Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cocktails in Wonderland

I am a downtown girl. No ifs and buts about it. I prefer the low key vibe and village atmosphere. But I have to admit that every now and then there is a teeny bit of Upper East Side in me as well. And when this side of me wants to come out, I head straight to a New York icon; Bemelman's Bar at the Carlyle Hotel on 76th Street.

It's not exactly a secret, but it is not often on a tourist's radar, which means your fellow sippers tend to be those died-in-the-wool, old-school New Yorkers. Built in the 1930's, the Carlyle has been considered a home away from home for many a socialite, actor, politician and everything in between. I'm not sure I would suggest to my friends to stay here, but I would always take a New York first-timer to Bemelmans.

The charm of this bar lies in its whimsical mural by Herr Ludwig Bemelman. Born in Austria, he moved to New York during WWI. He drew this mural in 1947 in return for accommodation. A fantastical depiction of Central Park, the walls of this haute New York establishment are filled with picnicking rabbits, elephants reading the newspaper and families of giraffes out for a Sunday walk. The childlike naivite of the mural may seem at odds with the elderly clientele of the bar sipping their sherry and listening to the resident pianist. But that is what makes it all so marvelous and so New York.

And a little piece of trivia. If you are trying to remember how you know the name Bemelman, perhaps it is becuase you - like I - were a fan of the Madeline books when you were a child. This same Mr Bemelman wrote and illustrated six Madeline books. You remember, "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, there were twelve little girls in two straight lines." She even makes an appearance in Bemelmans bar.

images: rosewood hotels, vanity fair, artslant, flickr, boston, stay

Saturday, January 19, 2013


On Monday, President Obama gets "Sworn-In" for another presidency term. I remember how excited I was four years ago. It was my first American Inauguration and the country was poised for something truly monumental. Perhaps the excitement and expectation will be dimmed slightly this year, but no doubt Michelle Obama's fashion choice will still amaze and excite. Her lemon-colored J-Crew ensemble in 2009 blew the political and fashion worlds apart. Whoever had the gumption before Michelle to wear a high street brand to what was probably the most important day in her life! And my did she carry it off beautifully. And then to wear an "unknown" designer to the Inauguration ball that night (Jason Wu) was a brilliant move of confidence, independence and fashion agenda setting for the White House.  And even if Obama himself is somewhat greyer than 4 years ago, he is still a striking figure in an always well cut suit. I actually feel truly blessed to have such a good looking and capable couple leading this country.

So in honor of Monday's festivities, let's have a look at what the First Ladies of the past have worn for their husband's Inauguration.

Mamie Eisenhower, 1953

Jacqueline Kennedy, 1961

Lady Bird Johnson,  1963

Pat Nixon, 1969

Rosalynn Carter, 1977

Nancy Reagan, 1981

Barbara Bush, 1989

Hilary Clinton, 1993

Laura Bush, 2001

Michelle Obama, 2009

images: (1) penndems, (2,3) Life magazine, (4-5) Bettman, Corbis, (6) jimmy carter library, (7) on this day in fashion, (8) bush presidential library, (9) brennan, AP, (10) instyle, (11) vogue princess nailja 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

"You Aussies..."

As I return to New York from a blazing summer in Australia with bushfires burning out of control across much of Tasmania and NSW, I ask myself, what is it about Australia and Australians that is so hard for Americans to work out? Is it because we are from "down under" and that seems so remote that we must be a different species? Or is it because we have weird animals that hop instead of run, using their tail for balance? Is it our accents? Our desire to take more than 2 weeks holiday every year? Jealousy of our beaches? Fear of our top 10 poisonous snakes?

Don't get me wrong. I love living here and I love (nearly) every American I have the pleasure of meeting. But after 2 weeks in the laid back, happy, uncomplicated place I was born, I do always notice a slight condescension creep into the voice of my colleagues when I return. And certainly a questioning look of disapproval that I could have even considered not being back in the office on the day after New Year's day let alone actually not be there.

This year, instead of asking how my beloved country is faring in this headline-making dry and fire-driven season - and Lord knows we have asked America enough about their politics or gun laws - I am asked two fatuous questions on my first day back at work:

  1. Did you bring back Tim Tams?
  2. Do you have quokkas as pets? Apparently they are the happiest animals in the world!
How am I supposed to answer this second question? Yes! They sleep at the end of my bed in a basket! Just like there are kangaroos hopping down main street! I couldn't believe this was even a serious conversation until sure enough, I see The Huffington Post - which I have always applauded for interesting journalism up until now - wasted a whole article on informing the American people of a rarely mentioned or seen Australian marsupial who is apparently, the happiest animal in the world. This lovable creature has now replaced our other furry mascot, the koala, as the cutest thing in the world for Americans.

No wonder we aren't taken seriously. What with a PM like Julia Gillard - who is just a running joke here and at home - the media covering our "adorable" furry animals and inedible food outside of Oz such as Vegemite, it's hard to position ourselves as a cultural or economic world leader. Instead, I just get, "You Aussies, you're so funny!" But when we do crack a joke, they rarely get it! Maybe we're just funny weird instead of funny ha ha. 

Which brings me back to my original question. What is there not to get about us? Perhaps it's our laconic attitude to life that alot of career-driven Americans aspire to adopt but can't because of the relentless pressure to get into an ivy league college and then get paid millions before you can afford to send your own privately-educated kids to the next generation of unaffordable ivy league college and so on. Or maybe they are just completely baffled by us; our customs, attitudes, humour etc so it's easier to treat us like a joke rather than try and understand us in order to take us seriously. It certainly doesn't help when you see Warney turn from a great Aussie sporting icon into an over-tanned, primped and emasculated handbag. However, in the interest of spreading the positive things about Australia, I will continue to fly our flag proudly and try and educate my colleagues about elements other than quokkas and Tim Tams. 

I can only hope my 2013 will get better.

image: white gadget, huffington post

Sunday, October 21, 2012


An annual survey released last week found that New Yorkers are a happy bunch. According to an annual survey on Livability conducted by the Municipal Art Society, 84% of New Yorkers said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their life in the city. Manhattanites are the most optimistic with a level of 88%, versus Staten Island at 67%. And 81% of New Yorkers are optimistic or very optimistic about the future of their city, an increase of 5% over last year.

I'm not sure how that plays out nationally. I'm guessing New Yorkers' upbeat outlook is substantially higher than say those who live in Detroit or Baton Rouge, mainly because the economy here has shown some potential for growth. But I think it does mirror how outsiders see Americans, as a tirelessly upbeat, happy, positive nation of people.

I have always been intrigued by this global perception. Is it true or is it a facade?  In Australia, we grew up with images of American corporate employees pumping the air with their fists in a joint show of success and solidarity, sportsmen high-fiving in the winners circle and a plethora of American self help books offering us suggestions on how to "be your personal best," "beat the blues" and "win friends and influence people".  Of course, America is also the home of the motivational speaker, the celebrity minister and positive affirmations. And I don't deride any of this, because like many others, I do believe that great things come to those who are optimistic and that negativity attracts more negativity.  But I also believe in the yin and yang theory; you can't only have one thing. For every positive, there is a negative, every up, a down.  So like with alot of generalizations, I did not believe Americans could always be "up" - until I lived here.

Coming from a country that is cynical of anything that smells vaguely of corporate brainwashing, it was really disconcerting to work in an environment where everyone really IS positive and optimistic all the time. The first thing the cynic thinks is "oh, this person is not sincere, they're nice to your face and back stab you afterwards". But trust me when I say that every American I have met or worked with - and they're not all from New York -  truly wants you to "have a nice day," makes sure "you are very welcome" and will go out of their way to help you. And they really believe tomorrow will be a great if not better day than today. I must admit it's been hard not to get swept up in this wave of ebullient enthusiasm for life. And in a funny way, I really like it! It makes you feel good about everything you are and do.

Of course, there are the disbelievers of all this "false" optimism. Barbara Ehrenreich is one such realist. She wrote a book called "Bright-Sided; How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America". Ehrenreich argues that Americans are a cheerful, optimistic, and upbeat people because this is their reputation as well as their self-image. However, more than being a temperament, this positivity is seen as the key to success and prosperity because they are relentlessly told that it is. She then goes on to knock this down with an urgent call for a new commitment to realism, because in her opinion, this irrational optimism has led to disaster. 

It's a fascinating read, particularly for a non-American like myself. And there are a lot of reasons to totally agree with Ehrenreich. If you are interested, there is an excellent review of her book here. But for me now in this moment, I will just remain content to live in such an optimistic city like New York.

image: following your bliss

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fall Cometh

When I woke up on Sunday, I could smell Fall. For the first time this year, I stepped outside my apartment and the smell of dank earth and dying leaves punctuated the air. The sky was grey, the temperature was below 20 degrees Celsius and the smell was definitely Fall.

I think I'm ready. We had such an incredible summer, I can't complain now about the dropping temperatures. It signals a total overhaul of the clothes cupboards, moving the whites to the back and the camels and darker colors to the front. It means shorter days and colder nights. Cups of hot chocolate instead of pineapple juice, and thick, yummy soups instead of salads. It also means a totally different color palette surrounding me; red apples, bright orange pumpkins, burnt yellow grass, chocolates, caramel and tartans. I know I'm ready.

To herald this change, I stole the Anesthetist's car while he was tinkering on the boat and went for some heavenly ambles in a new-found and now favorite Ward Pound Ridge Reserve, an hour north of the city. It is 4200 acres of rivers, pastures and forest. A great place to relish these wonderful fall colors and smells!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Day of Atonement

Today is Yom Kippur - Day of Atonement and the most holy day of the year for Jewish people. I have to know these things now, working for a Jewish company and dating one. The office was empty today, as were the streets. The Anesthetist has been at home fasting all day and is now getting ready to go to the "Synagogo" as he calls it. I'm such an ignorant heathen that when my Jewish colleagues asked me yesterday if he would be fasting, I blithely responded, "No, he'll be slaving away at his hospital all day, thinking of dinner and what red wine he wants. " Turns out I couldn't have been more wrong. No wonder they looked at me with pity.

Yom Kippur started at sundown last night and ends at nightfall tonight. It follows Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which was celebrated 10 days ago. During these in between 'Days of Awe,' you are supposed to seek forgiveness from friends and families. Then today is all about abstaining from everything - food, drink, sex, email - and attempting to mend your relationship with God. This is partly done by reciting the 'Vidui,' a public confession of sins.  The rest of the day, according to the Anesthetist, is filled with much navel gazing and balancing up your good with your bad on God's measuring scale. He hasn't asked me for any forgiveness this past week which I find odd to say the least, so either he thinks he's in the positive or his balance sheet is so bad he's afraid to face it.

I really wanted to go with him to the Synagogue tonight so I could hear the Shofar being blown. The Rabbis used to blow a ram's horn but now it could be made of any material. It has a wonderful history that you can read about here.

After learning more about Yom Kippur,  I realized that I actually do have a connection to this religious day - through music. At the beginning of evening service on every Yom Kippur, communal prayers commence with Kol Nidre, a legal document that is chanted with haunting undertones.  It turns out that when I played the cello many moons ago, my favorite and most spiritually moving piece was the Kol Nidrei Op. 47 by Max Bruch. I never understood then the religious significance of this music, only that it touched something deep inside me. I used to continually listen to a recording by my musical heroine Jacqueline Du Pre and vowed that one day I would play the piece with as much intensity as she. I'm not sure I ever made it to that level, but I still think it's one of the most beautiful pieces ever written for cello. Here is another musical hero of mine - Pierre Fournier - playing it. Enjoy.

image: reform judaism

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Lazy Sunday

Without a smile - Without a Throe
A Summer's soft Assemblies go 
To their entrancing end....
- Emily Dickinson

Sunday afternoons in September. Heaven. The light is softer, the breeze is cooler and the heat intensity has dissipated.

I was supposed to go racing out to Greenwich last Sunday to watch a friend play polo, but instead I chose to be lazy and potter about the house. There is nothing I like better than to sit at my kitchen table and look out the window into the plane tree that almost stretches into my apartment. I am lucky enough to have an Italian-red low rise building across the street from me and light galore streaming in the window. So it's hard really to imagine I'm even in New York. Except for the occasional fire engine roaring past my building, Sundays are very chilled in the West Village. Cups of tea, toast with lashings of butter and Vegemite, and the arts section of the New York Times is all I need until lunchtime. Then it's time for a stroll down to Three Lives and Co, a brilliant local bookstore, before finding a table outside a little cafe somewhere to do some people watching. The Village is always good for that. You might spot a poor tourist hopelessly lost in the zig-zagging streets of downtown, Sarah Jessica Parker hiding behind a huge pair of sunglasses or a couple of beautiful looking models after a big night out.

As the sun moves lower over the Hudson River, duck into some charming little boutiques hidden in the Village's side streets. Then it's time for a stroll along the river or if you're lucky, you may chance upon an impromptu jazz session in Washington Square Park. As evening settles, the tourists go back to their midotwn hotels, the bars and restaurants fill with the locals for early dinner and I retire to my bed with a book and a cup of hot chocolate. Who said you have to achieve something every day! 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Up the Hudson

I love the Hudson Valley. I love the farms, the produce, the quaint towns and of course, the mighty Hudson River itself.

There are so many places you can access the river for walks, a quick dip or some quiet contemplation. On Saturday, I dragged the Anesthetist up to Garrison, an hour's drive from the city. There we wandered along the moss-lined paths of the river before stopping into the view Russel Wright's grass-walled cliff house at Manitoga, a very special place. All in all, a very green, serene Saturday!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sweat, Steam and Soaking in the East Village

The Anesthetist took me to experience a true New York icon this week because apparently I've been uptight and belligerent. He marched me to the Russian & Turkish Baths in the East Village so a fat Russian could whip me with oak leaves and put me back in my place. It worked. You don't mess with those men. In fact, you don't really mess with anyone in there it's so crazy.

These baths have been serving the New York community since 1892 and to be honest, the interior looks like it. Not that it's dirty, but it certainly ain't no Four Seasons spa experience either. For $35, you can spend all day in there if you feel the need. There's a sauna, a steam room, an ice-cold dipping pool, an impossibly hot Russian room with 20,000lb of rock cooked overnight to make you think you have arrived at the centre of the earth, and a lot of nude bodies of all shapes, colors and sizes.

The Anesthetist took me on the mens'a and women's night so he could ladle more and more hot water over the rocks in the sauna until I was begging for mercy from the heat. His answer was to add a few drops of lemongrass oil and more water. We then moved to the Russian room draped in very unsexy pantaloons and drab brown towels. There I experienced my very first platza oak leaf whipping. I'm sure my whipper was a retired Russian Olympic weightlifter. But it certainly made my skin feel wonderfully soft afterwards.

These Baths are a must-do when visiting New York, if only for the people watching. You get members of the American Ballet there, contorting into positions deemed impossible. Then there are the mafiosa types from Brooklyn who sit huddled together in corners, the models unwinding during fashion week, the Turks drinking mint tea on the roof deck and every other type of two-legged New York inhabitant who wants to relax, show some skin and steam out those pores.

When you look at the paintings depicting hamans, they were much more beautiful than my one on East 10th St. But if you close your eyes and breath in the steam, you can almost see the minarets and hear the calls to prayer that so remind us of where this group bathing came from .

Ingres: Turkish Bath

Le Barbier: Turkish Bath

images: painting all, nuance 1979, commons, wikimedia

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Summer in Connecticut

Last weekend officially marked the end of the Summer season here. It's been too short! No more white, no more early Friday afternoons, no more long, lazy days. To mark this sombre occasion, the Anesthetist decided to take me to Litchfield Hills in Connecticut, a state that borders New York but is so far removed in attitude as to be a distant cousin.

The Connecticut you see in magazines is exactly the same as the one you actually venture into. The roads are perfect, the gardens expansive, the houses even more so, everything is white and green and picture perfect. Even the barns don't have peeling paint. And of course, there are covered bridges which I LOVE and plenty of little antiquing towns like Warren, where the superb store Privet House is located, owned by the guy who founded Lambertson Truex, which was sadly, swallowed up by Tiffany after the financial crisis.

But I digress - as you tend to do when staying in Litchfield Hills. It's very easy to just meander through the heavenly country lanes and feel a million miles away. We stayed in a lovely place overlooking Lake Warramaug, a huge lake that you can cycle around or kayak on. We did both. And in our world of make believe,  we tossed up the pros and cons of having a country house in Litchfield Hills or a beachouse in Amagansett. Because of course we can afford either - not!

images: 2-3: privet house,