An A to Zed of the USA by a European Nomad – V, W, X, Y & Z

Vashon Island

In my teens, I read constantly and broadly. When I ran short of library books, I would raid my parents’ bookshelves where I read all the naughty parts in James Bond, AND stumbled upon some terrific texts that continue to inspire my travels. One of these was a WWII memoir set on Vashon Island. I was already a sucker for islands and island stories, and fell in love with the descriptions of this verdant if rainy paradise in Puget Sound. Just as I could never imagine living in New York City as a thirteen-year-old, I also never imagined one day I would visit the most north westerly part of the US.

Imagine the thrill when visiting a new friend in Seattle for the first time when she suggested we take a trip to Vashon island to visit a friend of hers who lived there. Vashon is a sweet gem, a short ferry ride from Seattle. A community with an eclectic mix of people and a laid back bohemian vibe — lots of artists, and a fab bookstore. It even has its own radio station and a thriving music scene.  It’s a very quiet little place with a creative vibe. And as we visited the new parcel of land S’s friend had recently bought, I understood how Betty MacDonald, the author of the memoir Onions in the Stew, had in no way exaggerated about the humidity and consequent verdant prolific vegetation. It was from this book I learnt how to “hunt” the geoduck! And if I wasn’t geeking out enough on getting to visit this literary location, the dude we were visiting suggested a jaunt around the bay in his boat. I have visited three islands so far on my Seattle trips, and highly recommend hopping on a ferry if you get the chance.

The waterfront at Tahlequah, Vashon Island

Wine

I confess that having lived 13 years in southern France, I had become a bit of an old world wine snob! Since living in the US, you will be glad to know I have seen the error of my ways. American wine has been produced for over 300 years, and the US is the 4th largest wine producing country in the world (after France, Spain and Italy.) And, I discovered that wine is produced in all fifty states. Yup! 

Did you know that the first Europeans we know of to explore North America, a Viking expedition from Greenland, called it Vinland because of the profusion of grape vines they found? The earliest wine made in what is now the United States was produced between 1562 and 1564 by French Huguenot Settlers from Scuppernong grapes at a settlement near Jackson, Florida.  In the early colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas, wine-making was an official goal laid out in the founding charters. 

While I have tried wines from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, Cape May, Portland OR, etc, the main vineyards I have visited and the American wines I tend to buy are not surprisingly, Californian. I have been fortunate to have spent several weeks in the Napa and Sonoma wine regions, just north of San Francisco, and have enjoyed some wine-tasting at several stunning locations here. I have drunk at European-style châteaux surrounded by immaculately groomed shrubbery, rose bushes and culinary gardens with Italian, French and American herbs and olive trees. And I have also tasted at tiny artisanal family-run wineries that may not bottle a lot of wine, but boy the quality is outstanding. The dry hillsides and dusky scents often remind me of France, which could be why this is where I would consider retiring. My favorite wine of the last 12 months is a bold Cabernet called Sophia’s Cuvée (named after the vintner’s daughter) that I drank in two restaurants in Baltimore but actually hails from a small Napa vineyard owned by the Kalaris family. 

Xmas Tree

Well before the annual Rockefeller Center Xmas Tree Lighting, in-the-know New Yorkers gather on the plaza each year for the tree-raising. Taking place on an early Saturday morning in mid November. This little known event is truly a sight to behold and in my humble opinion more spectacular than the well-attended lighting in December. During my first Christmas in the city, my then girlfriend (a born and bred Brooklynite) took me to see both the tree-raising and a performance of the Rockettes at radio City Music Hall, for the genuine New York Christmas experience! Wrapped up in mittens and beanies we watched as the mammoth Norway Spruce was driven onto the square, carefully untied and craned into its new home on the Center Plaza. Of course, you should come see it lit up too!

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This year’s 72-foot and 75-year-old Norway spruce, known affectionately as Shelby, is the first to be donated by a same-sex or Latina couple from their property in Wallkill, New York.

 Yiddish

My first American girlfriend (see above) was Jewish and I received a wonderful crash course in both New York and New York Jews during the six months we dated. I flew in from London on a Saturday, and for breakfast the next morning she made me a bagel which had a shiny crust with a little bit of hardness to it and a nice glaze. The inside was very chewy, but not overly doughy. And the cream cheese, lox and capers filling was orgasmic! But I digress, good food will do that to me. From J, I not only learned about culture and cuisine, but my vocabulary expanded with many new words and expressions in Yiddish. Already speaking German and Dutch, I dove into this new language with glee. 

Some of these words are so delightful to say and packed with meaning (and many you will recognize) that I have incorporated them into my daily usage: klutz, mensch, schmooze, schlep, chutzpah, shtick, spiel. But one of my favorites remains Bashert (or Beshert). It has many intricate layers of meanings. In it’s basic form it means “meant to be” but that alone doesn’t really give you the full character of the word. Meeting a soulmate, running into an old friend at the grocery store, rescuing an animal or not getting a certain job can be “bashert moments”. But most commonly it is about finding that person with whom one has that “oneness”, with whom you share a common soul-root, common goals and compliment each other perfectly.

Zabar’s

In my last post I promised I would return to my Upper West Side ‘Z’, Zabar’s.  It is a New York institution and has been around since 1934.  The building itself has had the exact same facade since 1928. It’s Jewish food heaven, and my UWS Jewish landlady would have wasted away if it weren’t for her bi-weekly shopping here. The aisles are narrow; it’s pushy and loud and overwhelming, and everything is beautiful. And it’s like you’ve died and gone to Jewish food heaven, and I lived just a few blocks away. But it is so much more than just knish and babka. It takes up almost an entire block and it’s filled with favorites like bagels, caviar, cheese, chocolates, coffee, deli meats, pastries, smoked fish and so much more. Yes, prices are high on some items but others are quite reasonable. I usually first go straight to their fish counter. You grab a ticket with a number at the side of the counter and wait until your number is called to place your orders. I like the double smoked salmon, pepper salmon, and the baked salmon. The foreign cheese selection is also unparalleled, and on my student budget I went in regularly to do some olive tasting.

On my last visit here a month ago, I had some awesome tasting dill salmon, and cinnamon halvah. I have even bought Christmas presents from their house-ware selection on the second floor.  If you visit New York, it is so worth a trip up on the subway red lines to W 79th to visit Zabar’s.

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