North America

Serendipity in the Upper West Side

One frightfully cold day, we were in the Upper West Side, lured by the promise of a bazaar of food trucks. The furious wind made indents everywhere. The exposed bits. Face, hair, ankles. And the unexposed bits. So that the sight of a fenced-in enclosure packed with rows of food trucks was comforting. As expected, a cornucopia of food and people. Kiwi-style pies, South Indian dosas, Lebanese grub. I can tell you that there were at least a dozen more trucks promising lobster to tacos and more. I can also tell you that we meekly fell at the last hurdle. Queues that grew longer by the second. There was not a truck left that was not besieged by a peckish crowd.

We ended up striding to Sarabeth’s, a classic NYC brunch hotspot, with French doors that swung open to reveal warmly lit interiors. The kind of place where wooden tables for two sit cheek by jowl and beautiful old women in black clothes dine with their girl friends. Where they serve potato waffles with apple-flavoured chicken sausages and where the calamari arrives perfectly crunchy at the table. For those moments, it felt like we were on holiday.

Senses humming with bellinis and beer, we emerged on Amsterdam Avenue, the long road previously known as Tenth Avenue. Sometime in the 1800s, a Tenth Avenue Cowboy rode a horse up and down it, warning people of approaching trains that used to run along the avenue. He is no longer to be spotted there. Instead, a worthy line-up of cafés, bakeries, candy shops, taverns and hole-in-the-wall Thai eateries impart this avenue, renamed after Manhattan’s first 17th century colonisers, with contemporary vibes.

It was so blustery that to walk was to brave the winds and cower. Just as Adi wondered aloud, what were we to do then, a church with a distinctly Byzantine personality turned up on the right (it’s the feature photo), and I said, ‘Just let’s step in for a second’.

Inside, as I craned my neck up to gaze at the dome, I heard a whisper, ‘Excuse me’.

An old woman, with a shock of white hair, sat in the pews towards the back of the church, and whispered again, so that I had to inch closer to her. ‘There is a movie being screened today.’

I gave a silly grin, and replied, ‘Is that so? How wonderful!’ What do you say when someone informs you, out of the blue, of a film showing somewhere? The woman carried on, as if I had not interrupted her. ‘There are refreshments. There is Gregory Peck.’

It being one of those days when you felt like indulging a stranger who promised Gregory Peck, because you had nothing better to do, we followed her directions, got out of the church, and spotted the parish centre adjacent to it. In a dark hall there, they were projecting a technicolour film upon the wall, in front of which sat a group of elderly people. We joined them discreetly when Christopher Plummer flashed upon the screen in the uniform of a Nazi military officer, standing upon some terrace in Rome, showing his children the city that he had fallen in love with before he arrived on duty. Soon Gregory Peck showed up in the habit of a Vatican priest.

The name of the film was The Scarlet and the Black. In about two and a half hours, I was tearing up at the solid performances delivered by Plummer and Peck…as they played out the real-life story of a Nazi officer, Herbert Kappler, and an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, from County Kerry in Ireland. It is based upon a novel, ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’ by J.P. Gallagher.

The time was 1943, when Allied prisoners and Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis in Rome, and O’Flaherty was doing his best to rescue them. By the end of it, he had saved thousands of people from Kappler, assuming various disguises to escape his clutches. It is quite the watch, if only to remember the bravery of the Vatican priest with the bulbous nose.

There we sat in that dark hall, with strangers for company, feeling snug as a priest circulated with a tray loaded with cookies, fat chunky ones that challenged you to stop at one. There was an old-world charm to the occasion, befitting the movie we were watching.

When it ended, and our minds were still floating around in that WWII bubble, the priest got up and circulated some papers. For a second or two, I was alarmed. Would he start talking about God? Time to pay up for the cookies.

But he took us by surprise. Those papers contained photos and quotes from the film. The priest talked about the storyline, with passion. That Monsignor George J. Murphy, who the centre was named for, had met O’Flaherty. That O’Flaherty had met Peck and had given him tips, but not lived long enough to watch the film. As the talk veered to Pope Pius XII, who was heading the Vatican at the time, an old woman with her ash blonde bob tucked beneath a beret, piped up. She had known the pope before he had assumed office. ‘I lived through the war in Rome and my aunts stayed behind. They were such difficult times,’ added this woman whose name was Giuliana.

The priest invited contemplation as he finished up with the thought, ‘When we are in heaven, will there be a special place for those who speak American English? It’s all rubbish, you know.’ That is how we found ourselves at an impromptu film club that evening in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In a bizarre but wonderful way, we had landed up somewhere we did not know we wanted to be.

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Orwasher’s. The kind of lab that suits me fine. 
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Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side 
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At Sarabeth’s…
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…as we waited for food 
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Calamari
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The perfect burger
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Potato waffles and apple-flavoured sausages served up with pots of sour cream, apple sauce and maple syrup
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Boarded-up church
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Ceramic mosaic in the 66th Street subway station
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Sights along the way

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Where we watched The Scarlet and the Black
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Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty
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 SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler
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The redoubtable pairing: Christopher Plummer and Gregory Peck 

48 Comments

  • iwannabealady

    It’s so great when you open up to possibilities or just to being more connected with people and something so rewarding happens. It sounds like a beautiful experience, old movies, fat cookies, history and older folks sharing experiences. It’s got me in the mood for a nice old film.

    • dippydottygirl

      It got me in the mood too 🙂 So I have been watching all these old movies, and sighing over the ways of actors, the likes of whom we shall never see again. Recently I watched A Conversation with Gregory Peck (on Amazon Prime) which you might love if you are his fan. xx

  • The Cozy Pages

    I could almost feel your pain upon discovering the lengthy lines for food. I may have cried 😉
    The impromptu film and discussion sounds absolutely wonderful. You really never know where a day may take you.

    • dippydottygirl

      Hahaha thank you for the empathy. To have your plans changed when it comes to food is a sad sad thing.
      That is the thing…that life can be a box of chocolates. I never tire of that Forrest Gump quote 🙂

  • Mad Hatters NYC

    Refreshments and Gregory Peck? I would’ve made her my best friend! Days like these sound perfect to us, when “now what?” seems like a promise of great things to come 🙂 And we love Orwasher’s!

    • dippydottygirl

      Right? I love their once-off-the-counter-it’s-yours policy even more. We ended up that day with a couple of extras – a giant chocolate chip cookie and a chocolate bread, for free! Their breads are so damn neat. I want to live in their bread lab.

  • Miriam

    What a wonderful and unexpected experience, to enjoy an old classic film like this with strangers yet feel so connected and enthralled in the past. Your story telling skills are excellent.

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you Miriam. I apologise for the fact that your comment had gone into the spam folder. Reminds me to check it more often.
      It was an experience I have not had before and it was all about unexpected pleasures. Sometimes life gives you these truly wonderful moments. xx

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you Tracey 🙂 I have not been whispered to before by an old lady, so it was certainly unusual. I wish I could have thanked her later. How have you been? xx

        • dippydottygirl

          Oh no, I am sorry to hear that. Do they have a tough test in Amsterdam? It cannot be as tough as the UK, right? Well, good luck for next time. I would quote Shawshank Redemption here, the one about hope you know, but I will let it be 🙂 xx

          • thewonderer86

            I have never tried to learn in the UK, but it’s tough in Amsterdam – too many trams, bikes, narrow streets. But I am hopeful. Just need more time. How are you? Are you more settled in New York now?

          • dippydottygirl

            Those are hurdles alright. The bikes especially rule the streets of Amsterdam. Fingers crossed for you.
            I am good, Tracey, thank you. Just waiting for our holiday in the West Coast at sister-in-law’s.
            New York is nice 🙂 Though the New Yorkers would make me shorter if they knew I was passing off New Jersey as their hotshot city. xx

  • travelnerdplans

    What a wonderful surprise treat to stumble upon 🙂 I am going to look for the movie now (though perhaps the atmosphere will be a little different without a beautiful old church and a contented belly full of Sarabeth’s goodness.).

    • dippydottygirl

      Aw thanks Kristyn. You will love the movie nonetheless — irrespective of the church hall setting or the charming Sarabeth’s. Just a giant bowl of popcorn and you are sorted 😉 xx

      • travelnerdplans

        Yeah, I am sure the alternate setting won’t be too detrimental to the movie’s effect. One large bowl of popcorn, a cozy blanket, and maybe a few shovelfuls of m&ms for good measure. It will be grand 🙂

        • dippydottygirl

          M&Ms…Adi would appreciate it 😛 In London, one of his favourite haunts was M&M’s World. For me the thought of popcorn would suffice though I have eaten so much this afternoon that the thought of food is making me ill! Do scoff extra popcorn for me. xx

  • lexandneek

    Your quote “…we had landed up somewhere we did not know we wanted to be” is so wonderful! It sums up all of the best experiences and discoveries Lex and I have had in our journeys. I will have to look for the film, The Scarlet and the Black – A brave priest who did such heroic deeds! Love the photos of you and Adi waiting for your food – although you do look a bit more patient 😉

    • dippydottygirl

      Thank you for the compliments, Neek 🙂 We are like-minded people, you and I, and our spouses too, which just makes this journey grand.
      The film is a gem. Not a known one which is why I was happy to have discovered it in the basement hall of a church so randomly 🙂 xx

        • dippydottygirl

          Oh super weekend. Cold morning run followed by a big brunch and delicious cookies. How about you? 🙂

          • lexandneek

            My mother calling this morning because she forget where she put her eyeglasses and Lex trying to dodge some crazy drivers on the highway – a typical weekend. 😛

          • dippydottygirl

            Hahaha she calls you for where she might have misplaced her glasses. That is too cute. Lex dodging crazy drivers sounds a bit iffy though. Enough adventure for the weekend, it seems 😉 xx

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