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Archive for the tag “Susquehanna University”

30×30: Lesson 24: Wavy hair, curved hips

Dedicated to Emily Orner.

I didn’t believe that life was black and white, but I did prefer it black and grey. When going shopping for dorm room supplies the summer before I began at Susquehanna University, I picked out a set of storage cubbies made of white wire, a black and silver phone, a silver laptop, and a black and white poster of the Eiffel Tower in the rain. After furrowing my brow at the dull colors stacked neatly in my shopping cart, I wheeled back to the bedding section of Bed, Bath, and Beyond and thoughtfully added a moss-green comforter. Black and silver (okay, and green) felt simple, chic. Probably even safe.

For the majority of college, I loved lines. College-ruled notebook paper, books stacked horizontally, the glossy straight hair in the Pantene Pro-V commercials. As a ballet dancer, I wanted the perfect grand jeté where the dancer’s legs extended a flawless 180 degrees mid-air; I wanted a straight-edged body without muscles, curves, thighs, or hips. I respected the hierarchy of freshmen below sophomores, the ordering of the cafeteria lines, the borders between ideas. The only concepts that I needed to challenge were those that claimed there were no right answers: I would somehow agree with that this was true without believing a single word.

Over the years, my straight-lined world crumbled slowly, breaking off in chunks and smoothing into powder. And I, too, crumbled at the edges, not know how to face a life so unclearly defined, so concrete-rough.

My senior year, two-cups-of-coffee dazed into my day, I was at the Kind Café in Selinsgrove where I wrote all my papers before I graduated, staring into the darkness of my third refill. Into my coffee, I poured a dash of cream. In caffeinated slow motion, the white entered the coffee, hit the bottom of the porcelain cup, billowed up. It swirled and knitted into an enormous set of wispy curls. As I watched, the cream faded into the coffee, leaving it a smoky, gorgeous, comforting brown.

Later that afternoon, I ran into my friend Rachel Fetrow in the basement of Degenstein Hall. Still caffeinated, I seized her. “Rachel — life is a Van Gogh painting. I get it. There are no borders. It’s amazing. It was in the coffee.

For who else could I be but a woman with wavy hair and curved hips and wild passions and an open mind? The unstraightened is sometimes not meant to be smoothed. Beauty can be found in the unvarnished. I can maybe even accept the chaos that is mine.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

The lives of eight million: All about… New York City {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Brian Richards, museum curator for New York Yankees. Brian has coordinated 10 exhibits from scratch since the museum’s opening in 2009, including last June’s exhibit on Mickey Mantle. He currently lives in the Bronx and enjoys strolling down Fifth Avenue on Saturday evenings.


This post may raise a few eyebrows when compared to the others in this series that focus on global places, since New York City obviously isn’t a foreign country. However, it was a completely foreign environment to me when I moved here four years ago. I grew up in the tiny borough of Hughesville, Pennsylvania (population: 2,000), with a cornfield behind our home. In my teenage years, I dreamed of teaching history at Hughesville High School, marrying a local girl, and raising a family in that same little town. Even when I went to college at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, and on to graduate school in Cooperstown, New York (both also communities of 2,000 people), I never thought I’d one day move to America’s largest, fastest-moving, most exciting metropolis.

When I was hired by the New York Yankees in September 2008 to assemble and run a museum in the new Yankee Stadium, I was filled simultaneously with exhilaration and terror. How would I ever live in New York City? Simply tolerating the “Big Apple” would have been enough for me, let alone loving the place. I settled into the Riverdale neighborhood in the Bronx and have grown by leaps and bounds, both personally and professionally… and in my understanding and love for my new home.

Here are five important things that I’ve learned about New York City:

1.) There are many New Yorks within New York City. Think of New York City… what images immediately come to mind? Most of us will imagine Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, etc. As for me, I always thought of bustling Times Square where “The Great White Way” and Seventh Avenue grandly intersect. It’s easy to think that “this is New York City,” but that’s only partially true. New York City is also quiet streets of townhouses in Chelsea. It’s tree-lined streets on the Upper West Side where ancient brick paving pokes through well-worn asphalt. It’s Hudson Street in the West Village, with little shops and restaurants that offer a refreshingly laid-back atmosphere. And that’s just Manhattan! I regret to say that I haven’t explored Brooklyn or Queens very much… and have never set foot on Staten Island… but those boroughs no doubt offer even more “New Yorks” within New York. I no longer picture Times Square when I think of this metropolis; in fact, I intentionally avoid the area for that very reason. It’s beautiful to learn about and savor the unique aspects of these communities-within-a-city.

2.) New York City… it ain’t what it used to be. I think there’s a common conception among non-New Yorkers that NYC hasn’t changed since the 1970s and 1980s. By that I’m implying a New York City with crumbling infrastructure and subways that double as easels for graffiti artists, a New York of rampant homelessness and violent crime. Maybe that was just the perspective I came from, but I certainly believed it. When visiting a busy area of the city, my father warned me to always keep my wallet in one of my front pants pockets to avoid pickpockets. Before living here, New York City invoked in me a sense of wonder and an equally strong sense of fear. Thankfully, all my fears were unwarranted. NYC experienced a renaissance of sorts in the 1990s which continues to the present day. Streets and subways were cleaned up, new shelters were built for those needed housing, and crime rates plummeted. There’s a reason why New York is consistently rated as one of the safest cities in America; in Manhattan, there’s (almost literally) a police officer on every street corner. The days of municipal bailout requests, blackouts, and “Son of Sam” are long since over. I can walk down any street in Manhattan without fear of any sort of danger. And I always keep my wallet in my back pocket.

3.) Nuuu Yawkers — they’re not all pushy, arrogant boars. If you’re within “radio range” of New York City, tune-in to WFAN sports radio sometime. The not-so-graceful words of Mike Francesa may attack your ears. Francesa, a staple on New York sports talk radio shows, embodies the stereotype of New Yorkers that I formerly held. He gives his callers few opportunities to defend their opinions while arrogantly dismissing them in a condescending manner. This is what I expected all New Yorkers to be like — constantly blowing horns, pushing in lines, and griping in voices loud enough to permanently impair hearing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find very few people here like that. It does, however, feel like every New Yorker is constantly in a rush, but everybody realizes that the people around them are rushing, too. New Yorkers recognize the presence of over eight million people around them and understand the need for tolerance and coexistence. That doesn’t mean that deliberately ignorant behavior will go unrecognized or without comment. But as long as you’re thinking and respecting those around you, a profanity-laden tongue-lashing in Brooklynese won’t be a concern. Unless, of course, you call in to Mike Francesa’s show.

4.) Owning… and driving… a car really isn’t necessary here. Okay, now this one seems like a no-brainer, right? Who doesn’t know that an empty parking spot is impossible to find in NYC? But consider this: if everybody really knows that “fact,” why are there still so many cars, and why is parking still so coveted? Life without a car was simply unimaginable when I grew up in Hughsville, and I still held that belief as I drove my 1993 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight Royale to New York from Cooperstown in October 2008. The dream of keeping my beloved car quickly turned into a nightmare. Not only are parking spots in Riverdale difficult to find, every car has to be moved at least once per week for the street sweeper. I drove 90 minutes straight without a break one night — literally, a full hour-and-a-half — trying to find another spot. I quickly realized that the car was a luxury here, not a necessity.  It’s definitely convenient to come and go whenever you please rather than just missing a bus or subway train, but the city’s public transit system really does get you where you need to go. I never thought I could live without my car. Now, I can’t live with the car here. The parking, sky-high insurance rates, city gas prices, etc. are simply unneeded stress.

5.) Celebrities are not standing on every street corner. Another “obvious fact,” right? Not necessarily. It seems like everybody who is anybody in film, sports, music, etc., calls a chic Manhattan flat “home” for at least part of the year. Many people come to New York expecting to bump into Jennifer Aniston in the supermarket, wait for a subway with Jay-Z, or get a restaurant table next to Eli Manning. I have yet to experience any of this (although I have spoken to Rudy Guiliani, Whoopi Goldberg, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Gere while working at Yankee Stadium. OK, so I’m special.). Next time you venture into Manhattan, you’d might as well forget the autograph books. What you will find is something far more beautiful — the lives of common people unfolding before your eyes, by the thousands, at any given moment. Everybody has needs, wants, longings, joys, and sorrows, and New York shows all that drama unfolding and multiplied by eight million. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t mind bumping into Rachel McAdams at Starbucks sometime. But seeing and hearing so much genuine human drama excites me far more than seeing any famous face could ever do.

"Daily Life in NYC," Chuck Kuhn

“Daily Life in NYC,” by Chuck Kuhn


Yankee Stadium (Stock Photo)

Friday Photo: ‘Curiosity of their eyes’ – thoughts on seeing

Palais des Papes, Avignon, Spring 2005 (Katrina Charysyn, All Rights Reserved)

Whenever I’d beat my friends at the Tourist Game that we played on the Rue de la République, it had only been because I knew the Regulars of Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg. Having worked there for four years, I had the advantage of knowing the face of a Regular, and because of this, I could spot any tourist within a French crowd before my friends did by the way they held open their eyes—shameless, like French windows without shutters, trying to drink in the sight of the pastry shops and the roasting chestnuts on the square. Trying to notice people’s lack of familiarity with their surroundings—so that I could help them order a sandwich, taste the pasta salad, make life easier—had once been my job.

And so every afternoon, my American friends and I sat at the café on the Place de l’Horloge and watched the tourists, guessing the nationalities of the people who passed our table.  Tourists from the United States were the large, fleshy ones with white Nikes, crashing their laughter against the city walls.  Italians were always draped with neon-colored scarves, wearing their dark hair in a shaggy cut as they merged for photos by the Palais des Papes.  The Germans and Swiss always made me think of Rubbermaid containers, their bodies sturdy beneath plastic windbreakers and deep blue backpacks.  But then, there were the French—thin whips of people clothed in black who sliced through the crowds on the gusts of Avignon wind.  The French were always careful to freeze away their gazes from public intimacy, knowing that they already belonged to their country like a Regular belonged to my deli counter.  Whenever I played the Tourist Game, I remembered the Regulars of Kathy’s and distinguished the tourists by the curiosity of their eyes, for only a tourist would let their eyes give away the fact that they were not at home.

— “Making Change,” RiverCraft, Susquehanna University, 2005-06


I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in late August. It’s the largest city I’ve ever lived in with a population of over 300,000 within the city limits, at least according to the 2011 U.S. Census. (Harrisburg, where I moved from, has 50,000.) The University of Pittsburgh, where I am now a graduate student, has 24,000 students, which is three times more individuals than has my hometown. I grew up on a road that sliced between my family’s house and our farmland, but now, when I look out my bedroom window, I see a low city skyline. When walking down Forbes Avenue to go to class or get a coffee, I pass a seemingly endless stream of people that I may never see again while in Shippensburg, I used to be stopped on the street to be told: “You must be a Grove. I knew your grandfather.” Living in a world different than that in which you grew up often shifts your perception of the normal actions that you take for granted, such as the way that people show their awareness of those around them.

The first city I in which I lived was Avignon, France (population 90,000) in 2005, where I was a study abroad student through the Institute for American Universities. Before I left the United States, we students had given a glossy brochure explaining what differences to expect between French culture and ours, including eating habits, TV watching, and electricity usage, but none of this could prepare me, a small-town girl, for the simple difference of being in a larger place than the one I’d left. I was shocked, for example, with the different way that people appeared to see.

When I walked down the street in Avignon, I wanted to look around. Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid had trained me to key in my senses, to “be eyes” for those who were not there, and I wanted to drink in all the details on France so I could write them all into emails for my family. Look at these cobblestones! How old’s this church? How many flower shops am I passing? Is that really an H&M? The trees were different: scaly sycamore, scraggly olive shrubs. The sky was different, unclouded blue.

But when I turned my eyes to the people, I noticed an acute difference: nobody else was looking at all of this except for me. On my morning bus ride into the city, the punk rocker next to me stared out the window or looked at the floor. The elegantly-dressed businesswoman leafed through a copy of La Provence. All riders chimed a pleasant “bonjour” to the bus driver when getting on our bus and finding their seat, but then, I watched their gazes shutter back, fall inward. Observing this made me feel miserable. If I was to “become French,” in a sense, while I was there, how was I supposed to “see”? I had been told that white sneakers and low-cut spaghetti strap shirts could target me as a “tourist” — that dreaded word that equated to self-centered ignorance — but how was I to know that I could also express my foreignness by my eyes?


Eye contact in a variety of cultures means different things. In Shippensburg, eye contact means recognition and acknowledgement. In New York City, extended eye contact — a staring contest — on the subway is rude at best. Occasionally, eye contact can be a flirtatious invitation. And in Russia — as I recently learned when talking to a perfect stranger on a Megabus — eye contact on the subway is a power struggle. When on a Russian metro, you look other riders up and down and analyze them, discovering them, questioning them wordlessly, as shamelessly as did the tourists of Avignon.

What, then, is our relationship with seeing? It’s easy to acknowledge that sometimes our eyes don’t take in everything around us; all of us have been so deep in thought that one time or another, for example, that we don’t notice a friend who passes us on the sidewalk. Being so open to seeing all the details, as I try to do in moderation when I’m a tourist anywhere, is tiring. I never take more naps than I do when I’m in a new culture or a new place. A sign of cultural acceptance, or simply in feeling safe, is the fact that we have the luxury of stopping to see the details, or that these details cease to demand our attention because they have become normal.

But in terms of people, this phenomenon has a specific name. The avoidance of eye contact in certain cultures — whether Pittsburgh, New York City, and even France — is known as “civil inattention,” which is described by Wikipedia as “a process whereby strangers who are in close proximity demonstrate that they are aware of one another, without imposing on each other.” In The Art of Self-Invention (2007), author Joanne Finkelstein explains that civil inattention is “a sign of recognition that others have claims to a shared space or environment” and a signal of “boundar[ies] and self-enclosure.” This notion explains that the lack of eye contact is not the same as ignoring someone; it’s a gesture of being polite or self-preservation. In a 2011 article in the New York Times entitled “Look at Me, I’m Crying,” Melissa Febos echoed the same sentiments — that, in more populated areas, we have “train-faces,” or exterior faces that we sometimes don to preserve our interior sense of privacy. If eyes are the window to the soul, we sometimes avert our gaze not just because we don’t want to see someone else; we’d prefer that they don’t see us.

The rules are much more complicated, however, than choosing to see or not to see. In Harrisburg, there were still few enough people on the street that I could look at each of them individually and, with a brief glance, nod to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes we’d say hi. Sometimes we would not. In Pittsburgh, I have yet to make eye contact with strangers on the street or on the bus, although within structured contexts — asking for recommendations on teas at the Té Café on Murray Avenue, for example — people are deliciously willing to talk. When Lynn Palermo and I were hiking in northern France and were clearly not locals, we were carefully watched and spoken to with hesitant humor. Choosing to truly see with open eyes as well as an open heart perhaps is something that not only differs between areas of more or less population; it seems to depend on how accustomed an area is to strangers, and whether or not those strangers have hurt them in the past.

In the moment of looking at someone else, we unconsciously size them up — well-dressed or not, aged or not, capable of stealing our wallet or not — whether the judgements we make are fair. Walking amid strangers in public can be vulnerable business, and looking at those around us helps us find our relationship within the current social hierarchy. But it’s more than this. In walking on a street with those of a city or town that we share, we must acknowledge within our lack of seeing that we are not disconnected entirely — that we are still willing to reach out a hand to someone who trips on the sidewalk, to spare some change for the homeless, to point out directions to a father with an unfolded map and a furrowed brow. It’s maybe an act of self-preservation to do this selectively, but the day that our eyes see only inward is the day we miss the point of the community in which we live.

Friday Photo: Choir directing and cultural translation

Graduation choir 2012

When I tell my students that I’m resigning, they often ask what I am doing next.  Higher education of any kind is not necessarily easy for them to imagine, and I’ve gotten a few vague questions about what I’m really going to be doing. Am I going to be reading stuff in another language?  Am I going to be translating?  The answer is yes, in part.  However, I can answer to them that I already have been translating and reading languages as I’ve taught in my mother tongue.  This kind of translation has not been from French into English but from life into life, comprehension into comprehension. Translation is my definition of teaching.

The first step to literary translation is to become very familiar with the source text that you are working from so that you can decipher the meaning of not just individual words but also of complex thoughts.  I took one translation class at Susquehanna University in 2007 and learned that translating is a very slow and tedious process, one that requires much more patience with the nuances of both languages than I’d thought.

Teaching is the same way.  When I was given the “bad kid” as a partner in math class to tutor in fifth grade, my mother gave me great advice: Teaching is going from the known to the unknown. With teaching, you also have to figure out where a person is, understand the source, before you can move him further.

Part of my duties as a high school teacher included working with the graduation choir to explain music to students who did not read notes, a task which required the use of words such as “faster” and “slower” or “higher” and “lower” to explain the complex language of pitch, rhythm, and meter.  We rehearsed for an hour twice a week and performed selections from 9 songs from complete memory by the end of May.  The choir can only sing in melody, and some of the boys could barely sing at all, but after the performance when the students rushed up to ask, “How did we do?” with shining eyes, my answer was always honest and positive — that they’d amazed me, because they had.  We had translated music, which is not easy, and they had translated the music to a live audience — even harder.

I’d like to think that working as a teacher, working with a choir, and translating are all one in the same — taking the time with person, an idea, a concept, a text, and simply moving it to something where the meaning is the same but broader. Bolder. New.

Friday Photo: The Cookie that Made Me Proud to Be American

Sinful Sweets

Peanut Butter Cup Cookie

This cookie is truly worthy of a Friday photo because I only purchase it at the end of a week.  Made at Sinful Sweets, Broad Street Market, the peanut butter cup in the center is this cookie’s highlight — salty, chocolately, and moist.  I’ve been addicted to these cookies ever since moving to Harrisburg, claiming (when I first purchased one), “I think I was meant to come home from France just to eat this.”

In France, the sweet-and-salty combinations that so dominate American food (think chocolate-covered pretzels or caramel popcorn) aren’t so prominent; neither is, as a matter of fact, peanut butter.  In Talange, for example, peanut butter was available but in small 8 oz. jars for around $7, and only a small handful of my colleagues had ever tried Reese’s peanut butter cups.  (An adjective assignment I used for my seventh grade students was to write to my French friend in Paris who had spent a year teaching and eating Reese’s at Susquehanna University; my students and I sent her letters describing the cup’s taste, flavor, and texture and included a handful to satiate her craving.) When I was home for Christmas from teaching in France in 2007, my parents gave me a bag of Reese’s minis to use in the classroom, but when I returned to France, I stashed the bag in my apartment for weeks, feeding them only to myself.

Because of this, if there’s one thing that I love about being in the States, it’s peanut butter cups — and cookies like these.  If a cookie this simple can be worth a continent, it’s definitely worth your time.

Sinful Sweets
Broad Street Market, Brick Market Building
1233 North Third Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102
(717) 232-0440

Thursday-Friday: 7am-5pm
Saturday: 7am-4pm

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