Culture February: Plays, Music, and More to Beat the Cold

So long, it’s been a few weeks since the last entry. Not only have I fought with sincere polar vortex allergy but also a hiatus of procrastination and lots of demotivation. Well, it looks like this dreary, bleary, cold winter is almost coming to an end – a fact that makes me sad and happy all at once. In regards to a spring awakening, I am hoping to catch up on a few events that have been happening lately.

Carnegie Hall us

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First Day: Exploring Chapala and Ajijic

It was hard to start somewhere and not get caught up in side notes on tourism, Mexican hospitality, food, and the hassles of photography. I’ve therefore decided to dedicate a separate post to each, still in the making. For now, it’s according to days and weeks. Salute!

Ajijic and Art
Ajijic and Art

Guadalajara is surrounded by mountains. Strong, tall, dark, green-forested mountains. And if you drive further out of the city towards the South, you will be able to explore a not-so-hidden gem of the Mexican state Jalisco: Chapala and the smaller town Ajijic. Both towns are located on the sweet rims of Lake Chapala. They are surrounded by the foresty and hilly area of the Mother Mountain (also named Sierra Madre en español).

While Chapala seems to be the commercially thriving and also uglier of the two, Ajijic displays the charm of a hidden village, despite its population of 15,000 citizens. Many tourists actually visit this area. Because of its consistent mild climate (a constant temperature in the 70ies F (25 C) year round, who wouldn’t love this?!), a few Canadians, Americans and perhaps also Europeans have rented or even bought houses in this area to spend their vacations at.

And indeed, while walking down the quaint and painted streets of town, we discovered a souvenir shop owned by an elderly American lady who is an artist at night and a seller of her art during day time. Despite a few English-speaking citizens, not too many Mexican people know English here. So I guess all those Canadians and Americans had to learn Spanish to get by. I believe I heard some harsh accents while rooming through other stores. Which by the way were all small, family-owned, and with tons of Mexican souvenirs or traditional items.

Street paintings
Street paintings

But first we checked out the gorgeous lake, which at that point was a little dried out since it hadn’t rained in a while. After the gorgeous lake and the escapade with a random donkey grassing in a field nearby, we went on to see one of the most colorful streets I have experienced. Every single shade was represented; pretty much anything but black and white. In addition to random street art and paintings found on almost every street corner. It makes out the flair of this town and it is hard to put in words. Yes, it might be touristy, but more of a hidden touristy, if you get what I mean. Not the open blank touristy of the bigger cities. Just imagine touristy mixed with people who live off of owning their business and you have your mental image.

My friend and I were entering a few stores with handmade Mexican clothes. Mexican traditional costumes are very colorful, as is about everything else in Mexico. She tried to convince me that some these pieces would look great on me but I wasn’t too sure after all. What is the sense of buying something and not wearing it after your vacation? “I’d rather just take a picture of it,” was my initial thought, but eventually I caved in and purchased a beautiful Mexican necklace at a market in Guadalajara.

Street dog
Street dog

Not on my first day, though. On this first day we strolled along and were followed by the occasional street dog or two. Yes, you have them in warmer countries, Mexico is not an exception to this rule. At one point we entered a restaurant and the waitress shrieked because of “our” dog. It took some effort and sho-shoing to get him away from us, but in the end he is probably better off in Ajijic than anywhere else.

Since it was the middle of the week, the restaurant did not play any Mariachi. Mariachi is the traditional music from the state of Jalisco, believed to have originated around Guadalajara. Although the noun seems to have French roots, the songs certainly do not. Back in the days (we are talking hundreds of years back), mariachi was used to vow a woman and to get her to marry the singer. Sort of like singing beneath a balcony, I guess, just the Mexican version of it. Anyhow, the music was lacking in flavor but the food made up for it. Fresh seafood and a hefty portion of chili – I couldn’t say no to this!

After the meal we drove around a bit and my friend pointed out a cute market selling huge hammocks, hand-made baskets, brooms, and other fun stuff. We then went on to the “Beverly Hills” of Ajijic, which is basically were the richer people live (in addition to many foreigners). It was here that thin and unhealthy-looking horses were kept so that passerbys could ride around in a circle on them for a small fee. I wasn’t thrilled, neither was my friend, and we went on.

Spa view
Spa view

Since I was with locals, they knew all the cool places. Our next and last stop was up the hill near Chapala towards a spa called Monte Coxala Spa. If I ever were to get a massage in Mexico, this would be the spot! It has fake little Mayan stones all over the territory, artificial hot springs, and a gorgeous panorama overlooking the entire lake and mountains in the distance! We stopped by for a coffee and dessert, tried to wander around the premises, until someone told us we needed to be spa guests, and then left after an hour or so. I believe you actually cannot just enter the security gates without a good reason, but my friend knew a few people who lived in the area, so we were good to go. It is also here that a few (and I am sure expensive) weddings are held just because of the stunning view and the nice reception area.

Restaurant bliss
Restaurant bliss

While wandering around, we happened to run into a naked Mexican dog – the first time I ever saw such a creature. The poor thing was shaking as it seemed scared of us but the owner told us we could pet it and pick it up.

The Mexican dog
The Mexican dog

Ajijic and Chapala – a great first day to start the authentic Mexican adventure.

[For more pictures on Ajijic, go to: This is Mexico: Ajijic and Lake Chapala]

Exploring Brooklyn: Quaint Little Bay Ridge

Cute little bars, bakeries, and butcher shops right next to the Hudson River. Italian stores paired with Arabian signs when bypassing Russian pedestrians. One of the cheapest movie theaters in town right next to a typical New Yorker bagel shop…

One of the neighborhoods that are highly underestimated carries the name of Bay Ridge. Bay Ridge is found on the last stops of the R-train at the Southwest tip of Brooklyn. It is reachable by train, bus, and car. But since it is so far off from everything else most people seldom take a trip down there (unless they live there, that is).

I had a friend who used to rent an apartment over here with her husband. The very first time I made my trip out to Bay Ridge was indeed about a year ago, in the Summer of ’11 when I was visiting the couple. The Wonderful Elena and her husband had somehow ended up here because of the affordable living expenses and recommendations from his work. While another friend had already told me about how great this area is and how she lived here for over two years of her New York time, it certainly was not on the top of my priority list to visit.

Bay Ridge’s Century 21

There was the exciting Williamsburg first to see, of course. Then Cobble Hills and Carroll Gardens followed. Brighton Beach and Coney Island made it on my sightseeing list way before this, too. Not to forget the culture of Park Slope (before I moved here, that is). So all together, this little part of Brooklyn had been ignorantly neglected by me for a good one and a half years. When I finally had enough reason and courage to take the R out to 95th St, I was pleasantly surprised. I had imagined a boring neighborhood with not much going on. Maybe a few people strolling the streets, but perhaps not too safe after all.

But as soon as I stepped off the subway, and walked down to 3rd avenue, I already spotted the first few bars and some traditional food shops along the way. From Bake Ridge to the small Greek place around the corner – everything was more chill, relaxed, and old-school Brooklyn than I had seen anywhere else in this borough. My first evening here was a time filled with many aahs and oohs and I swore I would come back more often than this.

I helped that the Wonderful Elena told me about this great Italian cake shop where we managed to stop by and even taken in lunch right before she left for Russia. The prices were really good for the amount of food we ordered. I bought the tasty Alaskan cheesecake here once. This was after she had given it to me as a gift before so I had the chance to try it out. A creamy, white cheesecake topped with an abundance of fresh fruits and more – I was convinced after the first bite! And all of this for a mere 18 dollars – a bargain compared to bakeries in rest of this City. Paneantico delights are a must-try for all of the food-lovers in Brooklyn!

Only a few visits out to this area won me over that this little part of New York is a true goldmine. Not only do you find everything worth living here but you have a diversity of different cultures door to door. Of course the last stop on the R is the end of it all. Going towards 70th St, I was transported into different areas every 5th Street or so. Starting out with the well-known Schnitzelhaus around 74th Street. This place is supposed to offer “authentic German Cuisine” in this area of Brooklyn. While I haven’t had the chance to try out their food yet, I have had the chance to weed through their beer list and can confirm that they have a great deal of drafts and bottles on there. The servers are not German, unfortunately, taking a bit away from their highly claimed “authenticity.”

Then past Arab bridal shops on my way to the Alpine Cinemas. This is really a great movie theater they have: The seats are comfortable, the movies are up-to-date and you pay only $9 for a screening ($12 in 3D), which is more than a three-dollar difference to the 13.50 I paid last week in the Union Square Regal. Alpine Cinema also has a summer special going on, check out their Web site to see more details about it.

The bar culture is found all along 5th Avenue. Which Irish pubs, Italian restaurants and other American joints. I have not checked out any of these yet, for lack of friends who want to join. But something I have been able to discover by my own is Century 21 – the Brooklyn equivalent to the one found in the Financial District. Bay Ridge’s Century 21 is more relaxed with fewer hordes of tourist and rude employees than you find in Manhattan. You also find more Russians here than in the City. I have spent a better time browsing the shelves of this outlet-oriented store than anywhere else. Shopping is definitely more fun when you are not shoved out of the way by Italian visitors or barked at by stressed-out employees.

View towards the Verrazano Bridge

And the view you have close to the Verrazano bridge! A panorama flat out towards the river and New Jersey. This view is seldom revealed as openly in Brooklyn as it is in this one little spot of the borough. There is a small park around the bridge, with some traditional elements of American history (canons, anyone?). Just a walk around the area had me transported to a very different place I had been only an hour earlier.

At some point around 60th Street Bay Ridge flows over into Sunset Park. A neighborhood of Brooklyn I have not yet been able to experience as well. And there is still so much to see in the Ridge area. The 69th Street Pier, for example, which is a long boardwalk reaching out into the river, offering a promenade and great view towards Manhattan. Supposedly, fishermen competitions are being carried out here.

This neighborhood will always be worth another visit, and if it’s only to snag another pastry from Paneantico on the last stop of the R!

Belated St. Patty’s Day in the City Post

Yes, I know, it’s already March 20 – three days after the big event. Which doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it anymore, right? Three days ago was the day of the probably most popular occurrence in the spring: Saint Patrick’s Day and the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade!

And to this date, this was also my very first St. Patty’s Day I was actually able to fully take part in. You see, this year it fell on the weekend. And it was even on a Saturday. Ergo, the very first time I did not have to work and miss out on all the fun. A few million like-minded people had the same idea and came in masses groups from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Long Island – probably from anywhere BUT New York City. Although, in all fairness, I am sure a good deal of New Yorkers was also on the streets. Of course – no one wants to miss out on the first time it falls on a decent day.

Anyway, we did the only smart thing to do: We joined the drunken crowds around Central Park to watch the annual parade take off. To make matters worse, we were most likely three of the only people who stayed sober. Rewind an hour back, which would be me on the train: I had expected a nice peaceful ride up to Lexington/63rd St, to get off there and to carelessly stroll towards the waiting attractions. Wrong parade, wrong year, wrong date!

It started with people stumbling on the train right after Delancey St (Lower East Side). From then on, I had the chance to look at some really exotic and very green costumes. Then, getting off at aforementioned 63rd St station, I had to box my way past wasted teenagers who thought it a funny idea to pour half-empty water bottles over the heads of the crowd. Three flights of stairs and ten excruciating minutes later, and I was about to tell a cop to arrest these mean little rats.

Off to Central Park, where of course something like a line structure had formed, which could only be avoided by walking past with the most sincere determination. Then, convincing my two friends that standing against the parade and only getting to see the beautiful behinds backs of everyone participating in it might not be the best case scenario. We continued to walk a few blocks up, where we finally found a decent standing spot. Only two cry-babies and a worried mother ahead of us, that was much better than I had pictured. A few costumized pedestrians marching by. Numerous military brigades, FDNY, and other uniformed groups filling up the parade. Finally, one or two green color guards which happily swung their flags ahead of them.

After one hour I pretty much had enough and so did my company. We decided to go for a late brunch/early snack around Union Square. From there, we even made it to the East Village, where hordes of people were aimlessly standing outside, breaking up fights or getting involved in one, or simply trying to have a good time while puking into the next trash bin.

And what really astounded me but also made me smile: Everyone was all of a sudden Irish. Or at least making the best effort in appearing to be so. From the Haitian chick over the Latin Samba-dancer to the red-headed tourist – everyone wanted to dress green and be part of the fun.
My friend had half-heartedly thrown a blue shirt over her, so we got a few odd looks from the people that were not yet fully intoxicated. While we managed to stay pretty much sober throughout the entire day, I couldn’t help it but feel sorry for all the drunken faces walking around in the Greenwich Village. Because this is where I finally got my first beer. Guinness, of course, how could it else be! One hour later, my friend and I were over the entire party-scene and we decided to call it a day. Not without taking a few good shots of the crowd.

Random drunk guy wanting to be in the picture...

So, maybe you are asking the wrong person for how great St. Patty’s Day can be. I guess I am not much of a partier when everyone else around me is. But one thing is for sure: You can always be up for a good time! Even without much alcohol in your blood.

Oh, and do not forget to get the annual drink of the year: McDonalds peppermint shake which has been created solely for the purpose of the Green Day! It’s sweet, it’s green, it’s cheap – what else could you possibly want?! Way to go, Shamrock Shake!

The one and only Shamrock Shake!


[For more pictures on St. Patty’s Day go here.]

The First Impressions: Back in New York

I know it’s not a big deal. Returning to the city you voluntarily choose to live in for a good amount of time already. But this had been my first time I had left the Big Apple for longer than a week. After more than two weeks, I had already forgotten about some things here. How to use the metro vending machine, for example. How to be patient when talking to JFK employees who are rude to you. Or how to deal with those insane stares these strange men give young girls on a crowded subway.

I’m sure you have gotten the gist of my general opinion from previous writings already. Despite many advantages and cultural events this city has to offer there are some major problems I was hesitating to deal with and which have poked out even more when coming back in September. Don’t get me wrong. I love New York. But I also despise certain aspects. While I had really thought Germany would give me a culture shock when it didn’t, I wouldn’t have imagined it would take me more than one week to adjust back to Manhattan and Brooklyn. I didn’t understand many things when I got off the plane and went through customs. For example, I took the subway, not a cab. On the subway there were these two black girls who were checking each other out and, I felt, competing with each other for something I couldn’t see. All of a sudden their loud attitude, exaggerated demeanor in pushing their way through and their looks made perfect sense to me. I don’t think I had seen two individuals who were more self-conscious than them in a while. And I also got tired of it. All the times I had to deal with these people being rude to me or showing me attitude because they feel bad about themselves. All those many times I had gotten angry about people in the train who were impolite and had almost let them ruin a perfect morning or afternoon to me, all those times I should have seen that the only problem they have is with themselves.

The way the people dress here really got to me, too. I’m not anyone who follows Fashion Week or the latest trend too closely. But Europe and Europeans seem to be well-dressed for a fact, so seeing the difference in attire after only two weeks of abstinence was hurtful. Slung-over baggie pants, torn, stained shirts – some of the clothes people walk around in here who aren’t even homeless. Where is the fashion sense? I feel that you can certainly find the best-dressed folks here but also the worst-dressed, only which one overtakes the general impression is the question.

People are more selfish here than anywhere else
, I believe. My first day, jetlagged, tired, and just wanting to get back home, was filled with thoughts on people I had surrounded myself with throughout the past one and a half years and who I consider not worthy my attention anymore. After being home in Germany, encountering friends who are actually HAPPY to see me and who greeted me in such a warm manner that I couldn’t help but blink my tears away, I sort of expected a different welcome here. I’m starting to wonder not only which path to take but who to take it with.
Only half a year ago, after not being around sane people for a while, I was increasingly blaming myself for these impressions and I had a hard time dealing with the disappointment of never being able to form close friendships here and never being able to trust someone 100 percent other than myself. But in this first week I was back, I saw it all too clear. I saw the dirt of this city, I saw the hideousness of the people’s personality, I saw the way they interact with each other because they consider themselves not worthy. Their projections of this onto yet another person who is supposed to become angry just to satisfy the deeper needs of their inner sadist.

I don’t know. I guess I don’t have too many good things to say about my first impressions in New York. To me, a city is about its people. Now New York might have many opportunities no other place in this world might have, but it can be a very lonely stay here if you decide to take on those opportunities. It’s a constant competition with everything and everyone around you.

And yet, underneath all of the confusion of a culture shock and readjustment to something I should be used to, underneath all of the pre-judgment, these harsh feelings and disappointed thoughts, underneath this all, I do have hope. A glimmer pushing itself through the darkness and desperation towards the surface. I see people being nice to me for now reason. I see people with a heart and a soul when standing in line at Trader Joes. I see the magic of New York’s random encounters when going out at night. I see the beauty of being able to do whatever you want to do. I see the ultimate freedom you can achieve in a city like this.

And so the overall phrase proves to be true once again: New York has the best of people, New York has the worst of people. Time to make my selections of who I want to surround myself with.