A Travellerspoint blog

November 2015

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade: Like Hiking, Only Fun

New York is a city of superlatives: We have the tallest apartment building in the Western hemisphere (104 stories); the most professional sports teams of any U.S. city (8); more people than any other metropolitan area in the country (8.25 million); more billionaires than anywhere else in the world (103); and our restaurants have earned more Michelin stars than any other city in the country (85). (We also have more 2 a.m. traffic jams, adults dressed as Elmo, dirty-water-dogs, and overflowing trash cans than any other city, but this list can only be so long.)

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And, of course, we have what is surely the biggest parade in the world: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, watched by 3.5 million spectators along the 3-mile route and another 50 million people at home. Over 8,000 volunteers participate in the parade itself, along with countless more behind the scenes. Then there are the Macy's employees, including painters, carpenters, sculptors, welders, and engineers, who handle everything from dreaming up the fanciful costumes to designing and building the dozens of floats, balloons, and props. All in all, close to 10,000 people participate in the parade, and each and every one of them shows up no matter what, since the parade takes place no matter what. Raining, snowing, sleeting, freezing? Throw on an extra-thick trash bag and some hip waders; the show must go on.

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Which explains why, even though my weatherproof husband has been participating in the parade for over a dozen years, I have steadfastly declined to join him. I don't do the parade for the same reason that I don't ski, camp, hike, or leave the house without a snowsuit from November through March: I hate being cold.

Plus, I was harboring the most un-American of secrets: I don't like parades. I don't like the banners. I don't like the marching bands. I don't like the announcers, all smug and cozy in their press box while everyone else freezes their extremities off. And I really don't like clowns. Throw in that draconian all-weather policy, and you can see why I'd choose to cheer Angel on from the comfort of my living room with a hot toddy in hand.

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But over the course of 13 years, Angel has worked his way up from balloon handler to head pilot ("One of only 16 large-balloon pilots in the WORLD!" he likes to remind me). And every year more and more friends and family -- including one friend who drives through the night from Portland, Maine to arrive on time -- get involved with the parade, and then sign up to do it again the following year.

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Now, Angel is a naturally charismatic leader, but he's no Jim Jones. And so, as more and more people I knew drank the Kool-Aid and became parade converts, I knew there had to be something to this thing.

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I mean, who foregoes a few extra hours of sleep in a nice, warm bed for a 5 a.m. wake-up call and hours standing around in the cold, rain, snow, or a hellish combination thereof?

Apparently, me.

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Worn down by everyone from my husband to my sister-in-law to one of my best friends, I finally decided that 2014 would be my year. I'd set my alarm for the crack of dawn, trudge to 34th Street before dawn in order to suit up, then board the bus to Central Park & 81st, where I'd wait, and then wait some more, for the parade to finally get under way.

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But first I had to survive basic training.

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Training for balloon handlers begins in early fall in a parking lot at MetLife stadium in New Jersey, which is bad enough right there. Throw in chilly temps and the threat of rain, and I was already starting to rethink my decision.

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Around and around and around we went, learning to handle curves and corners and to operate the "bone," a plastic spool that the rope attached to the balloon is wound around, allowing the handlers below to raise and lower the balloon as needed. In light winds, the balloons can fly higher; in high winds, and at intersections where Manhattan's canyons of buildings create powerful cross-winds, the balloons must fly a little lower.

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Afterwards, each balloon is deflated much as you might expect: After running around in circles in a parking lot for a few hours, we all collapse on top of it. But not before inhaling a little helium on the sly.

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The balloons are then rolled, jelly-roll-style, back into their crates to await the big day.

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Although Sixth Avenue (which comprises the bulk of the parade route) is six lanes across, the large balloons, plus the 60 to 90 handlers and two anchor vehicles under each one, take up the bulk of those lanes. Angel's job is to manage his team of handlers to ensure that the balloon is flying straight -- not too close to any trees, lightposts, flagpoles, spectators, or other obstacles along the route -- and to ensure, through constant communication with NYPD, that its height is appropriate for the day's winds.

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And, as he will not miss an opportunity to remind us weaklings who have the luxury of walking forward, the only way to do all that is by getting far out ahead of the balloon as it makes its way down the avenue and, in order to keep an eye on it at all times, walking the entire 3-mile route backwards.

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In the weeks leading up to the parade, I began praying nightly. I knew better than to ask for good weather, so instead I just begged for not-hellish weather. I laid out a series of negotiations in my nightly chats with the big guy, noting that I'd take snow over rain, chilly over windy, cloudy and warm over sunny but cold. I slept with Angel's photos of past parades, with their vibrant blue skies and light winds, under my pillow.

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As it turns out, however, the Wrath of God is real, and my years of behaving like a heathen came back to bite me: It was cloudy, cold, and drizzly, with a few snow flurries thrown in for good measure.

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The day begins at 5 a.m. in the basement of the New Yorker Hotel near Macy's on 34th Street, where participants gather to don their costumes, guzzle some coffee, and shake each other awake.

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For those of us handling the balloons, those costumes consist of a pair of overalls, a bib, and, thankfully, a warm hat and gloves.

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Everyone is then bussed to the parade lineup, which begins uptown near Central Park.

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To start the parade, the balloons line up along 77th and 81st Streets, while the floats, marching bands, dancers, and other entertainment line up along Central Park West. Once the parade kicks off, the two merge at Central Park West and 77th, resulting in an assorted lineup of floats, balloons, and bands.

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The balloons are kept low to the ground under their nets until launch time, when the parade announcer calls out over the loudspeaker for the balloon to "Join the Parade!"

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Angel has piloted various balloons over the years, from Big Bird and Kermit the Frog to the Pillsbury Doughboy and Pikachu. This year it was Papa Smurf. Do you know how many people know and love Papa Smurf, who will chant his name ("When I say Papa, you say SMURF!") and even paint themselves blue in his honor?

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Approximately 3.5 million.

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And that was the point at which I took a big ol' glug of the Kool-Aid. Because as much as I wanted to complain about being cold and wet, it finally dawned on me that those 3.5 million spectators were cold and wet too, yet they'd gotten up just as early as we had to stake out their spot on the sidewalk, and then they waited hours . . . just to see us. The parade brought together folks of every race, color, and creed, both young and old, and each and every one of them smiled and clapped and chanted for each and every float, balloon, dance troupe, and band that passed by.

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They crammed into windows and onto balconies. They used their gym memberships to get a bird's eye view. They crowded onto church steps and into delis and 24-hour pharmacies and stood hundreds deep at every intersection.

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They screamed themselves hoarse to wish us a Happy Thanksgiving, and it was all so overwhelming that the Grinch who hates parades found that her small heart grew three sizes that day.

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As we neared the end of the parade route, I spied one little girl, whose face lit up as she tilted it skyward to take in the immensity of Papa Smurf. Then she caught my eye and called, "I love you, Papa Smurf! Don't forget me!!!"

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As if I ever could.

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Look for Angel in this year's parade! He'll be piloting the Diary of a Wimpy Kid balloon . . . backwards.

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Posted by TraceyG 08:00 Archived in USA Tagged new_york_city parade thanksgiving macy's macy's_parade Comments (2)

Paris: The City of Light Gets Everything Right

The list of things that are better in Paris is almost infinite. The food is fantastic, the wines are world-class, the clothes are cutting-edge, and the macarons are magnifique. But what you might not know is that all sorts of other things are better in Paris, too. Such as . . .

1. Cars

Americans like everything bigger, especially their cars. Who doesn't like to take their enormous gas-guzzling SUV to the McDonald's drive-through for a triple-bacon-cheeseburger and a diet Coke? But in Paris, economy is a virtue, and the cars are rightly sized for the tiny alleyways and limited parking spots inherent to a 2,000-year-old city.

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They also happen to be really cute.

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Best of all, when your car doesn't take up much room, you can park it wherever you want.

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2. Public Art

Paris is chock-full of great museums, but you don't have to spend the day indoors to get some cul-chah.

That's because the City of Light is also a city of artists, and their pieces are on public view virtually everywhere. They work in various media, including stone, marble, wood, paper, and glass.

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But only the true masters work in bubble.

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Hey, don't knock it. It beats a mime any day.

3. Wine Bars and Cafes

This visit to Paris was a work trip, and I was thrilled to be returning, particularly on someone else's Euro. I arrived a day ahead of a colleague who was coming from Italy, where he'd been meeting with another of our clients. Due to what I presume was his hectic schedule of eating mounds of pasta and guzzling bottles of Brunello, he didn't have time to make any dinner reservations in Paris, and instead left them all to me (and all the bills to our corporate AmEx). Which was exactly like winning the lottery, minus all those annoying relatives coming out of the woodwork.

Luckily my colleague is a smart man who enjoys a glass or two of wine before dinner, and so on most evenings we popped into a wine bar for a pre-dinner aperitif.

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When I wasn't at work, I was busy running the Paris Marathon, which is that mad dash around the city to sample everything you can possibly sip, slurp, scarf, and snarf in the time you have before your flight departs.

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Still, no matter how many logs of goat cheese I gobbled, or how many bottles of Sancerre I guzzled, I somehow managed to still feel at home.

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4. Public Restrooms

If you're out and about for the day in most U.S. cities and need to use the restroom, your choices are pretty limited. You can go into a store and ask, at which point you will be informed (by an employee with an apparently watermelon-sized bladder) that they don't have a restroom, or you can stop at a fast-food place and access their restroom by purchasing a water or soda, thereby creating a never-ending cycle of drinking so you can pee and then having to pee because you had that drink.

Or, you know, you can just pee on the street like we do here in New York City.

Paris, however, has decided to go ahead and acknowledge that people have bodily functions. And so, on the main thoroughfare in many neighborhoods, you will find one of these:

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For a few Euros, and in some cases even for free, you can pop into this little self-cleaning pee pod, close the door, and relieve yourself in peace.

Or so I thought.

I'd taken the Metro from the Right Bank and, after several transfers, arrived at the Maubert-Mutualité stop in the Fifth. My plan was to visit the Marché Maubert (the oldest market in Paris, having started in 1547), then wander around Saint-Germain-des-Pres until my feet fell off. But first, I had to take care of business, so I stopped at the first sanisette I found. Operation is simple: You press a button (or, in some cases, insert a coin) to open the door; when you step inside, a sensor in the floor causes the door to close and lock. You do your business, wash up, then open the door and exit. The door then closes again while the toilet is automatically cleaned and disinfected by a motorized mechanism, then a green light signals that the lavatory is ready for the next user. Simple, right?

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And it was, the first time around. But perhaps I was more desperate later in the afternoon, or just exhausted. I stepped into the pee pod and, after an unusually long pause, the door closed. But then . . . a robotic woman's voice was permeating the pod, offering a greeting? well wishes? bon voyage? in French. Now, my French is decent, but I am by no means fluent. So I waited, and the message was repeated, but still, all I could make out was that it had something to do with the restroom I was currently occupying. But the door was still closed, so I decided to ignore the disembodied voice and approach the toilet, but then the robot-woman spoke again, this time with more urgency.

I was feeling some urgency of my own, so I again decided to ignore her. But before I could tend to my business, the message was repeated yet again, and this time I detected a soupçon of panic in the robot-woman's voice. I listened as intently as I could -- the messages were coming faster now, and by this time the robot-woman's tone now in full-on Def Con 5 mode -- but for the life of me, I could not understand what on earth she was saying.

That's because my French vocabulary apparently does not include phrases like, "Danger! Abort! Get the hell out of here before you are sprayed to death with non-FDA-approved toilet chemicals, imbecile!" Ohhh.

Later, after having vacated the pod for fear that the door would suddenly fling open, catching me sans culottes, I checked the Internet and found this tidbit: "There have been reports of sanisettes beginning the cleaning cycle with small, lightweight children trapped inside."

Apparently the pee pods think I am a small, lightweight child. Who also happens to be illiterate.

Hmph.

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5. Pastries.

The chocolates, pastries, and other sweets in Paris are almost too beautiful eat, and almost too difficult to describe.

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Luckily, a picture is worth a thousand words, which is helpful when your mouth is always full of lemon tarts.

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6. Churches

The French are a religious people, and you would be too if you spent your days consuming things like foie gras, sole meunière, duck confit, and tartiflette. And so their churches are big, beautiful, and bountiful enough that no matter where you decide to eat and drink in Paris, there will be a church nearby where you can pop in and pray for a few more good years before your heart gives out and your liver gives up.

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The most famous of these is Notre Dame, on Île de la Cité. Or, as a couple I met from Texas called it, "The Ill."

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No, I didn't wait in line to get inside. That would have taken up valuable time that could have been spent on #7 on this list.

7. Cheese

Of course, the cheese itself is better in Paris. Cheese is to France what bloomin' onions are to 'Murica. But what's truly notable is that instead of hoarding the stuff like the prized possession it is, Parisians dole out their precious fromage in portions so generously over-the-top that you might not need a pee poop pod ever again.

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Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

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8. Doors

Okay, so doors might not be the first thing to come to mind when thinking of things that are better in Paris. But the doors in Paris, like almost everything else in this stunning city, are works of art.

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Plus, 10 Euros says your city doesn't have any solid-gold doors made for giants.

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9. Hippos

If you can find any place with better leather hippos, I'm all ears.

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Tiny, adorable hippo ears.

10. Architecture

Paris is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, largely thanks to the efforts of one man: Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

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Neither architect nor engineer, Haussmann was nevertheless hired by Emperor Napoléon III in 1853 to gentrify the city by opening a Starbucks on every corner undertaking a vast public works project to address the overcrowding, disease, traffic, and crime endemic to nineteenth-century Paris. Haussmann's plan included the demolition of crowded and unhealthy medieval neighborhoods, construction of wide avenues to improve traffic circulation, parks and squares to improve the city's light and air quality, and the construction of new sewers, fountains, and aqueducts to improve the water supply.

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All of that sounds fantastic, of course, which is why Haussmann's plan was met with fierce opposition by members of the French parliament, and he was finally dismissed by Napoleon III in 1870. At least it's nice to know that the U.S. isn't the only country with a government run by idiots.

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A key feature of Haussmann's plan were wide boulevards lined by buildings that were all required to be the same height and same basic facade design, and all faced with cream-colored stone, giving the city center its distinctive harmony.

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Away from the city's leafy boulevards, the architecture is less uniform, but even more grand and imposing.

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At the other end of the spectrum, many of Paris's medieval alleyways and cobblestone streets still remain.

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Elsewhere, small but bright side streets invite flowers and greenery.

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Even the office building where I spent a few days working managed to feel airy and open instead of like the prison cell it actually was, standing between me and freedom...to eat more cheese.

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But beautiful as Paris's buildings may be, I suppose none of them can compete with that big metal tower of theirs.

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11. Farmer's Markets

Ever wonder why the produce tastes so much better in Europe?

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Sure, it could be your surroundings -- what wouldn't taste better on Boulevard St. Germain? -- or it could be because in America, we prefer our fruits and vegetables to be uniformly sized, perfectly shaped, and coated in a fine mist of poison designed to kill anything with more legs than we have.

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Then again, who needs good produce when there's pies and pâté?

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And gigantic wedges of cheese. Vegetables, schmgetables.

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12. Selfies

In general, I'm not a big fan of the selfie, which is surprising since I'm really good at pouting.

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But I was alone in Paris, and even though I could have asked a stranger to take my photo, it just didn't seem worth the linguistic effort. And so I snapped a few myself, and in reviewing them I was thrilled to discover that the less makeup I wore, and the frizzier my hair got, the more Parisian I looked.

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Which might just be the very best thing that's better in Paris.

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What's up next? Fritas Cubanas in Key West, a fancy-pants weekend in East Hampton, fall foliage in the Hudson Valley, and fun in the sun in Anguilla. Check back soon or click here to subscribe and you'll receive an email when a new post goes up!

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Posted by TraceyG 08:50 Archived in France Tagged churches paris notre_dame pastries st_germain marche_maubert Comments (9)

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