Why are the people I really like always moving away? When my friend Lindsey told me she was leaving New York to move back to the (surprisingly progressive and sustainable city) Minneapolis, I decided to take a day off from blogging and writing to spend one of her last days together doing something New York-y. I regret how I couldn't seem to gather together enough time with my other friends before they moved to Paris or San Francisco or wherever else people go when they
give up on decide New York isn't for them. This time it would be different.
She suggested we take our day at Brighton Beach, A.K.A. Little Russia, an odd little community on the east side of Brooklyn. (FYI no one calls it the East Side of Brooklyn. 'Cept me.)
Brighton Beach is way off the Q train, almost to Coney Island. In fact, you could have your fun at both places in the same day without walking more than 10 minutes, or getting any whiplash--they both have a funhouse, gawking, not-real-life aspect to them. So we got on the Q train at Union Square and started our little journey. We were lazy tourists with just a half day to spend away, and this was the way to do it.
Even before we reached the Brighton Beach stop, we found ourselves surrounded exclusively by Russians. When we stepped off the train, it was as if we had flown across the world, instead of just sat in hard, plastic seats for 45 minutes.
To be truthful, there isn't much sustainable about Brighton Beach. The main drag in the shadow of the above-ground Q train is lined with stores selling fast-fashion, liquor, tchotchkes, trashy lingerie, processed food, and electronics. But it was all delightful: the women leaning out of bakery windows selling sticky pastries; the liquor store selling novelty liquor bottles shaped like Ferraris, Ak-47s and stacks of cash; the bulk bins of candy and dried fruit; and the unapologetically loud grand dames gossiping or sweeping us out of their way with a haughty, barked Russian commands. The fact that we couldn't read any of the shop signs or packaging and had to wing it was a benefit, like a game of "What is behind this door?"
We giggled at the lingerie, kept straight faces while perusing the selection of porcelain figurines, rummaged through racks of $5 dresses and held up fascinating food stuffs for the other to gawk at in the grocery store. What is this? Who would want this? Is it good? Did this fall off the back of a truck? I got the sense that, collectively, the people of Brighton Beach never moved past that adolescent phase where you want everything shiny, expensive-looking, labeled (even if the label is obviously fake), and loud. Where you want to fill your closet and home with stuff and impress everyone by all the money you've spent.
One of my favorite stops was a store with rows upon rows of bulk candy. I was overwhelmed by the selection, so I decided to choose a price point and fill my bag with all candies that fit that price point. $3.99 per pound seemed fair, and while Lindsey picked out more healthful raisins and other snacks, I filled a bag with tart fruit rollups, chocolates stuffed with caramel and nougat, and a cornucopia of crinkly-wrapped bon bons in unknown flavors and clashing colors. It felt like vacation and Halloween and the farmers market rolled into one. (Tip: I would recommend if you make a similar trip to Brighton Beach, you bring a reusable produce bag for the bulk shopping.)
You can even pick up some bulk coffee to take home.
We stopped at a Baklava shop to indulge in one of the great Russian delicacies, and while we were there a man bought us coffee and chatted us up. An enthusiastic interlocutor, he wanted to know what it was like living in Manhattan, and apologized for his terrible grammar and thick accent. He was absolutely charming, in a "I would never date you, but you go on with your bad self" way. He's lived in Brighton Beach for almost 20 years, but I got the sense that to him, New York City was a place that is far, far away. He was nice about it when we declined to give him our number and waved goodbye when we finished our coffees and continued our self-guided tour.
We took lunch on the boardwalk at Tatiana's restaurant, a restaurant/event space on the boardwalk that was trying so, so hard to be luxurious and coming up a little short. We could choose from a variety of heavy, serious meals and appetizers, including (of course) kaviar. I got the cold mushroom salad, which came in this lovely crystal serving dish. I wouldn't necessarily recommend Tatiana's, though perhaps the seafood Tatiana's next door is better? If you go to Brighton beach, maybe explore some other options. But for a view of the beach, it can't be beat.
Then came the best part. It was a perfect beach day, the sun bright and white but not too hot, and we took ourselves down for a couple of stolen hours on the sand. Since it was the weekday, we pretty much had the beach to ourselves. I had the strong sense of being back in high school, playing hooky, knowing that real life was approaching. It all felt bittersweet and beautiful. Teenagers and college-aged people wandered onto the beach, alone and in pairs to take in the sun, read, talk about life. Lindsey and I talked about her impending move.
Like I said, there wasn't much organic, locally-made or sustainable about Brighton Beach. I littered my turkish towel with candy wrappers as I worked my way through the candies. I bought a $5 dress with tiger faces on it, and when I tried to refuse the plastic shopping bag, the sales associate told me that it was required and stapled it shut, so as to prevent shop lifting.
But as I stared out at the empty waves quietly touching the beach, eavesdropped on the young couple behind us ("I hate my freckles," she said. "I love them," he replied) and talked to Lindsey, trying to say everything about how much I treasure her as a friend and not saying anything at all, it felt as authentic and real as any other New York Experience I've had, and yet surreal at the same time.
I wouldn't have had it any other way.