Christmas in the Most Cliché City in the World

Christmas in New York reeks of the worst clichés — huddled masses standing around Rockefeller Center to watch the tree lighting, frantic shoppers inside the gaudily-decorated Macy’s on 34th Street, and drunk 21-year-olds dressed up as Santa Claus puking on sidewalks — but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, too. As a lover of the holiday season but abstainer of mingling with tourists from Nebraska et al., here are my tips on how to inundate yourself with all things Christmas while still maintaining your dignity.

Ice skating: After trying almost every ice rink in the city, the only two that seem worthwhile are Prospect Park and Central Park. Prospect Park’s rink (Lakeside at LeFrak Center) is huge. There are two outdoor rinks — one covered, one exposed — that are connected, and the nearby cafe actually serves decent food. Central Park’s rink (Wollman Rink) is more expensive and typically more crowded, but the views of the skyline while you ice skate make up for it. Unsurprisingly, the worst rinks are at Rockefeller Center and Bryant Park due to their pathetic size, nerve-racking ratio of tourists, and strict no-photo policy — avoid them at all costs.

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Holiday markets: Originating in Europe, holiday markets seem made for consumerist Americans, so it’s no surprise that New York now has a bunch of them scattered throughout the city. The one at Union Square is where I always end up buying Christmas gifts, as many items are quite interesting and locally made. Also check out the Brooklyn Flea and the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park, and don’t worry about shopping on an empty stomach because each market has an obligatory food section.

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The Nutcracker: If you’re like me and must watch (or participate in) The Nutcracker every December, New York has some great options. Of course, you should watch New York City Ballet’s version at Lincoln Center at least once, just because the theater itself is so magical, but there are other (and often cheaper) alternatives. In fact, I’m somewhat intrigued by a show called Nutcracker Rouge  — “a blend of burlesque and baroque, in which Cherries strip down to pasties and the Arabian dance takes place on a pole, and not the kind found in the North.” This year will be my first time watching Moscow Ballet‘s production at King’s Theater, the newly-restored theater in my own neighborhood. If you’re feeling cheap, there’s always the free Nutcracker performance at Brookfield Place. The New York Times has a handy article on finding which Nutcracker production is right for you.

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Afternoon tea: While not necessarily a Christmas tradition, I’ve always thought of December as the perfect time for a cozy afternoon tea. My favorite so far has been at the Mandarin Oriental because the food is tinged with Asian flavors, and the views are some of the best in the city. This year I’ll be trying the afternoon tea at Crosby Street Hotel.

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Christmas tree: Tabletop trees are a godsend. They’re convenient enough for lazy Millennials like myself, tiny enough to fit into our New York apartments, and are just the right size to hang what few ornaments a recent transplant might actually own without looking sparse. Most neighborhoods have tree vendors on the sidewalks throughout the month, and for about twenty bucks, you can carry a bit of holiday spirit back to your home. We usually place ours on a table in the corner, have fun decorating it that night, water it once, and never think about it again until, like, March (seriously, it’s scary how long-lasting the trees we’ve bought in New York are!). We have a tradition of buying one new ornament a year, and it’s exciting to see our progression of ornaments each Christmas.

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Baking classes: One of my favorite things about Christmas is the excuse to bake too many gingerbread cookies. But what if you don’t have the necessary appliances, enough space, or even the will to bake on your own? Sign up for one of the many baking classes in New York! I highly recommend Mille-feuille for their intimate macaron, croissant, and éclair classes. You’ll make so many goodies that you’ll share half of them with your coworkers and still have too many for your own good. This year I’ve signed up for Meyers Bageri‘s kanelsnurrer (cinnamon bun) class — perfect for my upcoming Copenhagen trip! Also check out BakedBreads Bakery, Milk Bar, Butter Lane, and Magnolia Bakery.

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Skip the Rockefeller tree: This is no shock to anyone, but Rockefeller Center during Christmas is grossly overrated. The tree is always lopsided, the ice rink is dangerously small, and the crowds are like Target on Black Friday. What can you do instead? Visit the tree at Washington Square Park. Watch the glowing musical stars inside the shops at Columbus Circle. Head uptown to Winters Eve for food, entertainment, and ice sculptures. Or gawk at the elaborate light displays at Brookfield Place.
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Noodle soups: New York is teeming with a wonderful selection of Asian noodle soups. Some of my recommendations include Ippudo (ramen), TsuruTonTan (udon), Sobaya (soba), Mew Men (ramen), Hao Noodle & Tea (upscale Chinese), Mr. Taka Ramen (ramen), Lam Zhou Handmade Noodle (cheap Chinese), and Nakamura (ramen). There is no other food that makes my stomach happier during this season.
Staycation: I love staycations. As a child, whenever my parents felt like escaping the city of Honolulu, we would drive an hour to the other side of the island to spend random weekends at Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore. There are so many reasons to take a staycation in New York. Maybe you want to stay out late in a specific neighborhood without having to take the subway home late at night. Maybe you’ve been curious about one of the hundreds of hotels in this city. Or maybe you just want a change of scenery. In the winter, especially, you may be sick of hearing your heater clanging all night. Or maybe your heater isn’t even on (if so, file a complaint to 311!). New York has so many fantastic hotels, it seems a shame to only let tourists use them. I took my first staycation last month, at the Ludlow Hotel, and it was such a lovely experience. I was able to stay out late on the Lower East Side and not have to take the 40-minute train ride back home in my heels. And the next morning, I was also able to hang out at one of my favorite coffee shops before the crowds arrived, since my hotel was right next door. For some advice on how to choose a hotel, read my tips here. If you don’t mind spontaneity, One Night is a new app that gives users access to low rates at New York’s hottest hotels (e.g., Ace Hotel, The Standard, Sixty Soho), starting at 3pm every day. The app also works in Los Angeles.
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Hot chocolate: My favorite hot chocolate happens to be from an Italian gelato chain called Grom because they make their hot chocolate by melting dark chocolate gelato and topping it off with thick, homemade whipped cream. There are three Groms in New York, but the largest one is in the West Village. Dominique Ansel, always playful and shamelessly Instagrammable, offers a Blossoming Hot Chocolate in which a marshmallow resembling a closed flower bud is placed in a cup of hot chocolate. Once it hits the hot liquid, the white chocolate cup encasing the marshmallow melts away, causing the marshmallow to expand and blossom into a beautiful marshmallow flower. Jacques Torres and City Bakery also have decadent hot chocolates (pay extra for City Bakery’s huge marshmallow!), and for those of you who don’t like hot chocolate, Chalait is a great place for matcha.

Miscellaneous events: If you still need more Christmas in your life, check out EventBrite and The Skint to browse random holiday-themed events around the city. Housing Works, one of my favorite used bookstores, hosts a quirky event in which dozens of writers and performers participate in a reading of “A Christmas Carol”. If you’re too intimidated to trek all the way to Dyker Heights to see the most famous, over-the-top Christmas decorations in Brooklyn, FreeWalkers offers guided tours. Lots of hotels and bars host ugly sweater parties, if that’s your thing. And Food52, my favorite online blog for foodies, opens a pop-up holiday market in Flatiron each December where you can shop for sophisticated kitchen accessories and watch cooking demos.

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Museums: Winter is an ideal time to go to museums — the sun isn’t beckoning you outside, and museums are a cheap place to spend hours in the warmth. The Met (pay-as-you-like), Natural History (pay-as-you-like), and MoMA (free on Friday nights) are obvious choices, but also check out the Whitney (pay-as-you-like on Friday nights), Brooklyn Museum (free on Saturday nights), Cooper Hewitt (pay-as-you-like on Saturday nights), the Museum of the City of New York (pay-as-you-like), the Rubin Museum (free on Friday nights), New Museum (pay-as-you-wish on Thursday nights), the New York Historical Society (pay-as-you-wish on Friday nights), Studio Museum in Harlem (free on Sundays), Transit MuseumMuseum of Chinese in America (free every first Thursday), the Brooklyn Historical Society (pay-as-you-like), and Museum of the Moving Image. Certain museums, like the Met, Whitney, and New Museum, have stunning views, so it’s like you get a bonus observation deck on top of admission.

Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, it’s hard not to feel the excitement in the city. If anything, think of this season as an excuse to watch burlesque Nutcrackers, perfect your macaron skills, and finally check out that obscene mall in the Financial District.

Happy holidays, everyone!

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Congratulations, Tomato Head! Love, Curmudgeon

My brother Sam graduates from high school today and will be heading to Chicago in a few months to embark on a five-year architecture program. I’m not sure if this is normal for a sibling — especially one who hasn’t lived in the same house as her brother in years — but I feel as emotional as a proud, nostalgic parent watching her baby leave the nest.

Sam and I are nine years apart. Because of this large gap, we’ve never fought, never had to compete with each other, and spent half our childhoods like only children. I was an only child for the first nine years of my life, and when he was still in elementary school, I moved to Portland for college, and soon after that, I moved to New York and have only been able to see him about once a year.

In many ways, Sam is very different from me — and I believe this is at least partly due to the fact that he (and our parents) learned from my difficulties: he never ditched his numerous extracurricular activities; he doesn’t constantly misplace his valuables; and he found a clear passion at an early age. Meanwhile, I had a love-hate relationship with my 13 years of ballet and piano lessons; I’ve lost purses and cell phones and expensive jewelry as a child; and I’ve had so many passions throughout my life, from philosophy to art history to investment banking (hey, don’t judge! I had a cool AP Econ teacher!). My parents always did their best to cultivate every passion I’ve had, chasing after my random interests with all relevant knowledge and resources they could provide. Fortunately for them, my brother was a lot easier.

And, yet, I still see so much of myself in Sam. Siblings have such a distinctive relationship. Despite our nine-year difference, Sam and I grew up in relatively identical environments, in the same house, with the same heavily-scheduled lives stuffed with practices and performances and cultural events and too many AP classes. We both love big cities, took lessons from the same piano teacher, and got dragged to all the weekly events that my parents attend. We both dislike driving, almost as much as we dislike Republicans. It must be reassuring to my parents that even though we are from different generations, Sam and I are most definitely from the same parents.

What bonds us the most, though, just like with all other siblings, are our inside jokes. My most vivid memories of Sam involve us laughing together. Sam is goofy and clever, entertaining and easy to entertain. Laughing comes easy to him, and when we’re together, he brings out the goofiness in me. Regardless of how much time passes, we can still remember our inside jokes from years ago — the kind of jokes that don’t sound funny when you explain them to other people; the kind of jokes that our parents didn’t even try to understand when we were too busy giggling in the backseat of my mom’s car; the kind of jokes that bind two people together forever. Our goofy moments have been some of my favorite memories.

College is such a defining phase of one’s life. I can’t wait to watch Sam expand his mind with (and stress over) new architectural concepts, grow into someone both similar and different from myself, and continue to make me proud, goofy big sister.

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At the aquarium

“You’re from Hawaii? Why Would You Ever Leave?!”

If you read my post from two years ago, you know that all it took was one trip for Anthony and me to decide that we wanted to eventually move back to my hometown. After living in New York for almost four years, I’ve gotten used to East Coasters asking me, “You’re from Hawaii? Why would you ever leave?!” I’d been asked that question during college as well, but in New York, Hawaii is even more of a distant, exotic paradise, and everyone seems to want to trade places with me. Our plan is still to return to Hawaii — but most likely in the future (i.e., three or four years) as opposed to the near future (i.e., one or two years).

The thing is, I love New York.

I love the diversity here, and that’s saying a lot from someone who grew up in Hawaii. At work, I sit by a Chinese, an Italian, and a Jamaican, while my train is usually a mix of Russians, blacks, Hasidic Jews, hipsters, and — more recently — French tourists. You can find every type of cuisine and hear more languages than anywhere else.

I love that I can watch a trend start in New York and then spread to other lesser cities a few months later.

I love our subway system, which runs 24 hours a day and covers such an expansive area. I even love my commute every morning, during which there is absolutely no seat on the Q train, so I spend those 45-minutes standing — half awake, half asleep — in the corner. Sometimes, if I’m feeling perky, I’ll read a book. New Yorkers are probably the most well-read people in the country, and we have our subways (with no internet connection, for some reason) to thank for that.

I love that I’ve been here long enough to see restaurants come and go. Nothing is stagnant in this city, and though I’ve had to witness some of my favorites disappear, I’ve accepted that it’s part of the circle of life and certainly beats being stuck with the same sub-par restaurants forever.

I love that, even though most of my friends don’t live in New York, I’ve been able to see nearly all of them just because everyone visits New York at some point.

I love New York women. New York women are ambitious, always speak their mind, multitask productively, can dress impeccably for every season, and know when to put on their bitch face to ward off the cat-callers.

I love that I can walk (and jaywalk!) twenty blocks and not even notice, whereas walking one block in the suburbs seems agonizing.

I love that everyone is a foodie here. I even gave up my restaurant blog when I started living in New York because, honestly, I can’t compete with 8 million people.

I love the old architecture all over the city. I still find it breathtaking to walk through the Flatiron District or Soho and notice all the details put into structures centuries ago. On the west side of the country, things are more cheaply-made, constructed at a time when mass production became the norm.

I love New York pizza, from the trendy Neapolitan-style found at every mid-range eatery now, to the $3 slices that are exponentially better than anything you can find in the rest of America. Like gelato in Italy, you don’t have to do research to find a good pizzeria in New York; you can just stumble into the corner shop — and that is what makes New York pizza so great.

I love being able to recognize so many places in movies and TV shows — and not just touristy places on Manhattan. My street in Brooklyn, just like every street in this city, has been filmed numerous times since we’ve lived here.

I love how talented some of the subway performers are. If they were in any other city, they’d be huge, but in New York, they’re just nameless buskers.

I love that, even though all New Yorkers think they’re the most important person in the world, in times of need, there’s something that bonds us together. I’ve experienced countless instances of the beauty and humanity of New Yorkers — because in the end, we’re all just trying to survive in this crazy city together.

I can go on and on about the things that make New York amazing, but most importantly, I love the life that Anthony and I have built together here. Being so far away from our family and many of our closest friends, we’ve been able to define ourselves and learn about each other more deeply than we would have if we had been surrounded by familiarity.

I love our little Brooklyn apartment, with its clanging heaters and no view, but with shelves full of worn books and cherished DVDs. Our kitchen is tiny yet surprisingly efficient and stuffed with appliances that prove how much we love to cook. On our walls hang historical maps of New York City, and on our fridge are magnets from various countries that we’ve explored together.

I love that we still find fascinating, quirky things to do in this city, even though we seem to have already explored it more than most New Yorkers. (I blame my obsessive research tendencies and Anthony’s ability to appreciate everything.)

I love that we wake up at the same time, even though I don’t technically have to be up for another hour, and always eat breakfast together. The more I see how other couples interact, the more I can’t help but appreciate our own relationship. It’s in the little things — the way in which we meet each other after work every day so we can catch the train home together; the way in which we communicate openly and respectfully, even when it’s hard for me; and the way in which we split household chores evenly (a man cleaning as much as the woman?! Imagine that!).

I recently visited Hawaii by myself. Though it was beautiful as always, it didn’t feel right. The main reason is because Anthony wasn’t with me — after all, it’s not the location but who you’re with that really makes a place your home. However, another reason is because I’m not ready for paradise yet, and I know I’d have been miserable if I had stayed in Hawaii.

Honolulu is certainly the best place to raise a family (New Yorkers can attest to that), and Anthony and I are excited that we’ll be able to raise ours there. We can’t wait to take our future kids to pristine beaches and stunning hikes every weekend, to feed them the best Asian food in the country, and to expose them to so many cultural opportunities that only a city like Honolulu can offer. However, I’m only 26, and neither of us is ready to start a family yet — especially when we belong in New York right now.

A hui hou, Hawaii. We’ll be back, just when we’re old (i.e., in our thirties).

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One of my favorite things to do in New York: picnicking in Central Park with my love

 

Defined by Our Family Traditions

It’s been four years since I last went home for Christmas, which probably explains why I’m so excited for next week. For the last three years, I’ve spent the holidays either with Anthony’s loving family in California, on a random trip to Toronto, or in New York when my parents decided to visit me instead. All three years had been fun, of course, but nothing beats going home. I imagine most of us feel that way. Despite the tragic commercialization of the season, this time of year gets two things right: a desire to be with family, and an appreciation (or at least toleration) of whatever quirky, incomprehensible traditions your family does.

Hosting Parties

My family used to host a Christmas party at our house each year. I would go all out for these parties — I’d play a series of Christmas songs on our Bösendorfer grand piano (I always saved “The Christmas Song” for last because it pulled the most heartstrings); I’d print out the lyrics and create little booklets for each guest so they could carol along with me; and I’d provide themed games and prizes (paid for by my parents, of course). Looking back on it, I must have looked so silly — a little precocious child, taking over a party of amused adults from my dad’s university. Our guests would spread out throughout the house, settling in the kitchen (for those who liked to watch my parents cook), living room, patio (for those who wanted to play pool), dining room, and TV room (for the less sociable guests). The enjoyment of our guests was always such a satisfying achievement to me, and my love for hosting parties has persisted.

The Nutcracker

I’ve performed in The Nutcracker just a handful of times, but almost any year that I wasn’t in it, I would watch it — either Ballet Hawaii‘s version at Blaisdell Concert Hall, or NYCB‘s version at Lincoln Center. Christmas never really felt complete until I saw the Snowflakes chaine-ing across the stage, as white paper “snowflakes” fell from the ceiling. The Nutcracker was one of the few times my company would hire professionals from around the world to play the really difficult roles (e.g., Cavalier, Sugar Plum Fairy), so students like me actually had the chance to perform with (and geek out over) ballet legends. I think all of us had a childhood crush on Joaquin de Luz, so when I saw him perform in Swan Lake a few months ago, I could feel the 14-year-old in me dying of happiness.

The Nutcracker is often looked down upon in the ballet world; it can be appreciated by people who don’t normally watch ballets, and there are enough easy roles that can be performed by nonprofessional dancers. Regardless, my ears still perk up every time I hear “March of the Toy Soldiers” and “Waltz of the Flowers”, even when they’re playing awkwardly at Duane Reade.

Camping by the Tree

The tree of choice for my family was usually a six-foot Noble Fir. We’d dedicate a few days to decorate the tree, each night bringing out a couple of storage bins filled with ornaments collected over the years. Some years, we even set up a tent by the tree and slept in the living room together while Christmas music filled the vaulted ceilings. It was our version of camping. I don’t know which one of my parents came up with this crazy idea (probably my dad), but I ended up writing about this experience for my college application essays. (Admissions Office of Reed College, did you find this endearing??)

Baking Gingerbread Cookies

It’s my job to help bake gingerbread cookies. We use a recipe from an old, disintegrating cookie cookbook that my parents have had for ages. These are still the best gingerbread cookies I’ve ever had — soft, chewy, full of spices, and exponentially better than those store-bought or pre-made dough versions. Baking these cookies takes the whole evening. It involves sifting flour, using a KitchenAid mixer, rolling out the dough onto a huge marble slab, and refrigerating balls of leftover dough to be used for another batch. Even our icing was made from scratch, using meringue powder, water, and confectioner’s sugar. The best part, of course, was decorating the cookies. Our cookie cutter collection has expanded over time, and our containers of decorations are a sight in themselves: sprinkles in every color imaginable, gum drops, mini M&Ms, sour belts, etc. My friends would look forward to when I’d bring cookies for them on the last day of school before winter break.

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Ready for decorating!

Analyzing the Neighborhood

My family always dedicated a night to Honolulu City Lights, a month-long event that features elaborate Hawaiian Christmas decorations all over Downtown Honolulu, but what I enjoyed even more was walking around my own neighborhood with my dog Smoothie. Christmas decorations are a great way to learn about class hierarchy. I grew up in a neighborhood in which residents tend to be either upper-middle class or disgustingly rich. If you’re like my family, your house probably has subtle (or not-so-subtle) decorations that you’ve amassed from department stores over the years. We have glowing Winnie the Pooh and Tigger statues standing around a spiral Christmas tree in our rock garden, all of which are linked up to a timer so that the lights turn on automatically when it’s dark outside.

But then there are the other homes in our neighborhood that remain completely dark and devoid of Christmas decorations. These are not the mere million-dollar houses that I’m used to; these are the mansions that cost tens of millions and function as vacation homes to the elite who have their parties in Kahala and hire valet parking for their guests — much different from the wholesome parties my family throws! Growing up, I’ve seen families forced to move out, while speculators swoop in and knock down the older homes in favor of ostentatious estates that will be visited a few times a year.

Oh wait, we were talking about Christmas traditions…

Christmas Eve Dinner

Our big dinner was on Christmas Eve, and my parents usually cooked something like paella or grilled shrimp and honey-glazed ham. I’d spend the afternoon making a menu for our dinner, using any construction paper, snowflake stickers, glitter, and stamps I could find in my bedroom. I still make menus for every special meal, even when it’s just Anthony and me.

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One of our Christmas dinners (and my menu on the right)

Opening Our Presents

On Christmas morning, my brother and I would wake up — usually earlier than on any other day, of course. We were allowed to check our stockings, which hung by the oven because Hawaiians don’t have chimneys, but we weren’t allowed to touch our gifts under the tree until after breakfast. When I was younger, Christmas breakfast was probably the fastest meal I ate all year. When I got older, however, I would try to play it cool by taking my time and pretending that I wasn’t looking forward to opening presents that much. When we finally got to open our presents, the four of us would take turns, and one person (usually my mom or me) would write down where each gift came from so it would be easy to write thank-you cards later.

The traditions we grow up with define the type of person we become. My traditions explain why I know all the words to more Christmas songs than I care to admit, why I really want a KitchenAid mixer even though our tiny kitchen in Brooklyn doesn’t have the counter space for it, and why there is a collection of menus on our fridge — a great way to document exactly which wine we liked that one Thanksgiving, by the way.

Appreciate the random traditions your family does. Anthony and I have already created some of our own Christmas traditions since moving to New York: afternoon tea (this year we’re trying the one at the Mandarin Oriental), buying one symbolic ornament a year for our tabletop tree, and gift shopping at the holiday pop-up market in Union Square. It will be interesting to see which traditions from our families and from our time in New York will live on when we start our own family down the line.

May you all be stuffed with good food, warm memories, and traditions (old and new) this season!

Everyone Knows that Lavish Weddings are Just a Compensation

Is it terrible that I’m feeling ambivalent about my wedding?

Calm down, everyone. I’m still madly in love with Anthony, and we’re still planning to make things “official” with a paper document. However, sacrificing such extensive time, energy, and money for a one-day event almost gets in the way of something I value much more: traveling. And traveling with your partner is possibly the most important thing to do in life.

Less than a month ago, Anthony and I came up with the idea to go to Europe. It really started because I was somewhat jealous that my family was traveling abroad once again, this time to South Korea and the Philippines. (My parents’ trips are always epic, and one of the downsides of not living with them anymore is no longer being part of their travels.) Since we couldn’t tag along with them due to timing issues, we decided that it would make more sense to aim for Europe, now that our home base is the East Coast.

So, within three weeks, I booked our flights to Milan, made hotel and Airbnb reservations in nine different cities, asked my aunt in England if we could stay with her during our few days in London, purchased a couple of Rick Steves guide books, and started to order tickets to popular sights. Anthony and I even downloaded Duolingo to learn Italian and French — he’s learning Italian because he’s better at Spanish than I am, and I’m learning French because, somehow, my Russian background helps with the illogical French pronunciations. I thrive on this stuff, and every time I organize itineraries, I wonder if my backup job should be a travel agent… or, even better: an Asian, female Rick Steves. Most of our time will be spent in Italy, which holds a bit of significance to my family since my grandparents lived in Rome for a while. Now that I’m actually old enough to appreciate Italy, I’m eager to finally return.

Of course, preparing for this trip has just gotten me excited for other trips. Because our time in New York is limited, Anthony and I should take advantage of being on this side of the country. In other words, focus on Europe, Africa, and South America; leave Asia and Australia for when we move back to Hawaii in a few years. I’ve been prematurely planning out trips over the next few years: Morocco in April 2017; Brazil, Chile, and Peru in August 2017; Berlin, Amsterdam, Prague, and Iceland sometime in 2018.

Why, you may be wondering, have I not planned anything for 2016? Our wedding is in July 2016. For seven months, I’ll be completely stressed out, coordinating with vendors and handling out-of-town guests in Hawaii. After the chaos, we’ll be able to enjoy our honeymoon, which will be in the Philippines and Thailand. While I’ve been to the Philippines with my family many times, it’ll be pretty monumental for Anthony, who has never been to Asia before.

Every so often, I have phases during which I want to scrap all my plans and just have a tiny wedding with our immediate family and a few friends. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars and making arrangements months in advance, we could have a beachfront dinner party for, say, twenty people, and then jet off to Southeast Asia. Anthony and I have toyed with this idea dozens of times, but we always return to the conclusion that our extended family and friends are too important to us, and are too excited about witnessing our union.

I’ve always felt that couples who have lavish weddings are compensating for something – a lackluster relationship, usually. Similarly, I’ve also felt that those who are obsessed with their wedding must not have much else to look forward to in their lives. (Yes, I am being judgmental, as usual. Clearly, my organizing skills have led me to travel planning and not wedding planning.)

Anthony and I have been living together for years now, and the only things marriage will do are sort out some legal technicalities and change our last names (we’re both combining our last names because, come on, this is the 21st century). Yet, our daily lives will be mostly unaffected. We will still wake up together, eat every breakfast and dinner together, plan quirky events all over New York City each weekend, ride the subway home together after work, and travel the world side by side. Most of our friends say we already act like an old, albeit very adventurous, married couple.

Despite where you may think I’m going with this, I don’t believe that marriage is outdated. Marriage is crucial in our society, and everyone deserves the right to marry their loved one. However, the ways in which marriage has been coerced and commercialized around the world should not be tolerated. I have better things to do than fawn over sequined gowns, subpar buffet menus, and useless floral centerpieces.

With less than a year and a half until the big day, Anthony and I will soon bring out our wedding binder again and resume our planning. This time around, however, we’ll take a more toned-down approach — at least, as toned-down as possible while still catering to the expenses of having a destination wedding with over 100 guests.

Our relationship has always felt stronger than most of the relationships I come across, and becoming a wife should not have to get in the way of my passions (e.g., photography, learning about other cultures, trying new cuisines) — some of the reasons for which I assume Anthony wants to marry me in the first place.

There's a reason why I'm travel-sized!
There’s a reason I’m travel-sized!

Is Maturity Just Realizing that Your Childhood Dream was Wrong?

Years ago, my dad told me something along the lines of “Those who’ve had good lives tend to end up where they’re from.” At the time, I was in the midst of my decade-long obsession with New York, so I brushed his words of wisdom aside and didn’t think about it again until recently.

About a month ago, I visited Hawaii. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but this week-long trip changed my life–and Anthony’s.

Since moving to New York almost two years ago, this was my second time to visit Hawaii, and Anthony’s very first since he moved east with me. Our trip was filled with beautiful beaches and hikes, fantastic food, reconnecting with old friends, and, most importantly, spending time with my family. It was a perfect vacation–and yet, it wasn’t a vacation. This had been my former life, and being there again, as usual, made me feel as though I’d never left. The only difference was that I had now been living in my dream city with an awesome boyfriend and a new appreciation for my hometown.

During the end of our trip, I hesitantly implied to Anthony that it would be so much easier to raise our future family here. He laughed and said, “I’ve been trying to hint at that this whole time!” The fact that both of us had come to this realization relieved me–and excited me. Are we really considering moving back to Hawaii? Am I really considering leaving New York, the place I’ve been obsessed with for most of my life?

On the plane ride back home, I contemplated our decision and why we had come to it. Our experience in New York has been great, but we are inevitably changing, and as we grow older, our priorities shift. They must.

The week after our trip, Anthony proposed. We were at one of my favorite parks on Manhattan, lounging on the grass after a luau-themed brunch in Soho. I cried, of course, and said “yes” between joyful sobs. His proposal–and my acceptance–wasn’t a surprise. It shouldn’t be, as we had long known that we would eventually get married. Besides, who proposes when they aren’t completely sure of the answer anymore? Perhaps the only significant changes that have occurred due to our engagement so far are: 1) I wear a stunning black Tahitian pearl ring, 2) Our families and friends feel old, and 3) We can finally fantasize about our future family without feeling like we’re jumping the gun too much.

This third fact leads to the suspiciously impeccable timing of our decision to move back to Hawaii to start raising a family. So, why, exactly, am I planning to ditch my dream city for the place that I had been so ready to leave when I was a teenager?

The main reason is that my family lives in Hawaii. I still don’t know any other family that remains so culturally and intellectually stimulated, cooks as well as they do, and dedicates such a large portion of their lives to the underrepresented. Anthony also has some relatives on the island, which works out perfectly. I don’t know how anyone raises children in a country of abominable maternity leave policies without help from family. I’ve read dozens of scandals concerning nannies, so my ability to entrust anyone besides relatives with handling my children has depleted.

When I think about those I know who have grown up in New York, they attended the best schools and are currently doing fairly well–yet, they are almost always heavily-medicated and come from divorced or separated families. That lifestyle may work for others, but I do not want to raise my family that way. Since life in general is easier in Hawaii, raising children the way I want to raise them (i.e., attending the right schools, participating in extracurricular activities, constantly going to various cultural institutions) does not seem so out of reach. I really don’t have the time or energy to make sure my child gets into the perfect preschool that will dictate whether or not they end up in a high school with metal detectors.

People seem happier and healthier in Hawaii. It must be the sun, picture-perfect scenery, and mild climate. I didn’t know that depression–the mental illness for which one can be clinically diagnosed–actually existed until I moved to the Mainland for college. Sometimes when I’m on a subway in New York, I look around and wonder why everyone isn’t crazy. New York’s environment is conducive to going insane.

On a more superficial end, and it may just be my imagination, but people seem more attractive in Hawaii, too. I don’t know if it’s all the racial mixing, natural tans, yearlong access to free outdoor activities, or the fact that Asian influences make everything look better. New York may be the land of supermodels and well-dressed professionals, but Hawaii has naturally beautiful people.

Sure, New York has tons of cultural events like Hawaii, but everything is hyped-up. You have to compete with 8 million people for anything worthwhile. When we were in Hawaii last month, my parents took us to an Okinawan festival. The event was at a college campus a few minutes from our house, so we drove over about fifteen minutes before the event and were able to spread out on the grass with a perfect view of some of the most interesting dance performances I’ve ever seen. This is typical of the events my parents took me to growing up, and it wasn’t until I moved elsewhere that I realized what a privilege this was. In New York, if an event is actually free, there are hour-long lines, and you can forget about being able to leisurely park yourself on the grass with an ideal view. If you don’t want to be treated like cattle in New York, you have to pay big bucks or know the right people.

Also, I don’t know if it’s because Hawaii takes pride in its “Aloha Spirit,” or if Hawaiians just treat me better, but people somehow seem much nicer in Hawaii–and that feeling makes such a difference in a society in which trusting others is crucial for survival.

Of course, not everyone has had the same experiences I have had in Hawaii, and I completely understand why many leave the islands. If, perhaps, my parents hadn’t exposed me to so many great things, or I had grown up in a different neighborhood, I probably would feel very differently. Each experience we have defines who we are and who we want to become.

There are definitely many reasons I’ll miss New York. The best thing about this city, hands down, is its public transportation. This is the factor that always seduces me into never leaving the city. I hate driving and am absolutely terrible at parking; I have dented/scraped my mom’s car far too many times. Even though other American cities boast decent public transportation systems (e.g., D.C., San Francisco, Boston), none of them comes even close to the efficiency and scope of New York’s subway system. New Yorkers who complain about MTA have clearly never had to depend on the public transportation systems anywhere else. I also love walking. I walk a lot regardless of where I live, but New York is the only place in which I feel at home walking everywhere. People in other states only walk to exercise or to get their dogs to poop.

Another thing I’ll really miss is the abundance of esoteric fitness programs. I currently get my exercise fix at two places throughout the week: 305 Fitness and Alvin Ailey, both of which will probably never exist in Hawaii for a while. 305 Fitness is a dance-cardio workout that involves strobe lights, a live DJ, and highly-energetic instructors. Alvin Ailey is a progressive dance school at which I can select from an array of classes such as Afro-Cuban, adult intermediate ballet, and Horton. The workouts at both places are tough and inspiring, and I will be very sad to leave them.

In the end, Anthony and I will probably be in New York for at least three more years, as it will take Anthony that long to complete the process of professional certification. After that, we’ll see how we’re feeling. A family won’t be happening for a long time, so right now all we can do is enjoy New York to the fullest. Anthony and I followed a dream, and we’ve succeeded. He is finishing up grad school at the best school in the entire state, and I have a salaried job that gives me freedom, respects my interests and skills, and, most importantly, can support both Anthony and me. New York is perfect for twenty-somethings, and I pity other people my age that live anywhere else in the country.

With my (now) fiancé by my side, I know I’ll be happy in either place. We’ll see where life takes us.

Hawaiians or New Yorkers?
Hawaiians or New Yorkers?

The Dangerous Mind of the Unemployed

Two weeks ago, my job ended. It didn’t come as a complete surprise. I was hired in August for a specific project, and eight months later, that project was completed. Despite unemployment obviously being an inconvenience, it had definitely been time for me to move on. I wasn’t finding the work stimulating, and my project team had dwindled down from four to two, leaving me nostalgic and lonesome every time I came to the office. I spent the next two weeks job searching at coffee shops, exercising (i.e. dancing in the apartment while blasting strange music), and exploring the city during the weekday, which I haven’t been able to do since summer. It was like being on a surprise spring break.

My first week of unemployment turned out to be the week of the Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt. When I first heard about the bombings, I was on my laptop, applying to jobs at Gregory’s Coffee. My first reaction, of course, was utter horror. Boston is one of my favorite cities, and three of my best friends currently live there. After frantically texting each of them, I spent the rest of the day refreshing my news feed instead of applying to more jobs, consumed by the drama like a bored housewife.

On Thursday, when the suspects’ photos were released, I felt a wave of relief that they looked like a couple of white college students, knowing that they’d probably receive reasonable punishment from our justice system and fair treatment from the media. However, my relief quickly dissipated when word spread that the two suspects were Muslim and had difficult-to-pronounce (i.e ethnic) names. The ensuing reactions of the public became both predictable and disappointing.

After perusing articles and live stream videos relating to the event, I decided that my next blog post needed to cover this — it’s too compelling a topic not to discuss. However, everything I’ve felt has already been expressed [better] elsewhere, and I doubt I can convey my feelings in a more articulate way. Thus, I’m going to do what I try to avoid doing on this blog: quote outside writings.

An article entitled The Wrong Kind of Caucasian from Aljazeera discusses how our treatment of the two suspects reflects their identity. Just as I had expected, when the photos were first released, and they resembled “all-American frat boys, speculation turned away from foreign terror and toward the excuses routinely made for white men who kill: mental illness, anti-government grudges, frustrations at home.” Recent terrorists, Adam Lanza and James Holmes – both white Christians born in the U.S. — slaughtered many more people, but were immediately justified in their actions due to their “mental illness.”

Once we found out that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were Muslim, their religion (non-Christian) canceled out their whiteness, and they were then treated as Muslims. There was no longer any possibility that they may have been bullied at school or had experienced other forms of personal traumatic events that could explain their actions. As foreigners and Muslims, they are not entitled to those excuses. Although both had spent a large portion of their lives living in Cambridge, they were “stripped of their 21st century American life and became symbols of a distant land, forever frozen in time.” Their ethnicity and religion became the most important things about them, the root of their evil.

The article also mentions the fluidity of race, a concept that I have always found fascinating. Polish-Americans, who were once considered minorities, have “become ‘white’ — which is to say they are largely safe from the accusations of treason and murderous intent that ethnic groups deemed non-white routinely face. When a Polish-American commits a crime, his ethnicity does not go on trial with him.” Of course, the concept of “whiteness” is only relative; no matter how many new groups become “white”, there must always be a nonwhite category for them to exist. Terms are only created to make distinctions, and distinctions are only made to maintain a hierarchy upon which our society so viciously thrives.

I found an article in The Guardian entitled The Boston bombing produces familiar and revealing reactions that attempts to remind us of all the horrific attacks that the U.S. does to Muslim countries (e.g. our use of drones, our invasion and destruction of Iraq), but these constant attacks cause little to no empathy from most Americans. “The rush, one might say the eagerness, to conclude that the attackers were Muslim… is seen… over and over with such events.” When the 2011 Oslo massacre and 1995 Oklahoma city bombing occurred, headlines suggested that an Islamic extremist group was responsible, when, in fact, the terrorists were conservative racists. “Even when it turns out not to have been Muslims who perpetrated the attack but rather right-wing, white Christians, the damage from this relentless and reflexive blame-pinning endures.” Arabs and Muslims must constantly fear that their religious or ethnic group will be blamed and hated for the next act of terror.

A piece called Hapless, Disorganized, and Irrational by the Cato Institute reminded me of the fact that in most cases, “the overwhelming driving force was not… ideology, but rather a simmering, a more commonly boiling, outrage at U.S. foreign policy — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan… and the country’s support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict.” With the Boston Marathon bombings, the attempt at derailing a Canadian train headed to New York, and the ricin letters to government officials, all within the same week, one can sense an anger, a pot about to boil over. One of the reasons why we continue to demonize Islam and Arabs is because not to do so would force us to dig deeper — to ask ourselves why someone would want to hurt innocent Americans. Because then, we would see that there is a lot to be angry about. 

I then came across quite a provocative blog post from Black Girl Dangerous, called Hey, White Liberals: A Word on the Boston Bombings, The Suffering of White Children, and the Erosion of Empathy. Just like The Guardian article, the post mentions the hypocrisy of Americans’ empathy and horror. When we learn of the thousands of nonwhite youth who are murdered both overseas and on our own soil, we don’t see everyone dedicating facebook statuses to them. She takes it even further by questioning why we seem to so easily disregard their deaths. Since “all our lives we are told white people’s stories… our ability to see white people as people has been pretty solid. (This is also probably due to the fact that we have never needed an excuse to kidnap, enslave or mass murder you, which is always easier to do to a race of people when you can deny their humanity)… When [people of color’s] children go missing, there’s barely a teardrop in the news cycle. When white children go missing, it’s a national event.”

My obsession with both this event and our nation’s reaction to it stems from more than free time and unlimited access to the news. It hits close to home. As a woman of color whose mother is an immigrant, I am affected by the ignorance, hypocrisy, and white privilege that have become glaringly evident by witnessing the side effects of a heinous crime. I shudder to think what would happen to my dad, my brother, or my boyfriend if someone Filipino, Southeast Asian, or just happened to look like them was convicted as a terrorist in this country.

To somehow tie this all back to my state of unemployment and too many trips to Argo Tea Cafe, I definitely know what I need to do for my dream career, whether it’ll be at the next job or later on in life: I need to research, write, and analyze society in some way. I’m just having way too much fun with this not to get paid for it.

Ramifications of a Sneeze: Secularizing the “Bless You”

Sometime after dinner last week, I sneezed. As you may have expected, this resulted in my boyfriend automatically telling me, “Bless you.” This lead to a somewhat heavy discussion about Christianity’s monopoly on responses to sneezing — since when did “Bless you” become the English speaker’s default? By the end of the discussion, we had decided that something had to be done: we would refuse to further the ubiquity of “[God] bless you”s and instead find a new way to deal with sneezes.

We looked online to find responses to sneezing in other languages. While many countries opt for a sensible “To your health,” our favorite translations were “Cheers” from Bulgaria and “Million dollars” from Georgia. Thus, whenever either of us sneezes, the other person alternates between the two most non sequitur — and thus entertaining — responses.

The very next day, I couldn’t help but dwell on what we were doing. Why were we so painstakingly trying to avoid an overused, but well-meaning, expression?

As someone who was raised in an atheist household, I grew up believing that religion is oppressive, and anyone who still believes in a higher power must either be uneducated or has probably undergone some form of life-altering trauma. It was no surprise that I chose to attend a college whose unofficial motto is “Communism, Atheism, and Free Love,” where my mindset was only embraced. Atheism is hip, and, like the pompous pharmacist Homais in Madame Bovary, who touted himself as a Man of Science, it’s easy to feel superior and disrespect those who have not yet been “enlightened.”

I am not writing to expound a critique on religion and its followers. On the contrary. I am just as repulsed by those who blindly follow science, who forget to question the profit-driven institutions that feed us so-called truth, and who undermine the very foundation of scientific inquiry.

We owe a lot to religion. Some of the most beautiful buildings around the world are cathedrals and mosques, while some of the most captivating songs revolve entirely around faith in a higher power. Plus, it would be impossible to ignore religion’s role in the creation of academic institutions; who do you think founded the first schools in our country?

This brings me to the question: When, exactly, is religion a bad thing?

As with everything else, a religion becomes dangerous when it has become the mainstream — when it becomes too easy for its followers to disregard other people’s customs and beliefs due to institutionalization. When one religion permeates a supposedly neutral territory, such as a public school, we should be concerned.

Since August, I have been working at a predominantly Jewish company. Most of the men wear yarmulkas, half the office is gone by 4 pm each Friday, and one microwave in our kitchen is dedicated to kosher food. The company observes only Jewish holidays, which means only practicing Jews are allowed those days off, while the rest of us must work. I have no problem with this situation — it is a private company, after all, and I’ve enjoyed learning about such traditions. However, one of my [non-Jewish] coworkers quit last week when his request for a day off had been denied due to scheduling demands inflicted upon by the upcoming Passover holiday. His growing frustrations with the undeniable Jewish hegemony at our workplace were manifested in his sudden — and somewhat dramatic — decision to quit.

But, I digress. In the end, perhaps our desire to learn new ways of saying “Bless you” stems from a simple interest in other cultures. I have always had a passion for learning languages. Throughout high school and college, I studied Russian, Spanish, and Chinese, and on my own, I’ve tried — emphasis on the word tried — to teach myself Italian and German. Someday, I hope to learn Vietnamese.

This past month, after being bombarded by headlines about the new pope, I’ve had the sudden urge to learn Latin. Not to become fluent (besides, what’s the point of becoming fluent in Latin?), but just to become familiar with some common phrases. Then I had this idea that my boyfriend and I should learn a language each week. We’d start with seven basic phrases: “hello” and “goodbye,” naturally; “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” to be polite; and “yes” and “no” because we have opinions. Eventually, “sorry” and “I love you” were also added to the list, because they’re what make relationships work. At the last minute, as if life had actual foreshadowing, we remembered another key phrase to add to the list: bless you.

Or, as the new pope would say, “Saluta!”

What would Hollywood rom-coms do without Saint Patrick's Cathedral?
Where would Hollywood rom-coms be without Saint Patrick’s Cathedral?

En Pointe

I was never very good at ballet. I danced at Ballet Hawaii for thirteen years, beginning in a pale blue leotard and just learning how to plié at the barre, progressing to a demure black leotard and perfecting my pas de bourrée, and finally culminating in a leotard of any color –a privilege given to those who have made it to the highest level– and doing fouettés rond de jambe en tournant. As someone who isn’t gifted with natural turn out, flexibility, or turning ability, it didn’t take long for me to accept the fact that ballet was merely an extracurricular activity and would not turn into an eventual career.

However, an extracurricular activity is a weak term for the role that ballet had and still has in my life. Growing up, I continued to take lessons due to a variety of forces: friends, parents, and an unwavering respect for the greatest dance in the world. Thanks to ballet, my circle of friends expanded beyond schoolmates. Class, to an eleven-year-old, unsurprisingly functioned as mostly a social affair, as some of my fondest memories of ballet consist of playing games before class, gossiping during class, and going shopping after class. In a way, the relationships formed while learning a choreography that relies on each individual dancer are more personal, more instinctive than those formed while sitting at a desk facing a teacher in a classroom at school.

My parents encouraged me to commit to just a few activities outside of school because “one must develop, not just dabble”; and so, ballet lessons, piano lessons, and even art classes in the summer persisted throughout my childhood. This commitment to… commit is something I value even more so now. Ballet and piano, my two most consistent extracurricular activities, define the way I view and appreciate the world.

I stopped dancing ballet as soon as I started college — and ballet is not something one can just pick up again after years of inactivity. Regardless, I still catch myself pirouetting in the living room, doing grand jetés through the hallway, and standing on demi pointe when washing the dishes. I even attribute my ability to walk briskly [and in little to no pain] in four-inch heels to all the years I spent dancing on the balls of my feet.

Ballet is basically doing everything your body is not supposed to naturally. I’d argue that no other form of exercise or dance [for, is ballet a sport or an art?] comes close to the same level of physical activity and grace that ballet requires. Constant criticism from instructors, judgments from other dancers, and, perhaps most acerbic of all, one’s own insecurities can undoubtedly scar a malleable teen. I don’t know any friends from ballet who aren’t at least a little hesitant to eventually send their own daughter to ballet. Yet, in the end, most of them probably will — not just because parents tend to replicate their own lives through their children anyway, but because, after practicing technique after technique, performing in concert halls alongside symphonies, and setting their standards of refinement so, so high, anything else would just seem like a cop out.

You can spot a dancer a block away: her steps are more agile, her posture is better than average, and she can pull off tights way better than you can. Every time I wander around Lincoln Center, a little part of me always feels a twinge of jealousy as I watch ballet dancers, in their neat buns and Capezio bags, saunter off to another day of dancing at NYCB. However, this jealousy always becomes overshadowed by both my happiness that, for at least a short time, I was once learning what they have accomplished, and by my awe that they, in a world of bent knees and flexed feet, made it to the top.

Dancing Balanchine's "Serenade," one of the most beautiful choreographies I've danced
Performing Balanchine’s “Serenade,” one of the most beautiful choreographies I’ve ever danced

We Aim for Stability in Order for Mobility

It’s been almost two months since my last post. The shops have started playing Christmas music, my gloves and cashmere are out of storage, and everything that was flavored pumpkin a week ago is now flavored gingerbread. Perhaps the biggest change is that I now live in Brooklyn, like every other twenty-something-year-old. Anthony and I moved to Ditmas Park two days after Hurricane (Post-Tropical Storm?) Sandy. It wasn’t the best timing, but fortunately, our new street seemed as unaffected by the storm as our old street. Thanks to a couple of college friends who were leaving America for Africa, we scored our very own apartment in one of those six-story brick buildings in a neighborhood of oddly suburban mansions, just south of Prospect Park. After a month of residing in our new place, we have finally chosen our favorite grocery store, determined the best layout for the bedroom, and learned exactly which car on the Q train to aim for on my way to work.

Since many of the subways were down due to the storm, I commuted to work with a stranger we met through Craigslist for my first few days at our new place. Vehicles were required to carry a minimum of three passengers in order to enter Manhattan, so subway riders and car drivers were encouraged to get in touch with each other and coordinate schedules. You know that myth that New Yorkers come together in times of hardship? It’s true.

Coincidentally, the person with whom we ended up commuting studied at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, which is where my dad studied for grad school. Then, on our ride back home, I met his partner who, turns out, spent a lot of time in Hawaii. After a roughly thirty minute ride of bonding over our love of restaurants in Fort Greene and our disdain for the color choice of Barclays Center, it was refreshing to see how much one can share with a complete stranger, in a city of anonymity.

The trains are now back to normal, Anthony has decidedly enough winter clothes, and our apartment is furnished with the bare necessities. We can finally settle in comfortably. With that, of course, comes the ironic yearning for change. People aim for stability in order for mobility. Now that we have our own place and feel like New Yorkers more than ever, we will be leaving the city quite frequently (or, as often as our income allows). We spent a weekend in Boston earlier this month and will be in Portland and the Bay Area next month. Eventually we plan to go to DC, Chicago, and back to Hawaii in the summer to visit my family and avoid part of the miserable East Coast humidity. Hopefully next year, we’ll be doing some international traveling.

Whether one goes to escape or to explore, traveling provides opportunities to discover how other societies function, try unfamiliar cuisines, and examine various ways of life. The monotony of life, even when completely satisfying, still tastes sweeter with the sporadic snack break. Now, however, I compare every city I visit to New York — my home, at last.

First snow of the year!