Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fashion Fashion Fashion

-Where is my dream backpack sold?

-"Is anyone else weary of the media’s hunt for retouched images to ridicule?" How about yes.

-While the rest of NY dresses like Elaine Benes, my own latest sitcom fashion inspiration is Allie Lowell, Jane Curtin's character in the soporific-addictive 1980s show "Kate & Allie." Her special brand of preppy is very much about cashmere sweaters in varying shades of beige. For this she's mocked approximately once per episode by Kate, because the neutral tones are meant to represent Allie's fear of standing out, of asserting herself, and of The Counterculture. Whatever the neurotic motivations, the outfits themselves are among the few that could be revived unironically from that decade. I'm now fixated on the idea of a beige/camel/tan crewneck sweater, to be paired with the perfect side part.


Just saw Chelsea Clinton! Jo spotted her first but didn't point her out because he thought I'd gawk. Oh, I gawked. Discreetly, but still.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Look no further: the Beacon's Closet of Paris

I suspect I can't be the first grad student to have wondered where the Beacon's Closet of Paris might be located. Given the number of beautiful things in even the more low-key Paris shops in the 100-euros-and-up price range, and the tendency of the annual "soldes" to mean 20% discounts, the notion that somewhere, there might be a cheaper, last-season version of it all was so appealing that I just sort of assumed an equivalent had to exist.

But I hadn't found it. I'd come across the opposite ends of the used-clothing spectrum - the rag store home to Paris's most intense BO (an impressive achievement) and the used-Dior shops of Passy - and nothing mid-range.

Then today, as I was headed to the train, I passed Chercheminippes. It was just... wow. Every store I'd looked at and thought, too bad even with the sales I can't afford anything, was represented. Agnes b., Zadig et Voltaire, Barbara Bui - it was like a mini-Marais where just about everything cost - and they really do seem to like this price - 28.50. Unlike Beacon's Closet, the atmosphere is less hipster and more middle-aged bourgeoise in search of a bargain. This is probably what keeps prices down.

(Still not convinced? See also this account from an equally stunned Australian.)

I was torn between a Claudie Pierlot sweater-dress and a Comptoir des Cotonniers sweater-scarf set. The latter was, I think, the very sweater I'd coveted but not been able to afford while on study abroad, and, well, it came with that matching scarf. The dress was heather-gray and gorgeous. Both were that same price, and fit perfectly. Both, however, were incredibly itchy, which meant another run through the store, which led to a camel-colored cashmere cardigan (no avoiding alliteration with that one!) that was the absolute right shade of tan, but that fit all wrong. What a disappointment (First World Problems disclaimer), I thought, that I'd finally found my dream shopping experience, a store on one of Paris's most lovely streets filled with clothes I could actually afford, and I'd have nothing to show for it.

Then I noticed that what I'd thought was a reflexion in a mirror from the dressing-room area was in fact another whole room beyond the dressing room. This one was less designery (H&M, GAP, and Zara were all represented), but no less delightful. It was in this room that I found It. Something along the lines of an army-green Barbour coat, but with brightly-colored, quilted madras lining. The price? 28.50 of course. A good price for a winter coat, but was a bargain? It's the same make - Bensimon - as the sneakers that are the French answer to Keds or Converse, and I suspect I got a good deal, although I haven't found quite the same jacket online, and some (granted ones that look more like thick button-down shirts than like lined jackets) are going for less. I know, this is crucial, but I can't seem to turn off the research mindset even on breaks from my actual research, which is not, alas, on where to find the best Barbour-inspired army jacket in Paris.

And then! I heard something about other locations, and noticed the shopping bags listed other Chercheminippes locations all down that street. It seems I'd picked the right location for what I was looking for, but in case anyone's curious, there's also a real designer shop, a shop for accessories, one for men, one for children, and a surprisingly unexciting one for housewares.

Anyhow, apparently this store has its enemies as well. Not only do I love a good comments section/online forum, but it's interesting if unsurprising to see that trying to resell clothes in Paris is just as aggravating and insulting as it is in NY.

A poodle named Bijou, just after visiting (the dog, not me) a shoe store with a no-dogs sign

Friday, August 27, 2010

Photos from my study break

Stretched-out husky on Miromesnil. In its bowl was a giant, bitter espresso.

Very nouvelle cuisine.

Ladies, we should all be buying this, whatever it is, for the men in our lives. They'd be so pleased.

Does it get more Paris than this?

Yes, yes it does. Note the Petit Bateau shopping bag.

Charles Blow deigns to respond to famed neocon Eric Alterman

Charles Blow, WTF? Have you applied for the Roger Cohen award for riling everyone up about The Jews in the op-ed section of the Times? What if, for the sake of argument, not one Jew had voted for Obama, or not one American Jew felt "enthusiastic" about him now. What then? Ought our citizenships be revoked en masse?

In Part II of his charming discussion on how The Jews have now gone and rejected yet another Messiah (even though knowing full well he wasn't aligned with the Christian Zionists and promised a tougher stance on Israel than his oh-so-helpful-in-that-region predecessor, The Jews - myself included - used our 'disproportionate influence' to help put him into office), Blow begins with a criticism he received in another big-name publication. "I generally ignore these types of responses [...]" Blow explains. What "types of responses"? What does he even mean? Critical ones? I read what not-quite-Glenn-Beck Eric Alterman had to say in the Daily Beast, and am not sure what about it would make him dismiss this "type" of article from the get-go:

The thing about Jews is that you can find one willing to say just about anything. Do Jews support the Park51 Community center? Yes, they do. Do they oppose it? Sure. Do they oppose Israel’s settlement policy? Absolutely. Do they support it? Damn straight they do. On what authority does Blow have it that most American Jews decide their vote purely on the issue of Israel, or that Obama’s policies toward Israel are particularly unpopular with Jews?
This strikes me, at least, as the bleeding obvious. And, to return to the issue at hand, it is in everyone's best interest if Obama and Clinton sort out the Middle East, if Israel's borders shrink, a Palestinian state is created, and Israel-as-a-Jewish-state is stable going into the future. Even big old Zionists like yours truly want this to happen. Do I know precisely how this is to be done? No, but my job is to finish a dissertation proposal about nineteenth century France.

Alterman doesn't even dwell on Blow's Jew-baiting throwaway remark. He refers to it as "cryptically" expressed, not anti-Semitic, and even says he agrees that Jews have disproportionate influence. What does Blow mean, that he wouldn't normally even bother with critics like Alterman's? Was it Alterman's tongue-in-cheek use of "goyim" that offended him? Otherwise, the only explanations make Blow look even less tolerant towards The Jews than was already the case.

Blow, meanwhile, has found a warped way of looking at numbers that can be interpreted in a warped way to mean that even lefty American Jews are just these massive anti-Muslim bigots, hovering somewhere to the right of Sarah Palin, more loyal to Likud than the good ol' U S of A. See, if you tilt the graph upside down and read it from a headstand, or maybe while doing a cartwheel, you'll clearly see that Jews hate Obama on a visceral level and are only pretending to be Americans while cabalistically gathering support for a Greater Israel that will extend light-years beyond your wildest imagination.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

And the Nobel Prize for Taking One's Coffee Black goes to...

I couldn't resist the comments to the coffee piece. All 139 of them. Why oh why are comments now closed? This could provide endless entertainment for those of us who are, against their will, without television and out of the Hulu zone.

Many of the commenters, I was relieved to hear, simply loved their vacations to Rome. (The cringe-inducing Europhilia of NYT commenters makes me ashamed to be typing this from a garret-type apartment in Paris while I sip a glass of Cahors, waiting for a giant artichoke to steam.) There's gratuitous and frankly offensive bashing of young people, the unemployed, and parents of small children, none of whom the Romanophiles (I guess not Romaphiles?) believe should be allowed to to take coffee outside the privacy of their own homes. There are the oblivious Mr. Sweatpantses convinced that Technology, and not their own lack of charm, is why the young people in the coffee shop won't start up conversations with them.

But, best of all, there's the inevitable That Guy (or maybe That Girl) who takes his coffee black and is therefore Sartre: "Nothing worse than standing on line behind a bunch of people ordering some half-caff, skinny, flavored, iced, blended, 32 oz. monstrosity (with whipped cream) when all I want is a cup of regular coffee or a single espresso."

You're right. In the entire range of human experience, there is nothing worse than having to wait five extra minutes for a beverage you could easily and cheaply have made for yourself at home.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cafés to NYers: get your own damn wifi, chairs

Rather than taking the bait and responding to the 20-something article, I'm saving my rant for another NYT trend piece: coffee bars in NY have decided it's too pedestrian and bourgeois to have seats. And so, in keeping with their Victorian-hipster image, they've invested in mutton-chops and vests for the staff rather than wireless.

Not sure why the Stumptown in Ace - which happens to have the city's best iced coffee - is included in the piece. Yes, the coffee's served at a bar, but anyone who wants to can take that coffee to the adjacent, comfy-seat-filled hotel lobby, get a wifi code from the front desk, and park. Meanwhile, I'm not shocked that Café Grumpy - home of the $12 coffee and regular coffee drinks so expensive that I once went to their Park Slope location after tutoring nearby, judged that the iced coffee would set me even for the day, and left empty-handed - is on the new-ways-to-rip-off-the-gullible bandwagon.

It's reasonable, on their end, that coffee places wouldn't want patrons to hog seats for hours on end for the price of a $1.50 coffee, and it's annoying for their other patrons when Mr. Sweatpants is checking his Facebook account for the 50th time from one of the place's three tables. Why can't they just come out and say this?

Instead, it's all about how "Italian" and "convivial" it is to not be able to sit down while having a coffee. Which is such a load of bunk. It's much cheaper in Paris to get a coffee at the bar (where there are often, I should note, comfortable enough bar stools that if you're alone you might as well), and of the many, many, many, many, many, many such coffees I've had in that situation, I've witnessed minimal conviviality, and not been involved in any personally. Your chances of ending up in a random conversation are greater while walking down the street, or in the allegedly silent areas of the BNF. Nor would I want to make plans with people to meet up just so that we could stand for three minutes, have a coffee, and leave.

To be fair, it's a tough concept to sell: 'Here, please, keep spending $4 on your lattes, but be uncomfortable while doing so.' They can't exactly market it as a return to a slower-paced existence, because it's all about getting customers to leave as soon as possible. And the difference between outside-coffee and brewing some at home is mostly the atmosphere - remove that and why, exactly, are we going to coffee shops in the first place? Drinking coffee at a bar is just a more awkward version of getting one to go. The only possible advantage I can see is that it means fewer disposable paper cups.

What I predict - and you heard it hear first - is that New Yorkers will be seeing coffee shop patrons, laptops open at the coffee bar, trying desperately to pick up a signal from nearby apartments.

Breasts and France

I know next to nothing about French fashion designer Isabel Marant. She is either married to or having an Affair with a handbag designer named Dreyfuss, and her name looks like it would look pretty on a label. That was all I knew, until Clementine and I spotted a plain white cotton crewneck t-shirt - the kind of shirt everyone has somewhere in the drawer, but more washed-out-looking than most - going for (wait for it) 90 euros, with Marant's pretty name affixed to the label. Ah, but it is a Marant!

And now this: "Big breasts and lips. No! I hate those girls." Fear not - speaking on behalf of "those girls," we're not going to be squeezing our busts into your $114.29 undershirts, no way, no how.


Moving along from my new favorite person, there's this, from a very neurotic article in the Daily Mail:

'Breasts are a challenge,' one young male London designer told me last season. 'They spoil the line of a dress, they make jackets difficult to fit, they make a girl look fat.' He spat that last bit. over the past few seasons, we have had the cult of the skinny French girl or, as Vogue calls it, 'the Balenciaga body'.

But what is it about the French and breasts? Why is the frump-skank dichotomy so much more pronounced here than back home? Is the subtle, insouciant (French for "effortless," English for "effortless in the French manner"), gamine charm of the French woman nothing more exciting than, she hasn't got giant tits being thrown in your face while you talk to her? Is it that they're an "ethnic" feature? The belle Juive and Africaine both have, at least in myth, more going on curve-wise than their unhyphenated counterparts. Why are the only women I can picture who fit this ideal not even French? Marion Cotillard, possibly the best-known young French actress today, isn't squeezing into any of those Marant t-shirts, either.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

BNF unplugged

Explain me this: why does the BNF provide Internet for half its patrons at a given time? All would be nice, none I could at least get my head around, but half? The library, which has no wireless officially or otherwise, offers one cable at the center of every two seats that face each other. This might be hard to imagine, but sometimes people sitting on opposite sides of each other both want to use that cord. I know, the world's a strange place. When this happens, there's a scramble - polite or otherwise. Sometimes an adjacent empty seat has a free cable, but seats don't remain empty for long, and the person official meant to be in that seat may want to return, for the cord or for the principle of the thing. (If one is really desperate to check email, and willing to contend with a French keyboard and an international array of germs, there are always the work-stations.)

What I want to know is, is there some practical reason for this? Like that the system would crash if more people were on it? Or is the idea that this way, at least half the people at the library have to be there just for the books?

When anti-anti-Semitism goes wrong

In a 1930 biography of Heine, where the author wrote that Heine was able be a poet but not any other kind of artist, coming as he did from a "race nulle en musique ou en arts plastiques," a previous reader crossed out everything I quote starting with "nulle" and added in the margin: "idiot!" At least this was done in pencil, so as vigorously as my predecessor tried to cross the words out, it's clear what was idiotic.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The wide world of accessories: a fashion roundup

-Cos is like Uniqlo but chicer, pricier, and not available in the US. Why must such a place exist? Why must I know about it? It's dangerously near the Archives Nationales, where I'll be headed soon to look at some letters I had to get special permission to consult. However! I'm saving up for The Sunglasses, assuming they fit and are otherwise everything I've hoped for once I try them on, which a fermeture annuelle has thus far prevented from happening. Well, I'm sort of saving up - I got sidetracked with the rain boots (necessity) and succumbing to a 15-euro marché scarf (frivolity). Sometimes I want to be the kind of person who buys a few items, but beautifully-made ones. But maybe this isn't the kind of change worth making while also having an unfavorable currency to contend with.

-I took The Hat out for its longest spin yet:

I felt slightly silly with the giant thing, but figured that for 8 euros, the variety and amusement it provides - not to mention the added sun protection - made it worth it. And Clementine wasn't ashamed to be seen with me in it, which is something. Then I saw the following hat in a store window. The store was, I noted, Yves Saint Laurent. My hat is not only not shameful, not only a bargain at what I'm going to call for the sake of argument $10, but The Next Big Thing. Et voilà:

-Thanks to Tavi, I see that there's no need for me to start an "Astronomie" clothing line. This would put me 100% on Team Tavi, were it not for this post celebrating model-off-duty style. She acknowledges that the genre is played-out, but misses why model-off-duty is bunk. It's not (well, not just) that models are celebrated for stepping out of the house in a t-shirt and jeans. Far from liberating those over 16 or above 100 pounds to dress adventurously, images of models managing to pull off outrageous get-ups send the message that anyone but a model should stick to neutral basics and leave Style to those with no thighs to speak of.  And don't get me started (again) on how experimentation-with-dress gets limited when one has a bust to contend with. I hate to over-ascribe an author's choices to her biography, but I can't help but thinking this naivete has something to do with Tavi being six months old. A prodigy, but still a child, too young to know first-hand what age does to wacky outfits. I'm all in favor of dressing however you please at any age, and fully intend to go neon once my hair goes gray, but the fact of the matter is, what comes across as quirky-cute on a model will look eccentric-aunt on anyone else.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Spotted in a pharmacy window:

Gobineau would have had a field day.

Oh, and for those who don't read French, "race" when used in reference to dogs just means "breed," although it means "race" when referring to people. The other poster, however, is explaining that non-white women have "more demanding" skin.

Charles Blow on Jews' disproportionate influence:

"While Jews are only 2 percent of the United States population, their influence outweighs their proportion."

Are we just going to let this one slide? Influence defined how, exactly? Charles Blow doesn't elaborate. Is it our moneybags, our secret meetings, or the way we're able to steer foreign policy in one direction or another through the very force of our noses?

It's 100% possible to write a column praising Obama for being tough on Israel without resorting to anti-Semitism. Blow's latest column gets within one sentence of that goal.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The WWPD Guide to Paris, Part I of ?

-The Batignolles organic food market: Pricey like the Raspail one, but not quite so full of kitchen-free but camera-happy tourists in search of Rustic French Fruit. (Disclaimer: I took pictures of rustic vegetables when I had no kitchen to prepare it in while on study abroad.) I'm an organics sceptic/agnostic, but it's the only true street market within walking distance (loosely defined) of my apartment, and whatever has or hasn't been done to these fruits and vegetables, they're delicious. There's also a woman who sells gorgeous rich-hippie clothes. Not really my style, but the scarves are exactly the kind of scarves one ought to return from a trip to France with. They are also 15 euros, and when faced with the choice of 15 euros worth of produce and a gorgeous scarf, I, apparently, choose the produce.

-The 7th Arrondissement, plus the parts of the 6th that seem like the 7th: This is the location of my fantasy apartment. It's tucked away in a courtyard, and comes with a whole new wardrobe to match. It is Paris-Is-Pretty Paris, unapologetically so. It isn't Real Paris of the Real Parisians, with gritty working-class authenticity. It's just nice, in that you're-in-Paris-why-not-see-what-Paris-does-best-even-if-the-equivalent-neighborhood-back-home-would-put-you-to-sleep kind of way. The buildings are pretty, the people are pretty, and where to begin re: the accessories. The danger of shopping in this area is less that stuff costs more - which it does - and more that you can never know for sure if you're admiring the thing itself or the setting. A good trick is to picture yourself wearing whatever it is to the supermarket back home, in, literally and figuratively, a different light. (If you're from NY, picture the light in a Duane Reade.) If you still want it, and it costs less than The Apartment, then you can consider it.

-The 15th Arrondissement: I had a vague recollection that there was nothing there, but after running low on new neighborhoods to explore, I ended up on the Rue du Commerce, which is the most accurately named shopping street I can think of. What's special about this street/neighborhood is that it's wealthy enough that people there shop enthusiastically, yet not so upscale as to become a ghost town in August. As in, it's the usual lineup of Monoprix, 39-euro sandals, and fromageries, but for whatever reason, it has the feel of a provincial town, even with the Eiffel Tower being right there.

-Tiny artisanal shops with beautiful things I want want want: Such as. And also. Despite being in principle against the fetishization of "Made in Whichever Romantic-Sounding Western-European Country," and despite reading an article for a course in the fall about how the source of French anti-Semitism in the 1930s was small shopkeepers who used concepts like "artisanal" and "craftsmanship" as a way of saying they wanted the Jews gone, I am, when confronted with them, a sucker for boutiques filled with stunning, classic accessories of the sort you can't get at Zara or H&M. See also: my attitude towards organic food markets in theory, in practice. And the 1930s, that was ages ago.

-The Rue Varenne Pain Quotidien: The Belgian-chain-that-isn't-really-like-Belgian-food-but-does-in-fact-come-from-Belgium is not one I usually seek out in NY. But it has several advantages in Paris. For example, say you want to eat lunch at 3:30, and alone. Lunch in Paris is meant to be consumed either with a crowd at 12:30 sharp, or hush-hush in a corner somewhere, in the form of a utilitarian sandwich. But what if you've just started a really long novel, haven't gotten breakfast or lunch yet, and are ready to park yourself? There, the fact that I came in alone and at an off hour wasn't questioned, nor was my choice to order off the (cheaper, yet still substantial) "accompaniments" section of the menu. I also ordered a "café frappé," which was a lukewarm iced black coffee (milk being more than a euro extra) with a couple glaçons as garnish, but it was my own damn fault, since I'd asked what this drink would be, and had been forewarned that nothing resembling a Tel Aviv iced blended coffee was in store.

-La Roche Posay nail polish in Beige Rosé: The perfect generic nail polish color - and I mean it in a good way. I put it on Monday night and here we are Thursday and it looks just about the same. This much could not be said for my fourth-ever manicure, which I got back in NY, which cost a fortune (I was feeling paranoid about hepatitis, and so opted for a reportedly sanitary salon filled with the kind of Tribecans who wouldn't risk anything), and which bubbled and chipped shortly thereafter. The polish was seven-something euros at a pharmacy that claimed to have low prices, is more elsewhere, but is at any rate still within the drugstore-makeup price range, such as it exists in Paris.

-The Seine: Standing on one of the bridges near the center, and looking west towards the Eiffel Tower. No, it doesn't get old.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Noble fight against half-Jews meets setback

Well I'm sure out of the loop! An anonymous commenter has just alerted us to the fact that Oranim leader Momo, he of the "make Jewish babies" refrain,* had to leave Birthright Israel because... they didn't like that he asked participants to make Jewish babies, or that he did so insinuating that it would be all right by him, if not preferable, for those babies to be made by 18-year-olds, with perfect strangers, during the 10-day trip. (See also.) Apparently Birthright also objected to Momo's demand that Jews make aliyah. Which is strange - I don't remember him saying much about Israel in particular, just that he wanted Jews having sex ASAP with absolutely straight-up anyone else so long as that person was Jewish. In fact, I wanted to hear more about Israel. I was ready for all the Zionist propaganda they wanted to throw at me. But instead, it was all about Momo's natalist vision for the Jews.

Ugh, Momo, and everything he stands for. Good to hear his 'Birthright alternative' is failing. To those who care about the integrity of Judaism, otherwise known as strictly following Jewish law, or keeping out ferners, or however you want to look at it, say what you will, but you don't get to be super-specific about Who Counts As A Jew and get to care about numbers. If you want numbers, consider possibilities that have a chance of making more Jews in the world, such as, oh, I don't know, making conversion to Judaism non-impossible, and making it so that once through the conversion process, new Jews don't have to learn that they don't count as Jewish at all according to the state of Israel. These things could happen. Whereas convincing Jewish coeds to start popping 'em out All For the Cause, persuading Jews of both sexes to ignore 99% of the people they meet as potential romantic partners because assimilation is bad, mmkay, these are not practical approaches to anything. Momo, if you want non-observant Diaspora Jews to marry in, your options are either to create a massive new wave of anti-Semitism, such that non-Jews are no longer willing to get within 500 feet of our kind, or to clone Paul Rudd and Natalie Portman (or, for the Portnoys, Bar Refaeli) en masse, and offer them free of charge.

Oh, oh! And I love the comment from a Brooklyn woman, from the Haaretz piece: "'If someone has a non-Jewish partner, that's their problem.'" How... tolerant.

*Lest anyone want the full story of my objections to the Momo method of introducing Diaspora Jews to Israel, click on the Jewish babies tag here, along with here and here.

On polygamy and assimilation

Grad school is, as I mention below, all about delayed gratification. The slow-motion process of research itself, of interpreting the findings into something another human being might possibly understand or care about, of applying for grad school itself, then grants, then (dare I say it) jobs. So it was kind of exciting to see that the fact that I spend day in, day out researching 19th century assimilation; trying to frame that research in a way that might make sense to someone who isn't me and hasn't read that particular microfiche; and attempting to figure out how whatever it is I've found will translate into a dissertation or (a girl can dream) a career; has led to my having something akin to authoritah on the topic.

But for France, not the US. So while I can't (without reading up on it) offer my own take, in response to Douthat or anyone else, on the particularities of Teddy Roosevelt's thoughts on eugenics, I can weigh in on the more general question of what it means to be "pro-assimilation." Here goes...

Oh, and a disclaimer: I go on and on, but the main part of my answer to MSI, Fuzzy Face, and Douthat is in bold below.

First, let's get this out of the way: individuals aren't (often) purely progressive or purely traditionalist, purely Constitutionalist or culturalist, however we're looking at this question. And what might have counted one way in one era probably looks different or the next. And individuals tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum. Pardon my French, but Zola, hero of the Dreyfus Affair, wrote a not-so-flattering novel about Jewish bankers, while anti-Dreyfusard hero of right-wing nationalism Barrès had a moment of post-WWI epiphany that Jews can be French after all.

Anyway, there are not Two Americas, but the necessities of conceptualization are what they are. I don't think it makes sense to dismiss my argument - or Douthat's, for that matter - simply because we didn't, in the course of a short article or post account for this diversity. A generous reading of either of us assumes that anyone with half a brain knows that people come in more than two 'types.' I'm not a fan of the trend in academic writing to equivocate as though nuance means never arriving at an argument. So, these are just arguments, without which there'd be no discussion.

Also obvious, but missing so far from the discussion: assimilation goes both ways. Much of America's specific culture relates to where our population came from. Pizza, rap, words like "schlep," these owe nothing to the Noble Anglo-Saxon Tradition. This is all partly an argument over whether we're calling aspects of our culture that we can trace to WASPs superior to ones with different roots.

MSI, I will now get to the pressing question of Mormons. I'm not sure how that much fits into the topic of assimilation, as opposed to, I don't know, rule of law? Mormons had not been doing things the way they had since time immemorial, nor were their cultural (esp. marital) particularities specific to a different ethnic or racial background, as you point out. So however harsh the government was with Mormons, the goal was getting a bunch of people 'like us' to stop rebelling and being different and return to being 'like us.' Unless there's an aspect to this episode that I'm unaware of, I'm assuming a Mormon who refused to be polygamous went on to be accepted (as in, not oppressed, not not mocked - even WASPs are mocked) in mainstream America, and that a Mormon who converted to mainline Protestantism would have simply morphed into a undifferentiated Real American. The issue with Mormons was, I'm thinking, not terribly unlike that with Protestants in France - the 'problem' was their behavior, but they were a conversion away from unhyphenatedness.

As a point of comparison, take Napoleon's insistence on assembling a formal committee of French-Jewish leaders, over a decade after French Jews has been legally French, and asking them in all seriousness whether Jews practice polygamy. In terms of the absurdity of the question, imagine asking a bunch of Jews on the Upper West Side in 1990 whether they practice polygamy. That the Jews explained that they were monogamous ultimately failed to convince Napoleon, who went on first to convene another official meeting of Jews, because one can never be too sure, and ask them the same thing, and then, upon receiving yet another satisfactory answer, decided to go ahead anyway and create a law of exception discriminating against most of France's Jews, effectively revoking their newly-won citizenship. This episode, too, was about assimilation and the incompatibility of polygamy with Western modernity. But here, "polygamy" was not the practice of having multiple wives, but a pretext given for exclusion of a population that was, in its way, very much in favor of assimilating.

This diversion into my narrow area of expertise is to point out that demands of assimilation come in two forms. (Or infinite forms - if you'd prefer to do so, think of it as a spectrum.) On one side are demands that could easily enough be met, even if there's resistance at first: requests like 'don't be polygamous' or 'speak English' or 'attend public school' or 'get rid of that impossible-to-pronounce last name' are impositions of Western ideals, etc., etc., but can be met by all, assuming social exclusion doesn't stand in their way. A postcolonial studies prof might not like it - and I might not like it either, raging lefty I apparently am - but these need to be categorized differently from unmeetable requests. By this I mean demands that aren't so much demands as they are assertions that They will always-and-forever be too different. Examples: 'don't be from a religious tradition that was polygamous in biblical times,' 'don't have dark skin,' or 'marry into the general population at a time when the general population isn't open to marrying minorities in the first place.'* Any demand that asks someone to change something they can't - either because the trait is immutable or because social exclusion is too great of an obstacle - isn't so much about offering conditions for how to become an American as it is about asserting the eternal non-belonging of certain groups of Americans. Who does and doesn't belong is constantly shifting - again, because a Mayflower-only request wouldn't yield a whole lot - but the principle itself stays constant.

Finally, to return to Douthat's argument, what I understand it to be, and why I'm still not buying it. This will, I think, address MSI and Fuzzy Face as well. If what Douthat were saying was simply that various measures - insistence that immigrants speak English, or alter their names, or reign in their polygamy - repel today's well-meaning multiculturalist PC-types, but have historically served to help minorities blend in, then I don't think he'd have said anything terribly controversial, and aside from the PC-types in question and your college postcolonial studies prof, no one would be up in arms. Yes, yes, demands of assimilation are a form of violence to those of different but equally valid cultural traditions, etc., etc., but this is a different discussion. The question of whether the West should impose its values on immigrants is a real one, but it's one that assumes everyone could become Western, questioning only whether this is a fair thing to ask of non-Westerners. Boundaries shift, but traditionally this whole discussion has been an internal one among liberals. Today, the position that one should ask ferners to change in any way has become in the US, associated with the right. In France, that's not quite as much the case. But wherever the debate is situated on the political spectrum, the fact remains that there's another whole set of people who don't want to deal with Them in the first place, don't think they have a shot at assimilating.

What Douthat did, however, was to conflate genuine pro-assimilation requests with the assimilation request used as a proxy for a quite different demand, namely that ferners stay away or wear a coned hat or whatever. The cultural-rather-than-Constitutional America, the second America, encompasses both, by his definition, which is a lumping-together I don't think makes sense. So, I'll refine - no, revise - my argument to explain that I'm not calling second-America-as-Douthat-defines-it xenophobic, only a subset thereof. And I think, if we're going to divide America in two, it makes far more sense to separate those who think immigrants can become American (whether by changing their ways or simply by having their papers in order, if that) from those who believe in an essential Americanness not open to all. But, Douthat counters, refining his own position, it's impossible to divide requests that immigrants assimilate into categories of well-meaning and xenophobic. Nativists and assimilationists are often one and the same set of people. Yes, everything is ambiguous, but, I counter, it is quite possible - necessary, even - to divide requests into those that seem possible for the ferners in question to meet, and those that are so outrageous, so unattainable, as to amount to exclusion disguised as a request for assimilation. 

And finally, finally, in response to Fuzzy Face's problem with my use of "fern." ("it is you added the illiterate jargon thing.") Guilty as charged, although I don't intend it to be a comment about literacy so much as about nativism. Ferners, by my definition, are foreigners as understood by Americans who are suspicious of foreigners. Foreigners are marked by not having an American regional dialect of any kind, what with being, well, foreign. I don't see "fern" as coming from a particular region's accent so much as from the accent of any native US English speaker saying the term "foreign" with a sneer, while at the same time trying to play up his own folksiness. If my use of the term prior to defining it offended the illiterate-yet-cosmopolitan community, I apologize.

*This is, in a nutshell, my dissertation topic, but for France. I point this out both by way of an explanation for the length of this post - I find this stuff endlessly fascinating - and also as a disclaimer re: my weakness in terms of specifics of US history. I won't, for instance, get into MSI and Britta's debate about the reasons for anti-Chinese sentiment in pre-eugenics California. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Comme il faut

Just got these nautical rain boots for 32 euros. Which either means they get an authenticity-hipster markup in Brooklyn, or that the exchange rate is crap and the price is the same in both places. Whatever the case, my dreams of sunglasses and flimsy ballet flats had to be set aside once Paris decided to switch over to the rainy season. The woman at the garden store next to the BNF where I bought the rain boots found it hil-arious that I was buying them to wear immediately. She even shouted about it to a colleague standing far from us, it was such an event. Apparently I'd violated Unwritten Rule #8321 of Parisian conduct.

After realizing that my summer socks were not staying up under the boots, I bought a stunning pair (4 euros 90 centimes) of longer socks at a nearby Monoprix, where I proceeded to break #8322 by changing into a new pair of socks near the checkout area.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Delayed gratification UPDATED

I just did a whole lot of primary research into how to operate the lockers at the Archives Nationales. I've requested a box that will be available when I'm back in NY, and spent 10 euros on an ID card with the least flattering (since when is my face puffy? I had to check in the mirror to make sure I wasn't swelling up for some reason) photo I've had taken in a long time. All in all, a productive visit. I'm about to take the 90-minute tour for new patrons. Wish me luck.


The tour took far less than 90 minutes, but only served to make the process seem even more confusing than before. In retrospect the Bibliothèque Nationale was a warm-up, or training wheels, or some other kind of mere hint at what was to come. Not only will this be an involved bureaucratic procedure every visit, but I now need to comb through the relevant secondary sources for archival "codes" - titles and authors I'd been keeping track of, but as a literature student used to call numbers, some of the technicalities (err, fundamentals) of the historical approach are new to me. But I get it now! I see what needs to be done! I just wish I'd already done it.

After the tour, a guy who'd also been on it struck up a conversation with me about confusing the place seemed. I agreed. This was, I think, the first time a stranger has spoken to me in Paris and it hasn't been a) a catcall/come-on, b) a remark about a mouse that just ran through the café (that was during this morning's coffee - the mouse was tiny and cute, but I decided to put my backpack on the seat next to me so as to avoid bringing any new creatures into the archives or, worse, the apartment), or c) a patronizing if well-intended remark about me appearing to be lost. So I was pleased - an ally in the cavernous world of French bureaucracy!

But! In the course of this very brief conversation, as we were retrieving stuff from our lockers, he asked my nationality. Seems he's not a fan. He asked me how things were in America as though expecting me to join him in denouncing the horrible, horrible place I have the misfortune to have a passport from. I asked him where he was from - Syria. I told him things were fine, quite good in NY, where I live. Uh huh. Then he muttered something, laughed, and said never mind. I asked what, and he asked if "you" (vous) were going to invade Syria. I told him that I, personally, have no plans to do so. I decided this wasn't the moment to tell him the specifics of my research - though I'm not researching Zionism, the fact that I study Jews at all serves as an announcement to the otherwise oblivious of my own background, and thus an invitation to ask just where I stand on a certain contentious region. I could imagine in a different state of mind finding all this kind of fun, but it was nearly 3, I hadn't had lunch, and I was already mentally enjoying a 7-euro cheese plate at a nearby café.

What followed was an afternoon-long search in vain for a café I might be able to do work in. I did pass one place that had a sign in the window explaining the interdit status of ordinateurs in their establishment; a Starbucks with a sign in the window promising free, high-speed wifi but, I learned upon asking, no wifi of any kind; and the Illy café which was, uncharacteristically, closed for the day. All of this has left me with a newfound appreciation of the BNF, to which I will soon return.

Let's hear it for the xenophobes

Ross Douthat divides Americans into two camps. The be-yourself one, willing to accept those from all cultures without demanding even a hint of acculturation, and the yer in 'merica, speak English and be white contingent. And, in his defense of the xenophobes, Douthat gives them credit for the fact that America today shares something of a common culture and common values.

But that's not how assimilation works. Xenophobes who as Douthat himself points out have historically not wanted ferners to enter the country in the first place are not some kind of positive force pushing the Other to Sameness. No, the pro-assimilation forces are on the progressive side, in the first camp Douthat mentions.

Because he's divided the camps inaccurately. The first camp thinks foreigners can become Real Americans but varies internally on what needs to happen for someone to count as such. As in, the camp Douthat names that makes no requirements whatsoever doesn't exist, at least not beyond the idealistic ramblings of the very few. It's not that a sense of authentic Americanness doesn't exist for members of the first camp. It's that whatever it is, it is, to members of this camp, attainable by all Americans. Some in the first camp are multiculturalists, others assimilationists, and many somewhere between the two. What they have in common is that they think making new Americans through immigration is possible, and that "American" is not a race, ethnicity, or religion.

Meanwhile, the second camp thinks there must always be some category of Real American out of reach to those who - and this is key - for reasons outside their own control - fail to meet its standards. Sometimes the second camp will demand assimilation. But what that message really means, when coming from the second camp, is that those Others will never in a million years count in their eyes as Real Americans. And that 'hey, they just refuse to assimilate' will be given as a pretext for exclusion. The fact that, after years go by, assimilation happens, and new common enemies are discovered (hey, what if we tried all getting together hating blacks, Jews, or Muslims? Oh oh! and Mexicans!), the second camp finds that it pretty much has to extend its borders beyond Mayflower descendants if it wants to get its point across, doesn't mean that the second camp has some kind of inclusiveness message of its own on offer.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Splurges and scarves

What do we think about these sunglasses?

Photo credit: Les Opticiens du Bac, who have made me wish even more than usual that I had a spare 200 euros lying around. Plus a spare 59 for these, from Thierry 21:
Not that I have any intention of getting either. What with the bag and the hat, I'm about set for accessories for the next, oh, 259 years.

Luckily I spotted both on the ultimate everything-is-closed day - a Sunday in August that's also a Catholic holiday which for some reason religion-is-a-personal-matter France considers a national one as well. To any fellow grad students who may be reading this, I highly recommend visiting the 7th Arrondissement for shopping on Everything Is Closed Day. (Lest I seem to advocate excessive self-denial in a city where decadence is all but mandatory, I also suggest the occasional splurge in the form of steak frites for research-day lunch at Chez Lili et Marcel, near the BNF.)

While on the topic of accessories and secularism, on the metro today I saw a woman in a makeshift burqa composed of two scarves, the face-covering one of which had to be held up manually. At first, ignoramus that I am, I thought it was a germophobic choice made by a woman who happened to be wearing a headscarf. Given the germiness of the metro, I was intrigued. Then it struck me that the point was that this way, if the burqa police passed by, she could be a mere headscarf-wearer in no time.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Oxymoron department

Local-food tourism: is this now a thing? If the point is that local and seasonal means tasty and fresh, fair enough, but if it's about carbon footprints, maybe suggesting NYT readers fly to Scotland and drive around it for just long enough to sample the local cuisine defeats the purpose?

And with that, back to Renan.

A new piece to the puzzle

Apparently when a book is marked as "arrivé," this doesn't mean it's actually arrived, per se, but that it's reached a certain point in the transportation process and been marked prematurely as ready-to-consult.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Age-defying t-shirts

It is a much-remarked fact about clothing today that sizes aren't what they used to be. For all the fuss about "size-zero" beauty standards, today's zero is yesterday's 10 or whatever. All of this serves to make women buy that pair of ill-fitting jeans because we are just that gullible; to make finding clothes that fit more difficult for genuinely tiny women; and to make vintage shopping kind of a let-down.

But one brand takes vanity sizing to a whole new level. At Petit Bateau,* women's sizes are children's sizes, listed as "ages." As in, a woman who usually takes a small (just a theoretical woman, not thinking of anyone in particular) is "14 ans." The store also sells clothes for babies and children, which can make their adult sizing extra-confusing. I asked at a Petit Bateau branch what size would fit me, because the t-shirts are mostly in boxes (do the gimmicks ever end?) and the answer I got didn't make a whole lot of sense. 14, in a country without quite so much childhood obesity, is a lanky, barely-pubescent age. A training-bra age. Whatever it is I'm looking for in a t-shirt, it's not for it to fit a 14-year-old French girl.

Yet the salespeople were correct. And gimmick or not, these are some fantastic t-shirts. Oddly enough, given the sizing, they seem much more designed to fit a grown woman's build than their Gap or Uniqlo equivalents.

That someone with my build is "14 ans" makes sense only when one sees that their "adult" sizing ranges from 12 to 20 years old. If "12" means "XS," this would make 16 a Medium, 18 a Large, and 20 an XL. (This is, I now see, spelled out on the US site. And boy was that same sweater cheaper in France.) Which is to say, a perfectly standard size range of women's clothing has been reclassified as children's sizes.

Which is, from a marketing perspective, brilliant. Because women (according to a cliché with more truth to it than I care to admit) don't so much want to be thin as to be the size they were during some personal Golden Age, probably during high school, to fit into their junior year jeans, their prom dress, their... whatever the French equivalent might be to such items. As much fun as it is to see that you thought you were a Large but aha, you're a Medium, think how much more exciting it is to go from thinking you're an L to discovering, if subliminally, that you're the same size you were at 18!**

The only drawback I can think of is that many women probably assume the store only sells children's clothes and don't go in in the first place. That said, women with babies or very young children would still go in, and these women might be more inclined than most to fall for the miraculous-return-to-your-youthful-figure ploy.

Oh, Petit Bateau, I feel as though I should be less loyal to your t-shirts ever since figuring out your scheming ways, but a well-fitting, soft-but-not-flimsy t-shirt is hard to find.

*Where I babbled about this previously.
**Perhaps the subliminal messaging goes further still: the labels, no matter the size, all have the word "Petit" on them, what with that being part of the brand's name and all.

In defense of airline passengers

I don't enjoy the experience of being waited on by strangers. When I dine out, which isn't often, I do so for social or culinary reasons and despite the fact that the food will be brought to me by a third party. I've had a total of four manicures in my life, two of which were before high school. Most of the time I cut my own hair.

But on an airplane, the things I make the flight attendants do! They fetch my meals, take out my trash, bring me a cup of water if I'm feeling a little bit thirsty. And I have the nerve to just sit in a cushioned seat, not even offering to get up and help.

When flying, there isn't an alternative to being served. There's no non-waitservice option for what I'd imagine are the majority of airline passengers who don't especially get off on being waited on hand and foot by a uniformed staff. However much you'd like to get your own damn soda, throw out your own damn newspaper or candy wrappers, cook your own damn dinner, these otherwise normal behaviors are discouraged in a situation where one is expected to be seated at all times.

Oh, and unlike in a restaurant, there's a very good chance the customers are, just like the flight attendants, at work. Because traveling for work, especially in coach (which is the only way I've ever gone, so perhaps in business class as well), is work. Believe me that I'd rather be at a conference or library than flying to or from one.

So whereas I understand the eye-rolling and us-against-them among coffee shop staff and restaurant workers, I don't think it's merited in any but the most extreme cases on airplanes.

And yet! While even in Paris, I find that politeness and humility get you far in terms of buying coffee or whatever with minimal tension, on planes, I'm inevitably shot looks of, "You can't be serious" whenever I make any kind of request, such as for a drink from the cart that's ostensibly in front of me, or to discard the cup from that drink once the garbage cart comes by. It's tough, particularly when you're half-asleep, to read body language and to otherwise figure out when is or is not the appropriate moment to ask for what, whether a cart is for your aisle or the one next to it, and so forth. I have a remarkable knack for not reading the mind of flight attendants and, despite following all possible etiquette rules, royally pissing off flight attendants. Yes, I really ought to have known that this airline doesn't carry seltzer, or that this cart is intended for seats A-C and not D-F. The response of flight attendants to these requests is so often exactly what one would expect of someone meeting the same request on land, where the customer could very well deal with whatever it was himself.  

All of which makes me think that the job is probably a whole lot more stressful than serving the very same items in a restaurant. But rather than blaming customers - who, again, are 99% of the time not flying as a way to be pampered - or the flight attendants, how about the airlines themselves? Or better yet, I blame the BNF, which has not yet scanned absolutely every document, making it necessary to actually go to France to get a PhD in French.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

La culpabilité

It would be lovely if, when you "took out" documents (i.e. took them to a table a few feet away), the person whose job it is to scan them* as "servi" actually did so. And, better yet, if when you returned the documents, making a note of the fact that three were in the same bubble-wrap envelope, all three got scanned as rendu. This is now the second day in a row that I've been falsely accused of having a document out that I'd returned. Today, as yesterday, this was cleared up quickly, but there's no guarantee things will run so smoothly next time (and there will be a next time). The presumption of guilt will always be on me, as a library patron, as an American who doesn't know how to say "bubble-wrap" in French, and as someone with no way of proving that my deepest desire isn't to abscond with a 19th C pamphlet that wasn't even useful for my project anyway.

*As a former library-book scanner myself, one sympathetic to the difficulties and drudgeries of the job, I reserve the right to criticize others' job performance in this area.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Aside from watching the ADL put its organizational foot in its mouth, and noticing a group of Real American protesters a few months ago debriefing or organizing or something near Century 21, I haven't much been following the "Ground Zero Mosque" debacle. Part of why I'm not (italicized to prevent enraged commenters from raging) opposed to the project is the usual - religious tolerance, etc., etc. But it also comes from knowing that part of town very well. I went to high school just north of what were then the Twin Towers, and just spent a year living on the southern tip of Manhattan. I'm as familiar as anyone with lower Manhattan both pre- and post-. And... Park Place is not Ground Zero. It doesn't face Ground Zero, and it isn't part of the fuzzy border of what was, last I checked, the pit, the place where tourists smile for photographs. Once you reach Park Place going north, you're in that Fulton Street, J&R, vendors-selling-random-crap-from-storefronts-they-can-for-some-mysterious-reason-afford neighborhood, just as it begins transitioning into the new-ish south-of-Chambers Tribeca extension, with its "Kaffe," its Whole Foods mall, and its cellulite-free power-moms. It's a city of microneighborhoods, and while the 9/11 attacks physically impacted a greater geographical area than is currently fenced off (I remember a thick cloud of dust and bizarre smell even uptown), the space that's currently understood by tourists and locals alike as Ground Zero is the border surrounding the fenced-off area. Outside that space, and I mean right outside that space, life goes on. Century 21 marks down Calvin Klein bras, Whole Foods marks up organic moisturizer. All of lower Manhattan is not in a permanent state of mourning. It would be fine by me if people were more respectful of the site itself - again, by not grinning for photos in front of the pit - but it is in no one's interest - and on no one's agenda - to shut down the island south of Chambers. I can't help but think that much of the rabble-rousing about the proposed mosque is coming from people with an entirely different conception of space, who aren't picturing the density of activity in the relevant area. I somehow picture Abe Foxman not having too much trouble with this, but Sarah Palin? If her on-the-ground knowledge of lower Manhattan is what mine is of Wasilla (and no, sitcoms about NY don't get the point across), then there's a good chance anything she's heard in terms of yards or blocks doesn't add up to how the area is actually experienced.

The rest of this stack of books had better be amazing

Say you're at the library and you decide you want to leave for lunch. This happened to me today, strangest of things. I tried to leave but Non! Not allowed. Had some invisible French scanners deemed my girth already sufficient? Non. I still had documents that needed to be returned, the message explained. I had, however, returned all my documents. Several arguments later, and after I had to go make a show of checking that I hadn't left them at my spot, lo and behold one of the documents had not been scanned back in. Finally, I was able to take a sortie temporaire and get a bowl of pho.

One soup later and I was back at the library. Was I allowed back in? No such luck. My reservation had expired and I'd lost not only my spot but all the books I'd reserved. Given that the books were waiting for me, I had idiotically not recorded what those books were, and there's no way to check this retroactively. When I'd left, I'd verified that I was making the temporary exit, and I'd put my card in the sortie temporaire tray and everything. More arguing. Eventually, I finagled my way into getting a new spot and the books that had apparently not been reshelved. So far so good, kind of. Considering this is a library where you have to swipe your card when returning from the bathroom, like some kind of hall pass for adults, none of this was terribly surprising.

The book I'd been most eager to see contained, according to the bibliography of an Italian book on a topic related to mine, an article in French on what sounded like exactly my topic. The Italian had, it seemed, misattributed the article to an adjacent author in that issue's table of contents, and immediately upon figuring out the real author, I knew that this was nothing other than the article version of a book I'd already read and not much needed about postwar American Jewish novelists.

Staying home and using digitized sources never looked so good.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Let the cute Westie distract you from the fact that the city's closed down.

The "Western understanding"

I haven't read the NYT op-ed pages thoroughly for ages, and I'm reminded of why. As soon as I saw Ross Douthat's first few paragraphs explaining why the usual arguments against gay marriage don't hold up, I knew both that he was about to launch what would be the Big New Idea (but really an Old Catholic Idea) about marriage, but also that we were at a very specific moment in the op-ed formula. The moment when the conservative addressing a liberal audience plays at being swayable, wishy-washy, one-of-the-good-ones. Rare is the op-ed read to completion, so many NYT readers will go about their Mondays thinking Ross Douthat is on their side.

Then, once 99.99% of readers have set aside their coffee or emerged from the subway or been called away from nytimes.com by their work, he morphs into Bonald (see also), referring to multiple relationships over the course of a lifetime as "polygamy" and to the hetero nuclear family as a microcosm of society, and citing Judeo-Christian tradition (and may I say on behalf of the Jews, or at least some of us: don't drag us into this!).

And then, most frustratingly of all, he makes the very same error one sees in just about all defenses of "traditional marriage," namely implying (though never stating outright) that there was a Golden Age of lifelong heterosexual monogamous commitment. What about men, who were always permitted pre- and extramarital dalliances? What about the not-so-chaste women necessary for this arrangement?

The "Western understanding" Douthat laments describes was never much observed but at most an aspiration, at least something that one would say one wanted when asked about this publicly. And the ideal that's replaced it? People still aspire to lifelong commitments and child-rearing. The only difference is that there's a greater honesty about both the fact that people don't arrive as virgins at marriage (at 22 let alone 35), and that, for a small but significant part of the population, the only monogamous attachment possible of being honored is with a member of the same sex.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Frahnce proves not that bad after all

After a variety of summer reschedulings made the trip to the library take over an hour, three trains, and two metro tickets, I was pleased to discover that the health-food café of all places near the library has a breakfast deal that's a coffee of your choice plus a (butter!) croissant - and a little piece of dark chocolate, which would have been redundant if I'd opted for the pain au chocolat - for the totally acceptable price of 2.20 euros total. Also key, they have wireless, allowing me to reschedule the library appointment I'd already missed. I could see getting lunch at the same place later, if only out of loyalty, but from where I'm sitting I see a wide array of shredded-carrot salads, which I don't think is the stuff to sustain research till closing time at 8pm.

Next up, an Illy café with wireless, ample seating, sweetened iced blended coffee which I will only imagine rivals that of Tel Aviv, and which (crucial because of the train issues) is probably only a 45-minute walk from the apartment.

And yes, I'm tempted to start a copycat blog for Paris.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Failed attempts at making the most of what remains of my 20s

In the words of my personal hero, Edina Monsoon, from the memorable "France" episode, "I. Hate. Frahnce!" Paris has closed down, apart from the discount hat vendors, but more importantly the only metro line that goes to where I'm staying is off-duty. After a long wait on a platform where there were, reassuringly, many seeming locals as confused as I was and, less reassuringly, about as many mosquitoes, I learned that we all needed to find another itineraire. This was unfortunate because I was all set to go see a classmate perform in a burlesque show, and because I had to cancel on the friend I was going with, and because I'd finally figured out what to do with eyebrow pencil, and because my bangs, for reasons I'm just assuming relate to humidity differences in Paris versus NY, looked perfect. The slight silver lining to all of this is that I apparently understand subway announcements better, word-for-word, in French than in English. Although this might be for other reasons.

Eight euros of fabulous

The hat, not the camera.

In defense of retouched photos

There's this mood in fashion writing lately that almost gets it right but then doesn't. It's a sort of post-feminist, ultra-earnest attempt at celebrating "real women's" beauty, while not sacrificing the great fun it is to look at pictures of unusually attractive people in unusually expensive clothes. Interspersed between the usual fun images of 20-year-olds in jumpsuits or harem pants are Very Serious Posts (or Articles) about the harm done to women and girls by unrealistic images in the media. Rather than taking the full leap and denouncing the superficial, or (and this would be my preference) taking a light-hearted approach to fluff and fun, focusing on the clothes themselves rather than the no doubt charming Estonian girls hired to wear them, these writers go halfway, being at once indignant about the nefarious Fashion Industrial Complex and themselves propagators of the very images and ideas to which they ostensibly object.

This tepid revolution's latest manifestation is an anti-photoshopping campaign. Ads and spreads are fight-the-power called out for depicting women with what are surely smaller waists or smoother thighs than nature provided. Victory in the battle if not the war gets declared when a fashion house or magazine admits to having nipped a bit off the model. But why?

The difference between an airbrushed Gisele and the real thing is minuscule compared with that between Gisele and the average woman, or even the typical good-looking young women of roughly her dimensions. Anyone who's seen such women in real life can verify that yes, they look like that. It's tough to imagine a crash diet or any other self-destructive impulse emerging from a lifetime of exposure to photoshopped images that wouldn't have been just as easily inspired by unretouched images of precisely the same young women.

If that's the case, one might ask, what purpose does retouching serve? As I see it, the smooth, doll-skin of ads and such is to create an otherworldly quality. It also serves to remind all but the most gullible consumers of these images* that even models don't measure up. Rather than making us despair at unattainable standards of beauty, we could use it as an opportunity to be able to say 'ooh, shiny!' without taking it personally, which is to say, to enjoy dressing up or pretty pictures or whatever without feeling that there'd even be a point to us trying to match up, feature by feature, with what the image depicts. But photoshop just strikes me as a silly objection, because it implies that Real is somehow a possibility. As though if what we saw resulted "only" from photographic angles, makeup, and the model's own refusal to "eat a cheeseburger," then that would be some kind of authenticity. I think if we're going to fight for anything, it should be for the images to look less natural, perhaps just show the clothes on cartoons or robots, and allow the focus to shift, as much as possible, from bodies to clothes.

*And the very young, who, Tavi excepted, aren't so sophisticated. I think the US already has more than enough age-based legislation, but it might not be a terrible idea to limit one's tween daughters' exposure to fashion mags. Of course, what with the Internet, this gets more complicated, but it also opens the door to more clothes-centric and less body-centric alternatives that didn't exist when I was young and impressionable.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

In which I'm an old bagel-stick-in-the-mud

I was reading David Lebovitz's food blog when something jumped out at me:

Many purists kvetch that one should not even toast a bagel, that they should be eaten fresh, when they're toothy and a bit tough. But with all the dough in some of those bagels, unless you do the Jewish American Princess dough-dig (pulling out the bread, so you're just left with the crust, reducing the calories), something passing as a bagel can be just another roll-with-a-hole.
I'm well aware of the de-doughification procedure he describes, but what's with the gratuitous attribution of that low-carb trend onto Jewish women, who are no more guilty than any other women living in bagel-having areas (which I can attest include Austrian Starbuckses and the Helsinki airport) of this culinary quirk? And why drop a slur like it's nothing? Because that's what "JAP" is - a slur. If a Jewish woman chooses to reclaim the word - and I'd be happy to see it reclaimed - and to use it to describe herself, so be it. But given the history of the word, if David Lebovitz is indeed Jewish (not making any assumptions), the use of the term by a Jewish man hardly makes it less offensive. It's a slur not against Jews or women, but Jewish women in particular.* And I'm not sure if I'd give Lebovitz that much word-play credit, but "dough-dig" when used in reference to "JAPs" is a not-so-pleasant double entendre.

I commented something along these lines, provoking another commenter, Hillaryn, to ask me to "lighten up." To this I must ask - how's about a "faggy" salad? (Think where one could go with fried chicken!) Bigotry is bigotry, and while I don't think Lebovitz meant to offend, what he wrote was uncalled-for. Sometimes such things need pointing out. If we're talking about some kind of equal-opportunity-offensive humor like South Park or Sarah Silverman, it's another story and yes, a "lighten up" might be merited, but this is a food blog. It's about context. And it's about context from both sides - I'm not calling the ADL on him (as if they're of much use these days, which is another story.)

In terms of telling-it-like-it-is (which is overrated, which is yet another story), if we're going to celebrate Lebovitz's refreshing honesty, then I should say now that I grew up Jewish and on the Upper East Side of all places, a mere flagel's-toss from Lebovitz's new favorite bagel shop, so I think I'd know if it were objectively true that this was something particularly done by "JAPs". I truly don't think it is, and might mention that the only person I knew growing up who did this was of English and Italian heritage and not remotely Jewish. But you know what? I could be wrong. A survey could be conducted, and we might find that Jewish women are overrepresented among those bagel consumers who remove the doughy part. Even then, I think the "JAP" comment was uncalled-for.

*Very, very occasionally, I've heard JAP used, by Jews, in a gender-neutral sense. In which case it really does seem to be about a subculture and aesthetic, rather than about how Jewish men are these saints, whereas Jewish women are status whores, no wonder Jewish men "have to" marry out, etc., etc.

Not all cakes are created equal

The main objection I see to office cake is the dynamic of cake rejection. Often, the baker demands a reason, and won't take no for an answer. As for the reasons, there are the weight issues, which are the most obvious. While average-sized person who says, "Oh no, I really shouldn't," get a pass, a skinny person (woman especially) who does the same comes across as vain if in need of an intervention, whereas the baker will seem ridiculous telling someone visibly overweight who says he'll pass that he "really should" have some cake at 10:30am. And yes, there are genuine eating disorders, which pose their own problems around cake-time.

Less obvious, but also problematic, are dietary restraints, religious or medical, that someone may not want to discuss openly at the office. Maybe your kosher officemate thinks you'd be offended if you were accused of having possibly baked your cake in the same tin as you'd previously baked a ham, supposing a bundt-shaped ham. Will the officemates confuse a physiological condition or religious objection with an eating disorder, an eating disorder with narcissism? It's easiest just to take the cake and throw it out later.

But there's a missing angle here. The office-cake issue is always presented as though the cake in question is something everyone would gladly eat were it not for Issues. But sometimes, bakers, your cake just doesn't look appetizing, at least not to everyone in the office. Sometimes, it's 4pm, and someone who absolutely could eat your cake gets a whiff and makes a mental note to sneak out for a Twix from the vending machine. This gets lost in all the discussion of cake and weight and neurosis, but is probably the number-one reason offers of cake are unwelcome.

As a side note, on the flip side of someone not wanting to announce religious dietary restrictions, it is also possible to lie-by-omission about a lack of religious dietary restrictions when rejecting unwanted snacks. If you're Jewish, and someone comes at you with a less-than-appealing muffin, then hesitates and says, "oh, but you keep kosher," now is not the time to correct them. Consider it the culinary equivalent to "It's not you, it's your religion."

As a side note to the side note, I think it speaks volumes that even though I'm writing my dissertation on intermarriage, the interfaith aspect of the Clinton wedding just about slipped my mind. Intermarriages between the non-famous were reported as events in 19th century French-Jewish newspapers. Today, aside from general, demographic complaints from parts of organized Judaism (ahem, Birthright Israel), I doubt if, as Joseph Berger claims, "the seemingly incandescent wedding of Ms. Clinton and Mr. Mezvinsky has churned up ambivalent reactions among the nation’s almost six million Jews." OK, perhaps "among" as in, there exist Jews who felt so-so about the royal nuptials. But this article struck me as quite dated, as though we were responding to the union of a Yiddish-speaking peddler and a Vanderbilt. The non-event-ness of intermarriage today makes it unlikely that all or even most American Jews responded to this wedding as an intermarriage. Of all the various narratives - Chelsea-as-blossoming-woman, super-high-achieving-meritocratic-NYT-Weddings-ready, sneaky-pol-dynasties, and so forth, the interreligious one just struck this Jew, at least, as a bit uninteresting.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Less effort

Not sure if this is the kind of public recognition that will inspire me to get through another long-haul day at the BNF, but "effortless" is an accurate description of the outfit I'll be wearing. Fleece* may even be involved.

*A logo-less plaid Uniqlo fleece, not a billboard for a sporting-goods company, but still, fleece is fleece, Paris is Paris. Effort, in this context, would mean figuring out which combination of layers I have here could handle 54-degree weather more elegantly. I know it could be done with what I have to work with, but it would get in the way of checking if the good flan bakery is back from summer vacation and still making it to the library appointment on time.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Must all young women be "beautiful"?

The discussion surrounding Chelsea-Clinton-The-Bride reminds me of the one that followed the massive success of "Precious," regarding its star, Gabourey Sidibe. In both cases, a young woman with a whole lot going for her was referred to again and again (and I'm far too tired to round up links, but give it a few hours and maybe...) as "beautiful," always in such a way as to remind readers that this assessment defied expectations. As though it wasn't enough to say that nasty comments about Clinton's/Sidibe's looks are out-of-line, and the only way to counteract the negative was to go leaps and bounds in the other direction. It couldn't just be that Sidibe is an accomplished/promising actress, or that Clinton is an apparently grounded and intelligent product of celebrity politician parents. They have to be "beautiful" physically, as in, not just better-looking than most women, but remarkably so. If what were meant by beautiful is that 'every woman is beautiful' (which should be distinguished from 'women of all races and shapes can be beautiful, something that ought to be obvious but can need pointing out), then fine, We Are All Beautiful. But unless 'inner beauty' is referenced, we have to assume the term means ridiculously-good-looking, someone who even if not famous would turn heads.

I write this as a young woman whose primary strengths are also not looks-related. I'm not judging Clinton or Sidibe or myself as unattractive, but rather as people whose looks are the least remarkable things about us. The mere facts of being young and female should not demand positive assessments of looks from anyone other than (would-be) romantic partners and friends who've accompanied us clothes-shopping. Again, I get that the positive assessments are meant to counteract the inevitable negative ones that all women even slightly in the public eye get from anonymous strangers, but, again, because they come across as forced, they, along with the gratuitous negativity, should go. The better approach would be to only remark on looks when looks are remarkable, not as the default response to femaleness and youth.