Today involves a tour of Northwestern University, where Robert taught until retirement at the Scholars College, a sort of elite college within the university.
He taught there for over twenty years, and still advises students there. What is it about people like Robert and Natalie that I lack? Robert subscribes to the alumni magazine at Macalester College, our alma mater. I made a conscious decision not to be too involved. In any of the places I have ever studied. I think my parents were like that too. Maybe I inherited this indifference from them. I just can’t identify with them.
I remember when I was a high school student and my family had just moved to a new home in a different school district from where I had previously lived. It was, however, very close to where our former school district was, and the school sports teams were rivals. I was talking to another new student and told this person that this school was okay, but the previous school was better. The assistant school principal overheard me and reprimanded me. “Where’s your school spirit?” he said. I had never even considered the concept of school spirit, or loyalty to an organization. I suppose that later led to my hippie phase. But that is all in the past, from another life. Now I am in Louisiana with my former classmate.
Robert tells me there is close collaboration at the Scholars College between professors and students, and that many courses are interdisciplinary. It sounds exciting, like a college I would have loved attending. Everywhere we go, people recognize him, calling “Robert!” joyfully. Many even hug him, and they engage in conversation. This was definitely home for Robert. I see aspects of Robert I had never discovered. I see how he shows affection, interest and respect for everyone he encounters, from the dean of the college down to the black cleaning lady. Everyone seems to love him, and everyone has a kind word and a special message of gratitude for his impact on their lives. I am deeply impressed. We visit the student union, as I did with Natalie, and an honors high school attached to the university. I meet more colleagues and friends. By this time, I think I must have met all of Robert’s friends, and feel honored to be able to meet them all.
After this we walk around Natchitoches, getting to know this town that is apparently quite a tourist attraction. It is just as charming in a different way as Georgetown, Texas was. Lots of red brick homes. We stop and look at the home where the film “Steel Magnolias” with Julia Roberts was filmed. I haven’t seen the film so the house doesn’t mean much to me other than that it appears to be a comfortable southern home.
The shops are unique, the way a town center ought to be. An upscale hardware store that seems to have all you could ever need. A chocolate shop, gift shops with Louisiana hot sauce and other condiments from the area. I buy some gifts to bring my brother, whom I will visit next week.
We join a friend of Robert’s in a pub. I am the only woman among a bunch of men. One of them looks quite down-to-earth and speaks with a very pronounced, charming gentle southern drawl. He smiles wryly from time to time as he recounts his tale. His accent sounds almost English to me at times. I am mesmerized more by his accent than by his story. Robert tells me later he comes from a very old Louisiana family and that he owns sixteen acres of land. I must have met someone from “southern gentry”. Another friend joins us later. What a lot of socializing gets done here!
I make German pancakes for Robert in the evening and we watch the film “Steel Magnolias”. Now I understand the context of this house. The movie is both funny and sad. I observe that the only black people in the film are servants. I have met only white professors and black cleaning personnel today. Oh yes, the owner of the chocolate shop was black. But generally, the people I meet are white. I think, Germany is more integrated than this. I must say, this separation of groups appears more accidental, a product of socializing and education, than intent. But I do get the sense that the 80 per cent of blacks and 20 per cent of whites living in Louisiana inhabit generally separate worlds, except at the supermarkets and local shops.
My last full day with Rhett and Natalie. Another “down” day for Rhett. They’re talking about driving together tomorrow on his “up” day to take me all the way to Louisiana to meet my friend Robert. A drive of at least four hours! I can’t believe their generosity. Nor am I convinced that Rhett can really handle this.
“No big deal,” he says. “I do this all the time to drive to visit relatives in New Mexico.”
For today, Natalie has plans again. We meet one of her friends for lunch at the Student Union of Southwestern University, alma mater to Rhett and Natalie as well as Donna.
Southwestern University is a Methodist university in Georgetown, approximately the size of Macalester College in Minnesota, my alma mater. Macalester is also a church college run by the Presbyterians. Both colleges have a definite secular feel about them, even if they are owned and operated by Christian denominations.
I haven’t been on a college campus in decades! But it turns out that Natalie and Donna often spend evenings at the college attending concerts and plays. After all, Georgetown is a college town, and Natalie tells me Southwestern is the oldest university in all of Texas. I detect some pride here. Maybe I would go to cultural events at my college too if I still lived in Minnesota. But then the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul have at least twenty-five colleges and universities, with over 50,000 students at the University of Minnesota. Multiply each college’s cultural offerings and there is a lot to choose from in the Twin Cities! Not to mention professional groups like the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Guthrie Theater.
We eat the same lunch many of the students are eating, hamburgers. Natalie orders a portabella hamburger, expecting a hamburger with a slab of meat and a mushroom. Instead, all that comes is a mushroom on a bun! Welcome to college life in the 21st century, the age of vegans and vegetarians.
After lunch, we walk around the Student Union, then saunter around the campus grounds outdoors. The buildings, all clad with rough-cut limestone, have a feeling of uniformity, no matter when they were constructed. I find the campus very attractive.
We walk alongside a lush lawn with beautiful huge shade-producing trees. Dotted here and there are pretty wooden lawn chairs. “These chairs have each been donated by alumni,” Natalie says. In one section of the commons there are dozens of plaques on the ground, honoring former students who have contributed in some major way to society or to the college. One of the plaques is dedicated to Donna.
We walk on for an hour or so. Natalie points out the sorority she belonged to. We walk into the chapel, where she and Rhett used to make out during hours when the chapel was not occupied. She was in awe of this lively, handsome young man who was popular with all the girls, but for some reason wanted to be with her!
We wander into the theater building, where students are rehearsing a play Natalie and Donna will be attending in a few days.
I am puzzled by this attachment they feel to the college they graduated from. I feel no connection at all to Macalester. Is that because I graduated in the time of the hippie movement? Most of us in my graduating class chose to not even wear the traditional caps and gowns. Or did I inherit this disconnection from my parents? My father was matter-of-fact on the rare occasions when he talked about college at all. He graduated from Columbia University in New York City. Was he proud of that? It’s an Ivy League school, after all. I did know that neither he nor my mother liked New York City, the city I feel best in! Neither of my parents received alumni magazines from their respective schools. My mother went to nursing school at a hospital that doesn’t even exist anymore. She worked in New York City at a hospital belonging to Columbia, and that doesn’t exist anymore. My parents didn’t talk about college. Except about the college I didn’t want anyone to know I had attended, and that was the frequent subject of conversation between my parents. My parents donated so much money to Bethel College, they put my father on the board of directors and even gave him a teaching position. The president of the college and his wife had been guests at our home. I attended this college too for three years because it seemed like the obvious choice. But I was not happy there, and I was highly embarrassed to run into my father occasionally on campus. Even after I had married and was living in Germany, my parents would mention who they had seen at the Festival of Christmas, a music extravaganza the college puts on every year. I sang in these concerts too while attending the college, but never set foot in that place again after transferring to Macalester. I definitely did not want to be associated with that college.
But I was no more connected to Macalester than to Bethel. I knew that Macalester had a good reputation, but I also never let the alumni association know of my new addresses so they could send me alumni magazines. I was just relieved to finally be finished with college! The same thing when I got my MSW at the University of Minnesota. I graduated in absentia and never went back. Seeing Natalie and Donna’s enthusiam, I wonder if there is something misplaced within me. Why can’t I connect? I am the one who is disconnected from parts of my past others brag about. I wonder if this has to do with wondering where I belong. College wasn’t home. Where is home?
Interestingly, one of the singers in the choir I sing with now in Germany is from Minnesota. The choir director I sang under at Macalester, Dale Warland, is well known internationally. When I mentioned to her that I had sung under him, she said, “Lucky you. I never could get into his choir.” Of course, she meant his professional choir. I sang in the large concert choir. Still, when she told me that, I felt a moment of pride. I belonged to a good college and sang once under their renowned choir director! It felt good to have a brief sense of having belonged someplace.
We eat ice cream at Donna’s chic town house, in a housing development constructed specifically for senior citizens.
And then we leave Donna. Natalie says, “You haven’t seen Sun City yet! This is housing on an entirely different scale than where Donna lives.”
We drive past the center of Georgetown to a suburban development. There are homes here larger than the one my parents had built to accommdate seven children! This is the place retired corporate executives move to, intending to downsize. We drive past house after house, condominium after condominium, all built for wealthy or at least upscale people fifty-five years old and up. We pass people driving in golf carts along the road. Sun City has its own golf courses – three of them! Its own senior university. Its own cultural center, ballroom, activitiy center, artificial fishing lake, its own swimming pools. I read that this is the first home people live in after retiring, but not their last. This is a place for vibrant, restless people on the go!
I see one active creature here that is of much more interest to me than all the golf courses of Sun City – a roadrunner!
I am thrilled to see the roadrunner, the first I’ve seen in Texas this trip. I feel out of place in Sun City, though. It feels artificial and unnatural to live in a place constructed for and devoted exclusively to seniors. Rhett had suggested once that I might want to move down there. “It’s growing all the time,” he said. There are over 14,000 residents living there now, pushing up the population of Georgetown to about 50,000 residents at present. It’s growing larger, day by day. Georgetown is no longer a town. It has become a thriving city.
Our next stop is Lake Georgetown, a dammed-up part of the San Gabriel River, now a reservoir providing drinking water and recreation for the inhabitants of Georgetown. It is a pretty, very large lake, but lacks the pristine beauty of the lakes I knew as a child, spending summers in the pine and birch forests, camping along one of the thousands of lakes in northern Minnesota.
I learn that Georgetown is one of a few cities in the United States using 100% renewable energy. Talk about a green city! Texas is not at all what I expected. This is one of the most forward-thinking places I can imagine, way ahead of anything I know of in Germany. I can understand why people are proud to live in Texas, in a town turned city called Georgetown.
Our last stop is at HEB, the supermarket Natalie normally shops at. “We’re going to the ‘Mexican’ one,” she says. “I feel more comfortable there among these ordinary people than all trendy, hip shoppers in Sun City.” We roam along the aisles in a crowded, rather shabby but comfortable supermarket, surrounded by Mexicans.
Yes, Natalie and I are one of a kind. Neither of us would choose Sun City as our local neighborhood. But Georgetown as a whole, that’s another thing. After having spent a week in Georgetown, I can imagine why people feel at home here. But I have to move on. Tomorrow I will be in Louisiana – for the first time.
I lie in bed this morning a little longer, listening to the strangely comforting drone of the oxygen machine. We have no plans for today. Today it’s family time. It will be an up-day for Rhett, and there is time for me to read some of the magazine articles Natalie has written, chat with Rhett and Natalie, and share photographs of my family over the past year. Perhaps I can show them a little of my life before Peter died. I can show photos of family members who traveled across the world to attend his funeral. Perhaps I can go for a walk in Rhett and Natalie’s neighborhood, exercising off some of all that delicious food I have consumed in the past five days.
I think about Rhett and Natalie’s life. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to have a terminal illness and be sick, year after year, wondering when the last breath will be. It has always my worst nightmare thought, as an asthma patient who suffered horrifying asthma attacks in younger years, to think of inhaling less and less air until you finally suffocate. Thank God I haven’t had one of these in decades. Still, the fear lingers. Rhett tries to reassure me, telling me he feels no pain. His oxygen machine can always adjust, giving him the level of oxygen he needs. Still. What a life. To have ever-diminishing energy.
I find in Natalie a kindred spirit and an inspiration. I have always found her to be gracious, calm, even-tempered, kind, and able to joke about some of the less pleasant things she is forced to endure. For me, she is the epitome of the devoted Christian wife, as I also strove to be. She has to constantly adapt her life to the ups and downs of her husband, as I had to do after Peter’s stroke. She has to find a way to live a life of her own, while always being available for whatever could befall her husband. And she does this with apparent ease, at least as far as I, an outsider, can see. She sees people. I have already met some of them – her cousin and her dear friend, both of whom she is close to and sees regularly. She does get out and take part in interesting things of life. She is active in their church, she sees the grandchildren whenever possible; she talks to her friends, her kids and grandchildren on the phone when too busy to get together. She reads and watches television sometimes. Natalie is beginning to feel more like a sister-in-law than a cousin-in-law. I guess that is only fitting, since Rhett was the brother I never had until I was six. In spite of the hardship each of them has to face, I find myself a little jealous of one thing. They are both of sound mind. They can carry on an adult conversation. This was hardly possible for me after Peter’s stroke. He was often in an entirely different world and unable to grasp his situation. It was a gift from heaven to have a husband I could care for and share some things with, after the agony of watching him in a waking coma for months, but I often felt lonely not being able to talk about my life with him in a way he could respond to. I missed my husband, even as he sat before me, even as we sat at the dinner table together, eating meals he helped me prepare.
I get up and walk into the kitchen, where Natalie is preparing breakfast. I share some of my thoughts with her. She laughs. “I’m no hero,” she says. Exactly what I told people who told me the same thing.
Rhett joins us for breakfast. It feels almost normal.
They tell me about a cruise they took to Alaska last year. Rhett would like to be able to travel with Natalie to Europe and go to England with me, where we could visit the homes, farms, churches and towns in Cornwall our ancestors dwelt in. Could he do this? They tell me how they traveled to the West Coast with oxygen machines, apparatus and all equipment necessary for survival, in addition to their suitcases. “A cruise is a great way to travel when you’re disabled,” they assure me. Rhett slept in the berth in their cabin on his down days, and on the up days he could participate fully in life on board. They met and became friends with another couple – it was wonderful! But could we do this? Rhett assures me he could, by flying first-class to England. Natalie’s expression reveals skepticism.
We look at family photos and then chat about this and that, and various family members. Eventually we get down to the subject I’ve been hoping to talk about – their view on the political scene in America.
“What do you think about Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border?” I ask. “You live in a border state. You see how many Mexicans and Hispanics are here.” Knowing that my cousins are politically conservative, I assume they will agree with Trump on everything.
“We don’t need a wall,” both chime in with one firm voice. “Even our Republican Governor doesn’t think we need one.” I feel reassured again. Maybe we’re pretty much on the same page.
I mention that I have downloaded the audio book Becoming, by Michelle Obama, onto my cell phone. I know my cousin doesn’t think much of President or Michelle Obama. This leads to a discussion of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. I have read a little about it and about police brutality, but I must admit, I am not very well informed. Here I get a very different response to the one about immigrants and the wall. “I think Michelle Obama has been a divisive force on this subject,” they say. “She approves uncritically of everything this movement stands for, and this movement is divisive. They have spread outright lies about some of the stories you hear in the news.” They go on for a while about how divisive America has become.
“Why can’t people just listen to each other, even when they disagree, without tearing each other apart?” they say. I heard the same thing from my sister when I visited her at Christmas. I decided while visiting her and her family that I would ask my questions of everyone I talked to on this trip, whether it raised hackles or not. I would express my opinions as well, in as kind and inclusive manner as possible. Why be part of the silent, frustrated masses, afraid to open their mouths because they have been shut down the few times they dared to talk about the issues that matter to them? Surely it is possible if we remain polite and respectful. I will not keep silent. I say to Americans, keep speaking. But even more than that, keep listening, and always stay respectful. I hope this culture of mutual respect and honest sharing of opinions while listening to one another can grow in the land I am proud to be a citizen of. I may not live there anymore, have questions about where home is, and been influenced by my life abroad, but I am still a loyal American. And I want to see our country’s people open up to each other! I am sure we have more uniting us than dividing us.
Rhett tells me about one of the favorite causes of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the killing of black man Michael Brown by policeman Darren Wilson. He defends the policeman, who he says was terrified for his own life, and did what anyone would do in self-defense. I haven’t followed the story carefully, living in Europe, so don’t really have an opinion one way or another. But I tell Rhett and Natalie that my black relatives have told many stories about how they have experienced racism. We are listening and speaking respectfully to each other.
For the record, here is what former President Obama has to say about “Black Lies Matter”. I found this quote in an article in the online publication “The Undefeated“.
“I know that there’s some who have criticized even the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ as if the notion is as if other lives don’t matter. We get ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter.’ I understand the point they’re trying to make. I think it’s also important for us to understand that the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African-Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability and so we shouldn’t get too caught up somehow in this notion that people who are asking for fair treatment are somehow automatically anti-police or trying to only look out for black lives as opposed to others. I think we have to be careful about playing that game because, obviously, that’s not what is intended.”
Rhett then goes on to tell me a story of something that happened in his own childhood, while living in Virginia. His father, my uncle, was a US Naval officer and the family was continually on the move. They lived in Brazil, Portugal, and various parts of the United States. I believe travel broadens one’s perspective on life, and so it was with my aunt, uncle and their family. At this time, my uncle’s navy career had brought him and the family to Virginia. My aunt and uncle didn’t believe in school segregation, so they sent their all their children to public desegregated schools. Almost everyone they knew was sending their children to private, segregated schools, but they courageously chose a different path for their children. One evening the family looked out their living room window to see a cross burning on their lawn. The Ku Klux Klan had targeted their family. The children remained in their public, integrated schools.
We go out that evening for dinner, oxygen machine and all, with a family friend of theirs. Over dinner I learn that this friend, a stranger to me, prayed for my husband with Rhett and Natalie faithfully for four years after he suffered his stroke, until he finally passed away last year. Something melts inside my heart. This is family, here in Texas, so far away from the northern State I grew up in, but we are tied together. Their lives are very different from mine, and we don’t always agree about everything. But here are people I can truly count on. I feel more settled and relaxed than I have felt in a long time.
Today is a “down day” for Rhett, but Natalie has it all planned for me, and it sounds good! I am opening up more and more to life in Texas. Natalie has written articles in a local magazine about various aspects of life in Georgetown, and from what I have read in snippets here and there, Texan life as it is lived in Georgetown sounds wholesome, a quality that appeals to me very much. I like the fact that the Christian faith is presented in this part of the country frankly, unapologetically and naturally. Of course it isn’t the only religion in America, but this faith and life philosophy is represented by a huge number of Americans. Why not be matter-of-fact about it, not overly defending it, but not castigating it either? Of course, in New York City, where I’ve just come from and where I lived for so many years, most people I knew don’t go to church, and there are probably many more non-Christians as well as people who practice different religions in New York than in Texas. Maybe for that reason, faith as expressed in organized religion seems to get pushed into the background of conversation and in the pages of newspapers and magazines.
We meet Natalie’s cousin Sandy for lunch. “Here we are – at Dos Salsas – the best place in all of Goergetown for chicken tortilla soup,” she suggests. The soup is delicious. My Peter would have loved it. I wish for a moment he could be sitting with me here eating chicken tortilla soup. We chat while eating, and I learn a lot about life for the retired in Texas from Sandy, who is taking courses at a “senior university”. She is taking one course in memoir writing and another on espionage during the Cold War. All students and professors at this senior university are senior citizens. I have never heard of such a thing – a university for senior citizens? “Oh,” Natalie and Sandy chime in together, “Georgetown is a mecca for senior citizens. You should see Sun City. This is a part of Georgetown where only senior citizens are allowed to live, and they have their own university.” I feel a pang of longing tugging at my heart. How I would love to take a creative writing course in English. Courses are offered in German here. But I don’t write in German. I could take an online course – I have a friend who has done this. But how nice it would be to have classmates you could share your writing with, people you could interact with face-to-face. Sandy says there are courses on all sorts of subjects. I’m not sure, on the other hand, what the big deal is about all these courses for senior citizens. I have no problem being in a learning environment with younger people.
Natalie and I leave Sandy and drive into the Georgetown town center. There is a main street in this town, and charming little shops and boutiques. I am reminded of Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent, where he travels from one small town to another, all over the United States, finding an appalling dearth of charm. The town centers, he says, have all disappeared, giving way to strip malls, chain food restaurants and shopping malls. He would be happy to discover Georgetown. Unfortunately for me, the day is rainy, so we have to walk through the streets with umbrellas.
Natalie is an expert on Georgetown, having researched and written so many articles about her town. She tells me that in 1976 an ordinance was passed in order to protect all the historic buildings in the town center. The roads and many buildings were also restored during this time. In 1977 the historic district was placed on a National Register of Historic Places.
Natalie takes me to the courthouse. What’s so special about a courthouse? I wonder. But I dutifully follow her into a splendid wood-paneled courtroom. “This is the room where the first trial against the Ku Klux Klan was won,” she says. “This trial took place inthe 1920s, and the room has not changed since that time.” She recounts the tale of what were actually several trials. The Ku Klux Klan practiced hate crimes against more than black people, she says. In this particular case, there was a white traveling salesman, Robert Burleson, who happened to be in Georgetown when the Klan targeted him, flogging and tarring him. Perhaps he held more liberal views than those of the Klan members. They were prosecuted by the young District Attorney, Dan Moody, who won a series of trials against the Klan. The jury gave the Klan members the maximum possible punishment in all cases, and from that time the power of the Klan in Texas was weakened. Moody went on later to become the Governor of Texas.
We stroll along Main Street. Natalie takes me into a consignment craft shop. It is beautiful, with tasteful objects like quilts, pottery and gifts sewn by artisans from around Georgetwon. “This shop is run by senior citizens,” she says. “You have to be over fifty years old in order to display or sell your work here.” Even the women working behind the counter, volunteers, are over fifty.
I find a bib someone inscribed with “Spit happens.” This is just too cute. I buy it for my future grandson, who will be born in a few months, along with another small item, a cotton flannel padded burping cloth with a pattern of old-fashioned locomotives. I chat with one of the volunteers at the cash register, a German woman who now lives in Texas. It’s fun speaking German in this strange setting!
We continue along Main Street, browsing for a few minutes in a chic boutique. There seem to be no chain stores in this town. Everything is local and tasteful. We stop in a toy store/ice cream parlor. “You know how you were just speaking German? This place is run by Germans,” Natalie says. The toys are the kind I would see in a German toy stores, wooden Brico trains, wooden puzzles, and plenty of Playmobil and Lego. “The ice cream is a big drawing factor,” she says. People love to shop here and the kids get to combine it with ice cream.” There are unusual flavors here, like amaretto cheesecake, and more traditional ones like chocolate or strawberry. We each order a dish of ice cream and sit down and enjoy being kids again for a few minutes.
I am impressed with Georgetown. Yes, I could imagine living here!
Our last day in New York City. We have seen so much, almost everything on my friends’ list, and more. There’s one more thing Johanna wants to do – visit the Metropolitan Museum. The guys aren’t interested in that. Instead, they head down to lower Manhattan. Johanna and I spend most of the day at the Met. She is impressed by its size. “We can never see everything in one day,” I have already told her. So we decide to focus on the things we want to do. She heads for the impressionists. I begin with the Dutch and Flemish masters because there is a special exhibit. I spend most of my time, though, in the American Wing, looking at early American art. There was an exhibit several months ago in Cologne called “Es war einmal in Amerika” – “Once Upon a Time in America”. I attended this exhibit in a guided group tour with some Americans and learned about artists I had never heard of, artists from as early as the time of the first settlers. I learned details about American history I had never known too. I hope to learn more about American art in this wing. I am not disappointed.
I even find some of the same paintings I saw in the Cologne exhibit, or similar ones, like these by the Quaker artist Edward Hicks, comparing the treaty between William Penn and the American Indians with the peace found in the Kingdom of God. The painting of the Garden of Eden clearly shows the connection with Quaker theology to me.
Just as in the Cologne exhibit, I am entranced with the beautiful paintings from the Hudson River School. Here is one by British-born Thomas Cole. I learned in the Cologne exhibit that many of the early American artists were born or studied art abroad in Europe. Thomas Cole was a typical example, but one who used his art to not only depict the beauty of America, also comparing it with a heavenly kingdom, but also to warn against the destruction of that beauty. He was a critic of unfettered industrial expansion. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/15/arts/design/thomas-cole-american-moralist.html
In the Cologne exhibit I learned that at least one of the painters of the Hudson River School, Albert Bierstadt, was from Germany, and that he studied art in Düsseldorf (nearly a stone’s throw from Cologne), a city famous for its art school. He seems to have been influenced by the German romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, one of my favorite German artists. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caspar_David_Friedrich
Johanna and I meet for lunch in the cafeteria and compare what we have seen. We are both impressed. Near the cafeteria there is more beautiful American art, Tiffany glass pieces, and other stained glass works by John LaFarge. I admire the glass and continue on to many of the furnished rooms Johanna has told me about, as well as some exotic musical instruments. What’s cool about this room is that you can actually listen to recordings of several of the instruments to get an idea of what they sound like.
We have spent an entire day at the Met! We walk back down Fifth Avenue and across to our hotel, where we all meet. We pack our suitcases and then go down to the theater district for pizza. Timo has heard there’s a good one called John’s of Times Square. https://www.johnspizzerianyc.com/ We are lucky to get a table! This place is crowded. But the pizza is authentic New York pizza, just what my friends want for their last evening in New York. And it is delicious! The restaurant also has very unusual architecture. I ask the waiter about this. “Was this once a theater?” No, he says. It was once a church.
We return “home” and finish packing. My friends thank me for a fabulous week. It has been really special. I have been a tourist in the city I once lived in. They have been able to do and learn about many things they would have never known about if I hadn’t been with them.
I will be back to New York at the end of my long visit to America. My friends – and I – are all curious to know if I will want to return here to live. So far, the answer is no. But I’ll talk about that later, at the end of the trip.
For now, there’s more to see, many more loved ones to visit. Tomorrow I fly to Austin, Texas, where I’ll be staying with my cousin Rhett and his wife Natalie.
Timo, ever interested in tall buildings, wants to see New York City from above, and decides the best location for this is from Rockefeller Center https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rockefeller_Center – the Top of the Rock. We of the older generation opt not to go up, but rather explore Rockefeller Center from the ground level.
This is one location I am familiar with, but have never really paid much attention to. I have done temporary office work in one of the office buildings, have watched the Jimmy Kimmel show broadcast from here, have walked in the concourse countless times, have walked past Rockefeller Center on Fifth Avenue even more countless times, but have never been particularly interested in it. I now believe it is because I never understood it. I always wondered, why do all the tourists flock here? Even in the summer, if you pause to sit down among the flowers and flags of the promendade, you are likely to sit next to some tourist eager to practice their English on you. Why is this? Is it only the ice skating rink, or perhaps the famous Christmas tree? Then why the attraction all year round? Only because it’s on Fifth Avenue?
I pick up a brochure about Rockefeller Center in the lobby and read from it as we look, and weeks later, after returning to Germany, do more research on Rockefeller Center to understand it more fully. Now I think I could explain it better to tourists, and also appreciate it for myself much more as well.
The Rockefeller family has everything to do with Rockefeller Center – and New York City as we know it. That helps me relate to it better, but what about all the tourists or young people who have no idea who the Rockefellers were, or are? It seems as though one of America’s most influential families, one whose name I grew up with, has been quietly dropped from the public eye.
John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was the one who first made his name. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._Rockefeller He is considered the wealthiest American of all time, and the richest person in modern history. He made his fortune in the oil industry, which began in the late nineteenth century. The Exxon Oil Company was formed from the Standard Oil Company, which he founded and owned. He was also a very devout Christian who fervently believed in philanthropy. His views on business and philanthropy were engendered by the words of a minister he met while young. The minister told him, “Make as much money as you can, and give away as much as you can.” So that is how he lived his life. He developed a philosophy of philanthropy, creating foundations to increase wealth devoted to philanthropy. The Rockefeller Foundation is one of them. This passion for philanthropy continued down into the following generations of the Rockefeller family.
And I suspect that John D. Rockefeller and his son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_D._Rockefeller_Jr. have had a much more substantial influence on my own life than I imagined. My father was also a devout Christian, also a Baptist teetotaller, who began his life in poverty. While still relatively poor, he, like Rockefeller, gave one-tenth of his money to charity, gradually increasing the percentage. He was also a Republican with moderate to liberal tendencies, like the Rockefellers. Did they serve as models for him?
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960) continued to follow the faith and philanthropic practices of his father. He financed and was intimately involved with construction of Rockefeller Center. Columbia University owned the land, which they leased to Rockefeller. They are also the owners of most of the buildings, which the Rockefeller Center continues to lease. Construction of these buildings was incredibly important and helpful for the economy because construction occurred during the Depression years, offering employment to thousands of workers. It is uniform in style, a wonderful example of the Art Deco period. I never realized while working there how important Rockefeller Center is both architecturally and artistically.
Just down the street, on 53rd Street, is the Museum of Modern Art. The land and museum were gifts from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who first lived in a house at this address, then had it razed in order to construct the museum for his wife, a passionate lover of art. He then moved with his wife and family into a forty-room triplex apartment at 750 Park Avenue. This apartment and building are considered the most exclusive of all apartments and buildings in New York City. Rockefeller also bought the land for the Cloisters and paid for the monastery buildings in Europe to be dismantled and brought, piece by piece, to New York City. He donated the piece of land that now houses the United Nations. What would New York City be without the Rockefellers?
The original tenants of the buildings at Rockefeller Center were businesses Rockefeller was involved in, businesses he thought would be profitable. Some of those tenants continue to operate there today. NBC, one of the largest US television networks, has been there since the time of Rockefeller. So that’s why all the NBC shows are there! Also, the RCA (Radio Corporation of America) recording label was centered here. One of the popular tourist attractions in New York City is an evening at Radio City Music Hall, located in Rockefeller Center. And the famous Rockettes, the kick dancers who dance at the performance, are named after Rockefeller.
Rockefeller Center originally consisted of fourteen buildings, now nineteen, extending between 48th and 51st Streets, and between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. They also own some buildings on the west side of Sixth Avenue.
The theme of Rockefeller Center is the humanistic “March of Civilization”. Hence the global symbols originating in Greek mythology, with sculptures like Atlas holding the universe on his shoulder, or Prometheus bringing fire to humankind.
The Rockefellers were cosmopolitans, interested in art and culture throughout the world. This love was demonstrated in the construction of Rockefeller Center. One building at its center is called the International Building. Another is called the British Empire Building. I always wondered why there were flags from so many nations at the promenade, and why institutions like Alliance Francaise, or shops like Godiva Chocolates, Victorinox, Lego or Swarovski Jewelers flank the sides.
Sculptors and artists the Rockefellers admired were hired to do the artwork. The themes are noble, meant to inspire, but to me they exude a similar feeling to architecture of the Nazi period. No wonder – it is from the same time – the 1930s and 40s. But to me, both also impart the sense that a message is being conveyed, be it propaganda or something morally uplifting. Throughout, though, is the theme of civilization marching on, ever more cultivated, ever more humane.
The Rockefellers donated this center to the City of New York as a place to benefit people physically, with the ice skating rink, culturally, with art work throughout, with entertainment through the NBC studios and Radio City Music Hall, commercially through shops and offices, and in tranquility, with the roof-top gardens, which are, sadly, now closed to the public.
I have heard that Brooklyn is the place where things are happening these days. I have been in Brooklyn several times, also as a social worker on home visits, but have never felt at home there nor had much knowledge of life there. I decide to check out one of the rooftop gardens. These gardens differ from that at Rockefeller Center in that they are agricultural, providing locally sourced produce to New Yorkers. I head for Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm. There are several rooftop gardens in Brooklyn, but I decide to go to this one because it is the easiest to reach from Rockefeller Center. https://www.timeout.com/newyork/things-to-do/the-best-rooftop-gardens-in-nyc Even so, it is not that easy to reach, necessitating not only a subway trip, but also a long wait for one of the infrequent buses and a bus ride. But I amuse myself looking at an old-fashioned diner, the kind you used to see in New York forty years ago. I check out the menus displayed in the window. These are quintessential New York breakfasts! Just like those I ate over thirty years ago, when I lived here. Only the selection is broader than in the old days.
I arrive in what appears to be a working-class neighborhood with some warehouses close to the river. I find Eagle Street, right next to the East River, and the house number where the rooftop garden is supposed to be, but everything is locked up – probably for the winter. Of course, I realize! It’s winter after all, only the beginning of February. How could there be a vegetable garden in February? The views of Manhattan from across the street are great. This could be the site of the next building boom, I think. And turn my head to the direction of the sound of saws cutting through metal. I see cranes. They’re tearing down a warehouse next to the river to build a high rise, obviously. Is Greenpoint going to become a noisy, trendy hotspot? I love the tranquility and seeming normality of this neighborhood.
I do spot a café on the corner that looks possibly alternative, but that’s the only thing I see that looks even vaguely other than blue collar. I order tea there from someone with an English accent. I drink it and leave, eager to explore a bit. The buildings here are decidedly not trendy. Just functional row houses, many of them broken up into apartments, judging from the mailboxes. I see American flags in some of the windows, for me, unfortunately, a symbol of a certain type of conservatism. Why don’t all Americans fly the flag at their homes, ask myself, annoyed. Then I catch myself. I’m being judgmental! Perhaps people of all political persuasions do, and I’m so out of touch with life here I don’t know it. After all, I don’t know the people living here in this neighborhood. Perhaps because of this very aura of conservativeness, the neighborhood attracts me with its clean orderliness. There’s no stench of marijuana here. I encounter a nice lady from eastern Europe while walking, and ask her for directions to the subway. She can barely speak any English. This is supposed to be a fledgling artisic community. If so, it’s just starting to bud. I like the neighborhood. It is unpretentious, and it comforts me like the old flannel shirts I used to wear in my hippie days. I never had to iron them, never had to worry about how I looked. Here is a neighborhood where you can just be yourself. At least until the high rises take over.
My friends will try and fit a glimpse of Grand Central Station into the time remaining. I decide to have a brief look at the lobby before walking westward along 42nd Street to meet Johanna for a musical. Yep. It’s just as I’ve always known it, beautiful and tasteful as ever. How good that Jackie Kennedy Onassis saved this iconic Beaux Arts structure (1880-1920) from demolition. http://mentalfloss.com/article/62979/how-former-first-lady-helped-save-grand-central-terminal
I still have a couple of hours before I am to meet Johanna, and am also hungry. How best to fill this time? I start thinking about my son Jayden and his wife Dahee. How is she doing? Their baby is coming in a few months. Oh, how I miss them! But I just saw them – first, last summer when I visited them in Korea, and then when they came to be with Peter when he was dying. They stayed until after the funeral. What a support they have been!
A friend of mine in Germany told me before I left, “When you go to New York, be sure to go to K-Town and, if possible, eat in Miss Korea. They have terrific Korean barbecue there.” I decide to make a little detour and walk down 32nd Street to Koreatown, also known as K-Town, or Korea Way. New York has a Koreatown, a Japantown, a Chinatown, a Greektown, a Little India, and who knows what else?! I love that about New York.
Here, I expect to find a few restaurants with Korean stews and kimchee. I’m not very fond of either one. What I actually do find delights me.
I reluctantly finish my mandu and continue down 32nd Street. I see the Korean cosmetics chain Nature Republic has a store here. https://www.naturerepublicusa.com/ I buy a couple of sheet masks to surprise Johanna with on our last evening. We’ll have a bit of a spa experience at home before we go our separate ways, just like I did with Dahee in Seoul. I feel almost as though I have my Korean kids with me, seeing all these stores. I pass a restaurant with Korean fried chicken. We ate the best fried and also barbecued chicken ever in Seoul in a restaurant that looks very similar to this one. http://pelicanausa.com/ I quickly check my cell phone to see what time it is in Korea. Can I talk to Jayden now? No, it’s the middle of the night there. Too bad. I send the photos of Koreatown on to them and tell them I miss them. I miss them – and my husband, whom I will never again see on this earth. I can’t ask my father about the Rockefellers because he’s also passed on. Why does life have to be this way? Why is my family this way? Why are we scattered all over the globe? With a pang, I walk on. I am about to meet my German friends – in New York. Such is life in the 21st century. For my family, it seems, even more so.
I find Johanna near the TCKTS booth at Times Square. “Tickets to a Broadway show are outrageously expensive,” she moans. She wanted to see Anastasia. “The reduced rate tickets are $60! I don’t want to pay that much unless you do.” It was her idea to see this musical. I don’t really care. There is a movie showing, in German, just a couple of blocks from where we’re staying, “Never Look Away” (in German “Werk ohne Autor”), based on the life of the German artist Gerhard Richter. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerhard_Richter We opt to do this for the evening. Patrick wants to see this film too, and Timo decides to come along, even though he’s not that interested in art films.
We call it a day for sightseeing. We’ve seen enough for a while. We buy take-out food we can heat up in the microwave and salad for dinner, and rest or do our own activities for the remainder of the afternoon.
How odd to see a German film with English subtitles with Germans in New York. But it’s the one theater-like activity we can do where we can all really understand what’s going on. We find the film particularly interesting because Richter lives in Cologne, where we live. I find solace for an evening, and perhaps longer, in realizing I have touched base with my deceased father, husband, Korea, Germany and America, all in one day. We have just watched a German film in New York about a man who, in a way, is also an immigrant because he has lived in Nazi Germany, then in East Germany under the Communists, and now in Cologne in West Germany. Does he also wonder where home is? Does he, like me, struggle to connect all the pieces of his life?
The weather has changed! Yesterday was already turning sunny and quite a bit warmer. Monday is positively spring-like. We will spend the day outside.
We decide to do the High Line today, a highlight for Timo, who is studying city planning. And I decide to do some of it on my own because I want to see some of the neighborhood called “Hell’s Kitchen”. I have heard there is a lot of construction, and a struggle with what’s left of the old neighborhood fighting to survive amidst the aggressive gentrification going on on a mass scale here.
We begin by taking the 7 line train to Hudson Yards at 34th Street, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson_Yards_(development) ascending a dizzyingly long escalator until we emerge, onto a gigantic construction site! It is awesome, all the construction going on. A friend told me, with disgust in her voice, “Millionaires are building luxury high rise apartment buildigs and tearing down the neighborhoods people have lived in for generations. If you go there now you can see the contrast.” I am curious.
When I arrive, I see it, but am overwhelmed, intimidated, even a little frightened. The entire neighborhood is being rebuilt. All for millionaires? Do so many people have this kind of money? Who are these people? I have heard many of them are rich Asians. Who has that kind of money? Where do the many more low-income people go? Something in me recoils, but is also fascinated by building on this scale. I hear famous architects are making their name here. https://www.hudsonyardsnewyork.com/
The strangest structure is this one. Another passer-by and I gaze at this, puzzled. Is it under construction? It doesn’t seem to have any function. People are walking in it, but where to? Is this some sort of giant piece of gym equipment? I later find out it is supposed to be the masterpiece of this project, the centerpiece. It is suppoed to stand out, like a twelve-month Christmas tree. It has been coined, at least for the time being, “Vessel”. It was designed by British Thomas Heatherwick and the Heatherwick Studio, and is intended to become a tourist site of its own. It is indeed a walkway, but will serve as a connection point between all the other surrounding buildings when they are finished. And yes, even this is not a gift to the poor. Just to enter this thing to get some exercise, you have to pay an entry fee.
I do see a few old buildings interspersed between all these gleaming structures, but how long will they coexist with all this money and power? But even they are being purchased and renovated.
I walk past an old warehouse that looks awfully clean to be just a warehouse. Curious, I enter. I have seen buildings like this in other cities, even New York – old buildings that were once warehouses, but are now art galleries, shopping malls, or restaurants. Sure enough, this one is another example of this. I find it still needs some concept to make the space inside more attractive, more integral to the architecture. But perhaps it will find more investors and turn into some thriving place people throng to for meals and shopping.
I find my friends, lounging on platforms on the High Line. Somewhere along the High Line someone planted a tree in honor of my deceased sister, but I have no idea where that could be. Here I see no signs or placques about donations. But the day has turned out bright and sunny. It’s a beautiful, interesting walk. We can at least look onto the patios of some of these millionaires, if not look directly into their windows. There are also interesting wall murals along the way. https://madhattersnyc.com/2018/11/07/kobra-street-art-new-york-city/
I also see some of what my friend was talking about when she mentioned the few remaining old buildings in Hell’s Kitchen. Hell’s Kitchen is the neighborhood the musical West Side Story takes place in. At that time, it was the dumping ground for Puerto Rican immigrants. How times have changed!
It is mid-afternoon and we have walked miles already, but we trudge on. My friend told me we could continue our walk into Greenwich Village, walking all the way along West Fourth Street to Washington Square. This is the route we take.
We find the famous Magnolia Bakery on W. 11th Street and Bleecker. https://www.magnoliabakery.com/ We can’t eat our cake in the bakery, but the day is warm and sunny, and there are picnic tables at the playground across the street. I choose a piece of key lime cheesecake and some tea. They choose coffee and more German-looking streusel cakes, and we share with one another. I love New York cakes – at least the ones in bakeries like this! Here they use plenty of first-class ingredients. It’s important to me that my German friends enjoy American cakes. Germans generally think American cakes are too sweet and too few in variety. I am delighted, and they are surprised to bite into these fabulous American cakes.
On, on we walk, through Greenwich Village, onto Washington Square, where hundreds of New York University students are soaking up the sun, some sitting on park benches, studying, as street musicians entertain them.
On, on we force ourselves to walk. It is late afternoon by now, but the sky is such a lovely blue. Who cares about blisters? Johanna has blister bandaids in her bag. They are here for the first time in their lives, only for a week, and they have to make the most of it. I endure with them. Their plan now is to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. “But let’s not walk to the bridge,” I entreat them. “I’ll never make it! Let’s take the subway.” So we get on a subway train at Washington Square and get off at Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall. There is a new path above ground, making the walk a lot shorter and more interesting than it used to be. The walk is beautiful, and in the late afternoon sunlight, warm.
“Even though we’re exhausted, we’ve got to get the view of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights,” I say. I used to work in Brooklyn Heights, and it’s one of my favorite parts of New York. It would be – it’s also one of the most expensive, with old brownstone buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Henry Ward Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Little Women, was famous in his own day as a preacher. He pastored a church in Brooklyn Heights. The poet Walt Whitman also lived here and wrote his famous New York poems from here. Somewhere in Brooklyn Heights modern celebreties like Matt Damon, Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz live. We must see Brooklyn Heights!
I take them to the promenade overlooking the New York Harbor. We stand at sunset and look at the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline, silenced, in awe. New York is such a beautiful city.
We eat delicious hamburgers at the New Apollo Diner http://newapollodiner.com/ in Brooklyn, our legs and backs exhausted, our feet blistered, but we are content. Brooklyn restaurants are not nearly as expensive as those in midtown Manhattan, and we have just feasted on one of the most iconic, visually satisfying treats available – anywhere.
We wake up to another day of frigid temperatures in New York City. New York is much colder than Cologne! But we will not let a bit of cold weather deter us from our plans. My friends enjoy a breakfast of bagels and coffee. I eat cooked oatmeal, the same breakfast I always eat in the winter. We put on our long underwear and head out for Central Park. Central Park turns out to be my favorite part of the day, perhaps the highlight of the week, because of a couple of wonderful discoveries. We see lots of squirrels scurrying throgh the park, but one in particular catches our attention. It runs back and forth between the ground and its burrow in a hole in a tree. I love it – nature in New York! This squirrel knows nothing about rental prices in the city or gentrification. He lives the same lifestyle squirrels have been living for thousands of years, and it’s comforting for me to see this in Central Park.
The other discovery is a community of cardinals in the park. My last trip to New York City I saw a cardinal and thought it must be a rare occasion, because the only birds I usually notice are sparrows and robins. But here there must be twenty of them flitting around. What a wonderful aesthetic experience to see flecks of red hopping around the ground, then darting into the air and back down again!
On we march southwards, through the city. It is only noon, and my feet are already tired, and all we have seen is Central Park. We glimpse at the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and walk into St. Thomas Church and witness a wedding in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I love St. Thomas Church and walk in there almost every time I am in New York City. I once went to an unforgettable Christmas Eve choral service there. I love their boys’ choir and the liturgy of the service. But it is my first time in the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I am not Catholic, so never found a need to be inside this church, but Patrick is. I am impressed by its size. Surely it must be the larget Catholic church in America, I think. It isn’t, but it is the largest in New York City. We walk past the New York Public Library. This is another place I have never set foot inside, but I have been told it is a worthy tourist attraction, its lobby so beautiful, you can rent it for weddings – for upwards of $60,000! https://www.nypl.org/space-rental/your-event
If only my Peter had seen this place, is the main thing I think, walking around the beautiful rooms with carved oak walls, golden molded ceilings and gorgeous masonry. This would have been heaven to my husband, who loved books – and maps – so much. He used to spend hours at a time, just studying maps. Once visiting friends in England, they drove us to visit a town none of us had been to, but they thought they knew the way. We would have gotten lost, had we followed their directions, but Peter assured us, he knew the way. He did, and they marveled at his sense of direction.
The NY public library has a room dedicated to maps. I mourn my husband as I marvel over the most amazing globes I have ever seen.
On we go, southwards on Fifth Avenue ever since Central Park. By now it is a bit late in the afternoon, and we are all feeling the effects of our long hike in our legs and feet. Now we are headed for our last destination, the Rooftop Bar at 25rd Street. A friend of mine in Germany told me about this place, not written up in the tourist guides, but known by many young people, including her son, who spent a semester at a language school near New York City. It turns out that there are several rooftop bars in New York, but this one seems to attract mostly young people. That’s what we see at this one at 230 Fifth Avenue. https://www.230-fifth.com/ The interesting thing about this place, to me, is the heated plastic igloos where you can sit and enjoy the view.
We drink a cup of hot chocolate for $10. We have to hurry, because the bar closes at 5 pm. The hefty price is worth it. We leave, inspired and strengthened for our return home. We have seen enough for the day.
Two hours later, friends of mine join us at our suite. We have a drink together, and head out again for dinner at Der Krung, a tiny Thai restaurant only New Yorkers would know about, it is so far west of Fifth Avenue. Because of its location and tiny size, the prices are reasonable. It’s fun exploring New York with New Yorkers. I enjoy introducing my German friends to friends from New York. I am in the middle, part of each culture. This must be symbolic of who I am. Am I a bridge between cultures?
Perhaps the two questions ex-pats ask themselves more than any other are, “Where is home?” And “What is home?” I certainly do. I recently heard a travel commercial today, trying to entice people to come to Denmark on vacation. They asked this very question, “Where is home?” For them, the answer was, home is where you feel secure and comfortable, and this is a state of mind. Therefore, presumably, you could travel to Denmark and be right at home.
I only have one major regret in life – I didn’t buy my apartment in New York City when I had the chance. My building was going coop, and I could have bought my studio apartment for $50,000. My father could have easily financed it for me too, but I didn’t want to owe him anything, so I never asked him. That apartment is now worth over $400,000, and there’s no way I could afford it, even it were available. If I had bought that apartment, I would have had my own abode in New York, the only place that has ever really felt like home. Or does it only feel like home when I return to visit, because nowhere else feels like it either? Because I got so sick of my entire life in New York City – twice, I only wanted to leave, and eventually did. But did I find home?
I don’t think of New York City as a place where I feel secure or even comfortable. But I do feel like I fit in. There’s room for everybody in New York! And there are eight hundred languages spoken there, making it the most ethnically diverse city on earth, according to the World Population Review. http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/new-york-city-population/
I have an
inquisitive, curious nature, and I like to be involved in interesting
discussions. New York is discussion
paradise. People philosophize about
everything, and they’re really interested in what others think. Here, if you overhear someone talking about
something while waiting on line for your coffee (they say “on line” in NYC, not
“in line”), you can jump right into the conversation. People in New York are passionate about life
and all its details. You won’t find
passive bystanders here, but active participants engaged in conversation
wherever you go. They make eye contact
on the subway and smile at one another when they find something ironic or
amusing. Life is shared in New York.
There is so much to do in this city, I’m never bored. Home for me is not a place where I have to stay indoors to feel good. I can go outdoors and join the rest of the world in New York City any time I please. When I want to feel secure and comfortable, I can stay indoors and watch the same TV shows, cook the same foods, read the same books, or water the same plants I would anywhere else. But where else could I find such interesting people to invite over for dinner, if that was what I wanted to do? Where else could I sit in a café and enjoy such an intense discussion? That is the DNA of New York. Once New York gets into your blood, it’s like getting the hepatitis virus. My blood type is irretrievably changed after having lived there twice, for a total of ten years. I’m infected with the NYC virus. My blood type is NYC – both positive and negative.
And now here I am, returning to NYC – from Germany, my adopted country, with German friends. I was here a year ago after my sister’s funeral, where I attended the funeral of my friend’s father, and stayed with my sister. This time I have arranged to spend a week there as a tourist, spending very little time with family and friends. In fact, we will be staying in a time share apartment, just like many other tourists. Most Germans I know have never heard of a time share, something most Americans know about, so this is something of my culture I can share with my friends. How will this week be? How will New York feel to me, experiencing it again, but with Germans?
We – that is Johanna, Patrick, their son Timo and I – arrive at JFK airport on the bitterly cold afternoon of February 1. It is cold in Germany, but this cold is insane! Minus ten degrees Celsius and a huge wind chill factor. We can feel it walking off the plane into the terminal.
It takes an age to get through immigration, even for me, with the luck of going through the US citizen line. This time no one asks me any silly or loaded questions, simply welcoming me to the United States. When I arrived in Seattle, the agent leafed through my passport, noticed all the stamps from previous trips to Egypt and Turkey and asked in a friendly voice if I had family over there. It was only hours later that I realized this agent wasn’t merely making small talk with me. He was feeling me out to see if I was trying to smuggle some people from Muslim countries into the USA. That experience didn’t feel very welcoming. Today feels better, even though I’m separated from my friends, who aren’t allowed to go through the line with me.
I wait for over a half hour for my friends, wondering if they have somehow gotten through before me and are waiting for me somewhere. But no – immigration takes very long these days, especially if you’re not American.
We finally meet again, and leave the airport for the Airtrain, a monorail that circuits between the terminals and the Sutphin Boulevard subway stop on the E line, which is also the Long Island Railroad stop. I don’t know how to work the machines to get a ticket. I am just as much a tourist as my friends. We end up buying a ticket from a salesman at a kiosk, paying him a tip for the privilege of buying from him.
We enter the subway train and are immediately entertained by a performer who does incredible acrobatics on the train. I have seen performances like this many times in New York, so this feels familiar to me, and I know he expects about a dollar from each of us, which we gladly fork out to him. He leaves the car by forcing the door to the next car open, something that is strictly prohibited by the Transit Authority. But perhaps I am the only one who knows that, because everyone smiles, waving him a farewell as he leaves.
I had forgotten how long the ride is from the airport to 53rd Street and Lexington. Almost an hour long! New York is a huge city. We leave the train and I am disoriented and begin walking in the wrong direction until Johanna asks, “Aren’t we going in the wrong direction?” What is wrong with me? I have always been able to get around Manhattan. I just stand somewhere, figure out whether the Hudson River on my right or left is. If it’s on my right, I’m heading south. But this time I can’t figure out which side of me the Hudson is on.
Before we left Germany, I checked online where the nearest supermarket is. Morton Williams on 57th Street. I have never heard of Morton Williams. Another change in New York. There is also Whole Foods at Columbus Circle. I read about how Amazon bought them. When I lived in New York there was no such thing as Whole Foods.
Our suite is really nice! We will be living in more luxury than I have ever enjoyed in NewYork. I have a huge bed all to myself and my own bathroom. We have a microwave to heat food in, and a little drip coffee machine. I inquire and find that they renew the coffee supply each day, as they also do with dishwasher tabs. My time share is again proving itself worthy of the money I pay each year!
After checking into our suite and unpacking we head out for Morton Williams. I recognize Carnegie Hall on the way, and right across the street from there is Calvary Baptist Church, the church I belonged to when I last lived in New York. I scarcely recognize it now, a tiny structure sandwiched between two very high buildings. Normally, my trips to New York don’t take me to 57th Street or midtown Manhattan. No wonder everything seems so strange! But I am familiar with the choices available in a New York supermarket. We find everything we will need for breakfast tomorrow, when Timo will go out again and buy bagels. The bagels look really good. When it is time to pay, I am again overwhelmed. There are many cash registers with numbers. It seems you have to stand on line, like at the bank, and wait for the next available cash register. Some are unattended. Apparently you have to scan your own groceries and pay with a credit card. Can I do this? I can. I manage this as easily as if I had been doing this my entire life. I even ask for cash back, and get it. But only $50. Johanna and Patrick don’t know about cash back. I learned about cash back in Germany, where they even use the English word for this system of getting cash off your debit card when you pay for something with it.
Johanna and Patrick have a comfortable sofa bed they make up each day in the living room. Timo has a rollaway bed in the corner of the living room. We have a comfortable home for the week.