Much as I (clearly) love New England, a lot of my friends now reside in the Big Apple, and I decided to come here in order to spend some time with them before I head off to the country of Africa.
I’m staying in Washington Heights – the Dominican section. This means that everything is in Spanish: signs, labels at the grocery store, ads on the street, grafitti.
The corner stores sell Latin American products, Latin music blasts from apartments/cars/iPods, and I think I’m one of three people in my building who doesn’t speak Spanish (which makes me feel like a jerk). If the grocery store clerks don’t really look at me when they scan my purchases through, they start rattling off Spanish to me and I have to go through this little routine where I 1.) use my all but forgotten Spanish I to kick my brain into some sort of gear, 2.) begin to formulate a poorly constructed, un-conjugated sentence, and finally 3.) sigh with relief when they finally notice they’re addressing a gringa gentrifier and switch back to English.
As you can imagine, I love this neighborhood. This is one of the many times when New York astounds me with its international feel. Walking around various neighborhoods, I can’t believe the number of languages I hear, and of course I wish I spoke them all. Some days – if I travel, for instance, from Washington Heights to Flushing – I hardly even overhear anyone speaking English. (French tourists have apparently taken over the New York subway system. I believe this may be a fact.) I even saw ASL one day! Be still, my signing heart!
Israelis run the Union Square Christmas Market
I had never heard of the phenomenon known as “Christmas Market” until several good friends went abroad to Europe and came back with magical stories of bustling markets nestled into ancient village squares, adorned with delicate twinkling lights and weird animatronic Father Christmases strung overhead, where this is bottomless cocoa to enjoy as the snowflakes romantically flutter down around you. Well, I was intrigued! (And a little jealous since there was very little Winter Wonderland Whimsy in India.)
I have now discovered the New York City equivalent of the Christmas Market, and the one I wander most frequently to people-watch and people-eavesdrop is the Union Square Christmas Market. (Its close proximity to Whole Foods and the Strand is a huge selling point.) It’s a surprisingly labyrinthine tangle of booths selling slightly overpriced knickknacks, art, imported goods, artisan-made jewelry, unusual street food, specialty olive oils, etc.
And here’s the real secret to the Union Square Market: it’s run by Israelis.
I’m not kidding. You’d think the Jews would stay away from Christmas? Well no sirree. They could sniff out a good opportunity-to-fleece-the-gentiles-out-of-their-cash anywhere. Almost everywhere I went, booth workers were chatting loudly to each other in Hebrew, shouting in Hebrew to compatriots across the aisle, or engaging in heated cell phone conversations with (presumably) Israeli acquaintances.
Who knew there were even this many Israelis in New York? Perhaps all the Israelis in New York have converged on the Union Square Christmas Market for the weeks leading up to Christmas, using their connections in the local branch of the infamous Israeli Mafia for Seasonal Holiday Workers to secure employment.
At any rate, my weeks in New York have been a tantalizing taste of what it will feel like to live in a foreign country again.When I was in China I was confined to tour buses and fancy hotels. What I’m looking forward to is the quotidian. The daily routine, the shops you frequent, the well-beaten path, the shortcuts you figure out, those three old guys who are always hanging out on that corner. After all the craziness of packing leaving traveling packing leaving, being in New York was a reminder of how great it can be to stay in one place. And how exciting it is when that place is a little…foreign.