Thursday, February 5, 2015

On the Ninth Day of Christmas bestie gave to me,
the feeling of being a kiddie.

One of the things I love most about Shana is that she sort of intuitively knows where to take us in the city. For example, the Hershey Store? Eh, pass. FAO Schwarz? Yes, definitely, lead the way! I've drooled over my fair share of Barbies, Cabbage Patch Dolls and 5' tall giraffes in the FAO Schwarz stores between NYC and Chicago. I've seen Big approximately 746 times and have daydreamed about having my very own giant floor piano on which to dance out Heart and Soul. And because she loves me back, Shana's first 2 years of birthday gifts to Blue included...
 I love it when having a kid means indulging all of your childhood fantasies. So, of course we would want to pop into FAO Schwarz at Christmas!

FAO Schwarz was founded by Frederick August Otto Schwarz, a German immigrant and toy retailer, along with his brothers in 1862. Although the store has changed names (it was originally called the Toy Bazaar) and locations and, most recently, ownership (it was acquired by Toys R Us in 2009), its 2 floors of games, toys and hobbies still make it paradise for kids of all ages.

Our first stop was the second floor, where you can stand in line to dance or stomp out a tune on the floor piano or browse the extensive selection of Legos (as well as hundreds of other toys. Literally, my mind was blown by the sheer number of toys for sale in this store and I had to really keep my Mama Bear in check. Not only is it unwise to shower your child with 1/2 the toy store, we couldn't possibly fit it in our carry-on luggage).

But first, an $800 teddy bear...
For the price of TWO Vitamix blenders, you can have this bear. No, it doesn't ground your chia seeds and kale into a delicious and nutritious smoothie, but it does make for a soft landing should your children decide to hop in the laundry basket and ride down the stairs.

Once upstairs, I saw the line of kids (who most likely had never even heard of Big) waiting to play on the novelty piano and decided it was just a smidge too embarrassing to stand in that line without a kid to blame it on. Next time, Blue. You and me and the piano make 3! So, we meandered the aisles and stood in awe of the brilliant Lego builders that exist in this world. 

I'm especially fond of Batman's Lego-shaped quads. That's how mine used to look. Sort of chiseled and stacked. I'm also pretty impressed by how Neal can look exactly like Batman with just a moment's notice...
 Santa, Baby...
I'm fairly certain Shana does not want me to publicly post a photo of her pinching the nipple of the Statue of Liberty, but with a blogger and you're probably going to end up on the blog. 

I have to admit, that is some serious Lego talent. When Blue got the Planes Propwash Junction Lego set for Christmas, although it came with step-by-step, color-coded directions, it still took me a solid 20 minutes to assemble the whole thing. I cannot even imagine the time it takes to build a life-size toy soldier. I hope it pays well.
On the first floor, there is a studio for designing your own puppet. For $99, you can create a puppet that looks just like you (or the love of your life or your mom or the person you're stalking...whomever...).
This bearded chef was one of the examples on display. I so very much want to come back and do this someday. One hundred dollars is, to me, a completely reasonable sum for a mini-me.

Downstairs is also home to allllllllllll of the candy. Sweet candy...sour candy...little candy...
I mean...candy as big as your head...
Or, in Shana's case, twice the size of your head.

In addition to the nostalgic candy and the popular candy, they also had Christmas sweets for sale...including a wide variety of gingerbread men/house kits. Naturally, a big seller in 2014 was the...
Do you wanna build a sugar cookie castle? Eh, not really. Looks complicated.

But the 2014 holidays just wouldn't be complete without something zombie-related. 
Yes, children...let's have a frank discussion about the undead on our way to Grandma's for the Christmas feast. Sounds like fun! Although to be fair, it was at my eye-level and not at like...Blue's.

As we prepared to head back out into the wintry rain, I pointed out the enormous wheel-shaped bin of gummy treats to Neal. This is where I bought his 1-pound bag of gummy Army men when he was deployed. I shipped them shortly thereafter and they arrived in his August care package as a giant gob of green goo. He even asked on the phone that night, "What is this green goo stuff you sent?" So, I took the opportunity to show him what they should've looked like. He was much more impressed.

Shana wanted to show us the windows at Bergdorf's before we finally called it an evening. Even at that late hour, there was a crowd 3-people deep hovering around each window. They were breathtaking and I can't wait to share them with you...tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On the Eighth Day of Christmas bestie gave to me,
the Plaza Hotel Christmas tree.

A word about The Plaza Hotel. This place is fancy. Under the history tab of their website, they claim that someone once said, "Nothing unimportant ever happens at The Plaza." And considering that less than a week after we visited, Prince William and Princess Kate would be calling The Plaza home during their stay in New York, I'm sure that's true.

The Plaza is located at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South and first opened its doors in 1907. It was designed to be the most luxurious hotel in the world. Its 19 floors reached skyscraper status in those days and the $12 million price tag was unfathomable. Over 1600 crystal chandeliers were installed and the largest ever single order for gold-encrusted china was ordered from L. Straus & Sons. Naturally, the super-wealthy and famous wanted to live there and so Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt were the first to sign in. If you only wanted to stay one night, that would've been $2.50 out of your pocket; a hefty sum when the average wage was 50 cents per day.

The Plaza has also served as the set for several movies, the first being Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest (which I saw in a high school film class but failed to appreciate it as I would now so it's on my to-do list). The Way We Were, The Great Gatsby, Funny Girl, Cotton Club, Barefoot in the Park, Crocodile Dundee I and II and Home Alone 2 were filmed on this location, as well. The Plaza received its designation as a NYC landmark in 1969 and is the only hotel in the city to be listed on the register of National Historic Landmarks.

Today, the hotel continues its dedication to luxury by providing a free iPad in each room, which can be used to communicate with the concierge, order room service, arrange wake up calls and even print boarding passes. Bathrooms feature 24-karat gold plated fixtures and handcrafted solid marble vanities, designed especially for The Plaza. And if you get hungry, there are several restaurants downstairs where you can grab some grub or a drink, including The Palm Court, The Rose Club, The Champagne Bar and The Plaza Food Hall (y'know, for the rest of us). The Palm Court hosts an afternoon tea (with or without champagne) that comes with a multi-level tray of finger foods. Well..."finger foods" sounds a bit barbaric. Really, it's outrageously expensive and delicate bites that you put into your mouth using your fingers. The "New Yorker" afternoon tea (bagels and lox, chicken salad, egg salad, etc.) runs about $65 and the Champagne Tea (foie gras, lobster, peekytoe crab - confession: I don't even know what peekytoe crab is but I'm envisioning a bunch of 8-toed crab running amok in the kitchen) rings up at $105. I know...steep.

But so worth it just one time...preferably when you're old enough to appreciate the food more than the champagne and have the time to sit and enjoy instead of treating it as a rest stop between 2 other tourist destinations.

The first time I visited Shana, I stayed for 10 days. Neal was deployed and Blue was nothing but a hope and a prayer at that point. I was self-employed and only working part part part time. I saw an opportunity. Shana, as always, had planned a perfect itinerary of sight-seeing, exquisite dining and down time. Tea at The Plaza was on that list. I wore a dress with a petticoat and a flower in my hair and off we went. And it was truly amazing for a country girl to dine in such an opulent setting. As well-traveled as I was, it still felt luxuriously foreign. And I've thought about it ever since.

Christmas at The Plaza is no small affair, either. After dinner, we stopped by to check out (and, of course, photograph because we're those people) their holiday decor. The lobby tree stretched toward the ceiling and featured beautiful porcelain and blown glass ornaments. A small crowd was taking turns snapping selfies in front of it. At one point, a mother placed her 2 young sons, both in dress shirts, ties and blazers (with accompanying pajama bottoms) in front of it and offered up every bribe in her book to get them to smile long enough to capture the perfect Christmas card shot.
And, granted, it is beautifully symmetrical...not at all as if a toddler helped to hang the ornaments. Perhaps next year, I should place a velvet rope around our tree when I'm finished with it. (Don't send me hate mail. I'm only kidding. I cherish every year that our tree is naked from the waist down by the time January rolls around.)
Moving past the lobby and The Palm Court, we made our way downstairs in search of other signs of Christmas. 
One of us should have stood by this fella to give you an idea of scale, but he towered over everyone in our party. Standing guard in the food hall downstairs. Although, again, food hall sounds so suburban. The vendors sell everything from savory lobster rolls to mouth-watering macaroons. In other words, The Boston Market it is not
We also found Eloise hanging around The Palm Court. 
Somehow, as a wee Ally, I missed this entire series of books. I put the blame squarely on Nancy Drew. But I'm determined to introduce them to Blue (mostly because something needs to balance out all the dinosaurs and trains around here). Eloise resides in a penthouse at The Plaza and spends her days seeking out adventure, as most 6-year old children tend to do. This painting, though, has an interesting history. According to Eloise at the Plaza, the illustrator of the Eloise series, Mr. Hilary Knight, presented his painting of Eloise to hang outside of The Palm Court in the late 1940's. And there it stayed until it disappeared after a fraternity party. The matter probably would have been forgotten, but Princess Grace was so disappointed to find it missing when she toured the hotel with her children that Mr. Knight completed another copy, which hangs in the hallway today. (As a side note, although the Eloise author has passed away, Mr. Knight continues to draw Eloise and is currently on staff at Vanity Fair.) The website mentions that mothers and daughters come from around the world to sip tea at The Plaza and visit Eloise's painting. I'm fairly certain my daughter would have to be about 28 before I would bring her to The Plaza for lox and egg salad, but I can appreciate the sentiment. It's almost better than getting a pony. 

We bid farewell to The Plaza and all of its doormen, hustling to secure taxis for guests bracing their little black dresses against the whipping rain. We had one more stop to make before our drive home. Shana was taking us to FAO Schwartz; home of the Big piano. And just like that, it's 1988 again.

On the Seventh Day of Christmas bestie gave to me,
lights around the big city.

There's just no shortage of Christmas decorations in a city like New York. Y'know that line in Silver Bells that goes, "even the lights blink a bright red and green"? It's like that. So, before dinner on Saturday evening, we cruised the grounds of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, hoping to get a photo (or 30) of the Christmas tree that sits over the fountain during the holidays.

But it was not there.
I have Googled the heck out of "Lincoln Center Christmas Tree 2014" and while it appears they had one, it was certainly not in the traditional spot. Shana thinks they may have moved it closer to the road. This year, in place of the fountain was...a fountain. So, we practiced our night water photography while Neal
well, waited. He got really good at waiting. Although the Army has made him really good at waiting, too.

We played with settings...

and angles...

And then Shana snapped one of my most favorite pictures of me ever. (Which is quite the compliment as I'm an only child and there are loads of pictures of me.)

Finally, it was time for dinner. Shana had booked us a table at The Smith Restaurant, across the street from the Lincoln Center. It was probably one of the best meals I ate all weekend. If you would like to drool over your keyboard a bit this morning, here's the menu. But really, just 5 words: blue cheese fondue potato chips
We ate
And now, most likely, Shana is going to read this, get an insatiable craving and start texting me pictures of her fresh, piping hot bowl of chips as soon as they open the doors for lunch. Life is so unfair.
Three more words: Brooklyn Blackout Cake...
served with a side of malted milkshake. Looking at this now, I honestly have no idea how the 3 of us managed to share it. I credit the chips and a delectable dinner that left just enough space for 1/3 of this divine dessert. I want this again. Right now. 

After dinner, we were all full and, if we were being honest, a little on the miserable side. So, we decided to walk the city. The Time Warner Center, a multi-level shopping mall at Columbus Circle, had constructed a lights-with-music-accompaniment Christmas display. Titled Holiday Under the Stars, it featured twelve 14-foot stars that hung from the ceiling of the 150-foot Great Room. The stars slowly changed colors in unison with one another and a collection of musical Christmas favorites, such as Cool Yule by Louis Armstrong, Let It Snow by Lena Horne and several pieces by the Jazz Orchestra of Lincoln Center. 

 Creepy silhouetted mannequins in the background courtesy of the Armani store...

In general, I'm not a fan of malls. I think they are giant shrines to capitalism and American greed. But I do love the way these colorful lights were reflected in the Boss store windows...

As I wrap up this post, I realize I may have accidentally combined 2 "days of Christmas" into 1. Whoopsie. So, there's a very real chance there will only be 11 days of Christmas. Oh well....perhaps on the 12th day we all rested.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

On the Sixth Day of Christmas bestie gave to me,
holiday market shopping.

According to Shana, when the first whiff of Christmas sweeps through the air (sometimes before the first sighting of Santa, bringing up the rear of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade), little holiday markets begin popping up all over the city. I thought perhaps "all over the city" was an exaggeration. But after realizing that we were not passing the same market on our treks across downtown, I understood that they really are everywhere. Each market boasts handcrafted goods and food, all from New York. Artists of all kinds, from chocolatiers to photography featuring the artist's son's stuffed animals, set up shop for the month of December in these markets. Each 10'x10' white canvas tent houses original art and, usually, the artist who can explain the process, answer questions about ingredients and help you choose the perfect gift. December in New York City can be quite unforgiving, with blustery winds and freezing rain or snow, but Shana swears they are out, in the bitter cold and the sunny heat waves, for the entire month.

This is the description (via given for the Union Square Holiday Market, which was our first stop:

Date: November 20-December 24, 2014
Over 100 merchants are on hand to bring you the most unique gifts available. The Union Square Holiday Market is the place to do your holiday shopping. Some of the items you may find this year include: Hand-blown glass housewares; Local, handmade leather belts; Bags and accessories made from recycled plastic; A variety of handmade jewelry; Gloves, hats, Tibetan crafts and more!
There will also be nibbles and noshes throughout the market. Dig into German delights, both sweet and savory treats. Top things off with a hot apple cider or cappuccino to stay warm. There are so many beautiful things to browse and relish!

Hours: : Monday–Friday 11am-8pm; Saturday 10am-8pm; Sunday 11am-7pm; on December 24 market closes at 4pm
Location: Bryant Park, 40th to 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue

And let me tell you...the smells coming from that German delights tent...holy streusel...
I don't have any pictures of this market because I have a "no photos unless I'm going to buy something" rule when it comes to someone's handcrafted art. (This is an extension of my "no photos unless I'm going to tip the street performer" rule. I have a lot of rules.) And although I did end up buying this fabulous print by EdieArt

by that point, we were rushing out to make a dinner reservation. 
However, the next day, we stopped by the holiday market in Grand Central Station (where, again, I found delectable treats for the babysitting grandmothers back home), and I have these pictures from Shana to share. 

Although the Grand Central Holiday Market is much smaller than the one at Union Square, there was still a wide variety of art and food from which to choose. Scarves, jewelry, paintings, photography, was all unique and very beautiful. 
If you are an artist wanting to purchase a booth for a holiday market, it's not as simple as filling out an application and handing over your check. To keep the number of vendors selling each type of craft balanced (i.e. avoiding a market featuring 20 jewelry designers and 2 blown glass artists), the organization reviews the applications and chooses vendors based on what they sell. Once they are open for business, the artists must pay a portion of their proceeds to the organization and they must meet a sales quota in order to be considered for the next year's market. Basically, it's the commercial version of Darwin. It seems harsh, but I'm sure it works. 

Another aspect of holiday markets that didn't occur to me until after I did a little bit of research this morning, is the possible hypocrisy of it all. According to an article on NY Daily News, artists are outraged that they are kicked out of parks like Union Station for selling during the other 11 months because they aren't paying a permit fee to the city. However, due to the inherent fee structure associated with the holiday markets and the income generated by them for the city's parks department, they are allowed to sell during December. Even when the sprawling design of the market can make for hazardous conditions for residents; spilling over into subway entrances and crosswalks. Like most controversies in the city, I was completely unaware that shopping the holiday markets was angering some artists. (This is like that time I bought a magnet at the 9/11 Museum, unaware that most New Yorkers are livid that there's a gift shop on such hallowed ground. And also like that time when I sat a 6-month old Blue down on a name at the 9/11 Memorial so that I could adjust my shirt, which was riding up and becoming increasingly indecent. If I'm in NY, I'm bound to commit some sort of faux pas surrounding a recent controversy.) Essentially, the artists are proclaiming it's a first amendment violation when they are banned from the park the rest of the year and declaring it a hypocrisy that they are allowed to sell only when the city will benefit from it financially. And this is just like every other government red-tape fiasco I've ever seen. Spoiler alert: the government wins. 

After we finished our shopping at the Grand Central Holiday Market, we paused to take in the scene. I don't think I had ever been in Grand Central Station and it's just as busy as every cliche implies. But there are also plenty of people (surely tourists and residents, alike) who stop to appreciate the architecture, decor and timelessness of such an icon. 

 The zodiac is painted on the ceiling of Grand Central Station. Apparently, it's painted backwards and while some attribute it to an accident, the Vanderbilt family declared it intentional; the constellation was meant to be viewed from a more...divine...perspective.
 Pointing to the clock in the center of the station that looks a lot like our clock at Keeneland!

But even busier than the terminal is the food court and restrooms below. I don't know what it was about this trip but I drank an absurd amount of water and was looking for a bathroom every time we stepped indoors. Shana skipped the bathroom break at Grand Central but swore the stalls were clean and the line moved fast. And she was right! While I was doing my thing, Shana and Neal went in search of lunch. There is no shortage of food vendors in the basement of the terminal, but a tourist "must" is Shake Shack. Even residents will go a little out of their way to stand in line for a cheeseburger and fries from this famous spot. 

Shana was squeezing out some ketchup for our hand-cut fries. One order really was big enough for us to share. And the burger was just as good as it looks. Occasionally, I eat something that I can recall and crave months, or even years, later. I had a Hatch chile cheeseburger with chile cheesefries from a dive in Hatch, NM when Neal deployed out of Ft. Bliss, Texas, 7 years ago. I still think about that meal. Shake Shack is a little like that. 

The only downside to dining in the food court at lunch on a Saturday during the Christmas season is the crowd. And, really, you can't blame anyone for having the same phenomenal idea as you, but know that you may have to throw a couple of elbows at your fellow diners if you want to actually sit while you eat. It's a great place to people-watch while dining. Shana noticed a larger-than-average police presence and later learned of a protest that had taken place upstairs right after we left. (The city was still reeling from the choking death of an unarmed, black man and we passed at least two protests during the weekend.) 

Before we headed out, Shana offered up one more secret of Grand Central Station: the "whispering gallery". If you stand in the corner of a pillar between the Main Concourse and Vanderbilt Hall, and the person you are with stands in the opposite corner, with both of you facing the wall, you can whisper to one another and hear each other clear as a bell. The sound of your voice travels up the pillar, across the ceiling of the 2000 square foot chamber and down to the ears of your companion. As there are 4 pillars, 2 couples can do this simultaneously and I'm here to tell you, it works!
No one knows if this little bit of acoustic magic was constructed on purpose or if it just happens to be a result of curved structures and hard surfaces but it's pretty freaking cool and I encourage everyone who passes through to try it once. Yes, you'll look like a tourist, but everyone is doing it so forget about all that for 2 minutes and have a little fun.
If you want to know a few more quirky facts about one of the most famous terminals in the world, this article on gives a "Top 10 Secrets of Grand Central Station" and it's worth a quick read. And if you go to Shake Shack, have a burger and shake for me!