Spliced Surprise

Bell ringers have had bad press for too long. Quasimodo started it all, Marty Feldman didn’t help just by hunchback association, and Macbeth filled our youthful imagination with foreboding, the sound of the bells summoning us to heaven – or to hell. But Trinity Church is in the process of changing all that. There are no bats in the belfry in this most illustrious of New York churches. Bell ringing here is considered an art, not an adjective. And with the only set of 12 tuned bells in the country – courtesy of a British benefactor who named each bell after a favorite ringer, Manhattan has an orchestra with heavenly a-peal.

Becoming a bell ringer takes practice – count on a three year internship – but at Trinity it also requires fitness. First you need the legs to climb the 100 steps winding high into the bell tower. Then you need a good golf-stick grip for the rope, strength to balance up to a tonne of bronze belling, and most importantly a big heart that will keep you on beat and supply you with a generous spirit. Bell ringing is all about team work. And that’s not just keeping rhythm when the musical sequences change, it is also about the so-called ‘deodorant moments’ of familiarity, as the gravitational swing of the bell unceremoniously takes your arms up, up, up. No wonder friends ring together, fathers and daughters ring together, and everyone heads to the pub together at the end.

The ringing of the bells is as welcoming as the bellringers themselves. A very patient veteran walked me through the mechanics of the ringing, or at least tried to. His pleas for me to listen to my bell so as to understand the timing & speed required for pulling the ‘sally’ were as earnest as his attempts to explain the difference between a Reverse Bob and a Spliced Surprise. The musical scores may remain a mystery to me, but the good news is that the sound emanating from the bell chamber is electronically controlled through adjustable baffles. So even though I couldn’t identify the wayward sound of my own bell, neither could anyone else. My reputation remains intact and I have even been invited back. Miracles never cease! The next time you need one, contact David so you can join the party, and the privilege, of ringing the bells at Trinity…

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Country Girl

Edna O’Brien’s memoir is a marvelous read, a rich adventure from an extraordinary woman. What a life! She went to the movies with Jackie Kennedy, had a tryst with Robert Mitchum, conversations with Samuel Beckett, her palm was read by Shirley MacLaine, Paul McCartney sang to her young sons, priests burnt her novels, she wrote first hand accounts of The Troubles in Ireland, and had cocktails at the literary Algonquin Hotel in NYC between performances of her play. But the way Edna told the stories behind these names, and her amazing recall of detail that took you to the kitchen table of her childhood home in County Clare, gave you the smell of the Irish grass and the longing for more. When I closed the book it was all I could do to seek out a cider at Molly’s.

Irish pubs abound in NYC, but none quite as authentic as Molly’s Shebeen. The spot ( no longer an illegal drinking establishment as the name would suggest ), has been a bar since before Prohibition. But when the Irish moved in they bought shepherd’s pie and generous portions of chips, put in an open fire, and threw sawdust on the floor. The staff are all Irish, and many of the customers sound the same, or at least have names like Gabrielle Fitzgerald to get them through the door. Pictures of the old country line the walls, although through the darkness it is only the candles that allow you to see. Edna would never be one to hide in the shadows, but what an absolute treat to slide into a booth one day and find her sharing stories. You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl…

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Balmy and Baroque

Heaven and Earth became as one last night when the Trinity Church‘s Baroque Orchestra performed their last concert for the summer. Breathless and sticky from the spontaneous sprint downtown, I was ushered gently into a padded pew, from where phones and photographs were politely non grata. The focus was the music – the strings, the oboes and the harpsichord, and the beauty of their interplay rose into the spectacular space with refreshing joy. What a venue, what music! Alexander Hamilton, celeb du jour, may be buried in the churchyard, and his name may be hip hopping all over Broadway, but no doubt he rests all the more peaceably courtesy of the ministerings of Bach.

The Trinity Church is almost as old as New York itself. It has been built three times, has the only set of tuned bells in the United States, and survived September 11 without even a scratch to the stained glass windows. Last night as the performance ended and concert goers poured out onto the busy, balmy streets, two lights followed the tradition skyward in acknowledgement of the anniversary. Much has happened since then. Riding home along the cool waterfront of the East River, fisherman patiently reset their lines, the sound of people partying in Brooklyn wafted over the water, a class of Chinese women waltzed together, kids raced past on their skateboards and the smell of barbecues and dope was in the air. Bach is with me still, his soaring symphonies at once a salve and an inspiration in the city that doesn’t sleep…

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Squeezebox salutations

The Campbell Apartments are no more. After 17 years, the lease of this gloriously restored gem of New York City history has expired, and the space will be converted under a new owner to have trendier appeal. There was a six month court case to avoid eviction, but even the wrangling of the old to surpass the rent offered by the new, did not appease the landlord…

It was all I could do to walk down the road and find solace in the squeezebox festival in Bryant Park. There were Russians and Irish players and music from around the world, and who would know there was such an audience for this unique sound. New York! The city doesn’t sleep – even when you might want it to for awhile – so don’t hesitate to come and share the old, and the new. Cheers!

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Don’t be illamad!

Life in Columbus Circle yesterday looked like a usual New York street scene. Yellow cabs, a few bikes, a ballerina… Who would have suspected that just a short distance away via a Tardis-like transport, a llama party was lurking?! Spiraling off from the underground subway, and corralled between ticket machines, Swedish coffee shops and erasable graffiti boards, a band of brothers from Bolivia are celebrating their culture by introducing NYC to a new concept in party food.

Not to be confused with pasties or empanadas, saltenas are to Bolivians what sushi is to the Japanese or pizza is to Americans. It can take a chef five years to perfect the recipe, and that is not because of indecision about meat or no meat. It’s the art of the package. According to the masked Alex, the mixture must be soupy, and the pastry, made with ajianarillo flour, slightly sweet. The trick is to balance the consistency so it is juicy without being soggy. ( Vegan alert – cows feet are involved. ) And when the test of a good saltena is to shake it to see how much juice is inside, the next challenge is to eat it without spilling a drop. That will mean picking up the check for the whole table.

The Bolivian Llama Party is named for the things that the three brothers love. Enthusiasm radiates from their tiny store – the ceiling is as handmade as the party food, and while I pause over the hooves on the hotplate, the pride of the telling of this authentic addition makes it essential – and delicious – eating. So if you lose yourself in the winding passages of the subway underneath Columbus Circle, don’t despair, you might end up partying with some Llamas from Bolivia…

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Home at the Frick

There’s no place like home. It may be 85 years since the last time a member of the Frick family slept over at their mansion on East 70th, but the house still feels as much like a home as it ever did. Servants, all 27 of them, have been replaced by staff, the cedar room is no longer full of furs, and computers have replaced cots in the upstairs bedrooms. But the paintings – the Vermeers, the Whistlers and the Rembrandts – are still exactly where Mr Frick placed them more than one hundred years ago. And then there are the secret gardens, the heirloom tomatoes and the trees that were thought to be extinct.

From the rooftop looking to the west side the view over Central Park is spectacular. It is the fifth avenue view, the upper east side advantage. But on the other side of the building there is a little alcove above the famous Russell Page garden – the garden that survived the architect’s proposal of being built upon, simply by being so beautiful that people rallied from around the world to protect it. The alcove, a perfect sun trapped ledge accessible only through small forgotten french windows, is the private space of the Frick gardener. Here he grows heirloom tomatoes and herbs and occasionally permits a grateful green-thumb visitor. The tomatoes love the space and thrive, generously contributing to the salads of the staff. Well, mainly the director’s salads. But they do share the view.

On the east side of the garden is a massive Metasequoia, a red wood that was believed to have been extinct for thousands of years. Then during the American occupation of Japan after the second world war, soldiers recognized the conifer and brought seeds back to America in their pockets. One found it’s way to the Frick where it grows with a small abatement. Steel cables connect from the garden to the tree, preventing it from thwacking the building next door when the wind blows. It’s a neighborly courtesy to musical agent Mr Barbis, who not only overlooks the garden but who represents Elton John amongst others. Which goes to show you can always pick your home, but you never know who is going to live next door….

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Cinnamon Bun day

In anticipation of Cinnamon Bun Day on October 4th, exhaustive research is being undertaken to establish the best place in the city to enjoy these spicy sweets. Fortunately the Great Northern Food Hall has just opened at Grand Central – ironically on the southern side – which gives my quest a Nordic advantage. After all, cinnamon buns are to the Scandi’s what lamingtons are to Australians – native. Kanelsnurrer, sticky with cinnamon and a touch of cardamom take first place next to the feather-light crunch of sweet almond filled Frosnapper – a fabulous new discovery, while the Tebirkes pillows a filling of caramel-like remonce ( creamed butter and sugar ), which could quickly become romance – or remorse. Fortunately the pastries are much harder to pronounce than they are to eat, although the chocolate cloud puffs roll off the tongue with amazing ease.

Claus Mayer, the man behind this Nordic nirvana, who believes that good food can change lives, has built restaurants and written books, opened cafeterias in South America, initiated cooking schools in Danish prisons, and revolutionized the way people eat in Denmark – including being the co-founder of a restaurant ( Noma ) with a menu built on local ingredients, and voted the best restaurant in the world four times… He believes that deliciousness is a guiding principle of everything that we do. And when you taste his buns you also become a believer, if you weren’t already.

With my head in a cloud of cinnamon swirls it was easy to drift the short distance to Scandinavia House where a film and the appearance of Stellan Skarsgard for a post-viewing Q&A offered to make the flavours linger. The movie locations in snow-swept Norway were spectacular, and who could not be a little in awe of the Swedish superstar. But it was the title of the film – In order of disappearance – that most aptly rounded off a successful day of bun research…..

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Grammatically correct

Grammar was never my strongpoint. Even so, after 10 days of medical questionnaires and form filling to record Sean’s unscheduled shoulder realignment last week, it seems the linguistic landscape has changed. The question of ‘pronoun preference’ raised by the Orthopedic Surgeon showed just how out of touch we were. Ticking an M or F box is completely passe. Apparently some professional men now sign their correspondence with ‘he, him, his’ and staff at The New School on 14th Street wear badges stating ‘My pronoun preference is….’. That reference can include ‘Xe’, as individuals search for an alternative to ‘he’ or ‘she’ that is gender neutral ( as exists in Latin and many European languages ) and has more status than ‘it’ or ‘they’. There is always something new to be learnt, which turned my attention to adverbs, and fortunately Eataly was just around the corner.

Nutella has joined the Italian market at the Flatiron, bringing even more flavor to this perpetually tantalizing eatery. Chocolate and hazelnut brioche won over the crepes – not that you could make a bad choice – and this was after a full circuit of the cheeses, rotisserie, hot breads and salumeria. With all this edible energy no wonder Mr Batali is opening a new outlet at Gound Zero, and that his motto is eat, shop and learn. That’s two for two, so with pronouns and adverbs covered, it was time to complete the day with art and a little rest. Union Square provided the inspiration and there was complete agreement between subject and verb…

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Special K

Special K is more than just a breakfast cereal, especially when it comes with ‘milk’. At least that was part of our learning experience in the Emergency room of the Beth Israel Medical Center last Saturday night. Sean and I made an unscheduled visit to this soon-to-be-demolished hospital, after my fleet footed husband slipped down a staircase and dislocated his shoulder en route. It was an injury that cried out for immediate attention, so we joined the merry and the maimed in triage with the optimistic hope that all the pain killers had not yet been packed.

Every step of the process through X-rays and drips and analgesics was signed off, allocating responsibility and billing. Nothing new. But when Sean opted for anesthetics over au naturel to put his shoulder back together, the technician grinned, shaking a small milky bottle with the revelation that ‘this is what killed Michael Jackson!’ The ‘milk’ was to put Sean to sleep, and another drug, Ketamine, to take care of the pain. Together these drugs would knock Sean out for precisely 15 minutes, following which he would hopefully be put back together and have no memory of the squirmish. After a double dose of the cocktail that’s exactly what happened, and Sean came out grinning like a space cadet.

He wasn’t the only one. While I waited patiently in the corridor with Sean’s shoes, someone asked me if I was selling them. A colourful young woman newly acquainted with the legal drinking age danced around the room. The doctors remained cool regardless and modestly dismissed our gratitude not just for repairing Sean but for his unexpected trip to Disneyland. The King of Pop wasn’t quite so lucky. Apparently Ketamine is available on the street as Special K – it’s not manufactured but stolen from hospitals, probably theirs! Just as we were leaving, two fellows in handcuffs were escorted out of the hospital by police. They didn’t have the same glow that most of the visitors to Emergency shared – so maybe they were caught shop lifting in the breakfast aisle…

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Licorice lovers

The sign out the front is completely misleading. One hundred flavors of licorice? Impossible! There have to be at least two hundred or more. And that’s just counting the ones I like. Myzels, a little store on West 55th street is an absolute treasure trove of all things licorice, with specialty chocolates and hand made cookies. The smell as soon as you step inside is spellbinding, and when you meet Kamila you will understand why. She has an aura of aniseed, a telepathy for treats – I only had to think chocolate bullets and suddenly there they were, ‘a little something to be happy’.

No wonder Bill Cunningham was a regular. His favorite was the dark almond chocolate and he was always given more than he asked for. Sweet generosity. But there are many regulars and many favorites. Kamila has been sourcing sweets from all around the world for her clients for over 25 years. Some licorice cannot be imported directly into the USA, it has to come surreptitiously through the worldwide network of hand luggage. Chocolate bullets cannot travel complete, the licorice comes from Australia but the chocolate has to be embraced in San Francisco. Some salty licorices from the Netherlands don’t meet FDA specifications and can’t come through the front door. It was in fact a Dutch lover that introduced Kamila to licorice in the first place. She was hooked, but ultimately only on the licorice.

The long yellow boxes of mixed licorice from my childhood are quite possibly hidden in the magical jars at Myzel’s. It will probably take more than the summer to search through the stars, the rope, the truck tires and the straps, and even if I am prepared to forgo finding any choo choo bars, black teeth look to be with me for some time…

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