalent of going to community college.” Our daughter has attended bat mitzvahs that I am quite sure cost more than my wedding. She also rolled her eyes at the kid around the corner from us, telling me “he has a thousand pairs of sneakers.” This kid’s house is worth $1.2 million, and stands maybe 300 steps from ours. Our modest abode is worth half that, looks like a beat-up shoebox, and inside our beat-up shoebox, our daughter keeps two pairs of sneakers, one for basketball and an aging pair of Converse that will likely get donated soon. I can go out and buy a new, fully-outfitted Audi (actually, I can’t afford to, but if I did…), and no one in my neighborhood would think anything of it. At school drop off this morning, I was behind a Mercedes Benz that had a vanity plate advertising that the driver was a dentist. I wouldn’t be surprised if people eye our 2010 CRV and wonder why I haven’t upgraded yet. Regarding upgrades, a neighbor told me about her daughter’s book club where the mothers circled about and compared anniversary wedding band upgrades. I have seen diamond rings here that could blind a pilot.

Oh, and no one here is priced out of therapy. I’ve met folks who actually maintain two therapists because they like to hash out different issues with different shrinks. The psychiatrist down the road from me charges $345 for what’s usually less than an hour.

You get the idea.

Which is why at Christmas, one of my favorite activities besides watching my daughter art-direct Christmas tree decorating is buying gifts for Winter Wishes, a program of New York Cares. I’ve been answering Winter Wishes letters for a decade, and almost all of them have come from the Bronx, one of the poorest regions in America. I read the letters aloud to my daughter, who, somehow, isn’t growing up entitled despite the affluenza swirling about her, and maybe that’s because I make a point to read these letters to her, let her hear others’ perspectives during the holidays. It’s so easy to forget what we have.

I don’t fault New York City for being wired the way it is. It was a colonists’ gold mine from the start, surrounded by water, an ideal commercial hub between the Old World and the New. Making money, keeping money, and spending money have been the way of things here since the Half Moon accidentally glided up the Hudson, and started scouting the possibilities. Henry Hudson didn’t find the Pacific Ocean, as he had hoped, but OMG, the shopping opportunities among all that “virgin” land! The Dutch, with their long history of trade, picked up Hudson’s trail. Fast-forward four centuries, and a massive Westfield World Trade Center, which opened in August, stands where the Twin Towers fell; commerce carries us forward.

I avoid malls. Year-round. And, being a freelance writer who makes very little money, I try to keep my commerce to a minimum, though I did just order tacos on #TacoTuesday, so I do contribute to the economy when and where I can, but not on the grand scale that New Netherland needs to stay afloat. Holiday shopping in New Netherland is a competitive sport, and I am not cut out for it. However, New York City is *gorgeous* in December, and you can minimize the overwhelming commercialism by doing two things: (1) don’t look at the price tags on Christmas trees here; you’ll faint, and (2) just walk around and enjoy the lights. They’re everywhere. Look up. It doesn’t cost anything to admire the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. And there’s an Olive Garden in Times Square (also more lights), if you’re in the mood for Italian. I won’t judge.

Smoky Days

You can still smell cigar smoke walking down Seventh Avenue. More than a century after its heyday as the cigar-manufacturing capital of America, men—and women—lounge about Ybor City’s sidewalk cafes and enjoy a break from the Florida sun by puffing on a cigar. It’s a long-practiced, ideal way to wait out the afternoon humidity because the sunset hours are always the best in Florida, so why tire out beforehand? Just sit, relax, smoke slowly, and wait for that perfect part of the day to come because it always does.

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During my recent girlfriend getaway in Del Boca Vista country, we made the time to schlep an hour on the highway to stroll Ybor City and experience one of Florida’s oldest dining institutions, Columbia Restaurant, where the key lime pie is sweet and glossy like fresh lipstick.

Before our dinner reservation, we had time to meander into Ybor’s many vintage and consignment shops, and what’s a girls’ weekend without a little shopping? My favorite was the addictive La France, a place described by its owner as being “like a museum without a cover charge.” La France had the enthusiasm of a gay pride parade with the diligence of a carefully curated exhibit. We were in there a while. Feather boas lined up by color, beaded flapper gowns, diaphanous hats that would send sunbeams ricocheting, hairbands with beaded skulls, necklaces with beaded skulls, earrings and bracelets with beaded skulls. (Did I mention the beaded skulls? A touch of Mexicana in Tampa, apparently.) Floridians, like Southern Californians, don’t shy away from color. Forget urban black and embrace the magentas, corals, ambers and periwinkles! I found Tampa’s vintage shopping more interesting than New York’s, not just because New York’s may feel too familiar by now, but because Tampa didn’t seem to be trying so hard. These shops screamed “we love color and old stuff, so check us out!” and that was that.

At one vintage shop, a chain called Revolve, there, hanging on the wall behind the cashier, I spotted a green, floral-printed Old Navy dress I used to own around 1999-2000. I had purchased my dress in Seattle, had worn it to London (there’s a photo of me wearing it, standing in front of the London Eye in August 2000, shortly after I got engaged), and likely gave it to the Salvation Army sometime when I lived in Washington, DC, and became pregnant in 2003. I’m sure it wasn’t the same dress, though size-wise it looked like a match, and secretly, I wanted it to be my dress still traveling without me.

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But that’s new Ybor. What about old Ybor? The original Ybor? Like many American port towns, Ybor has a “those-were-the-days” story, when this Tampa neighborhood was a thriving immigrant community, and, like the old whaling town of Hudson, New York, a planned community built around a single industry, cigar manufacturing. Ybor’s golden age began as the 19th century was winding down and the 20th century was gearing up, the spin-off years after the Industrial Revolution when Cubans, Spaniards, Italians, Romanian Jews, Germans and Chinese flocked to the area to make something of themselves. In 1869, Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spaniard in the cigar-making trade, decided to move operations from Key West to Tampa, where there was an active port and a new railroad line, ample opportunity to move boxes of fresh cigars around. Industry always leads to indulgence, and bars, restaurants, theaters and dance halls sprouted up as business boomed. Folks rolled cigars during the day and then puffed and partied at night. It had to have been downright dreamy.

I’m part German, and I had a hard time imagining my fair-skinned ancestors coming from a place of mountains and snow and adapting to Tampa’s climate, but history says they were business leaders there, supervising cigar factories and working as managers and accountants, no doubt bringing their quintessential German efficiency to the task at hand. The Germans arrived to Ybor in the 1890s, and by the 1930s, the Great Depression had knocked the wind out of Ybor’s sails, and like everywhere else in America, things dried up. Difficult decades followed, and then folks started realizing the faded potential of Ybor’s old brick buildings, that one of the state’s best restaurants was just down the street, and that if things could be dusted off a bit, business could boom once again. That’s when places like La France began to bloom.

Walking Seventh Avenue in Ybor City now you hear roosters crowing—just as you do in Key West—though the street is quiet during the heat of the day and not as busy as it appears in the sepia-toned photos I found of Old Ybor. Trolley cars still crisscross town. You still smell cigar smoke, you smell sweat, you see signs for sangria and promises of sales and a Greek man standing in a window making the perfect crepe for the umpteenth time that day. There is French food, Cuban food, Greek food, Spanish food, bar food. You likely won’t hear music unless stepping into a restaurant or cafe or bar because everyone keeps their doors closed to ensure the air-conditioning doesn’t escape and evaporate into the street because it’s really, really hot in Tampa most of the year, and coolness—the tangible kind—is social currency; it literally draws people in off the street, as it did us.

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We cooled off at Columbia Restaurant, which has weathered Ybor’s various transformations over the decades since 1905. Sangria pitchers there weren’t $15, but the booze was light, smooth, and went well with the black bean cakes and grouper that I ordered. It was Friday night and packed. If you’re going to go, make reservations. I gluten-bombed during this dinner, but it was worth it. Order the key lime pie and if you’re gluten-sensitive, just eat around the graham cracker crust. I recall tasting delicious, silky key lime pie when visiting Key West five years ago, and thinking “Damn, that’s good pie!” Columbia makes all its own desserts, but our waiter informed us the key lime pie comes from Mike’s Pies, and let’s just say Mike gets pie. He really, truly gets pie. I once savored cantaloupe gazpacho at Daniel, an extremely expensive restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and blurted out loud so that every coiffed Upper East Side diner heard me: “That’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever eaten!!!” And the waiter there smiled because he knew; he had just never heard someone say it so bluntly.

Then came Mike’s Pies.

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The Right Stuff

Dominique Browning is right: “souvenir” is a beautiful word and purchases made while traveling are definitely souvenirs, not stuff. “Stuff” sounds exactly like what it is: bulky, awkward, unnecessary. Stuff is what you buy at Target and then pack off to Good Will the following year. Stuff is what you trip over. Souvenirs are stories.

The latest souvenir to enter our home is this decorative metal chicken I bought over the weekend in Provincetown, Massachusetts, that spunky speck of land and the fist in the bicep curl that is Cape Cod. I don’t even really eat chicken, but this chicken now guards our cookbooks, including pages explaining how to best prepare that middle American staple: the boring chicken breast.

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Does it have a story? Well, I’ll always look at this bird and think of that gloomy, cardigan day walking around Provincetown and I’ll remember two things: how delicious the lobster rolls were there and the ticket collector at the pirate museum who spoke so passionately about her own metal chicken collection back at her home in Key West, where living, wild chickens roam free. I’m not about to become a collector of anything, certainly not of metal chickens for I’m sure I paid too much for this stupid thing. I later learned it was made in either China or Indonesia so I was disappointed that I had been tricked into buying something I thought was “artisanal,” a word I’m growing tired of but still use probably more than I should. But there is a story in that too; I thought I was buying something artsy in charming Provincetown only to have been tricked into buying another mass-produced tchotchke from China. Yet I was smitten, plastic was swiped, and now there’s a metal chicken in the dining room that brings back seaside chill and nautical New England as well as naive shopping.

This chicken joins savvier travel purchases that have far more individuality: the antler art I bought in Colorado this summer–as artisanal as you can get with deer parts; my painting from Taos–my second-favorite vacation purchase; my metallic sunflower and pig also from Taos; my Buddha from Montreal; my teapot from Kyoto, Japan; and my favorite souvenir of all, the antique fish knife I bought in London fourteen years ago that later became the knife that sliced through our wedding cake and birthday cakes. And of course there’s a closet full of scarves that represent my globe-trotting.

Oddly, I don’t like it when people give me souvenirs from their trips. Sure, I’ll say “thanks” and do whatever it is I’m supposed to do with the souvenir that was given to me, but this trinket wasn’t my experience–it was theirs. I have no memory of a lovely family vacation with this object; there’s no story to share over that third glass of wine. When I travel, I want to collect stories. Every time I bring out the antique fish knife I purchased in Notting Hill in London, I remember the argument Mike and I had at the Churchill Hills Arm pub next door. We sat under a collection of chamber pots suspended from the ceiling and bickered. We had been engaged for just a few days. Mike, who had just dropped some serious coin on an engagement ring, didn’t want to blow $250 USD on some random fish knife serving set that dated from 1910. The antiques dealer wouldn’t sell me the knife separately, since I wanted that knife for our wedding cake, and Mike thought it was stupid to pay for a fork and knife set when we would only use the knife, which wasn’t even meant to cut cake in the first place. I loved his practicality even then. The more we argued, the more I fell in love with that fish knife. “Think of what a great story this would be for our kids!” I had said. And it was, retold countless times with my version, Mike’s version and the version told by both of us at the same time where our sentences overlapped. Had someone given us that fish knife as a wedding gift it would not have meant as much.

This past weekend, as I browsed shops along Provincetown, I texted Mike to let him know I was wrapping up and would meet up with him and our kid; they were several doors down the street perusing a game shop. I told him I had just bought a metal chicken. He texted back “Of course you did.” We don’t argue about such things anymore. Back in our hotel room, I shared this story with Mike. It’s about a wife who brought home a five-foot metal chicken and left it at the front door for her husband to find. So as I reminded Mike, it could be worse. And besides, Anna has already laid claim to the antlers and chicken to decorate her first apartment, so there will be opportunities to declutter. Sure, she’s in elementary school right now, but she’s already developing an eye for quirky art. One day, she’ll point to those antlers from Colorado or the metal chicken from Massachusetts by way of China, and tell her roommates stories about traveling with her parents. Her roommates will either roll their eyes or nod in agreement that Anna’s mother is indeed one of the coolest people on the planet. And the stories behind these souvenirs will live on.