Becoming a dotcom

As a writer, hoping to launch a freelance career in earnest, there are some things that must be done. For example, make business cards, find a cafĂ© that welcomes loitering and create a website. (Arguably, one should also get a small dog, to complete the picture, but I’ll be taking baby steps.) I began this process by attempting to set up my website. The people at the Apple Store made it seem pretty easy to make a one using their software. So I thought I would give it a try. After a quick search, I was overjoyed to see that jacquigal.com had not been purchased or used by anyone else and so I bought it. Good. Now make website. Yes. Right. Except that the moment I logged into my web hosting account, I felt the rush of confusion and familiar dread of being completely out of my depth, technologically. It reminded me of the way my parents had marveled when my brother, at the age of seven, was the only one who could figure out how to operate the child-locks on the car. Or, how it’s widely accepted that the fastest way to program an electrical device is to ask a two-year-old. When I logged into the host site for my domain, jacquigal.com, there were so many things I could not understand, but also a clickable button that said “visit”. I got excited. Maybe my host site would be taking me on a virtual tour to see my newly purchased domain. I was half expecting an animated realtor to appear, clipboard in hand, and walk me through the empty space, pointing out potential configurations for furniture. Looking at all these foreign terms and commands available to me, I felt that maybe I was on the cusp. Newly 30, was I was almost too old to “get it”? I definitely still had it when the internet came around. I remember the first time I was introduced to it. I think it was about 1994. Back then, it took about five minutes for any simple page to load. Looking at the screen impatiently, I thought maybe at some point this would help my life, but not yet. I was introduced to the three Ws by my uncle and younger cousins. I remember crowding around their PC, being asked me to name a topic, so they could look it up. “I don’t know,” I said. “What about frogs?” So they typed f-r-o-g-s into their Netscape search engine and a bunch of pages came up (very, very slowly). We clicked on the top link and a rudimentary web page, dedicated to toads slowly uploaded. It had a few pictures, a bit of text. It was totally inferior to the colourful reference books I could borrow from my local library. But it was pretty clear that this was going to develop into something much bigger, and better. And it did. Until now, I had managed to keep pace with the developments; installing software, deleting cookies and keeping up with my keyboard shortcuts. But lately, I feel that I’m losing the race. I have to keep reminding myself what RSS is, and I don’t really understand the Google algorithm. Although I keep being told that it’s crucial to the success of my poor unborn website. Right now, I am torn between shelling out for a web designer who could put me out of my misery (and fast), or pushing on alone, determined to make it happen with Jacqui-power. So why don’t you check on my progress at jacquigal.com in a few weeks. You’ll probably be able to tell which route I took.


Culinary fantasies

Lately I have been having a recurring dream. I am standing in a kitchen, chopping, with a slew of simmering pots behind me. In another room close by, I hear the lilting tones of light-hearted conversation, the clinking of glasses, a sudden whoop of laughter. Sometimes, I realize that I am dreaming. I recognize that I am in an apartment, and it’s my apartment, but not my apartment. I nod to myself, relaxed. I understand what’s going on here. I remember this social ritual. I’m entertaining. Whether I am woken by a passing siren, a neighbour’s dog or the untimely trill of my alarm clock, the sad realization comes with a familiar thud. I am not entertaining. I have no space to entertain. I am in my studio, dreaming of the culinary adventures I would undertake… if only I could. Back in Australia, there was nothing that gave me more joy than inviting a few friends around and using them as guinea pigs for a new recipe trial. I was lucky enough to live in an apartment where the wall between the kitchen and living room had been knocked down, and replaced with a wide bench, perfect for guests to lean on while I whipped something up, and also useful if I needed to roll out a packet of filo pastry or spread out an assembly line for dumpling-making, and so on. Compare then this image of kitchen splendour with my current “kitchenette”. With its dark wood cupboards and “retro” oven and bar fridge, it could be described as “cute”, “frugal” or “a minimalist’s dream”. But of course what I am really trying to say is that it’s inadequate, tiny and deeply disappointing to the aspiring chef inside. Miraculously, this doesn’t stop me from cooking. I embrace the limitations. For example, my oven. I won’t say that it can’t be warmed beyond 200 degrees, I’ll just say perhaps I have never seen it give me a good old-fashioned try. No matter how long I wait for its quaint dual-coil electric cavern to preheat, it just never seems to reach a decent baking (or even warming) temperature. So, what if I want to bring cookies to someone’s rooftop Sunday brunch? No problem. I just search under “no-bake” and find a decent selection of recipes that promise to yield what resembles cookies, but without the need for that pesky oven. [Now, I am not going to waste valuable blog space whining to you about how tiresome it is to search multiple New York supermarkets to find a simple packet of crunchy Chinese noodles that is so easily found in Australia I could point you to the exact aisle and shelf it’s on in Woolworths’ Bondi Junction. Nor am I going to explain to you exactly what kind of no-bake cookie requires the inclusion of crunchy Asian noodles. Google, if you must.] And yet, every time I choose to search for groceries, get to work on my tiny bench top, fight with my oven and marvel at the enormous pile of washing up that results, I come to the same conclusion. It’s just not worth it. The cost, effort and final results consistently pale in comparison to the simple delights you can purchase in New York City with cash. Likewise, the options for ordering a delivery of breakfast lunch or dinner are abundant. Perhaps in Australia, the idea of asking some guy on a bike to bring you only a couple of bagels and coffee in the morning is bizarre, or at least indulgent. In New York, it’s commonplace. It’s not even expensive. At dinner, for example, if you decided to cook a modest meal, say pasta and salad for two, the cost of ingredients alone would reach between $40 and $60 at a local supermarket. And this does not including the cost of your time for food preparation, space frustration and kitchen mess. For roughly half the cost you could dial a local restaurant, order a meal for two, and receive bread, salad and condiments on the side within about 20 minutes. When you’ve finished eating, you dispose of all the plastic containers into the same paper bag the delivery arrived in, and the whole adventure is over. Simple. So why do I persist in cooking? Somehow I cannot stop myself from watching the Food Network and searching the internet for new recipes. I offer to cook for anyone who’ll eat. I even twist the arms of friends with bigger apartments, offering to prepare meals in their kitchens, if they’ll host the party. Call it desperation. As for my next culinary challenge, it’s coming up with the funds to attend a few courses at the French Culinary Institute here. Courses cost between two and six thousand dollars. Hey! A girl can dream, right? Sponsorship, anyone?


Rare moments of pure New York

Despite what this blog might have you believing, a lot of my life here in New York is quite similar to the lives I have led in Sydney, Melbourne and London -- a combination of work, sleep and mild entertainment. In New York a movie is still a movie, hanging out with friends is, likewise, no different, and although there are some phenomenally good restaurants here, it’s not altogether different from the quality dining you might be lucky enough to experience anywhere else. But every so often, I still have one of those typically New York moments, and it’s thrilling enough to keep me living here until the next one. So what’s a typically New York thing? I’ll give you an example. Last year a photographer friend of mine invited me to an evening showcasing the work of a collaborative group of artists, which he belonged to. It was in Brooklyn. In typical fashion, some friends and I took a subway to a quiet station, walked a few blocks into a darkened suburban street and after a few wrong turns, finally found an unmarked door that led to a seemingly abandoned space on the second floor of a run-down building. Inside, the mood was lively. Artsy folks, dressed colourfully, mixed it with hipster geeks in heavy-framed glasses. People were sipping beer or wine, which was dispensed from giant flagons. Some space-cake made the rounds. There was art on the walls, and before long a band began playing. Then there was a poetry reading and the barefoot performance of a modern dance routine. It was an artsy Brooklyn party, just as it is supposed to be. But all too often, entertainment in this city can be fairly bland. Admittedly, it’s probably my own fault. I don’t go and see nearly as many Off-Off-Broadway shows as I know I should. (But, in my defence, that’s probably because my time is often scarce, and the quality of such productions can be hit-and-miss.) However, I was tempted by one production, after reading a New York Times write-up, because it seemed almost certain to yield one of those elusive New York experiences: the truly innovative, independent-theatre show. In an act of exquisite self-reflection, “The Sublet Experiment” is about the experience of subletting and actually takes place in a series of strangers’ apartments. Every few nights, the production moves venue to a new apartment, in a new neighbourhood, donated for the evening in the name of art. With audiences limited to 12 per show (after all, NY apartments are hideously small), each audience member has the chance to do more than just observe the acted experience of voyeurism in a sublet apartment. They too are the voyeurs. And more than this, each audience member also becomes a part of the show. You’re left thinking: “I wonder what business he’s in. Are those two a couple? Why is that girl here all alone?” More than a mere gimmick, the play (written by Ethan Youngerman) is well scripted and the actors are talented and sympathetic. It was a one hour and 45 minute show, with no interval, so the audience is advised to use the bathroom beforehand. They are also invited to grab a beer from the fridge, “but not those on the fridge door” since they were props for the actors. Yet, what makes the show so compelling is the subject of subletting itself. So many New Yorkers have found themselves in a sublet at some stage of their life here. Many choose to never give up the arrangement. Along with the short-term furnished rental, a sublet is a unique adventure of discovery. It’s the chance to live, almost, inside another person’s skin: sleep in their bed, eat on their dishes, sometimes even walk their dog (it depends on the deal). Turning this subject into a work of art seemed so beautiful in my eyes. When I left the tiny Chelsea apartment I was flushed with excitement. It was thanks to the experience of great art in a great city, and dealing with a subject that I was intimately accustomed to. I too, was once a subletter.


All in a day’s news

Don’t you just love a good news day? As part of the ongoing unraveling of the mystery that is ‘why would anyone get up before 6am to go to the gym?’ I am prepared to divulge one of my favourite early morning activities. While walking on the treadmill, I get a head start on the day’s news by reading a condensed, eight-page version of the New York Times, which my gym photocopies and makes available to members. Usually, I read through it dispassionately for about 10 minutes, before turning my attention to the morning newscasts. This morning was different. What a news day!? The stories left me gob-smacked. Let me walk you through it. Page one: At the bottom of the page was a story about French President Jacques Chirac. When he thought he was speaking off-the-record he told reporters from three major global newspaper, that it would pose no great danger to the world if Iran was to possess nuclear weapons. And further, he said, if Iran was to launch one of these “harmless” weapons against Israel, it wouldn’t really matter because Israel would raze Tehran to the ground, lickety-split. Right. Well, what is there to worry about then? But the story that really caught my eye was about a 29-year old sex offender who, after being released from prison, managed to enroll in no less than four schools… by posing as a 12-year-old student! Turn to page two, and what do we find? Former First Lady of Italy gets so mad at her hubby Berlusconi and his flirtatious ways that she has a letter published in his least favourite newspaper, demanding a public apology from him. Italian feminists are overjoyed and the pundits conclude his political career is finished, because no woman would ever vote for him again. Despite this, Silvio Berlusconi does release an apology to the public, signing it off with: “A huge kiss. Silvio.” Moving to page three and some local news, a democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential race Senator Joseph Biden seems to have put a sharp end to his prospects, while making what he must have thought would be a complimentary statement about a major opponent. Black candidate, Barack Obama has been the guy to watch, especially in the last few months when it became clear he would attempt a dash to the White House in competition with Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton. Senator Biden somehow managed to refer to Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”, and thus, as the New York Times noted, may well have sealed his place in the history books as having launched the shortest presidential campaign ever run. By the time I was finished marveling at the bizarre state of the world this February, it was time to wrap up the workout. Now this next part is completely unrelated, but perhaps worth mentioning for the sympathy factor. (And who knows, maybe someone out there will find a connection.) As I was changing trains at Union Square this morning, a man collided with me (neither of us were paying too much attention) and knocked me clean off my feet. Tears gathered in the corners of my eyes and I felt like a five-year-old, while trying to hold them back. Although he helped me back up, together with a group of kids who had previously been annoying me with their loud chatter (I was trying to read!) The whole incident left me feeling quite strange. Now my knee hurts. So does this mean I should take a break from tomorrow’s workout?


Early bird gets the snow

Sometimes, being up before the sun certainly pays off. While other New Yorkers blissfully snoozed below their fluffy quilts, I was walking to the gym during the first proper snowfall of the season. It was a spine-tingling experience. From the gym's window, I could see that it continued to snow outside. And as I walked home, I smiled at the white powder had begun to collect on cars and shop awnings. But by the time I left my apartment once more for work, the snowing had stopped. Snooze and lose, right? Witnessing the snow falling and my own excitement at the event, reminded me of last winter, my first in New York. Each time it snowed then, I was transformed into something of a five-year-old. I loved catching snowflakes on my tongue, but it became embarrassing, because I couldn't seem to keep my mouth closed when it was snowing. And I am almost 30. Not surprisingly then, one of my best days spent in New York was a lock-in snow day, last February. It was a Sunday, but the snow had begun to fall in earnest already on Saturday night. I was out on the town with some friends, and the white stuff had been coming down heavily since early evening. By the time we were ready to go home, the roads had all but iced over and the cabs were refusing to drive on it – I think I managed to catch the last willing driver, and we were slipping all over the road. Safely tucked in at home, the snow fell all through the night and when it was decently late enough to be getting out of bed, it had reached waist height. I was in awe. The news reports said it was the heaviest snowfall in New York since the 1940s. Imagine the neighbourhood you live in, but covered in snow so high you can’t see the cars. My friends and I began to play. Running through it, falling into it, trying to forget that beneath all this pristine snow were the putrid streets of New York’s East Village. Back inside, we tucked into a lavish brunch and played indoor games all day. I had spent the previous night with friends and now it was time to head back to the West Village. As I began to walk home through the (heavenly) silent streets at twilight, the fresh snow was shimmering in the fading light. It sparkled like powdery glitter, and had an ethereal blue-ish glow. I had never seen anything like it. By the time I stopped marvelling at it and grabbed for my camera or phone to call someone to come see, the light had faded and the effect was almost gone. A few minutes later I saw a young man on skis, pushing his way along the deserted night streets with his stocks. Do you think this what they mean when they call for environmentally-friendly, alternative modes of transport?


Life’s a game on the grid called Manhattan

This morning, I had a good commute. It’s always a good start to the day. Subways came without much delay. I didn’t manage a seat, but nobody stepped on my toes. No creepy guy rubbed up against me, and nobody let too much of their crazy out. Already, this would be considered a pretty good ride. When I left the subway station, the newspaper hawker noticed that I already had the paper and didn’t hassle me to take another (rare!), the coffee guy didn’t mess up my order or try to burn off my taste buds and I didn’t have to wait long for the lift to take me upstairs. Lately, I have started to play a little game with myself, as I move through the city to work. I judge my mornings according to specific variables, using a personalized scoring system. I suppose it’s a means of bringing a small amount of comical self-reflection to a routine that is at great risk of becoming mundane. This way, life becomes a game. For early mornings, I ask myself this: Was it hard to get myself out of bed for the gym at pre-dawn? Did I get a good shuffle selection on my ipod? If I was planning to do a cycle class, did I manage to arrive at the gym before all the bikes were taken? Then there’s the challenge of getting myself showered, dressed (appropriately for the weather) and out of the house in as close to 45 minutes as possible. This task carried a degree of difficulty of about seven. I could go on, and you might think I am a little nuts. But at least I know I am not alone. Recently, I have heard that other New Yorkers indulge in similarly private mental city games of their own. Ever wondered what kind of an environment would lead people to frequently use the phrase, “Hey! I’m walking here!”? Well, imagine what it’s like living on an island about the size of Sydney’s eastern suburbs with 1.5 million other people. Now add the 1.3 million who commute into Manhattan everyday and you have a somewhat crowded playing field. Thus, depending on your outlook, the effort it requires to navigate and manipulate an everyday life under such conditions can either be a game, or a war. Imagine Fifth Avenue at Christmas time, the streets are packed with tourists, gawking and stopping for photos outside pretty department store windows. It’s cold. All you want to do is walk a few blocks from some appointment to the subway, but you’re being blocked on every third step. This is where the game comes in. You immediately cease to be a pedestrian. Instead, you are now a race car driver, taking the turns and avoiding the obstacles. You’re weaving and ducking, thinking three steps ahead and anticipating that tourist’s next photo-op, even before they do. Stepping off the curb, you face down a delivery truck, and walk boldly across its path (“Hey, it’s my light!) Race down the subway stairs, swipe your Metrocard and leap through the closing subway doors. Success! It’s a triple high score. But what about when you are off your game? Well, that can be messy. Sometimes, I slip into a funk, and collide with three different pedestrians on a single block. My navigation is off. Clearly I’ve lost my mojo. On a night like this, I’ll typically go on to spot a few rats (ew!) and maybe even step in some dog poo, that another player failed to scoop up. If you can recognize a day like this, it’s best to cut your losses and head home. GAME OVER. Try again tomorrow.


The big differences

It’s the day before Christmas, and so far this winter, it hasn’t snowed. It looks like it’s gearing up to be another mild winter. It’s a relief for the girl from Bondi, … but what about the planet? Having lived in New York for a year now, and after coming back to Australia for a visit last month, one of the big differences between the two places, and populations, has become clear. Environmental attitude. As Australians, concern for the environment – in a great number of ways – has become second nature. We have come so far from the days when it was acceptable to throw empty chip packets out the car window (“litterbug!”) or brush our teeth with the tap running. Since the 80s we have been slowly (and forcefully) educated to Do the Right Thing, save water, save energy and think about fire danger. So, when someone like Al Gore creates a documentary to educate the world about climate change, we are not particularly surprised. When, at the end of the film, he encourages audiences to contribute to the cause by making little positive changes, I am sure that for Australians, three or four examples of such immediately leap to mind. Not so, necessarily, for Americans. Here, the culture of wastage and excess is thoroughly ingrained. Supermarket checkout girls gleefully double bag your purchases in paper and/or plastic. No take-away meal is handed to you without a wad of napkins. Everything you buy is wrapped once, twice and again (for your convenience). And it gets worse. Evil almost. When I moved from one studio apartment downtown to another, of similar size and in the same zip code, I noticed a horrifying leap in my monthly electricity bill. My usage had not changed. I was rarely home, used a few lights, the TV, the stove to make coffee. My bill had morphed from a modest $35 a month, to $85. What was going on? I called the electricity company to demand they correct the mistake. The person at the other end of the phone asked me some particulars about my apartment and then explained that since I had a giant hot water tank in my closet and a personal thermostat to regulate the heating of my space, it was me who paid for their running, and not the building management as in most cases. Wow. The worst part was, this had taken place in the spring. I was not yet running rampant my air conditioner to quell the summer heat, or cranking up the heating to fight off frostbite. At most, I was watching a little TV! I lurched into gear, replacing my regular light globes with ugly, buzzing energy efficient equivalents and washing my dishes in cold. My favourite science geek friend helped explain to me that each time I used hot water in my apartment, a lot of electrical energy had to be spent in reheating the whole huge tank. So, I started taking shorter showers, with lower pressure and less heat. I eagerly awaited my next bill. And it came. Seventy-five dollars. How was this possible!!!??? I had spent $65 on the energy efficient bulbs alone. I was outraged, and scoured my bill for the cause. Dumfounded, I found my answer. Con Edison, the almost exclusive supplier of electricity to the city, charges at discounted rates for bigger spenders. This means, the less energy you use, the more you pay for it per kilowatt-hour. There was no incentive to save energy, only an incentive to use more and pay less for it. I was shocked, defeated and disgusted. Finally, I began to understand how deeply the problem was rooted. How could this population be expected to take action on environmental issues, given the lack of practical, day-to-day education on the subject? More importantly, how would they know to pressure their government on the biggest issues? I am no expert on the issue, but from what I understand, the small steps taken by individuals are of almost little consequence. Over-using those ridiculous supposedly-environmentally-friendly green (or now, any coloured) bags, looking down on four-wheel drivers, recycling. Individual damage pales in comparison to any pollution that might spew from factories, industry, even farming. If we are to have a running chance at affecting climate change, it will largely depend on government regulation. Observing the Australian population, compared with New York, I see phenomenal differences. Aware of conservation and environmental concerns, my Sydney friends are more likely to avoid polystyrene, and car pool on the way to brunch. Okay, so most of my New York buddies don’t have cars and are likely to walk greater distances, but if its too far for that we think nothing of taking multiple cabs from similar start points to our destination. In a city as grimy and smoky as this, taking one less cab seems trivial. So which population is more likely to demand change from their legislators? Which will even know to ask? A culture of excess (just look at restaurant portion sizes) cannot be expected to grapple well with the notion of conservation. What would conservation on a grand, societal scale even look like here? What scares me is the old chicken-and-egg quandary. Is the US government likely to educate the people about the environment? Are the people likely to put pressure on their representatives? Then there are those who argue that Al Gore was grandstanding. That he ignored any facts that wouldn’t scare the bejeezus out of everyone. And besides, who wants such a frosty winter anyway?


Taking it to the students

Taking it to the students Last week I had the good fortune to attend a campus forum at NYU, where a small group of students met Israeli indie rock star Aviv Geffen. From what I had heard, it was Geffen's idea to tour American universities and speak to students, in the wake of the Lebanon War. As he explained at NYU, he wanted to show his support for Israel during the war, even though he belonged to the far-left of the Israeli political spectrum. I was immediately taken by this man and his approach. I have come to revere those who acknowledge and deal with political complexity, rather than cling to black-and-white positions. (Not to mention the fact that I was a fan of his music, since living in Israel in 1995). I can't say that Geffen was the most polished speaker, or even the best prepared. But what he may have lacked in palm cards, he made up for in sincerity. First, Geffen gave a short speech. Then he opened the floor to questions. In his opening remarks the rocker took pains to describe how he saw the situations in Gaza and in Lebanon as very different. Israel may have left Gaza, but the Palestinians were still not free of Israeli occupation, he said. The Lebanese, on the contrary, have not been occupied for six years. Despite being famous for having avoided his own army drafting (partly for medical reasons), he supported the IDF's response there. Although the general solution for Mid-East peace that Geffen proposed, was to hold talks with enemies and show profound respect for their culture, he sympathized strongly with his brothers and sisters living in Israel's north. He had gone to perform in bomb shelters during the war, in support of their plight, and to ease their suffering. From what I could tell, almost the entire audience was Jewish and/or Israeli. As Geffen opened the floor to questioning, a curly-haired young girl shot her hand straight into the air. When called on to speak, she launched into a tirade about the history of Israel's right to possession of various biblical lands, beginning with the 18th century. It was as if she was reading a chapter from Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel. Although I firmly believe that particular book is a must-read for any college student, and a valuable tool in combating anti-Israel sentiment on campus, her reaction seemed a little off. After all, she was lecturing Aviv Geffen, son of the famed Israeli poet Jonathan Geffen, and nephew of Moshe Dayan, arguably Israel's most famous military hero, on the history of Jewish settlement in Israel. It was embarrassing. Most disconcerting was the fact that her mini-lecture did not address any of the relevant issues that Geffen had raised. She was stalled at the barrier of his left-wing ideology. She was arguing with him like an adversary; she was ruining the opportunity to explore the beautiful complexity of his position. Once curly-top had been heard and quietened, the conversation could progress. Not that it was particularly constructive. People asked confused questions and addressed lateral topics. Nothing in particular was explored in depth nor resolved. But to me, this is healthy. In that kind of intimate forum, it's important to express the confusion, the naivety, the frustration. If they are held in, such feelings can lead to doubt, or self-hatred. And if the group had been an audience of Israel-critics, it would have been entirely appropriate to quote Dershowitz.


Cameron moves into my 'hood...?

In a report published on TMZ the fabulous Cameron Diaz is looking for a sublet in Chelsea, and guess what? If she takes the place in this pic, we'll be neighbours!! When I first saw the photo, I thought the stoop, and blue sign for a Mexican restaurant looked familiar. So last night, on my way out, I took a photo to compare, and turns out -- it is my street!!! That's the beauty of New York. It's a city where the superstars and the super-ordinary live side-by-side, do their laundry, order take-out... you understand what I mean. The only question is, which one of us is which?? ... # ...

New York still stings, five years on

It's September 12. And in an internet age there can be no excuse for being anything less than up-to-the-second. But sometimes life gets in the way. Yesterday, I was asked to write a piece for the Australian Jewish News, about what it was like to be in NY, on the five-year anniversary of 9/11. This is what I wrote: SITTING at my desk this morning, a television in a nearby room blares names of 9/11 victims, being read at a ceremony, currently underway at Ground Zero. Family members take to the podium, to read from a list of victims, usually ending with the name of their loved one: "… the loving and loved, joyful Ruth Ellen Ketler." "… and my husband – you still live in my heart – firefighter Thomas J. McCann" "… and my fiancĂ©, Dennis who shared laughter with every life he touched, especially mine." It's now past 11.30am; these names have been streaming out since early morning. Moments like these force me to understand the enormity of what September 11 means. I never knew a pre-9/11 New York. I first visited (and fell in love with) the city in February of 2002. Back on the evening of that fateful day, like many Australians, I had watched the events live on TV, incredulously. As newsreader Sandra Sully announced each horrible development – one plane crashing into a building, then another; one building collapsing, then the next – I was glued to the television. Prior to that, I had never heard of these "Twin Towers", which dominated the New York City skyline. On September 12, I kept hearing the popular refrain, "the world will never be the same". But as a Jew who was painfully affected by the horrible and ongoing terrorist attacks in Israel, all I could think was: "No, you are wrong. This is the same world that I have come to know, only now your eyes have been opened to it." By the time I arrived in New York, six months later, Australians had reached that point after a tragedy when it is safe to make jokes. In New York, one faux pas was all I needed in order to realize that this city was not yet at that point. And today, it is the same. The pain of 9/11 remains fresh and bitter, five years on. It affects how New Yorkers perceive themselves and relate to one another. There is a strong sense of community spirit here, which I believe was not as much the case pre-9/11. I remember my surprise the first time I walked the streets of this city. As a child, I identified New York as a perilously dangerous and unfriendly place. I couldn't imagine why anyone would ever visit here. True, in the past New York did indeed harbour a seething, dark underbelly. True too, zero tolerance policing changed much of this. But what I witnessed in 2002 was not about criminality. It was people helping people; people caring about people. Five years later, this has not changed. Thinking back to the coverage I saw in Australia that night, I remember being struck by one particular omission. We saw smoke and rubble and blackened skies, but where was the footage on the ground? What was happening at street level? I wanted to know. Now with the breadth of Five-Years-On coverage I have been privy to, I see those scenes. I see the people, strangers, gathered on street corners gazing upwards in horror. They cry openly. They scream as they witness desperate office workers, hurling themselves from the upper floors of the building to avoid being burnt alive. After living in this crowded city for 10 months, I think I am beginning to understand all this. When something of such a magnitude happens to some of "us", it happens to all of us. It cannot be avoided. It should not be. On the streets of New York today, some people dressed in black. Others gathered on street corners to remember, and sing in defiance of terrorism and adversity. As I write this, I feel incredibly sad. As Jews we know, each of these names I am hearing was once a universe. They had a world of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They had a corner store owner who knew them by name, or maybe just by face. For each of those people, I grieve today.


Living with roommates

I've always been an independent type. I love to travel, and harbour a distinct preference for living alone. It's not that I hate to live with others it's just that somehow, I've never found a flatmate I've liked for very long. When I moved to New York, I considered finding a roommate. I figured, with the high cost of rent in the city, it might allow me to live in a bigger apartment. Perhaps it would be a good way to meet people. Maybe I would even like it. But moving to a new city doesn't transform you into a new person. When the excitement dies down, you realize that you are still the same soul, with all the same likes, dislikes and eccentricities. After consideration, I opted to live the blissfully self-centred life of a single girl in a Manhattan studio apartment. Accordingly, there are certain things I can be sure of. When I leave a pristine apartment in the morning, I know it will stay spotless until my return. When there's mess, I am consoled in the knowledge that at least it's my dirt (and how can that be bad?) So imagine my surprise and disgust, when I returned late one evening to find that I had acquired an unwanted new roommate. It was a steamy New York night. I had been out with friends, enjoyed their company for a few hours, but then felt like spending a little me-time at home. I envisioned walking through the door, kicking off my shoes and cranking the air conditioner, collapsing onto my bed and watching a film. I could already taste the feeling of calm it would afford me. But as I walked down my hallway and switched on the studio light, there she was: a small brown mouse, sitting on my window ledge. I panicked. So did the mouse, and scurried across the windowsill, but there wasn't really anywhere for it to hide. After all, if you live in a studio apartment, you're keenly aware of another's presence at all times. Understand, these are the moments when a girl misses her daddy. Back home, one phone call would be enough to send him promptly over to my house armed with a broom, a jar and a can of bug spray (okay, so we usually deal with insects, not rodents). Everything would be all right. Here, I was at a loss. Frozen with fear, I managed to call a girlfriend. She was sympathetic, but couldn't offer much in the way of help. I called a guy friend. Unwilling to attend the scene immediately, he coaxed me into grabbing a few things and spending the night at his apartment, with the promise that in the morning we would return and eradicate the mouse. I can't say I was happy, but it was the best offer I had. The next morning, we headed for my apartment, via the local hardware store. The assistant there delighted in describing the various ways I could trap or kill the rodent. Somehow, the idea of finding a dead mouse seemed even worse to me than finding one living. So, $60 later, I left the store, armed with a humane mouse-catching house and a set of plug-in electric deterrence devices big enough to outfit a three-bedroom house. We performed a full mouse-check, found nothing and set up the trap and devices. I was mildly placated. So far, the mouse has not been back. And ironically, when I think about it, I'd probably have felt a lot better about the whole situation, if I had been facing it with a roommate.


Keeping your wits in the big city

THIS morning I survived an attempted con job, I think. Although, as you would expect, I didn't know I was dealing with a con artist at the time. It was a bright Sunday morning and I ventured out to perform some new-house-related errands. On the way, I stopped at a quaint French waffle cafe, Petite Abeille, on 18th Street and Sixth Avenue. Spring has just begun here in NYC. The sun was shining and a cool breeze was blowing, so I decided to enjoy my latte and baguette outside the cafe, beneath their blue and white striped awnings. No sooner than I had sat down, with warm beverage and hot crusty roll in hand, did a man walk past me. After passing me by, he did a double-take, and stopped to speak to me. First he complimented me on my looks, introduced himself as a television studio executive and asked me what I did for a living. "I'm a writer," I said. “Wow, you’re gorgeous,” he said, “Have you ever thought of using your voice for cartoons? Why don’t you come to my office and we can discuss it, it’s just down the street.” I looked at him. I looked at my baguette, and I asked him: “Do you have a card? I’m a naturally suspicious person. Perhaps I could see you later.” “Yeah, I have a card. But my office is right here down the street, why don’t you come up and we can talk about it?” Sensing my unwillingness, he pulled two cards out from his wallet and thrust them towards me. He held them together, with one sitting on top of the other. The top card was fully visible, bearing his name and a major network logo. The bottom card was almost completely obscured, except for the logo of another major network, peeking out from under the upper left corner of the top card. I reached for them. “Oh, I don’t like to give out my cards,” he said, withdrawing them. “Ok,” I said, and looked at him blankly, “I don’t think I am going to come with you right now.” “Well, uh, are you going to be here for long? I could catch you on my way back, if you’re still here.” “Sure,” I said, and he left. The minute he was gone I started to calculate just how fishy this whole scenario was. Now keep in mind, the whole thing only took about 30 seconds to play out. Within half a minute he was gone and my head was spinning. Words and images started flashing through my mind, just as they would in a movie or TV show. “I don’t like to give out my cards.” What TV exec doesn’t like to give out cards? Or for that matter, what human being who has cards (usually a box of 500 or so) doesn’t like to hand them out at the slightest whiff of an opportunity? And how could a TV exec work for two different networks? As I came to think of it, I realized: he was probably keeping the bottom card hidden because it had a different name on it. He had somehow acquired those cards from actual TV executives. No wonder he doesn’t like to hand them out - he’s only got one of each! But here’s the clincher: if I am so good-looking, as he said, why would I be perfect as a voice-over artist for cartoons!? It’s like saying you have a good head for radio. Suddenly I understood. Flattery was the key to any good abduction. As a con artist, the key is to make the target want to go with you. And had he been a little more convincing, he may have even had me. Scary thought, right?!

Dating rules of the New York City jungle

Last week, New Yorkers learned the tragic story of Sarah Adelman, a 25-year-old single, who jumped to her death from an Upper West Side apartment, following a relationship break-up. One of her final acts while living was to call an ex-boyfriend. Despite an existing condition of depression, friends and members of the local Jewish community were quick to acknowledge that the extreme pressure of trying to find an Orthodox husband was certainly a contributing factor in her decision. It’s no secret that this city is a dating jungle, where the laws of nature (and classical economics) prevail. It’s completely out of control, and replete with peculiarities. Any observer will tell you, the island of Manhattan is overflowing with beautiful, intelligent, classy women. These women are driven, accomplished and highly groomed (so, no wonder there’s a beauty parlour on practically every corner). And although it’s not often discussed, they are experiencing a man-drought. Nobody is quite sure where the cache of correspondingly clever, charming and handsome males is being stashed. In explaining this gender imbalance, some women point to New York’s sizable gay community. Jealous and bewildered they watch groomed, gorgeous men walking arm-in-arm with similarly buffed and stunning male prototypes. It seems the old refrain “all the good ones are taken”, has become “all the good ones are taken, by other good ones”. Now, when it comes to dates or casual encounters, there is no lack of action for single women. However, when it comes to finding a suitable partner for marriage, the field empties dramatically. Most Manhattan men, younger than 35, show no interest in advancing their piece forward on the game-board of life. Many in the corporate world work long hours; they require women for little more than after-hours amusement. They recoil at the idea of maintaining a steady relationship. A girlfriend of mine explained it like this: “Mike* doesn’t want to settle down. Why would he? Every night he can choose from an array of beautiful women, and they’re all happy to sleep with him.” While this may refect the sorry state of the dating scene for most New York singles, isn’t the Orthodox Jewish community supposed to be different? A female friend divulged her back-up plan to me a few years ago: if she wasn’t married by 30, she planned to become Orthodox. According to her calculation, the community would welcome her warmly and find her an appropriate match in no time. Yet, it would seem that in New York, even the religious often find it tough. When an observant friend of mine heard the awful news about Ms. Adelman, she raced over to talk to me, shocked but somehow vindicated. “It’s impossible!” she sighed. “Every week, outside synagogue you see these George Constanza types surrounded by manicured, pedicured, beauties… and you can’t even get close enough for a conversation, it’s like R’RAIW.” Her miaow noise was accompanied by a demonstration of elbowing manoeuvres and vicious scratches. Clearly, the laws of the jungle prevail on the Upper West Side. And if supply and demand is the root of the problem, then any reduction in the man-stock is really everyone’s concern. This explains why there was such an uproar last year when Kristina Grish’s Boy Vey!: The Shiksa's Guide to Dating Jewish Men hit bookstores. Nobody wanted to see an already scant resource further diminished with the aid of a self-help book. Personally, after assessing the conditions of the field and coming to understand the local market I decided, as ridiculous as it sounds, that New York is not the place to meet a Jewish husband. Just wait until my mother hears. * Not his real name. A successful young lawyer from Australia.


The Relationship Runaway

This week I dated a relationship runaway. Well, that's the conclusion I came to, anyway. How else can I describe this phenomenon? We meet for the first time on a date, both of us dressed in our finest. The setting: a sexy little sushi bar in Noho, filled with glamour girls and finance types. The mood is electric. We hit it off from the start. Our conversation rolls effortlessly from our mouths, into the space between us (which is ever diminishing) and adds immeasurably to the atmosphere of the club. We are glittering. Superstars. We don't discuss work. We don't resort to small talk. We order some sushi and nibbles, which arrives and is delectable. We share a bottle of wine. We are heady, but not drunk. Accidentally, as I am making an emphatic point during dialogue, my fingertips graze his knee. His eyes flicker ever so slightly, and so later I begin doing it on purpose. He returns the gesture. Talk turns to our respective heights. I ask which of us is taller, and he suggests we stand and measure. When we do, he steals a kiss. It's gentle, warm and perfect. He pays the bill and we head for a cosy jazz bar a short cab ride away. Snuggled close together at the bar, we continue in kind, with another drink and then head for my apartment. I say I don't think we should rush things; he acts the perfect gentleman. At around 2am, he excuses himself to use the bathroom and returns to find me curled up asleep on the bed. I awaken sometime later and realize he has been in the bathroom a while, so I check on him and find this note: "You looked so peaceful, I thought it was time to leave. Was a lot of fun. Call me when you wake up." It was signed with a heart and his name. Elated, I put myself to bed and woke a few hours later, on top of the world. But then things turned weird. Over the next few days there were phone calls and interactions that did not follow logically from the experience we had shared. Sure, I could blame myself, wonder whether I'd drooled on my pillow or whether it's possible for one person to think a date was flawless while the other was having an awful time. But I know better than that. The date was great, but that's just it: sometimes one great date is all you get. Having dated a relationship runaway once before, and having experienced the phenomenon for other reasons as well, I know it to be true. And after great dates, I remind myself of the refrain. Even when I am positive things will progress well, I mockingly warn myself: "Sometimes one great date is all you get". It saves me every time. However, the relationship runaway is a species that should be observed closely and documented. The two that have dated were both almost 40 (I am 29). They were both intelligent, successful, gentle teasers and softly spoken. When these relationship runaways revealed themselves my friends reassured me, "No wonder he's 40 and still single. I thought something was up with him, right from the start". The optimist invariably, I can't help but think at the outset that these bachelors will transform when they meet the right girl. Who knows, maybe they will. Until then, I guess I'll keep enjoying the great dates, even if they're an enigma to me.


Why don't you tell me what you really think?

As I was walking home last night, a woman, who seemed quite inebriated (and a little messy as a result) decided to give me some unsolicited advice. Striding towards me, in her dirty white punk outfit, she focused her mascara-smudged eyes on mine, and spat: "Why don't you DO something with your life?" It was almost 11pm and I had just popped up from the subway, less than half a block from my apartment. Something about riding the subway at night always leaves me a little jittery, but I reason that the nervousness keeps me safe and on guard. So, in my heightened state of awareness, I was more than a touch shaken by her tone. But she was right. It was good advice. Never mind the fact that I was already doing something with my life, something quite bold and exciting (and that technically, even people who live in cardboard boxes are "doing" something with their lives: asking for change, peeing in empty water bottles). Nonetheless, I had to agree. She had a good point, and her overture illustrates one of the attributes I love about New Yorkers: they tell you what they think of you. Strangers on street corners have become my heroes, after complimenting my outfits. On two separate occasions, I have left my apartment, which has no full-length mirrors, wearing experimental ensembles, which I was unsure about. As though they could sense my insecurity, these kind souls would look me over and send my confidence soaring with a "great outfit!" or an "I love what you're wearing". And I'm not talking about the sleazy, muttered comments that often come from males. These are females who simply dig your look and tell you so. "Great boots"; "I like your hair" … It's an unusual experience for an Australian, but it's nice. However, riding the seesaw of honest remarks doesn't always pitch you skywards. Last weekend marked the third time a manicurist had asked me if I was pregnant. Three different nail artists, three different salons. The first couple times I was embarrassed and mortified, but this time I chided: "You shouldn't ask people that! And no, I'm not!" I mean, I am no Nicole Ritchie, but I eat right, I go to the gym religiously and I am within the normal weight range for my age. I might have a little bit of a tummy, but it is nowhere near the size required for another human being to make a home inside! Each time, my loyal girlfriends have come up with helpful and plausible explanations. "She misunderstood your conversation, she thought you were pointing to your belly" "She was pregnant herself and she recognized your brand of stretchy pants" (Great. So the funky pants I love and purchased in Australia, are now pregnancy pants!?) But my favourite, came as a result of this last transgression. "It's probably because you are glowing. You're the only person who can glow like that in the heat of the city!" "Well, they should try bronzer," came my pouting reply. I was offended. I wondered whether this was nothing more than a inter-cultural misunderstanding. After all, each of the offending women was of Asian background. Perhaps in some Asian cultures, a query of pregnancy was a high compliment, suggesting you are ripe, healthy and bountiful. Or perhaps these women were knowingly rude. But what can I do? As with good friends and family, we have to accept the good with the bad, and on balance, I love New Yorkers for their honesty. Now why don't you shut off your computer, and GO FOR A WALK?!


What Seinfeld character would you be?

IT’S inevitable. Once you move to New York, it’s only a matter of time before you turn into a character from Seinfeld. And yes, dear reader, after five months in this city I too have succumbed. So I’d like to introduce myself … the heavy walker. And I’m not particularly happy about it. It all began about six days after I moved into my new apartment. There I was, hanging new curtains and unpacking IKEA plates, when I received a curt letter informing me of one of the building’s by-laws. Apparently, all tenants are required to carpet no less than 80 per cent of their lovely wood floors. After hearing the rustlings of a new tenant upstairs, my downstairs neighbour had swiftly alerted the management company and asked them to query my compliance with this rule. Despite my short tenure in the block, she had already managed to catalogue a list of my noise crimes. Among the intolerable noise she claimed was coming from my television, phone conversations and general day-to-day living, my dear neighbour complained of my “heavy walking”. I was asked to carpet the apartment immediately. So, consider my situation. With no TV, couch or cutlery, buying a carpet wasn’t particularly high on my to-do list. Besides, I had my own gripe. Every morning, somewhere between 4.30 and 5am, I was being awoken by a mysterious sound from my own upstairs neighbour. I assumed the origin was animal, but I had trouble imagining an animal that moved by somersaulting its way across the floor at great speed. So I wrote a reply to management, agreeing that if the rule indeed existed, I’d be happy to comply, but would they be so kind as to write a similar letter to my upstairs neighbour with the mysterious pet. I was careful to also state that I had never engaged in "heavy walking" of any kind, only regular and reasonably-expected walking. I had no response to my letter. There was also no response to my two phone calls. Before long, however, I received another letter. It once again bemoaned my “heavy walking” and asked me to install carpet immediately. I was furious. I wrote back: “I must state my objection at the continued use of the term ‘heavy walking’. Since your first letter I have been very careful to tread as softly as possible and remove my shoes when I enter the apartment. “Your continued use of the term is causing me emotional distress, as it implies and is tantamount to calling me overweight. “I hope that you will address the noise concerns relating to my upstairs neighbor with the same vigor that you have shown in dealing with me”’ I had included the middle paragraph and the reference to “emotional distress” as a scare tactic. In a country so weighed down by frivolous litigation, I was keen to throw my hat in the ring and hint at initiating a lawsuit of my own. My ploy seemed to work. Although the letter garnered no response, the following week I received only a short query, wondering whether there was an “update concerning the carpet installation” and asking me to contact the super to arrange an inspection. So it seems I won the clash, but not the campaign. References to my “heavy walking” were banished, for now. Although, I still have to deal with the unending pleas for carpet and the annoying sensation of being completely ignored. What’s worse, I will henceforth always be known to my amused and Seinfeld-loving family as the “heavy walker”, and perhaps now also, to you.


Las Vegas impersonator

During my first trip to Las Vegas last weekend, I found the remote desert destination to be a lot like Australia’s capital city, Canberra. Why? Because of the remarkable propensity for strangers you meet to invariably end a conversation with the words “good luck”. Of course, this is so in Canberra because usually the stranger is someone you have pulled up beside on the street, and after rolling down your car window, asked for directions. The planned city of Canberra was designed using giant circular road structures, which, unsurprisingly, sees most of its visitors frustratedly driving around in circles, lost. Locals know this all too well, and being such a friendly bunch, it is customary for them to end their long list of “go straight until you reach a small hill”, “take the third exit off the roundabout” and “if you reach Parliament House, you’ve gone to far” with a hearty “good luck!”. For they know, you’ll never make it. Needless to say, in Vegas people wish you luck because they assume at some point during your stay you’ll gamble. After all, isn’t that what Las Vegas is all about? I’ll admit, I wanted to get into the Las Vegas spirit as much as any first-time tourist there. The sad thing was, I couldn’t seem to find it. It’s not that I didn’t know what to expect. Robert De Niro’s character in the 1995 hit movie Casino, Ace Rothstein, had made it clear*. But I guess I was still secretly hoping for a little of the Vegas immortalized on cinema screens in the 1950s and 60s films. A glitzy, sexy Vegas; a slightly dangerous one. That Vegas no longer exists. Today’s Las Vegas attracts international tourists and bucks-party bachelors, sure. But from what I could tell, the vast majority of punters were middle-American families, ticking off another must-see destination on their list. Grand Canyon? Check. Disneyland? Check. Yellowstone National Park? Check. Vegas? Ding, ding ding! Although disappointed by the en masse, pedestrian atmosphere and averse to gambling as I am, this didn’t stop me from taking my brief turn at the roulette table. My visiting Australian friend and I partnered up to apply what she called a “no-lose strategy”. We would bet the minimum ($10) on either black or red and stick to that color. If we won, we would take the winnings and bet the minimum again. If we lost, we’d double our bet, stick to the same color and trust the laws of statistics to help us make our money back. The strategy worked. Little by little, we made our winnings. When we lost, we doubled and tried again. When we lost a second time, we hesitantly doubled that bet, and voila! Our courage was rewarded. Halfway through, we switched from black to red. Our pile of chips continued to grow, slowly. And when we reached about $120, I was done. Watching a young man at our table effortlessly amass a mountain of purple chips, and then unblinkingly lose them, made me realize: if we wanted to win big, we’d have to bet big. But to bet big, I’d have to be willing to lose big, and I wasn’t. Splitting our winnings, I used mine to consider the lavish dinner we’d earlier enjoyed as paid for by the casino. And speaking of all things big, that dinner had featured some of the biggest steaks I have ever seen served in civil society. Giant steak? Check. Could somebody please pass the antacid? *“Today it looks like Disneyland. And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior's college money on the poker slots. In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it's like checkin' into an airport.” – Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, Casino.


New York living 101 – finding a home

IT is practically an ironclad rule, that all those who arrive in New York must overcome a common obstacle – finding an apartment. A large percentage of New Yorkers are not native to these parts. And one of the experiences that binds them to their fellow Gotham dwellers is the harrowing experience of finding a space to call home, in a city where the number of people searching for an apartment far outnumbers the number that are available. But everyone gets through it. Afterwards, they laugh about it, remembering what an awful experience they had. So you can imagine the suspicious looks and veiled jealous glances I received when people learned that I had somehow bypassed this rite of passage. Panicked at the memory of a similar house-hunting experience in London, in the weeks before I moved to New York, I trawled websites and called in every contact I had to try and find a soft place to land. It was a stressful time, but my search bore good fruit, and in the end I found myself the lucky recipient of a third-party favour. A friend of a distant cousin in New Jersey would be in Israel for four months, and I was offered their apartment to sublet. And this was no ordinary apartment. For a fraction of what it should have cost, I was permitted to live in a swish downtown building, complete with a team of doormen and attendants who work around the clock, a laundry, gym and drycleaners in the basement, a library in the luscious lobby and the rumour that a certain former mayor was a resident. The apartment itself was a dusty old studio and not particularly flash, but it was wonderfully sufficient and located right on Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village. I learned later that I had been offered this prize by the friend as a way of thanking my cousin, who had been particularly kind to them during a bout of illness. I was on top of the world in those first weeks. I would wake up every morning grinning and step out into my world (Manhattan – I could hardly believe it). I was stupidly happy, all the time. But just as all good things must end, so did my tenure in The Village and it was time to go apartment hunting – that dreaded New York sport. It was every bit as awful as they say. In Australia, punters front up at a handful of estate agents’ offices, procure keys, view apartments, lodge applications and cross their fingers. It’s fairly simple. If there is a fee for listing the apartment, the renter wouldn’t know (or care) about it. It’s taken care of by the landlord (that is, the guy with the most money). In New York, it’s far more complex. Any given apartment can be listed by multiple brokers who compete to show it to potential renters. If their client takes the place, they are on the receiving end of a handsome broker’s fee – 12-15 per cent of the first year’s rent. Sometimes they settle for the equivalent for a month’s rent. To an Australian, this arrangement is preposterous! Why does it happen? Because of that pesky old chestnut, supply and demand. There’s no need for landlords to pay brokers when there are desperate souls lining up around the block to take that patch of Manhattan real estate off their hands. My search for an apartment was typical. After viewing a few dives alone, I pounded the pavement with two separate brokers for seven hours one afternoon. The first broker took me to a couple of places so smelly I wouldn’t leave my dog there, let alone pay top dollar to live in. Then there were the tiny places, the places with no light and the ones where you wonder how many murders have taken place in the building. I saw one place where the entire apartment slanted down at an angle. It was like being in a cartoon. I won’t lie to you – the thought of moving back to Bondi crossed my mind. But just as I was almost ready to quit the game, we found it. Nothing too fancy, but exactly what I needed: a space that inspired me. Not in the best neighbourhood, but not in the worst. It had one big window, an exposed brick wall and a working fireplace. It was small, but my mind’s eye was already calculating where my fictitious furniture would go. And just like that, I had leapt over my first hurdle and properly arrived.