It’s been a cold January. The almond trees, usually blooming by this time, are still in the bud stage, with a few brave blossoms here and there. Last weekend though we finally had what are known as the alkyonides meres or “halcyon days,” with bright sunshine, sometimes with a soft breeze, when the fish tavernas fill up and beaches overflow with sun worshippers (and a few intrepid swimmers) So, “halcyon” doesn’t refer to just a sense of place or nostalgia for golden days of the past, but for these actual blissful days in the middle of winter. The name halcyon in mythology refers to a seabird that had the power to calm the rough ocean winter waves so she could nest (she had a floating nest in the Aegean). The halcyon days give you a false sense that winter is ebbing away, false because a couple of days ago, a sudden cold snap brought some snow north and west of Athens. Here’s a lovely snowy vista on Mt. Pendeli, just a 10 minute drive from my house. More halcyon days are sure to return.
So far it may seem that this blog is about weather or the woods, but after this little “halcyon” interval, we’re going back to the city, though different from my last post in Athens. We’re going to take a little digression and look at two neighborhoods in New York: (not Astoria!) that we spent some time in over the holidays: Bay Ridge Brooklyn, with its Greek connection, and Chinatown NY and also Chinatown in Athens. (Yes there is one!)
Before my daughter moved to Bay Ridge last summer, I never really knew Brooklyn. But who does? It’s huge, not so much in area, but in its density of inhabitants, actually the 2nd most populated county in the U.S. and certainly one of the most hetereogenous enclaves of every ethnic group imaginable. In Only the Dead Know Brooklyn by Thomas Wolfe, the narrator says in his Brooklynese, “it’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all.”
Bay Ridge is a traditionally Italian middle class area, and Greek too. Today many of the Italians and Greeks have moved out to Long Island – the perennial immigrant longing for a house in the suburbs. But Bay Ridge still has an Italian and Greek flavor. Think of John Travolta as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever swaggering down the street holding a paint can to the immortal sound of the Bee Gees. King of the dance floor at a Bay Ridge disco, he escapes every weekend from his drudgy ordinary life.
Take a walk on Third Avenue, one of the main shopping streets. It’s full of small family run businesses, including restaurants, hardware stores, laundromats, liquor stores, small markets, apparel and on every block, hairdressers and nail salons.
There are lots of ethnic restaurants – though mostly Italian, here I found two souvlaki places,
one across the street from the other.
Between 83rd and 84th, you can’t miss the Athens market, with the Greek flag out in front, which is like a pandopoleio, a store that sells just about everything (pan – all and poleio – selling) It’s a tiny place but in one corner, it squeezes in a meat counter, in another, a deli including feta and myzithra, and in another polysporo bread. My eye caught bottles of Loux soda, ,small tins of Attiki honey, Kalamata olives and 3 liter tins of Minerva olive oil. On the floor were even some 17 liter tins of olive oil from Crete. My daughter was thrilled to find a jar of tahini which she had missed. Mixed with honey on fresh bread, it makes a perfect and healthy breakfast. The place is bustling – orders coming in, deliveries going out. Kyrios Stelios, store owner, told us they’re doing very well, with both Greek and non-Greek customers, as they have very high quality items at a good price.
A few blocks west of 3rd Avenue on the Shore road, apartments with balconies and larger houses face the bay. From there you can take an express bus into Manhattan or at 69th Street, you can even get a ferry that goes to Wall Street. A must try in good weather. But most people take the rattly R train that starts (and ends) at 95th street with conductors making their way at night through the cars shouting “last stop! everyone off! wake up!”and jolting awake those numerous sound asleep souls –
The streets themselves could be anywhere U.S.A. except for the breathtaking view of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that connects Brooklyn with Staten Island. Along the peaceful promenade of the Shore Parkway, you can find fishermen, joggers and a few walkers. Settle yourself on a bench and look up at the bridge and across the bay
On such a bench near the bridge sat John Travolta as Tony, together with Stephanie in Saturday Night Fever. She stares at him with lovesick eyes as he reels off all these statistics about the bridge that he loves, that represents a kind of freedom for him in leaving working class Brooklyn behind him.
There’s also a scene on the bridge, but better to watch the whole film first …
Crossing bridges often symbolizes a kind of freedom ….the name “Verrazano Narrows” notes the Italian explorer Giovanni di Verrazzano (2 “z’s”), in 1524 the first known European explorer to enter New York harbor. “Narrows” refers .this part of the bay, the channel between Brooklyn and Staten Island. As for the name Bay Ridge, that wasn’t the original name; it was Yellow Hook (not exactly an alluring name); it was changed because of its negative association with yellow fever, an epidemic that hit Brooklyn in mid 19th century. (There’s still a neighbourhood called Red Hook a little further north). Bay Ridge is also known for its sunsets over the Verrazano.
So, sunset and time to move on…But there’s one more fact about the area. It’s famous along with the adjoining neighborhood of Dyker Heights for its Christmas decorations! (In the last blog I talked about the incredible over-the-top decorations at Little Kook in Psyrri in Athens) In Bay Ridge, some residents spend thousands of dollars on decorators for the lights for their lawn. It seems that the houses are in some kind of competition to see who can be more extravagant, and many decorations were still up when we left the middle of January.
So many other areas of Brooklyn wait to be explored. One day we did go to Sheepshead Bay — between Brighton Beach (known as “little Odessa”) and Coney Island. – I was hoping for some colorful story involving the head of a sheep to explain the name of the area, but apparently it’s just a kind of fish (the sheepshead!) that’s eaten from the Bay. We had lunch at the “Liman,” a well known Turkish restaurant by the water. It was an unusual spring-like Sunday and afterwards we enjoyed ambling down Emmons Avenue along the water, just looking at the ducks, the sea gulls and the boats that promised fishing day trips.
I can understand why years ago this area used to be a summer destination for New Yorkers. Slowly, the light was starting to fall and night was on its way.
Sheepshead Bay and Bay Ridge are large areas with big avenues and feeling of space. Chinatown in Manhattan on the other hand, is totally different, a perfect example of an insular village, with its narrow side streets and old fire escape tenements, where you hear only Chinese and see only
Chinese buying and selling from the colorful street markets — the unrecognizable produce of different colors and shapes, and the fish markets with fish recently pulled from the water, their tails bouncing up and down.
I have many memories of Chinatown, riding my bicycle there when I lived in New York or walking through there in the summer heat and humidity or like this day, shivering in the winter cold. As soon as you exit from the “Canal Street” subway, you often hear voices trying to sell you illegal products. This time it was the sound of “Psst, bags” and a few minutes later, another “bags?” whispered to me. Then I saw groups of women, each wearing about 3 or 4 bags, walking around, looking around guiltily.
To walk around Chinatown is a delight for the senses: the babble of Chinese, the glazed looking ducks hanging in the windows, the bright red of the lanterns for sale and the taste of freshly fried spring rolls we sampled in Ming’s Caffe, along with a hot bowl of wonton soup. The wind was picking up and the cold was starting to set in. In the caffe, on a Chinese TV channel, women seemed to be comparing their hair styles.
In the stores, red tasselled lanterns and other items undoubtedly played a role in getting ready for the Chinese lunar new year. I suspect though the celebration was a bit subdued this year because of the coronavirus …
In his memoir “Walking in the City,” Alfred Kazin describes a walk over Brooklyn Bridge (a bridge much older than the Verrazano, also renowned for its sunsets, also symbolic of crossing to a new life). He writes, “Dusk of a dark winter’s day that first hour walking Brooklyn Bridge Verrazano, also . Suddenly I felt lost and happy…” and so it was as we continued our walk up to Soho and Washington Square. Manhattan is not a place that you get easily lost in like Rome or Athens, but happy yes, at the crowds, the humanity of each person surrounding us on this slowly darkening winter afternoon.
Back in Greece, on the weekend before the Chinese New Year, we headed over to the Athens Chinatown –– if it can really be called that, as it’s very small, compared to New York or other major cities.
It’s about a 10 to 15 minute walk from Psyrri to the Metaxourgeio area, around Pireos Street, the heart of Chinatown – we went to see if anything was going on to celebrate the “year of the rat” – but not much. Actually on Sunday, all the wholesale-retail import-export places are closed. The area looked desolate. Only one street market was selling some Chinese cabbage and a huge oval greenish yellow fruit or vegetable as big as a baseball bat.
Chinese immigrants started coming to Greece back in the 1990’s, having seen good opportunities in this area, as many Greek shops were closing and reopened by Chinese. Besides restaurants, which cater mostly for the shop workers in the area, there are accounting and attorney offices, as well as a newspaper,
the “China-Greek Times.” The community has opened a cultural center
and has operated a school since 2004, that as of 2017, had 40 students.
We do find a sign for the Chinese new year, but the date looks like it was already celebrated!
We’re all familiar with the red lanterns all over Greece that signify a Chinese clothing shop. This year, Chinese lanterns joined Greek customs on Christmas eve in Kotzia square, in front of the city hall, as ‘wish’ lanterns were released to the heavens (not the best in terms of environment) but beautiful as they travelled skyward with wishes for 2020. So far with the coronavirus and many other worldwide problems, it’s been a shaky start …
Next blog: another city: Greek eats in Paris: Rue de la Huchette and Rue Mouffetard — stay tuned