It is impossible to spend time in Manhattan without coming across shops, restaurants,
artistic events and other activities that have their roots in another part of the world. In the human stew that is New York City, many of these places and activities have European roots. I’ve always felt this was part of New York’s charm, but these European threads can make a visit to New York seem like a trip to the Continent and you don’t need a passport or a different currency. On a visit to the city last week, I had my day roughly mapped out but it wasn’t until the following day that I realized how Euro-centric my visit had been.
The first thing I did was walk over to the back end of Bryant Park on 42nd St. and 6th
Avenue. This is one of two locations where the New York boules club, La Boule New Yorkaise, plays. The club gives free lessons on weekdays between 11 am and 6pm except for the winter months and I wanted to track down one of these.
Boules, or pétanque, is a French game both similar to and very different from the Italian game of bacci, both evolved from a common game. Pétanque is played on a gravel court by anywhere from two to six players. The balls are slightly larger than a tennis ball, made of metal and weigh almost two pounds each. A set will carry its own surface design so each player can recognize his or her own balls. Depending on the number of players in the game, each player will have either two or three balls.
At the Bryant Park court, a Brit named Tristram was raking leaves from one of the two
gravel squares that sit in the shade of the leafy, mature plane trees and once he finished was happy to introduce me to the game. I’ve seen men playing the game in Paris and also in Bryant Park on a couple of other city visits. The lesson lasted about 45 minutes and I discovered that my hand-eye coordination from years of playing tennis kept me from sending the balls all over the park and making a complete fool of myself. Each ball – if the game is one-on-one, each player has three – is tossed in an arc, underhand, toward a small target ball called the cochonnet within a rectangular area at least 3 meters by 12 meters. Your feet must stay on the ground, within a small circle that is inscribed on the ground by the person who will toss the cochonnet. Placement of both the circle and the cochonnet are strategic elements of the game. The player rotation depends on the number playing and whose ball is closest to the cochonnet. A game lasts until one team scores 13 points and, depending on where the balls lie at the end of each round, a round can result in a score of 1, 2 or 3 points. Physics was never my strong subject, but it didn’t take long to figure out that it was a bad thing for the ball to roll out-of-bounds because it would put that ball out of the running for points in the round. The sharper the vertical angle of the toss – a function of the ball toss – the less forward motion on the ball when it lands. A little backspin can also be helpful in keeping the ball in bounds. A simple game but, because sending an opponent’s ball/s far, far away is a favored game strategy, pétanque can become very nasty, like croquet.
As I thanked Tristram for the lesson, three people showed up to play during their lunch hour. Tristram volunteered me as a fourth and the threesome very graciously agreed. My biggest problem was keeping track of the score. The 2nd biggest issue was remembering whose turn it was. Amazingly, our 2 woman team (composed of rookie me and a woman who’s been playing for only a year) beat the 2 guys! Beginner’s luck, maybe, but this fun and very social experience completely made my day and I hope I can find a place closer to home to play again asap!
By now it was about 1pm. I crossed 6th Avenue to visit Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore to get a brush and inkstick for sumi-e painting. Not a European place, but fascinating and exotic all the same.
Next stop was the Drama Book Shop on 40th St, to pick up a copy of War Horse, the
British play currently playing to sold out houses at Lincoln Center. I also bought a copy of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and a theatre magazine with an article on Derek Jacobi’s recent title performance in King Lear.
Now I needed some lunch, so it was back to 42nd Street to pop into Pret A Manger there. Pret A Manger is a chain of British lunch joints that has expanded to the U.S., mostly in NYC. They specialize in packaged but fresh sandwiches, soups and salads made daily, without nasty unnatural ingredients, giving you great food at fast-food speed. A large variety of great beverages, crunchy snacks and desserts are also available. Eat in or take out. I sat at the counter along the side wall, rather than at a two or four person table. The chicken, lettuce, tomato, avocado sandwich and strawberry lemonade hit the spot.
With lunch taken care of, next on my wish list was the Cloisters, a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a place I’d not visited in more than 20 years. This was my only flub. I had not given enough thought to how long it would take to get there by bus from midtown (it was such a beautiful day that I wanted to see the city go by on the trip up to Fort Tryon Park). Had I gotten to the Cloisters, the European pedigree of its reconstructed monastery and gardens would have been in keeping with the rest of the day’s activities; as it turned out, it will have to wait for another time – and I’ll probably take the subway! After more than 90 minutes, I gave up, got off the bus at 125th St, took the subway back to Columbus Circle and treated myself to a sweet, chewy Liege waffle with speculoos topping from the Belgian-owned Wafels & dinges stand located just behind the gold statue (in serious need of regilding) of General Sherman at the southeast corner of Central Park. I highly recommend this yummy, gooey snack. It comes in a waxed paperboard dish so it’s just about possible to eat the thing without getting the speculoos (a warm caramel and ginger cookie spread with the consistency of peanut butter) on your clothes.
With less than two hours until I had to catch the chartered bus that brought me to the city, I headed to West 44th St and the Pompeii exhibit. I used the audio guide to go through the exhibit and did not have to rush except at the very last display of cooking utensils. The stuccoed walls brought from the site and objects used in everyday life by all levels of society were well-chosen, very well preserved and gave a well-rounded picture of life in this ancient city which filled with the rich and their vast households escaping the summer heat of Rome. The animation of the eruption was chilling. Its viewpoint just above the roofs of the city showed the volcano in the background first throwing up a little bit of ash during a relatively minor earthquake, the ash eventually collapsing roofs and crushing the buildings, the heat starting fires everywhere. The deadly volcanic activity was interspersed with spells of quiet lasting from minutes to hours, judging by the timeline on the screen and, finally, the dark, boiling miles-wide blanket of pyroclastic flow that killed whatever life might still have existed in this unlucky city and sealed it all up, almost forever. The video was enhanced with a shaking floor, flashing lights and deafening sound effects and made Pompeii’s last two days disturbingly vivid. Knowing the video depicted a historical event is what made it so frightening, even though the presentation only lasted a couple of minutes. Sure, on one level it was a bit LCD, but maybe by bringing this sort of exhibit to a place like Times Square it will spark some kid’s imagination and lead to a career in archaeology.
The most affecting part of the exhibit, after the video, was the plaster casts. Some of
these are well-known to any student of ancient history but there were other casts that I had not seen before. Couples were sprawled, frozen in time, their hands inches apart like a cruel variation on Romeo and Juliet or curled around one another in a futile pose of mutual protection; a baby who would never grow up; a slave left behind, shackled, perhaps because his master thought the eruption was not a death sentence for the city, or that it would be easier and cheaper to replace a dead slave than to have the master’s escape from the city slowed down by bringing the slave with him. The soft lighting and gauzy drapes that covered the walls gave the room a sympathetic, other-worldly feel different from the matter-of-fact museum-like displays that had gone before. This was where the human cost of the catastrophe was laid bare.
Animal lover that I am, I was most distressed by a lone dog, left tied up, lying on his back, twisted into a U as he clawed his way above the ash, until he came to the end of his leash and his life. Finally, there was a vertical graphic, in the room where the casts lay, with marks showing the various levels of ash and stone that continued to build until Pompeii was buried. The blanket of debris was marked at the top – 12 feet thick. Sobering and almost unbelievable.
So that was my grand day out in New York, filled with very European experiences, but
still, quintessentially, New York.