A New York reunion | Ann Mah

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Shift change

By Ann | December 14, 2012

At first I feared it meant something when I landed in New York City at shift change hour, that hellacious five o’clock period when all the taxis go off duty and you can’t hail a cab for love or money. As I wandered along Third Avenue in the gathering darkness, walking first one way and than the other, I had a sinking realization: the shopfronts had changed so much I couldn’t tell if I was heading north or south. I was walking west along 14th street, or was it east? Down along 2nd avenue, or was it up? The East Village, ten years ago my beloved home, felt strange, crowded with young people clad in ironic outfits from the Salvation Army. I felt foreign, I felt lost. I felt like my hair was too clean. I felt old.


After 45 minutes of hunting for a cab, I finally made it to Brooklyn, where I described my Third Avenue disorientation to a friend. “New York is like riding a bicycle. You’ll get it back,” she told me. I didn’t believe her. After so many years away, I knew New York had moved on without me. At some point, I’d made a choice — Paris or New York? — and I’d chosen Paris. I still loved New York, city of my youthful literary dreams, the place that taught me how to be comfortable in my own skin, the town where I’d met my best friends and, eventually, my husband. But New York was no longer mine. I couldn’t claim it.


essex market

mission chinese

eataly sausage  eataly sign
Though my knowledge of the city’s restaurants had once been encyclopedic, now I had to rely on the suggestions of friends. Thanks to them, I discovered new favorites like sweet Buvette, a petit salon de thé in the West Village that’s like a fresh-faced American au pair in Paris, where a friend and I lingered over a mushroom croque monsieur and pot of mint tea. I stopped by Dorie Greenspan’s tiny, elegant cookie boutique, Beurre and Sel, to buy Christmas pressies and one oversized world peace cookie just for me. I moaned over Momofuku Milk Bar’s crack pie, and their compost cookie, and the corn cookie, and the bacon-cream-cheese-stuffed bagel bomb, and marveled at their staff’s chirpy, sincerely friendly helpfulness. A friend and I waited over an hour for a table at Mission Chinese, but we were underwhelmed by their modish take on Chinese food — perhaps because we’d lived in Beijing too long, or maybe the food was too spicy, or probably we should have ordered more meat (though I agree with another friend who deemed bacon a “culinary crutch”). I loved madcap Eataly, like a three-ring circus of all the best Italian foods: sausages, and hams, and cheeses, oh my! And I lost my heart to Alimentari e Vineria — or, rather, to their spaghetti carbonara, the crisped guanciale, the al dente pasta, the warmth of black pepper seeping across the sauce of creamy egg yolks — I felt transported to Rome, which is, after all, what New York does best: transport. Or transform. Or maybe both.

My first new york apartment   My second New York apartment
And you know what? After a few days of meetings and meals and reunions a funny thing happened. Staying in an apartment exchange in the East Village, just blocks away from my first New York apartment, I kept running into someone I knew: Me. Perhaps the city had moved on but I realized that a part of me was still there, drinking coffee from an oversized cup on Avenue A, hustling onto the crosstown bus at rush hour, tucking into a dark bar to sip vodka gimlets. The memories of my twenties ran on a loop in my head: the nights — sometimes lonely — the days — sometimes hungover — the suffocation of August in Alphabet City, the neon sign of the burrito restaurant that I couldn’t afford, the corner at 13th and 2nd where my husband and I first kissed, the bar where we sat and watched the snow fall before making angels in Washington Square Park. Turn right and you’re heading east, left and you’re heading west. I knew it without thinking. I knew it like it was mine.

empire state bldg

I felt so comfortable in New York that at first I was a little guilty, like I was cheating on Paris. But my husband — who joined me for a weekend of bagels, books and movies at Film Forum — reminded me that the two are not in competition. They are, rather, like the yin and yang, the two halves of my personality: the appreciation of lingering meals versus the part of me that craves a to do list and a pen to cross things off. Or perhaps that’s too penny Freud. Maybe they are just two cities I love, two sets of streets that I’ve strolled at 3am, two places soaked with so many memories that I will always know them and they will always know me. Two places on the list of places we call home, an open list that expands and grows.

Topics: Voyages | 24 Comments »

24 Responses to “Shift change”

  1. Loulou in France Says:
    December 14th, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    I know exactly what you mean about “cheating.” I feel the same way every time I’m in New Orleans.
    But C is right, it doesn’t have to be one or the other, they are not in competition. Like Paris and New York are the yin and the yang for you, France (the places I’ve lived) and New Orleans are like the yin and the yang for me.
    It sounds like your visit was full of rich memories and new experiences, adding another layer to your relationship with New York.

  2. Katia Says:
    December 14th, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    Ann, this is a truly beautiful piece. I got chills reading this, and you left me with tears in my eyes. It truly is possible to leave pieces of yourself across the world, and to feel complete BECAUSE of it.

  3. Voie de Vie Says:
    December 14th, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    There is something about that first photo that just feels so quintesenntially Manhattan – I can almost feel the wind.

    It’s definitely *not* cheating, and I expect you’ll make (or are already making) new memories. Both you and NYC have moved on to a different place. C’est la vie and all that.

  4. Emma Says:
    December 14th, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    I think our hearts are always in another place wherever we may be.

    A bit different for me .. every time I return to northern NSW where I grew up (beaches, rural area, cute little villages) I realise how stupidly hipster and touristy some parts have become and it makes me sad because I want it to be like it was and I hate not feeling at home like I used to.

    And I mean NYC and Paris, how could you possibly choose? Also now I’m hungry from your wonderful descriptions! Every time a friend visits New York they come back to Australia raving about the food and a few kilos heavier!

  5. CK Says:
    December 14th, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    One of my problems is that I love so many places. When I visit NY, I want to live there. When I visit Paris, I want to live there. When I visit San Francisco, I want to live there. And so on. But I guess that’s a nice feeling — to belong in such different cities is comforting in a way. Or is it too chameleon-like?

  6. katy Says:
    December 14th, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    Cliche or not, I love New York and this gorgeous post reminds me why; I love its endless possibilities and the constant bustle.

    I often feel the same way when I go back (truly, New York even made my 18-year-old self feel old), as if the city has somehow outgrown me (or I’ve outgrown it), but, after a few days into any stay, I realize that, in my heart of hearts, I’m always eating a bagel and maybe secretly sipping the fad drink of my college years, the since demoted Appletini.

    Glad you had a lovely time and so jealous you went to Beurre and Sel! I’m contemplating making an order.

  7. Lindsey Says:
    December 15th, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Absolutely loved this piece, so beautifully expressed. You haven’t been back in the US that long but I sense that with each day you’re finding yourself all over again, piece by piece. And what better way to do that than through food?

  8. Heather in Arles Says:
    December 15th, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Ann, thank you for this beautiful, heart-felt piece. I connected to it dearly, having felt the same on my past two fleeting visits to my favorite city in the world. That it wasn’t “me” anymore. You are right, part of me will always be there, it made me who I am. And I love that girl too–even though I shake my head in wonder over the things that I did and what I got away with!!
    Gros, gros bisous,

  9. Lindy Says:
    December 15th, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    A beautiful essay on belonging Ann, really moving. It feels like a companion piece to Adam Gopnik’s story about how you can escape to Paris, but you can’t escape yourself.

    I prefer your idea that you bring your selves with you where you live. I can’t say there are places where I want to revisit as I wasn’t comfortable with who I was. Moscow in the 90s anyone? No thank you. But Paris? Sydney? Any time!

  10. Ann Says:
    December 16th, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Loulou — Oh, France and New Orleans — pas mal! ;) But, seriously, there is comfort in knowing there will always be places (plural) that we can call home. I’m glad you’ve found those places, too.

    Katia — Yes, yes I love that idea of leaving pieces of oneself all over the world. I know you’ve scattered bits of you across a couple continents.

    Voie de Vie — I wish I could remember exactly where I took that photo. New York and I may be in a different place, but we’ll always be on the same wavelength :)

    Emma — The places you talk about here and on your blog sound so exotic and beautiful — I feel saddened myself to think they might have been hipsterized. But I bet there are still a few small corners that will always hold some of your best memories.

  11. Ann Says:
    December 16th, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Katy — Oh, yes, the possibility of New York — I felt it so palpably last week! Maybe that’s the true nostalgia of youth… though everything ALWAYS seems possible in New York. And here’s to the appletini — cheers! P.S. Some of my Beurre & Sel pressies mysteriously, er, disappeared… but I easily remedied the situation with an online order.

    Lindsey — And soon I’ll be in France and finding myself again all over Paris! Just like an amnesiac or Alzheimer’s sufferer ;)

    Heather — Ha ha, YES! I found myself shaking my head, too, in wonder and/or disgust at my youthful idiocy. I hope your next New York stay is longer, less fleeting. I bet you’ll find it doesn’t take you very long to reconnect with your beloved city.

    Lindy — Ohhhh… wow, I am so honored to even share a THOUGHT with Adam Gopnik. CK and I read your comment and we were talking about places that we’ve lived but not loved… Boston, perhaps. Beijing maybe. It’s odd where we leave our hearts behind. Thanks for some nourishing food for thought.

  12. kristen @thekaleproject Says:
    December 16th, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Ann, I’m back in New York for the third visit post moving to Paris and completely relate to this. Every last word. I enjoy exploring new parts on visits and of course new restaurants but also love going back to the random spots that were part of my daily life… and you’ve reminded me that this will also happen with Paris.. it just takes time. PS: Isn’t Eataly just insane?!

  13. Sweet Freak Says:
    December 17th, 2012 at 12:12 am

    Well, I don’t know *what* you’re talking about. :) As always, beautifully captured and expressed. I’m so happy our exchange worked – I think it was cathartic and wonderful for both of us. Vive la France… and New York City!

  14. Shut Up & Cook | The Attainable Gourmet Says:
    December 17th, 2012 at 3:37 am

    I know the feeling! This whole east coast/ west coast business is overrated sometimes…and I am dying to try Eataly…on my list for my next NYC Trip!

  15. Ann Says:
    December 17th, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Kristen — Oh, yes, I bet that you’ll soon be as conflicted and confused as every expat who has ever loved Paris and New York (and there are a lot of us — we should form a support group). In the meantime, enjoy your time in the world’s best city.

    Sweet Freak — As you’ve said to me before, there is comfort in numbers :) Thank you, chère amie, for a wonderful week in New York — I’m only sad that our swap meant I missed seeing you!

    Shut Up & Cook — Ah, but lucky you — sharing time on the East Coast and West Coast means you have the best of both worlds! Eataly is a wonderful, magical madhouse — I bet you’ll love it!

  16. Shannon Says:
    December 17th, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    As always, your descriptions make me pine for a place I’ve never (really) been but now know I need to go. Thank you Ann!

  17. Luisa Says:
    December 18th, 2012 at 12:59 am

    I totally understand how you feel. I think this country is in total shock. So sad.

  18. Lil Says:
    December 18th, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    such a beautifully written piece. and one which resonates much.

    i’m not even a couple of years away from dublin, and already i feel like more and more of a stranger each time i go back. while the streets are familiar, things have changed. new public transport system and routes, restaurants that came and went, and my once very international social circle are now pretty exclusively irish (peril of working in a domain that’s dominated by 2-3 years short-term contracts). it’s familiar and foreign at the same time.

    i dare not even start dissecting how i feel about my hometown anymore. at one level, i’m clinging on to everything from my younger days as much as i could. i stop noticing the differences as differences, that they just are what they are, and focus more on my relationships with family and friends against all these backgrounds of changes.

  19. Amelia Says:
    December 20th, 2012 at 12:11 am

    Oh Ann, this post is so beautiful! And it resonates with me so much. Bumping in to yourself in a known/unknown location is such an out of body experience. I had it in London and New York, and both times it felt like there was the ghost of the younger me following me around, or I was following her. Your words are so gorgeous, thanks so much for sharing.

  20. thyme (sarah) Says:
    December 20th, 2012 at 1:49 am

    I completely understand your feelings. I hesitate to go back to NYC because it was MY city during college, My experiences that were so unique and fascinating. My brother, who lives in the city, keeps saying that I should come up and visit him. I hesitate though, because now it feels like HIS city and HIS unique and fascinating experiences. Geez…and then I say…I should just get over it and go have a fabulous time!

  21. Ann Says:
    December 20th, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Shannon — You need to go for research purposes alone! (Jacques Torres, Momofuku Milk Bar, Beurre and Sel, etc etc etc…) Possibly tax deductible? ;)

    Luisa — Thank you for your note. Yes, shock and sadness. Deep, unrelenting sadness.

    Lil — It’s the perils of being an expat, n’est-ce pas? Home will never stay the same, even for those who never leave. But luckily our memories can be packed up and unfolded wherever we are. Or, in my case, memories and a shipping container of stuff. Eek!

    Amelia — Oh, yes, it was a ghostly experience — that is EXACTLY how I felt. The strange thing was, I thought the city had changed so much but by the end of the week, I’d realized it hadn’t changed that much at all. Or perhaps I myself had changed more quickly than I’d thought. Though that’s very meta indeed ;)

    Thyme (Sarah) — I TOTALLY understand your hesitation. It was so hard to go back to the site of my formative experiences and accept that it’s not part of my life right now. But in the end the positives outweighed the painful. I hope you do GO — and that you’ll tell us about it on your beautiful blog.

  22. lwk Says:
    December 21st, 2012 at 3:01 am

    I love this post! Brings back my own memories and memories of our carefree days as partners-in-crime! xo

  23. Camille Says:
    December 21st, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    It’s funny to think of a place you feel so intensely tied to belonging to other people, but the thing is, no matter whether it’s your college town, your hometown, or wherever you spent your most formative years, there are thousands of others to whom it belongs as well. And like you say, you can always find your way back. Beautifully written.

  24. Ann Says:
    December 28th, 2012 at 11:00 am

    lwk — Aw, we’ll always be partners in crime!

    Camille — I think part of the magic of New York (for me) is sharing it with a multitude of strangers. Maybe that’s the same for everywhere, though. Thanks for stopping by, ma belle!

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