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I’ve been sitting in parks a lot lately, having last written about a charming one in Paris just off the Champs-Elysées. Now that I’m in New York before heading to more peaceful shores, I had to find a park just as pleasant to spend a few moments of quiet contemplation. And I don’t mean Central Park, which, while beautiful, can be as wild as the animals in its zoo with all the bikers, Rollerbladers and tourists.
No, I headed as far east as I could go on the island and finally found my haven overlooking the Queensboro Bridge, a green space called Sutton Square. It’s tiny and doesn’t have the savoir-faire of the French parks, but it’s a respite from all the concrete and skyscrapers around. I go there often and sit and think about all the naughty things I’ve done — which are too numerous to even begin listing here. I watch the boats go up and down the East River, which has helped me decide one thing: I never want to have a big yacht after all, except perhaps to sell it to someone else. They’re overstuffed. Tugboats, on the other hand, are just right, especially a red one that plows along the river doing what tugboats do. I’ve always liked a good tug.
Usually the park is deserted, which is why I like it. But one recent sunny day I was intrigued when I saw a group of young people there. One of them said, “Hi,” and I said “Hi” back. The group came over to where I was sitting on my bench, and while at first I was a bit unnerved, they couldn’t have been more polite. They had the energy of youth, which seemed to spark off of them like the sunlight off the river, and they were laughing and joking amongst themselves. There were about 10 of them, mostly boys but two girls.
The first thing they asked me was, “Would you like to smoke a joint with us?”
Now, I’ve been asked a lot of surprising questions in my life — and some of them I’ve even followed up on just to see where they would lead me (often into trouble), but this was a new one to me. Of course I know all about joints (there was that summer in the Seventies when my cousin Fritz came to visit our family schloss and I kept detecting the oddest odor coming from his room, like rope burning — but that’s another story), but I’ve never felt the need to actually smoke one. The idea of passing a teeny, used, smudged joint around has always made me afraid I might swallow it.
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“No, thank you,” I replied. They shrugged and passed it around, each taking a puff and then inhaling so deeply I thought they were going to pass out.
As they each held their breaths — not with excitement but to get even happier — they began peppering me with questions.
Are you married?
Who’s your husband?
Do you have kids? Grandkids?
Are you American?
They said they didn’t think so because of my peculiar accent. They were intrigued by it, and when I slipped that I was a countess, they became even more curious.
A countess of what?
What’s Hungary like?
Where do you live?
That one I didn’t answer. I was enjoying their company, but I’m no fool.
As they quizzed me they kept passing around the “reefer” — a word I must admit I didn’t know so when I got back to my pied-à terre I Googled it. We continued to chat about this, that and the other, and then one of them asked if she could have her photo taken with me. She handed her cell phone to her friend, who took the picture, and then they all took turns posing with me for photos.
It seemed like they didn’t have a care in the world. Why should they? It was a beautiful day, the river was sparkling and then there was that cloud of smoke surrounding them that no doubt significantly enhanced their joie de vivre — but was giving me a bit of a headache.
So what if their attitude was heightened by what they were smoking? It still impressed me that these young people would be so charming, so quizzical and so eager to know about the basic things in my life. It was refreshingly American and so different from the park in Paris, where people mind their own business and seem frightened to talk to someone looking foreign.
As we were chatting, an Asian man approached and said hello. I got up my courage and asked him where he was from. “North Korea,” he said. I was surprised and asked him how he was able to get into the country. “I’m a tour guide,” he replied.
“Where’s your flock?”
With that, he said goodbye and left us. There was no political conversation, no questions about his country. Just hello and goodbye.
Eventually the young people said goodbye as well and left the park. I haven’t seen them there since (perhaps they’ve found another place to indulge), but I’ve been thinking a lot about the afternoon. The great thing about New York and this country is that the younger generation is so open and isn’t afraid to express their feelings — good or bad — and is interested in the world around them. They showed even an old hen like me that I should learn to be more open to things and inquire about people more — not just money or jobs, but who they are. We all like to talk about ourselves, after all.
It reminded me of my close friend Nicholas Romanov, Prince of Russia and head of the Romanov clan, who lives near me in the Swiss Alps. When, a few years ago, Nicholas was invited by none other than Vladimir Putin to Russia to give a lecture at the Hermitage Museum (the irony of politics), he came out to find a crowd of about 100 young people standing there to see the man who could have been czar and ask him a single question: What did he think was going to happen to Russia?
Wise Nicholas gave a simple answer that applies to any country, or generation: “That’s up to you.”