Grand Central Terminal; the view from Cipriani. What’s not to love?
Sitting at the bar is where I’ve had some of my best conversations — in Corsica, in Atlanta, in San Francisco and last Friday evening in New York City.
It was about 6:30.
Commuters were rushing to their trains north, to Connecticut and to Westchester, tourists, as always, posing on the steps and slowing rushed New Yorkers down as they raced for the 6:47 or whichever train was next.
Never get in the way of a New Yorker in a hurry!
I settled in at Cipriani , an elegant Italian restaurant in a balcony overlooking the station. I had a magazine and a Mr. C, a citrus-based cocktail. The bartender kindly plugged in my cellphone to charge it.
A handsome young man in a navy suit and white shirt, no tie, slid onto the stool to my left; a slightly older man with a head of wild black hair and oversized sunglasses sat to my right.
“How’s your week been?” I asked the man to my left.
He told me he’d just gotten a new job, and we toasted, clinking our cocktail glasses.
He seemed surprised I was happy to toast a stranger’s success. Why not? Who would be too churlish to deny him that pleasure?
It’s a big deal to flee a job that’s a poor fit for one you hope will be a much better one. Been there, done that.
That’s the beauty, I suppose, of being near the tail end of a long career. For someone only a decade in, every decision can still feel problematic because you’ve yet to make that many of them.
An investment banker, he admitted he didn’t much like the field, but — probably like many people, especially those unhappy at work — he had pretty much fallen into it. If you know anything about I-banking, the income is certainly seductive, but golden handcuffs are still handcuffs.
I urged him to start creating an exit strategy. Life is far too short to stay in a field or industry you really don’t enjoy, I said.
He looked surprised by my vehemence, and my insistence one could actually enjoy one’s work life.
We ended up talking for about an hour, sharing stories of family and work, of dating woes and East Coast snobberies, and the classic diss we’d both experienced: “Where’d you go to school?”, a tedious sorting mechanism. (The only correct answer being the coy, “In New Haven” (Yale) or “Providence” (Brown University) or another of the Ivy League.)
“I’m strapping, right?” he asked me, at one point. He was, actually.
It was a bit awkward to be asked, even though the answer was affirmative.
He was a little drunk.
It made me a little sad.
He was single, and just under half my age, a fact he finally realized but managed to handle with grace.
We had a good conversation with lots of laughter, a few of of life’s more painful challenges and a few high fives.
I like how the right bar and a drink or two can connect two strangers companionably for a while.
Getting in and out of these three cities, and around them while staying there, can feel overwhelming. It’s not. Download whatever apps work best for you (I am not an apps person!) or, as I do, grab a few really good maps, including separate maps of the bus and subway systems. Study them in bright light at your leisure — i.e. not in the dark/wind/rain when you look like a gormless tourist inviting thieves to snatch your purse, backback, phone or suitcase.
In London and Paris, the lines have names; in Paris for the final destination, and in Paris they also have numbers. In NYC, they have numbers or letters — the L, the Q, the 4. The problem with NYC? Sometimes they go express and you’ll have to get out before the stop you had planned.
I was heartened in Paris and London to see sliding glass panels at some station platforms that open in concert with the train’s doors — which prevent the horror of suicide or homicide. In NYC, which has nothing so civilized, be careful.I can’t say this too strongly; people have been shoved onto the tracks and killed by mentally-ill people standing near them. Stand as far back as possible from the platform edge and be aware of who is near you.
Cabs cost a fortune in London, less so in Paris and are not terrible in New York. In NYC, you’ll see bright green cabs — they won’t stop for you if you’re in Manhattan as they are designated for the outer boroughs. You’ll also go crazy around 4:30 p.m. trying to hail a cab as that’s the time of shift change and many are racing to the garage.
Take the bus whenever possible. You’ll see so much more of the city and start to understand its geography. Buy a weekly transit pass in each city to save money and speed you up; in New York, you slide your Metrocard to enter the subway, dip it when entering a bus.
Remember that others work there and are weary/late/in a hurry. Don’t hog seats/space with your bags and packpack!
When walking do not, ever, walk slooooooooowly and in a large pack of bodies that spans the width of the sidewalk. It’s rude, dangerous and obstructive. Nor should you abruptly stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk or stairs or the entrance to the subway. We’re in a hurry, dammit!
It’s too easy to assume your default setting of hotel/Air BnB/couchsurfing. How about house or apartment-sitting? A home exchange?
As I blogged here earlier, I spent my three Paris weeks in two people’s homes, both of them professional photographers and photo editors, (hence, great taste!) It was so much more relaxing for me to lounge away my mornings at the kitchen table or dining table, reading the paper or a book. I was able to spread my stuff out, do laundry, cook my own meals — and listen to music as loudly as seemed prudent.
In short, I felt truly at home in a foreign city. I loved food shopping, coming home with my baguette and gooey hunk of Reblochon (cheese) and some fresh figs for breakfast. I bought several sorts of loose tea and enjoyed it as well.
Unless I can afford a really lovely hotel, I’d rather rent a place.
A whole set of blog posts on its own!
If you love antiques as much as I do, you’ll quickly suss out the best vintage stores and flea markets in these three cities; in Paris, I scored a gorgeous fedora and 80s earrings at Eponyme in the 11th and was deeply disappointed by the sky-high prices at the flea market at Clignancourt. In Manhattan, check out the East Village — East 7th and East 9th — for lots of vintage and some great indie shops; I just discovered Haberdashery on East 9th. Heaven! It has one of the best-edited collections of serious vintage I’ve ever seen.
All three cities offer boatloads of style from smart, savvy retailers, whether the fabric department in London at Liberty (swoon) or the jewelry in Manhattan at Barney’s (bring a Brinks truck full of money.) Pick a cool/chic neighborhood and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring it, whether Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Marylebone High Street in London or the 6th or Marais in Paris.
Don’t forget — you can, (as I did twice on that trip) — box and ship home your new things from the local post office or a bunch of your less-needed clothes/shoes to make room/reduce weight in your suitcase; mine weighed just one pound below the limit when I returned!
These are three of the world’s most stylish cities. Sure you can schlub around in baggy pants and white sneakers and bright pink nylon, but you might as well wave a flag shouting “Tourist!”
Many of their residents take serious pride and pleasure in how they present themselves, whether the hipsters of Willamsburg or the Sloanies of London. In NYC, assume that wearing black makes for good native camouflage; women favor a good, fresh manicure (easily acquired in many affordable nail salons), and haircut, with polish in cool dark non-frosted shades or pale.
Parisian women, and men, are justifiably known for their style and it’s easy enough to fit in if that’s fun for you. Women rarely wear prints or leggings and many sport truly eye-catching accessories — an unusual hat, a terrific muffler, interesting shoes. I rarely saw anyone wearing high heels; cobblestone streets chew them up. Many men, of all ages, also wear mufflers or scarves to add a dash of color and texture. Look for unusual color combinations and flashes of wit — a lavender sock, a tangerine pair of gloves.
London men, especially, dress with care: narrow-toe, highly-polished leather shoes, narrow trousers, a great briefcase. Women dress more eccentrically and playfully there than in Paris or New York — all black in London and Paris just feels sad and lacks imagination, while the pom-pom-studded skirt I saw on the Tube in London would raise dubious eyebrows in much of New York.
Bring an umbrella to all three cities! In a month, (late December to late January), I faced a frigid low of 33 F to a high of almost 50. London was more humid. A small umbrella, (with a sealable Ziploc bag for when it’s soaked and you need to tuck it into your bag or backpack), is a must.
To stay warm, I’m a big fan of cashmere, even socks, mitts, scarf and/or hat. Light and silky, it’s super-warm but not bulky. Add a thin layer of polypro or silk beneath your clothes on the bitterest of days. Woolen tights aren’t easy to find in the U.S. but also make a big difference.
Eating and drinking
London will bankrupt you! I have little great advice other than…expect it and bring money. I save hard for my vacations and refuse to make myself miserable, so I mix up splurges, (a cup of tea at the Ritz in London [not the full tea!] for about $10) and a cocktail in their gob-smacking gorgeous bar for $30), with a quick cheap sandwich for lunch.
Keep in mind that museums and art galleries often have excellent dining facilities; I loved my lunch at Tate Modern,
Paris restaurants typically offer a plat du jour, always less costly than dinner. For about $15 to $20, you can enjoy a hot meal of two or even three courses. Wine can be a little as five euros a glass — about $7. Enjoy!
New York City has a terrifically wide array of options, from the hautest of elegant bars and restaurants to the usual national chains like Olive Garden, Friday’s, etc. The city excels at diners, old-school, all-service restaurants whose enormous laminated menus go on for pages. Few things make me as happy as settling in at the battered Formica counter, (look for a shelf or a hook beneath it to hang your purse or pack so no one can grab it and run), and eating there. Try Neil’s, at 70th and Lexington, or Veselka, on the Lower East Side, in business since 1954.
Whatever you do, flee midtown: boring, crowded, filled with tourists.
When you’re a visitor with limited time, it’s tempting to rush around all day and forget how tired, hungry and thirsty you’ll end up. Allow for a two-hour lunch or a glass of wine or an espresso sitting outdoors in a Paris cafe — which has heaters for the winter. Slow down.
And do not keeping staring into your bloody phone. Just….be there.
Read about your city!
These might be histories, or fiction or guidebooks. I always take my London A-Z, (a highly detailed set of maps), and my Plan de Paris, (ditto), both of which are small and slide into a pocket or purse easily.
There are, of course, dozens of great blogs written by savvy, stylish people living in each of these cities whose posts will be timely and give you all sorts of fun ideas; I like Small Dog Syndrome for London and Juliet in Paris (whose August 2014 posts about London were super-helpful and detailed.)
Pick up the local newspapers; in New York, compare the New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News to get a real picture of this city’s diversity; in London, the Guardian, Times and Daily Mail; in Paris (if you read French), Le Monde, and Liberation. The letters to the editor, alone, offer some serious insights into what people all around you are thinking and care most about.
Yes, you can read online but don’t. Go old-school and savor it.
Gives you something to tuck under your arm, and look like you belong!
The best-read posts on Broadside include this, this, this — which all discuss the value of travel alone as a woman.
Some people have an absolute horror of solitude. Too scared to go anywhere by themselves, they refuse to travel without a companion or go to a movie alone or sit in a restaurant without the reassuring comfort of someone across the table.
I don’t get it.
I know a few people who loathe being by themselves for any length of time, but I wonder why that is…if you’re healthy and solvent — as being alone when you’re really sick and/or broke is nasty –what’s the worst that can happen?
I’ve traveled far and wide alone, and am perfectly happy to spend time doing things solo, whether sitting at a bar, dining in a fine restaurant, attending a cultural event.
Maybe it’s because I grew up an only child and spent a fair bit of time on my own, reading, drawing, playing with toys. Maybe it’s a hold-over from years of shared space with too many strangers at boarding school and summer camp.
I like my space! I enjoy quiet solitude.
I lived alone ages 19 to 22 (then with a boyfriend), then ages 26 to 30 (then with my first husband), then alone for seven more years after my divorce.
Was I lonely? Sure, sometimes. I got weary of eating dinner while reading a magazine and having to leave my home for company.
But if you really can’t tolerate being by yourself, what does that say about the quality of your own company?
I work alone all day and, most days, speak only to people I am interviewing by phone or, occasionally, to clients or editors. It’s a little monastic, I admit, but I guess I’ve grown to enjoy it and even prefer it. I hate being interrupted. I lose focus.
Journalism, too, is really a business for loners. We rarely work in teams, usually off on our own stories.
Here’s a recent blog post about restaurants where you can sit at a long, shared table with strangers — in NYC, Vancouver, Portland, Oregon and others.
How do you feel about spending time alone?
Do you savor and enjoy it — or dread and avoid it?
That space has special meaning for me and my sweetie of eleven years, for in it we had our third date when it was a French bistro named Le Jardin. We loved eating in its grape-arbored backyard, a rustic rarity in downtown Manhattan.
Some of my own hangouts made the list; I’ve lived just north of NYC since 1989:
Old Town Bar. Noisy and crowded in the evening, but great for a quiet lunch. Founded in 1892, its booths are battered and worn, like stepping into a sepia photograph. Head up the narrow steep stairs for a quieter experience in the restaurant upstairs.
Dublin House. Dive bar! Great jukebox. An unlikely find in the pricey upper West Side.
Fanelli’s. Love its heavy etched glass doors and narrow bar. Like Old Town, it’s more than 100 years old, so go for the setting, not the food. Stop in for a Guinness as you stumble through Soho.
Temple Bar. Look for the small glowing lizard inset — no sign! — into the wall on Lafayette Street. This bar is a tiny, intimate jewelbox. Perfect for a romantic date. Dress up!
The King Cole Room. A drink will cost a small fortune, but worth it for a taste of true old-school elegance at the St. Regis Hotel. Savor the gorgeous Maxfield Parrish mural behind the bar that gives it its name.
Cafe Cluny. Tiny, perfect, neutral colors. Not cheap but worth it.
Cafe Angelique. Perpetually jammed with bankers and European tourists, this pretty spot has good food in an interesting neighborhood, the West Village. Fuel up here for your shopping on $$$$$$$ Bleecker.
Caffe Reggio.Crammed with NYU students at its small tables, it’s the perfect spot on a cold winter’s afternoon for a cappuccino and cannoli. Opened in 1927, its ochre walls are covered with art.
Grey Dog. The best! I love its rustic interior, friendly staff, comfy tables. Settle in with your NYT and savor.
Gramercy Tavern. The room is gorgeous, the service elegant, the food delicious. Still thriving after 17 years!
La Grenouille. I had lunch upstairs last year and it was one of the loveliest experiences ever. Hushed, old-school, formal, delicious, expensive. Founded 49 years ago, it has an elegance hard to find and one to cherish.
Toloache. This three-year-old Theater District Mexican is one of my absolute favorites. I love their small, freshly made margaritas, their delicate hand with portion sizes and sauces, friendly service. I love the look of the two-story room, with its hand-painted tile mural. This is high-end dining, not boring old fajitas/tacos/burritos.
Red Cat.Few restaurants in Manhattan last, but this one has. Red Cat is welcoming, warm, lovely to sit in and offers great food at reasonable prices.
Morandi.One of Keith McNally’s faux-aged see-and-be-seen spots, I love it anyway. Sit at the bar and enjoy one of the city’s best spaghetti carbonaras.
Balthazar. Another McNally spot, opened in 1997. Heaven. Huge room, high ceilings, stylish crowd, great food. As close to Paris as you can get on this side of the Atlantic.
Cafe Boulud. We recently treated ourselves to the three-course prix fixe lunch ($35 pp) with a bottle of Cotes du Rhone for $28. The room is calm, quiet, lightened with antiqued mirrors and crisp, bright watercolors. The service is excellent, the food lovely, presentation fab — my vitello tonnato came on a slab of slate, my banana/ice cream dessert de-constructed into three pockets of a white china dish. Can’t wait to go back.
New York Noodletown. Cheap, delicious, cheap, delicious. The white plastic tablecloths and line-up of people eyeing your table reminds me of all my favorite (hometown) Toronto spots on Spadina.
Daddy-o. I just discovered this 12-year-old tiny little corner restaurant with a great burger. Any restaurant lasting more than a decade in Manhattan is doing something very right!
Not tonight. It was the end of the fireworks — 200,000 happy Vancouverites having thronged the beaches to watch them from a barge in the harbor. I sidled up to my hotel bar and found myself next to the most boring person I have ever met.
“I can’t believe how hot it is here,” he said; he being a contractor from a suburb of San Francisco. “I thought Canada had perpetual winter.”
Normally, I smile indulgently. Not this time.
“You’re kidding, right?”
He went on to rave about the novels of James Michener and how great they are, like “Hawaii.”
And, sue me, I hate it when men ask your name right away. Lively conversation first, ask name later. It’s the price of admission.
I make it a point to sit at the bar most of the time, especially when eating alone. It’s usually a lot more fun than reading or watching people read (please) their emails.
Earlier this week I met Homa and Babak, an Iranian couple, and had a great conversation — I had no idea Tehran has a ski hill. (Homa showed me a photo on her Iphone.) Then chatted with a young Australian girl who’s just moved here.
In Atlanta last fall, I sat in a great old dive bar and had an hour-long chat with a terrific local guy, so when it works, it works well.