Visiting the U. N.

On our last morning in Manhattan we decided to visit the United Nations Headquarters, a huge complex just off First Avenue between 42nd and 48th Streets. Word to the wise, don’t imagine (like we did) that you can get to the General Assembly Building when it opens, breeze in for a quick tour, and be out in an hour or so. Going through security, for one thing, reminds you of being at an airport—made more difficult since 9/11, I’m sure. Then there is a very long, slow-moving line since only two or three employees sell tickets for the tours. Even though we arrived at around 9:30, there were already plenty of folks ahead of us and we had to wait for the 11:00 o’clock tour. At least there are some things to do in the lobby while waiting: like seeing the Chagall stained-glass window entitled Peace, the Dag Hammarskjöld Meditation Room, and, on that Monday, a moving tribute to the 101 U. N. staff members lost as a result of the Haitian earthquake in January 2010, more deaths than in any mission worldwide.

Once gathered together, our group was brought upstairs to see where the Security Council meets. The young Chinese woman, who is studying in New York as well as working as a guide at the U. N., told us that decisions regarding international peace made by the 15 members of this committee are legally binding. The Council meets daily in private sessions and its five permanent members have veto power. The president of the Security Council rotates monthly in alphabetical order according to country. Our guide told us that, since it was founded in the fall of 1945, the U. N. has helped 80 nations achieve self-determination. Currently, the U.N. has 15 separate peacekeeping missions from Haiti to Congo and Liberia, to India and Pakistan, among others.

We then visited the General Assembly, the main deliberative organ of the U. N. In this large room that can hold 2000 people, 80 member countries discuss pressing world problems. Subjects are varied and include landmines, epidemics, hazardous waste, and human trafficking. Decorating the halls throughout the building are international gifts to the United Nations, such as a Buddha from Thailand, Persian rugs of the men who have served as Secretary General throughout the years, beautiful Kente cloth from West Africa, and a Chernobyl commemoration from Belarus.

The most interesting part of the tour, in my opinion, had to do with duties of the United Nations outside of peacekeeping. At a summit in 2000 the U.N. proposed eight development goals for the millennium, including eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and promoting gender equality and empowering women. One way it hopes to achieve another goal of reducing child mortality is by supplying mosquito nets to eliminate malaria among families in affected areas throughout the world. Since the mid-1990s UNICEF (The United Nations Children's Fund) has also distributed a so-called “school-in-a-box”, which contains basic supplies for schoolchildren in developing countries. Another terrific idea is the multi-functional platform which contains a hand-cranked generator. This energy supply has eliminated two to four hours of hard labor by women each day by speeding the grinding of grain.

All in all, it was a very informative introduction to the work of the United Nations.

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Two Museums in Manhattan

All Cheapo Snobs must come to learn that “free” is not necessarily something that we enjoy. The Snob side of us should have remembered going to the Louvre once many years ago on its free day, the first Sunday of the month, along with a few thousand others and all of the problems that ensued. But our memory proved faulty one summer day when we decided to visit Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (on 53rd between 5th and 6th) during its free admission period on Friday between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. Like us, a myriad of visitors thought it would be a great idea to arrive there right before the free hours began, hence, a line that (no kidding!) wrapped half-way around the immense city block. If free is what you’re after, at least show up at 5:00 or later. Anyway, the sight of all of those people goaded us to spend at least a half-hour tasting a beer at a local Irish pub before having the strength to join the long entry line. Once inside, though, the situation was not much improved. Highlights of the permanent collection—Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, and especially Van Gogh’s La Nuit étoilée—were swarming with people making it difficult to approach, never mind actually appreciate, the works of art. On a side note, The Modern, MOMA’s full-service restaurant on the ground floor, is an award-winner with a tempting menu, though the time we were there was a bit early for dinner even for us.

A better Cheapo Snob idea is the following: entrance fees to museums in the city are seemingly “suggested donations.” Upon arrival at The Metropolitan Museum at 1000 5th Avenue, we were asked if the $40 charge for both of us was acceptable; our proposed $30 payment was received without anyone batting an eyelash. Then Cheapos can take pleasure in the museum's free offerings, such as our chosen “encyclopedic tour” of the collection. Even though the walking was substantial, it was great to get an introduction to what “the Met” has to offer by one of the summer interns, a young man named Jason. First off was a pre-Columbian funerary mask from Peru. Apparently, from the slanted shape of the eyes, art historians can tell that this beautiful gold object dates from the Sican culture of the 9th to the 11th century. It is thought that the dangles on it represent the movement of the body in life and that the mask once had feathers decorating it.

Next on the agenda was an ivory pendant mask from the kingdom of Benin in the 15th or 16th century. This realistic figure is believed to have been of the artist’s mother and to have been used in purification rites. Decorated on the outer edges with mudfish, a symbol of divinity, the object has noble scarification marks of the Edo culture and was once worn on the neck as an amulet.

The third item on the tour was a 1500-year-old Greek marble statue of a Kouros (youth) dating from 5 to 6 centuries BCE. The abstract face, stiff arms and legs, and the irregular proportions mark the work as the creation of an early artist. Its importance lies in the fact that it is the first known naturalistic conception of the body in Western culture. It is also amazing that this vibrant statue was created without the need for a support pillar.

Then there was a 900-year-old realistic "mummy portrait" (never knew there was such a thing!) on limewood which, well-preserved by the sand in Egypt, had no need of restoration. It depicts a 12- or 13-year-old boy, possibly an Egyptian in Roman clothing. Finally, in the South Asian galleries we saw an early example of Shiva, lord of the dance, (no, not Michael Flatley!) of the southern Indian Chola dynasty. This creator, preserver, and destroyer god, seen as the center of the universe, wears the headdress of divinity as it tramples the lies of “the dwarf of illusion.”

So there you have our latest suggestions for visiting museums in New York City. Enjoy!

Discovering Grand Central

For any Cheapos out there who might find themselves in Manhattan on a Friday afternoon, there is a great walking tour of Grand Central Terminal and its neighborhood. Sponsored by, this free, ninety-minute visit is well worth the time and, of course, you can’t beat the price! The tour section of the website indicated that we should meet at 12:30 p.m. “in the sculpture court at 120 Park Avenue.” However, the sculpture court itself had been moved a few years beforehand, which left us wondering if we were in the right place. But, sure enough, at about a quarter past noon, our guide, Peter, showed up along with about a hundred prospective visitors. Luckily a few minutes later, another guide arrived so that the group could be divided in two.

Peter started out by telling us that in the mid- to late-nineteenth century “the city” was situated down at the tip of the island. A couple of steam locomotive explosions at the former station there caused the New York Central Railroad to seek a new location farther uptown which was at that point the habitat of animals such as wolves, bear, and elk. The decision was made to create an “elevated European-style boulevard” on stilts between present-day Lexington and Madison Avenues and 42nd and 50th Streets. Out on the street our guide pointed out various spots that show the effects of having two levels of 60 tracks of rumbling trains below what is thought of as “the ground.”

When it opened in February 1913, the beautiful station was termed “the newest jewel in New York City’s crown” by the Times. “Buildings speak,” as Peter kept telling us, and this edifice at certain points tells us to hurry by having ramps instead of stairs and low-ceilinged corridors which discourage dallying. But the height and roominess of the main concourse encourages the 500,000 or so people who pass through there each day to pause and look around at other travelers and the architecture, including lovely staircases fashioned after the Garnier Opera House in Paris. A recent twelve-year restoration has brightened up the astronomical chart ceiling, tarnished by decades of cigarette smoke and other pollutants. The restorers showed their humorous side by leaving a small rectangle uncleaned so that visitors could compare it with the work that they had done. Today, the spacious main concourse, which could house several ten-story buildings, occupies some very valuable real estate. Fortunately, because of pressure by preservationists, Grand Central has escaped the fate of the old Penn Station which was destroyed in 1963.

Our tour also took us upstairs to the famous living quarters of Connecticut resident John W. Campbell who served on New York Central’s board of directors. The “Campbell apartment," built to resemble a Florentine palace, now serves as a chic bar and lounge, open to the public. Please note that there are guidelines posted which indicate a dress code (e.g. no jeans or shorts), though we have no idea about its actual enforcement.

Anyone interested in architecture and the history of the railroad and the city would profit greatly from this informative Grand Central tour.

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