Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On (not) wearing the same thing every day

The above shots are my attempts at making the most of the clothing I have with me this summer. Notice a pattern? Basically, since I arbitrarily made the decision that my jeans were too dirty for continued pre-laundry wear, it's been the same pair of black pants every day, plus a t-shirt or tank top in either black, gray, or white. It's a look I like, and I thank Uniqlo and H&M for making it possible, but enough was enough.

To remedy the situation, today I purchased a dress from Esprit, the library here being dangerously close to the main shopping street. (As if that makes for a change, but whatever.) I hesitated, because the price tag claimed an equal numerical cost in euros and dollars, suggesting I should wait until being back in the States, but according to the website Esprit doesn't have kids clothes in the US. Indeed, the dress is for kids. After seeing it in the store, I looked it up on the site, and realized this did not help me get a sense of how I might look in it. Not that I look like models generally, but I could not look less like this one. Voila:

Turns out the look works, or so I've told myself, on post-pubescent Semites as well.

In other shopping news, today, post-dress-purchase, I found the street where all the used or otherwise appealing bookstores are. This includes books in French and English. Luckily, however, the library permits reading without paying, whereas I'd imagine Esprit frowns upon wearing and returning. So, once again, no regrets.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Exotic rabbi, stereotypical situation

This image and caption alone should be the encyclopedia entry for Bad For The Jews. Good grief.

The article this accompanies - about a corruption scandal involving some Syrian-community rabbis - is sort of bizarre. I get that not everyone hears 'Sephardic' and immediately knows what this refers to, but the amount of background seems... excessive. To understand that this community is upset that its rabbis stand accused of some stereotype-fulfilling what-have-you, is it really necessary to know that "Sephardim, unlike the ultra-Orthodox who live at a remove from American society, attend public schools in the lower grades and are encouraged to succeed in business." That The Sephardim own Century 21? That they can't intermarry? That they're behind Jordache jeans? (Do Jordache jeans still exist?) All interesting tidbits, but how does any of this relate to the corruption scandal? Why not just stop here: "Sephardic Jews trace their ancestry to Spain and various parts of North Africa and the Middle East, as distinct from the Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe"? (Not that Ashkenazi Jews necessarily come from Eastern Europe - how about Germany, Alsace... but most in America do come from E Eur, so, close enough.)

So, why all the ethnographic detail? To make the story more compelling? To hit a word count? To spare the reputation of other American Jews, the Ashkenazi majority, who are (by implication, and by internal-Ashkenazi stereotype) less business-oriented and insular than the Sephardic communities? If there's bigotry to be had, perhaps, by making very clear which Jews are involved here, The Jews will not be insulted? (As if that's ever worked.) Because all news stories are about people, and people, as a rule, have some cultural background. Again, granted that this particular background is unfamiliar to many, but the article just stopped short of explaining which seasonings go into couscous dishes traditional to this set.

I guess what got to me was that it ended up reading as though all the cultural information was meant as a background to explain (in the best of cases) why the community's upset, or (in the worst) how the corruption came about. If the latter seems like a possibility, it's in part because why wouldn't a community be miffed in this situation, but it could be because of the heavy emphasis from the journalist on how ambitious and money-hungry this community tends to be, juxtaposed with the inevitable quotes from insiders about how radically money-laundering conflicts with the values they hold dear.

Adventures in Eiskaffee

As European countries go, Germany is not known for having a cuisine worth crossing the Atlantic for. But I'm about to put German cuisine above all others on account of one food alone: Eiskaffee. Yes, that, with no help (ok, spaetzles are quite nice), puts German cuisine in my mind above Italian, French, etc.

Let me explain.

Pretty much since arriving, I've passed a wood-paneled coffee place that looked so enticing, I was scared to go in. The sign reading "Eiskaffee" didn't hurt. Adding to the intimidation factor: one of my housemates had in fact entered, and was told that because they were so busy, it was black coffee or nothing. Hmm.

But I was determined! And other housemates, also anglophones, had claimed success. So, having finished reading another list-book earlier than expected, I decided that today was the day. Jo taught me my line, which I had memorized: Ich moechte einen Eiskaffee ohne sahne, bitte. After some hesitation, I entered and said my piece. Because I am fluent in all languages when it comes to understanding things said about foods I wish to consume, I understood quite well when the man behind the counter explained, in German, that the drink never comes with cream, anyway.

Missing from all this was a menu. There was a list of the prices of roasted coffee beans, but no sign of what coffee drinks were available, what was in them, or what they cost. Which was in a sense for the best, because had I known the price (4.90; yesterday's had been 3.40, and that was on a main street in town) before ordering, I might not have done so, but upon tasting the beverage/dessert/whatever it is, I was prepared to hand over my checking account and first-born.

How to even begin... It came in a tall, chilled-seeming, conical glass, with a straw as well as a long spoon. On top was cappuccino-type foam, but sweet. Below was a layered mix of espresso and what I'm guessing was some kind of brownie-dough ice cream. The way it all came together was just beautiful. Yesterday's Eiskaffee had been a mix of vanilla ice cream and espresso more delicious by far than any coffee-and-ice-cream concoction I'd ever attempted at home, but this...

Clearly the exchange rate will have to change dramatically if this is to be a post-book treat, rather than a post-list one (with 15 books, give or take, per list), but what can I say? I regret nothing.

Where everybody knows your name

Is this a joke? The only places where I've ever been a regular are muffin-and-coffee establishments, so no maitre'd tipping was involved. OK, I'm also a regular at Chelsea Thai, but when food comes on a tray, and when a get-one-free stamp card is involved, presumably being a regular really does just mean showing up often and, you know, paying for the food.

Also confusing: people want to be regulars at restaurants? I can't say I'm delighted that the man at Chelsea Thai gives me a knowing glance when I order the Pad Gra Prow, vegetarian, no mushrooms, nor was it so fantastic in high school when, at Downtown Delicious, the cranberry muffin would appear on the counter, it seemed, as soon as my friends and I were in earshot. If it were up to me, I'd rather be anonymous in these situations, my face not immediately associated with particular foodstuffs, but the thing is, once you find a place you like, returning is by far the more convenient option.

Perhaps it's different with upscale restaurants? The whole experience is less directly about the food, so 'they know me' is presumably less about connecting you to your preferences as about the staff knowing, in some deeper way, who you are, or at the very least connecting your face to the name on your credit card. Still, if the motivation is to get the occasional free drink or dessert, but to get to that point you need to spend thousands of dollars convincing the staff to remember your name, I'm not seeing the point.

Joke or sincere, the message of the article is clearly to not eat in restaurants. Doing so is, by the standards of the piece, either too expensive (for those who can't afford to tip - in gifts and cash - 400% of the price of their meal) or too agonizing. The piece is tailor-made for those whose liberal guilt causes them to think it tragic that another human being is carrying them their food, but who for whatever reason continue even after this epiphany to eat in restaurants. This mindset leads to the bizarre belief that being a good customer means not only politeness and a reasonable tip (i.e. respect), but also learning the names and life stories of the entire waitstaff, treating the restaurant trip as a charitable donation to food-service workers.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Falafel etc.

Comment #131 of 131 on a Bitten post about canned beans: "125+ comments about the edibility of canned beans. Seriously? Please tell me that this is some kind of internet-based performance art exposing foodie ridiculousness."

Speaking of chickpeas, Jo and I just had some truly excellent German falafel. As in, falafel in Germany, not some German-cuisine interpretation thereof. The portions were a bit small, though, so we had to head to the eis parlor afterwards, where an eiskaffee was, at long last, mine. This was also the reward for finishing another 500-pager. Given how many books on these lists remain, looks like eiskaffee will be the word of the summer.

Tocqueville manquée, renversée

One of the great mysteries about Western Europe, as far as I'm concerned, is the apparent obsession many women here seem to have with ridding themselves of cellulite. You can walk for miles (or kilometers; whatever) looking for a coffee, a bookstore, a band aid, a pair of socks, but all you'll find will be the notorious European pharmacies-that-aren't, places with the aseptic look of Health, but that are not so much tiny Duane Reades or Rite Aids as shops selling ridiculously expensive and gratuitous-seeming beauty products. While some of these are geared towards hair, the main concern really does seem to be cellulite. Granted, I doubt if many American women wish they had more cellulite than is currently the case, but it is possible to walk more than a block even in looks-conscious areas of Manhattan without being inundated with ads for ways to rid one's self of all upper-leg lumpiness. My sense is that vanity is more geared towards facial acne-then-wrinkles and overall shape. But I can't say I've researched this extensively.

Another major difference between the US and Old Europe: upon reaching a certain age, 35 give or take, every woman in Europe (and Israel, whatever that implies) crops her hair short and dyes it dark red. American women do not do this, whereas women here seem obligated by law to do so. Obviously the look works for some better than for others, but I do wonder how the idea came about that all women need to go this route. It's particularly startling on women who clearly (given the appearances of their children) would have long, straight blond hair if they just left it alone, needing only a touch of yellow dye to keep things as they were. Isn't that the beauty ideal in the Western world, if not beyond? What is happening?

Possible explanations for the cellulite-obsessiveness discrepancy:

1) European women are thinner than American women, and thus can 'afford' to worry about perfection. At 400 pounds, a woman is probably more concerned with reaching 300 than with the exact texture of every square inch of flesh. Then again European women are catching up and then some. So...

2) American women, coming from pioneer stock, culturally if not biologically, are less vain. This is so blatantly false I will not analyze it further.

3) American women have more children and worse child-care options than European women, and thus less time to spend looking in mirrors at parts of the body better left unexamined.

4) Europe's all free and naked, and all this nudity is less than freeing for women with thigh-related anxiety.

5) European women do not actually care a whit about cellulite; the ads are attempts by evil American corporations to get them to do so.

Possible explanations for the dark-red crop:

No clue. Really. Any takers?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Käse etc.

Now that I know my way around a bit more, things are going much more smoothly. I'm plowing through various 500-page readings, and even managed a trip to the market. It could be that this market is one that only looks like a farmers' market (the apricots? French.) but there were more options than at the supermarket, and who doesn't like shopping outdoors in a quaint Markt? I'm very curious about some Austrian cheese I just bought a sliver of. We shall see.

So that was study break number one. As for the next, I keep mentally dangling this eiskaffe (sp?) in front of myself, as Zola's Verite plods along in the way that novels do that, though useful for various academic reasons, are not the most compelling as novels. Once this and another novel are finished, a mix of coffee and vanilla ice cream (assuming that is, in fact, what this eiskaffe consists of - here's hoping) will be mine. Mmm...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Never mind! All is well.

Round two, with a map, went much, much better. This time, I found what I'm thinking is the discount supermarket, so now I have not only salad but also oil, vinegar, and salt to put on this salad. Other finds: French wine and cheese, a beergarden I may have to check out at some point in the not-so-distant post-Zola future, a café serving icecaffe, that amazing espresso-and-vanilla-iced-cream concoction that will be my next study break, and (OK, this was during the previous trip) a theater playing Brüno. Yippee!

In which I am the idiot American abroad

The plan for Germany, Day 1, was to spend the morning in the library, then go buy groceries, then come back to the room and do reading that can be done without a library. All began quite well - got to the library just after it opened, post-coffee and pastry, ready to get to work. I'd confirmed ahead of time that a) the library was open to me, and b) that it had books I need, and so headed confidently to the... where? And the online catalog, in German or English, mystified me. Yes, books were available, but in which library? And what happened to all those friendly DS135Fs and PQ2000s? After finding the right area and paying the 2-euro (!) mandatory locker fee (so much for bringing the laptop), I found a whole lot of stacks arranged in no way thematically - by year, I was told - and felt for the first time this summer like ye olde American abroad, complaining about how wrong things are done in every other country. A frustrating library experience will do that. But eventually, after extensive research, I found Zola's complete works - in French this time, having already found some German Zola I wouldn't much know what to do with.

This occupied me until I was hungry for lunch, then another hour after that, since I realized I should make the most of the locker while I had it. Finding a grocery store was painless enough - I'd passed one along the way - and I felt all set from this, as I had a tote bag in my backpack for the occasion. But! I did not have enough cash on me for the groceries, and they only take "German" cards. A trip to a nearby ATM sorted this out, and I was on my way.

But on my way where? I'd found the library easily enough, but finding my way back was made more difficult by the fact that the only map I had was in Firefox, I did not have wireless access at the library, and so, when my computer picked that window of time in which to crash, I was, I realized, map-less. But I'd bought the groceries figuring I knew my way. Which I did, almost - I proceeded for about two and a half hours to walk in circles around the house I was looking for. Unlike the Netherlands, where people will speak English unprompted, even to those with slightly different Dutch-language accents, here it's probably best to know the language of the land. Also useful to know: the name of the street where you're staying. I remembered some letters, some sounds... and that the street is a tiny one our cab driver had never heard of. I tried to ask one woman for directions, but between her not speaking English (or not wishing to speak it with strange people on the street) and my not quite knowing what to ask, the wandering continued. The suburban-type streets looked to my untrained eye each one just like the next. Things that had seemed like landmarks - some bee-attracting flowers, a particular Ausgang sign - were, of course, on every street.

Long, very long story short, I found a bank or similar and went in and must have seemed pathetic, with all these groceries and no clue. A man came in and joined the discussion - where was I, and where was I trying to get? My botched attempts at saying what I remembered the street name to be led the man to point on a map to a street in a far-off suburb. I tried to explain that I had the info in my email, and that if I could get online we could solve this instantly, but I could see that this was not going to be an option. Luckily, although I have apparently no sense of direction while on foot, looking at the map I found the (unlabeled) street in no time. The man, who knew the area well, announced what it was. I'd totally misremembered - once he said it, I saw on just how many syllables I'd gone wrong. And needless to say, I was just down the block from where I needed to be, and had past the very street shortly before, without noticing it.

I'm now back and ready to do round 2 of the grocery shopping (round one effectively being my somewhat delayed lunch), this time at a store closer to the house, and with the map at the ready. Then, back to the books!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

If jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge were given an elegant Italian name, would you jump?

Here, in one post, is what's wrong with the food movement. I so want to be a full movement participant, but things like this keep pushing me away.

On Bitten, Edward Schneider extols the deliciousness of - wait for it - raw pork. But not just any raw pork - "honestly raised, wonderful, full-flavored pork." It is his belief - albeit not, he admits, one founded on science - that pork can be eaten raw so long as the pig in question was either a) happy, or b) European. While in Italy, he had some raw-pork sausage and lived to tell about it. Says Schneider:

Now, when I described this to a friend, she kindly said that I seemed like a sane man and wondered whether I would worry about eating raw pork. Sure, I’d worry about eating some raw pork, but not the raw — though slightly, minimally cured — pork they fed me in Italy or the raw pork in my own house. I am, very obviously to anyone who knows me, not a scientist of any description; I just cook. And I cook based largely on precedent, tradition and my own experience.

Precedent and tradition are in favor of eating this raw sausage (neither restaurant that served it to us was blazing any kind of gastronomic trail; quite the contrary), but prudence dictates some personal context as well, and the pork I use comes from a New York state farm that Jackie and I have visited and whose pigs (and owners) we have met. And my gut feeling is that pork from that source is as safe to eat in any state of doneness as the pork we were served in Italy and which gave rise to no illness.
Where to begin?

First, we need to get past the notion that food-borne illness is unique to modern times and to processed foods, industrial agriculture, etc. People have been saying, 'Must've been something I ate' since the dawn of time. While industrialization leads to some dangers, it prevents others - apparently in the case of the all-mighty pig, an animal raised in a way that gets the food-movement seal of approval is also one less safe to eat raw. Should dangers in the way food today is produced be exposed and corrected? Yes. But that shouldn't mean assuming all foods eaten by our or someone else's distant ancestors were inherently safe. That people in some locale have eaten something for years reveals only that it didn't kill off enough of these people prior to reproductive age to off that community altogether. "Precedent and tradition" are in favor of all kinds of behaviors that do not contribute to contemporary ideals of reaching 100 with minimal physical discomfort along the way. If someone wants to reject what they consider bourgeois/American/unaesthetic modern-day ideas of Health and live off raw-milk cheese and raw oysters, more power to them, but that's not what Schneider - or the food movement more broadly - is about.

Next, we need to get past the idea that food is better because it was consumed in Europe. One gets the sense that if Schneider had been offered a local Kentucky specialty called Raw-Pork Breakfast Links, rather than "salsiccia cruda" served "at the trattoria Antiche Sere (9 via Cenischia, Turin; +39 011 385 4347), where the nice-weather dining room out back was over-canopied with grape vines, and where for part of the evening the electricity repeatedly and somehow charmingly gave out," he might not have dug in with such gusto.

If the food movement finds itself accused of snootiness, it could be because of the way too many of its members evoke Europe as this magical place where nobody snacks between meals, worries about their weight, or eats food that came from a plastic package. Or if such phenomena exist, then it's the fault of the US.

But while no doubt some American companies - and European imitations thereof - have contributed to food-related mess in the US and abroad, encouraging American self-flagellation ignores the (diverse) realities of how Europeans actually eat and, more to the point, suggests to those not yet convinced that there's a problem with how we (Americans, but not only) eat that the movement is not about health, the environment, or even pleasure, so much as about a certain set of upper-class pretensions. Food-based Europhilia is not in itself nonsense - with the exception of certain whole-wheat rolls in the Netherlands, the bread really is better on this continent - 20 (euro) cent supermarket white-flour rolls even here are better than that from New York's finest bakeries. I can't figure out why. But the food movement in America should not depend on Europhilia, any more than it should on nostalgia or on a love of nature.

Things that blow my mind

Donatella Versace buys her lingerie next door from where I get my sub-$3 bagel-sandwich lunches during the schoolyear. For some reason, this amazes me, whereas I've never found it particularly shocking that the actor who plays Mr. Big lives either on or across from that block, or that the NYU area in general is packed with celebrities. I just picture leaving Bagel Bob's with my sesame bagel with Muenster cheese just as Donatella Versace steps out of La Petite Coquette with a new set of lacy underwear, and the image of this amuses me to no end.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

North Sea, Red Hook

Mrs. Richards: I expect to be able to see the sea.
Basil Fawlty: You can see the sea. It's over there between the land and the sky.
MR: I would need a telescope to see that!
BF: Might I suggest you move to a hotel closer to the sea! Or preferably in it.
- Fawlty Towers

I just jogged to the sea, from a hotel that, according to the map, looked reasonably near to it - 5.8 km each way, which wouldn't include the various times I got lost in what were probably private residential complexes. The return trip was a walk, if that, culminating in the purchase of bread and water (what else?) at a supermarket. (The other possible end point of the run, the HEMA, was ruled out because it's too early for the HEMA to be open, and nothing is sadder than a closed shop full of cheap-chic Dutch housewares and pajama pants.) Because Dutch street names are impossible to remember (exception: Wassenaarseweg), I wrote down the streets that led towards the sea, finding only some of them, but impressing myself with a sense of direction that did ultimately get me to a beach. (I also followed the yellow-haired families on bicycles, figuring that was probably where they were headed.)

During the adventure, I of course was armed with soothingly English-language podcasts. On Fresh Air, Terri Gross was interviewing Joseph O'Neill, the author of Netherland. I'd been curious about the novel, plus it seemed appropriate. O'Neill was describing a scene from the book based on his own experience, and let's just say it sounded familiar to me as well: failing one's driving test at the Red Hook, Brooklyn site after driving around the block just fine, for reasons that are never quite established. While my second fail was definitively about hitting the curb while parking, the first...?

According to O'Neill, immigrants to NY who arrive after having driven "without incident" their whole adult lives in their home countries regularly fail at the Red Hook location. The answer, he explained, is to go take your test in the suburbs - Rita's suggestion, and, I've now learned in an unexpected way, a feasible one. Still, it was very, very strange to be in such an unfamiliar place - and the Netherlands really does not seem like anywhere I've ever been, at all - listening to someone hold forth at length about the utter humiliation of driving around that block in Red Hook and not getting a license out of it. On the very remote off-chance that the author of a book read publicly by Obama ever finds this post, I'll just add that they enjoy failing native New Yorkers there as well.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hallo up there

I'm now in the Netherlands, reading for orals met koffie while Jo attends a conference. Things here are almost too serene - the only places I associate with schoolwork are Hyde Park, Chicago and lower Manhattan, so sitting with a book by a canal just seemed bizarre, but in a good way. Although tomorrow I may have to turn the two-mile (each way) walk to the center into a jog, to up the reading-to-sightseeing ratio. It is truly lovely here (and not just because of the giant HEMA, to which I will no doubt return...), so it should be a good week.

You knew this was coming: I keep looking for clues in the food here as to why people here are ridiculously tall, even, it seems, compared to Belgians. Last night, upon arrival, Jo and I had some truly awful hamburgers that many Dutch people seemed to be enjoying (an acquired taste?) at a fast food place that specializes in sustainability, and has pictures of cows on the walls. There were so many cows staring at us that between those pictures, the (real-) cow-filled pasture next to the conference hotel, and the horribleness of the aforementioned hamburgers, I'm considering vegetarianism. Then again, the muesli cereal I bought to compensate: also verging on inedible.

The lunch I assembled for myself via the supermarket - gouda on a couple of wheat rolls - tasted very... nutritious. Not the gouda - that just tasted like gouda in the States, only fresher - but the roll. It had this vitamin-y aftertaste that prevented me from finishing the second roll. (No tragedy - I'd prepared for the possible failure of the sandwich with additional purchases of fruit and chocolate). But perhaps the aftertaste comes from the mysterious height-inducing substance? I did eat most of the two rolls, so we shall see.

Linguistically, the Dutch-Flemish thing is confusing me to no end. When Jo speaks his native language here, even at length, people reply in English. Is it that they've heard us speaking English? Sometimes, but not always. That Jo has brown rather than blond hair, and is 6'2" rather than 7'2", as is usual here? Perhaps. Other possibilities include the tendency for store and café signs, even in places I can't imagine cater to tourists or other international types, to be in English - perhaps all formal interaction with people who even might not be Dutch takes place in English? Or is Flemish really that different from Dutch? The sound of the two languages (two accents?) is noticeably different to me, someone who at this point understands some Flemish, just about no Dutch, and can only express coffee-related concerns in either, while despite knowing French, I'm still not convinced I'd hear any difference between the French in Paris and in Brussels.

That's enough of that. Now, back to 1870 Paris, where no doubt people were closer to my size.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Summer adventures

Still here! Kind of - 'here' is Belgium, not Brooklyn. Before that was Italy - there will soon be a post on Cheapness Studies about the futility that is attempting to purchase food in that country while not Italian. Hint: never, ever eat in a restaurant. Now, back to the reading extravaganza, with perhaps some moments of blogging thrown in.