Me and the city – then and now

On Sunday, 5 November 2017, my husband ran the New York City marathon and I decided to tag along – not on the marathon, but to the City.

Lesh in NYC 2017

The last (and first time) I was in Manhattan was in July 2004, at the age of 30.

Between visits, much has changed. Mostly because my perspective – layered with 13 years’ life experience – and my priorities – now that I’m 2 years shy of, ahem, middle age – have evolved.

Despite my ‘evolution’, my propensity to worry remains. And so you’d be forgiven for thinking that my concern heading into New York would’ve been the terrorist attack that happened 5 days before our arrival. But, no, it was how I would get around in the Big Apple. Yeah, I know.

So, before jet setting, I downloaded the streets of NYC onto a nifty app, which I could use offline and watch the blue dot – me, or to be precise, my phone – traipse the streets, so that I wouldn’t get lost. I even pinned some locations.

It was a heavily misdirected anxiety, I soon realised. New York could be renamed the Grid City – it is the easiest city to get around in, if you can count and know your east from your west. I seemed to have forgotten this fact, along with how I managed to get from A to B without technology to guide me in 2004. Gosh, smart devices can make us so dumb!

In the end, I never used the app. I went old school with a printed map I had picked up from the hotel – ah ha, so that’s how I did it all those years ago – which also had the subway marked on it. I then marked on the map – with a real pen, I tell you! – locations I had looked up online, mostly places at which to eat and caffeinate.

The performance was part luddite and part technophile, and depicts me to a T.

The first time round, I used photocopied pages of the Lonely Planet – because who really wants to lug the whole thing around? – for there was no other choice. Now, however, the technophile part of me took advantage of Google, Yelp, Airbnb and Trip Advisor reviews to help find, say, the best falafel in the Upper West Side (btw, that would be the Hummus Place).

Technological advances aside – and my relationship with it – NYC has, of course, also moved on, despite the survival of 24/7 noise, smells and Sex and the City tours – one of my favourite memories from my first visit (the tour, not the noise or the smells).

The city feels safer, looks cleaner. It’s most likely because of the gentrification of once gang-filled areas like Harlem.

And I can now find Melbourne in pockets of Manhattan, also in hip places like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where smashed avocado on toast is served alongside a flat white. A pleasing fact, because with age and living in a city that has the best coffee the world, I have developed snobbish taste buds.

Another thing that didn’t exist 13 years ago is the High Line. Which is probably best, as I wouldn’t have appreciated it back then.

The High Line is an old historic freight rail line that’s been turned into a ‘garden in the sky’ with a public pathway that runs through it. And it’s not any old pathway or garden. I discovered plenty of artwork scattered throughout, along with architecturally designed wooden benches upon which to sit and ponder life.

Lesh at the High Line 2017

But all that was not its only beauty – the High Line is elevated above the streets of Manhattan, and offered me fabulous views of Lower West Side and the opportunity to meander without having to watch out for cars.

The High Line was one of the very few touristy ‘must-dos’ we did while in the Big Apple, along with a visit to the 9/11 Memorial Plaza, which, of course, wasn’t there 13 years ago either.

We didn’t venture up the Empire State Building, like we had in 2004. Instead, I opted for a cosmopolitan (a nod to Sex and the City) on the rooftop bar of the Empire Hotel – a totally different building, in case you are wondering – to celebrate my husband’s marathon feat.

Empire Hotel rooftop 2017

Lesh with a cosmopolitan NYC 2017

We gave 5th Avenue a miss, on purpose – which meant no Tiffany, where, last time, my husband had insisted we step into, because he sneakily wanted to see which engagement rings held my gaze. He popped the question a month after that trip – not with a Tiffany ring, but with a ring he had a jeweller back in Melbourne make, I am happy to say. 

While mainstream shopping no longer holds my attention as it once did – bookshops do, especially independent ones. Two in particular had my heart smiling the whole time I was in there. Both – Spoonbill and Sugartown (what a name!) in Williamsburg and the Tenement Museum Shop in the Lower East Side – stumbled upon while exploring our chosen area of the day, usually decided the day before.

And even though Central Park is on many (every?) New York tourists’ list – I can vividly recall hubby in 2004 with remote in hand, trying to manoeuvre a hired toy boat on the reservoir – this time it took a backseat to the many other patches of green on the island.

Ambling through the farmers’ market at Union Square (we bought locally made hot sauce!), eating at the Bryant Park Holiday shops, hubby playing chess at Washington Square Park for a fiver, and squinting to see the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park were all memorable, serendipitous experiences.

Gaj playing chess in Washington square

But I have yet to mention the trump card (no, most definitely not of that Trump) I had up my sleeve for this trip – the card that made much of our unexpected adventures possible: locals!

My husband’s two cousins – a brother–sister team, one (M) studying in Manhattan and the other (J) in Boston, and both essentially half our age – enriched and amplified our experience.

Williamsburg and eating out – or looking for a place to eat, even – wouldn’t have had the number of giggles or deep and meaningful conversations (me and M, mostly) that I need to feed my soul. Plus, having locals meant being able to get more intimate with the destination.

the cousins NYC 2017

But if you don’t have a local of your own – and I don’t recommend grabbing one off the subway – fear not. Like-minded travellers from your homeland can, and do, sweeten the travel adventures.

During this trip, we had snippets of time with folk from the land down under, since the marathon attracts people from the world over.

A catch-up over Melbourne-style coffee the day before the big event with the runners from the run club my hubby belonged to and their supporters, created a happy, anticipated buzz in the atmosphere that I felt right into to my bones.

And because we had booked the marathon part of our trip with a travel organisation specialising in marathons, we had enthusiastic, impromptu chats with Australians – both runners and supporters – in the hotel lobby. You here for the marathon? Yeah, me too. Have you run marathons before? Yeah, wow, that many!

And on the marathon day itself, the cousins and I banded together at mile 14 with many supporters from the travelling group – and with a massive inflated Kangaroo that came on the subway with us – to barrack and cheer our hearts and lungs out.

The marathon was the entire reason we visited, but I hadn’t expected it to be momentous for me – for my hubby’s, yes, but not for me. It was a daylong fiesta, with the whole of New York City being charged with positive energy. Almost 60,000 participants ran through all its 5 boroughs, with supporters from around the globe cheering and ringing cowbells to elate and encourage the runners to complete their feat. And I was a part of it!

Gaj NYC marathon 2017

Gaj NYC marathon 2017

Not only that, but also the marathon along with great company and conversation, good food, and a sense of community with a joint purpose made my New York experience a soul-satisfying one. Something I don’t think would have been possible if I had armed myself with a checklist of things I must do in NYC that I had to cross off.

This trip proved to be the perfect example of why shared joy and being fully immersed (present) in the experience is vital to one’s happiness.

New York, I hope circumstances bring me to your grid-shaped streets again. For you would have changed and so would’ve I – and I’d be able to learn more about myself and relish you with newly gained insight and perspective.

 

NYC places and things I loved and highly recommend

 

A picture paints a thousand words…that you cannot see

This is a photo of me at Bisti beach, on the idyllic Greek island of Hydra.

What is it saying to you? That I’m happy? That I’m having the time of my life, frolicking in the turquoise-blue waters of the Aegean Sea? That I can afford an extravagant holiday on the other side of the world?

Maybe. Maybe not.

You don’t truly know.

But let me tell you. What it’s not saying is that I found the water utterly freezing. That I only dipped in for a few seconds because I thought it’d be a shame – and a waste of money – not to get salty seawater on my skin, having flown over multiple time zones.

It’s not saying that I wasn’t enjoying myself (the smile even fools me). That I felt lonely, even amongst people – people who were kind, but whom I couldn’t connect with. That I wished I were home with my loved ones.

Sure photos evoke feelings – but they’re your feelings of your perception of a micro moment in time.

That’s how we easily delude ourselves when we see others’ photos, as we scroll down our social media feeds. It’s how comparison sets in.

Even if we know that we can never see what’s actually going on.

It’s easy to look at people and make quick judgements about them, their present and their past, but you’d be amazed at the pain and tears a single smile hides. What a person shows to the world is only one tiny facet of the iceberg hidden from sight. And more often than not, it’s lined with cracks and scars that go all the way to the foundation of their soul.  ~ Unknown

Like the hairline cracks appearing in a relationship of a newly wed couple while honeymooning in Paris, who are slowly coming to realise the difference between romantic love and the love that’s required to sustain a marriage.

Like the anxiousness and sadness of a person out on the town, drinking cocktails with a group of friends she’s outgrown… because what she really wants is to be at home reading a book on the couch, but fears she’ll miss out or be lonely if she doesn’t play by social norms.

Like the gruelling days/months/years of hard work, failure and sacrifice behind a start-up that is now become a successful business, or of someone who’s lost 20 kilos and is now running marathons.

Like the self-doubt of a woman donning size 2 lululemon active wear, eating an acai bowl while in a pretzel-shaped yoga pose.

So, stop comparing yourself to someone else’s life – one that you’ve made up in your head.

Get offline to live your real life – every messy bit of it.

 

Persian love cake

I first encountered the Persian love cake an Ayurveda and mindfulness retreat last year. In case you are wondering why I was eating cake at a retreat, all six tastes – sweet, salty, bitter, astringent, sour and pungent – are considered equally important in Ayurveda. So, the sweet stuff is allowed, unlike, say, at a detox retreat.

In my humble opinion, sugar is not the problem – it’s our relationship with it. Not only that, but many of us also choose to be ignorant of what we’re eating – by not reading the ingredients list, for example. Because if you did, you’d discover that sugar – in all its guises – is hidden everywhere.

Recently, just out of interest, I picked up a jar of pesto in the supermarket to check out its contents. It had:

Water, Basil (27%), Canola Oil, Cashew Nuts, Parmesan Cheese [Milk, Starter Culture, Salt, Firming Agent (509), Enzyme], Pecorino Cheese, Salt, Sugar, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Flavours, Food Acid (Lactic), Fruit Fibre, Pinenuts, Thickeners (Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Locust Bean Gum).

Oi!!! There is no reason for sugar in pesto (or the many other crap ingredients listed.)

I reckon if we were to cut out most packaged foods from our diet, we could eradicate type 2 diabetes and have our cake and eat it too – as long as we baked it from scratch, to dodge the dodgy ingredients.

But who has the time to make food from scratch, I hear you say. I agree, we’re all so ‘busy busy’. In that case, know what’s in your food and how it was produced. That way you can choose trustworthy brands – brands that don’t just care about profits, but also, ethics, quality and have a regard for ‘what we feed the human race’.

I know, real food seems to cost the earth. But it’s the cheap imitations that cost us (and the earth) a whole lot more.

Sure, some in this country struggle to buy food and, generally, struggle to survive. But I think this quote from Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food sums it up nicely:

“While it is true that many people simply can’t afford to pay more for food, either in money or time or both, many more of us can. After all, just in the last decade or two we’ve somehow found the time in the day to spend several hours on the internet and the money in the budget not only to pay for broadband service, but to cover a second phone bill and a new monthly bill for television, formerly free. For the majority of Americans, spending more for better food is less a matter of ability than priority.”

To Pollan’s list of modern-day expenses you could add many other things, such as eating out and, ahem, shopping online for yoga pants.

The point is, the way you spend your money speaks volumes about what your priorities are. So the excuse of no time and/or money is superfluous.

Now, before this post becomes too bitter, astringent, sour or pungent, let’s balance it with some sweetness and a pinch of salt. I present you the Persian love cake.

Persian Love Cake

Persian love cake

Adapted from Australian Gourmet Traveller.

This cake is gluten-free. It will be dairy free if you replace the butter and Greek yoghurt with coconut oil and coconut yoghurt.

Serves 8 | Takes 50 minutes

Ingredients

  • 360g (3 cups) almond meal
  • 1 cup packed rapdura/coconut/muscovado sugar
  • 120g unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 250g Greek-style yoghurt, plus extra to serve
  • 1-2 tsp freshly grated/ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 45 gm (¼ cup) pistachios, coarsely chopped

Method

Preheat oven to 180C, and line and grease a 24cm springform cake tin. I suggest lining the sides of the cake tin with baking paper too.

Then combine the almond meal, sugar, butter and salt in a bowl. Rub the mixture with your fingertips to form coarse crumbs.

Spoon half the mixture into the prepared cake tin, and gently press to evenly cover the tin base.

To the remaining mixture, add the eggs, yoghurt, nutmeg and cinnamon. Beat with a wooden spoon until smooth and creamy (you could do this step in a food processor if you prefer). Then pour over the prepared base and sprinkle the pistachios around the edge.

Bake until golden (~35-40 minutes.) Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Serve with extra yoghurt. The cake will keep in an airtight container for up to a week, if it lasts that long!

Eating out – the (lack of) joy

In Melbourne, eating out is a no-brainer.

Here, food is not just for sustaining your energy or feeding your hunger.

No.

It’s a place where food is Art. Fashion, even. (Just ask the hipsters – they wear the café scene.)

And when you can get delicious diversity at a reasonable price, with food better than in its home country – OK, may be not Mexican food; LA can have that one – then why eat at home?

Not even the ‘80s-style dinner parties have survived. The way to catch up, to see people nowadays (and be seen) is usually over a coffee or a meal – at an ‘in’ restaurant.

It’s just so easy, so trendy to eat out.

Even I’ve succumbed to the habit. Coffees (magics, if you please). Brunches. Friday night dinners. The midweek dinner to catch up with a girlfriend.

I absolutely love it.

Well, I did until recently.

I’ve become too greedy for fashionable food, eating out too often. And this has had its consequences.

And I don’t necessarily mean financially. Well, not in the ‘smashed avocado–can’t afford a home deposit’ kind of way.

For me, when I eat out too often, I notice I become a little numb to the experience. That it no longer holds wonder and joy as it once did. That it becomes blasé. Nonchalant.

I don’t wish to feel this way. I wish to light up when I see a beautifully plated dish. To have all of my five senses stimulated. To not take it for granted.

The only way to do this is to choose to decrease my supply.

I pondered the idea of giving up eating out for a month. That thought only lasted for a split second. For the fear of becoming a hermit and not having a break from cooking.

So, here I am, aiming to find balance between making my own fodder and eating out.

But, if you say the magic word, I’ll be there.

Solitude

I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it. The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me.

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

Guilty for enjoying time alone

Saturday night was a big night. For this 41-year-old introvert anyway.

My husband and I were out celebrating his good friend’s fortieth birthday in a private dining room at a fine dining restaurant with 20 other people. Sounds lovely? Yes, it was. And the food was divine. However, it started at 7.15 pm, and by 11.30 pm, I was itching to go home, to bed and to recharge, as many introverts need to. But it didn’t seem that the others, including my husband, were ready to leave just yet.

So I stayed, because it was in honour of my husband’s dear friend. And it was 1 am, when the restaurant was closing, that most of us finally left (whew!), with a few carrying on elsewhere with the birthday boy.

The thing is, this ‘staying on’ affected me for the rest of my Sunday. I was meant to pop in to see my sister and my nephews on Sunday afternoon, but I couldn’t face any extroversion. I stayed home the whole day, venturing out only to go to yoga (where I don’t really need to interact deeply with others). I cooked, read, napped, coloured in (yes, I have one of those mindfulness colouring books!) and watched TV.

But I felt guilty for choosing solitude over visiting my family. So some of my Sunday was spent googling ‘guilty for enjoying time alone’. I found some great reads that made me feel ‘normal’.

Over time, I’ve realised that my dilemma is accepting my need for plenty of time in solitude. Should I be more self-accepting of this need, I’d be less inclined to feel guilty about hurting other’s feelings or perceive that others will think less of me (or that I’m weird).

I’ve become better as I’ve gotten older, as I’ve become more aware of myself, but the feeling of guilt does get me now an then, as it did on Sunday. It’s a work in progress, which will continue for the rest of my life, no doubt. Hopefully, though, this feeling will soften as I age.

During my Google search, I found on YouTube this video by filmmaker Andrea Dorfman and poet/singer/songwriter Tanya Davis on how to be alone. If you love spending time in solitude, it’s a worthy watch.

Do you feel guilty for needing to spend time alone? What have you done to handle such feelings?

Making someone’s day

Lately, I’ve been trying to cultivate a habit. A habit where my interaction with any human being, including strangers whom I may encounter, does something to uplift their day.

It could be looking the person in the eye and smiling as I walk pass or saying a kind word or two. Or chatting to the person who makes my coffee, enquiring about them and their day – listening to them.

It could be ‘letting someone in’, as I drive in peak hour traffic amongst others with the same agenda – to get to work on time should they face the wrath of their boss if they’re late. Or sending a text or email to a friend to say I’m thinking of them.

To me, these simple acts of kindness are an acknowledgement of someone’s existence; even if these acts take just a spilt second out of your day, they can make a person feel as if they’ve been truly seen or heard. We we all need to consistently feel this to feel – be – human.

But, I must be honest. Making someone’s day is not always top of mind. At times, I’m caught off guard, and react to someone’s rudeness or am in my own busy mind to acknowledge others. If I can just keep the word ‘kindness’ in my brain’s forefront, it might just help me to get there.

What helps is if I have also been kind to myself – that is, taking the time to get enough rest, eat good food, exercise and do the things that give me joy, such as reading a good book and having brunch with a dear friend. If I’m in a good ‘place’, only then I’ll have the brain space to be aware of making someone’s day.

What little acts to you do to make someone’s day? Or what does someone do for you that uplifts your mood?

Polenta uppuma – gluten-free

Uppuma is a traditional South Indian dish that’s typically made with semolina (suji). It can be made with or without vegetables, depending on one’s preferences, and is usually eaten for breakfast or as a snack.

Mum used to make uppuma for us as a snack with peas and grated carrot during my school years. These days, I make it very simply using organic polenta, for a gluten-free version. I don’t add any vegetables – because I serve it as the carb component to vegetable curries or dhal, instead of rice.

Recipe

uppamma

Serves 4 | Cooling time 30–40 minutes | gluten-free, dairy-free option, vegetarian, vegan option

  • 2 tbsp ghee, or coconut/extra virgin olive oil (vegan)
  • 1 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 small (½ large) red onion, finely sliced
  • 1 stem curry leaves (optional)
  • ½ tsp cumin seeds
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • ½ tsp chilli flakes
  • 1 cup fine organic polenta (non-instant)
  • 4 cups freshly boiled water
  • sea salt, to taste

In a medium-sized, heavy-based pot, heat the oil/ghee. Add the mustard seeds, and turn the heat to medium-high. Once the seeds start to pop, turn down the heat to medium and add the onion, cumin seeds and curry leaves.

Stir continually for up to five minutes, or until the onions caramelise. Add turmeric and chilli, and pan fry for another few seconds. Then pour in the polenta, and toast for a couple of minutes over gentle heat. Add the freshly boiled water, and allow the polenta to simmer gently. Stir often so the polenta doesn’t stick to the pan and become lumpy.

After about 10 minutes, stir in a teaspoon of salt. It’ll take roughly 20–30 minutes for the polenta to cook – you want it soft and creamy, not gritty. Taste to check.

Once the polenta is done, taste and add more salt if you wish.

Serve with dhal or any other type of curry that takes your fancy.

Variations

If you wish to eat your uppuma for breakfast (as a savoury porridge), you can add a small zucchini and carrot (both grated finely), and a ¼ cup of frozen green peas to the step where you toast the polenta (before adding the water), and serve it with one or two boiled/poached/fried eggs.

To cook polenta traditionally, with other variations, take a look at this post.