A cou­ple of months ago I began play­ing with our new dig­i­tal* piano.  What a love­ly thing a key­board instru­ment is!  You just push a but­ton, and out comes a per­fect note— hard if you hit it hard, soft if you hit it soft­ly, and nev­er out of tune.  The but­tons feel great and they’re laid out in a neat row.  The tonal range yawns across many octaves.  You’re lim­it­ed only by the physics of your hands.  It feels like cheat­ing com­pared to every oth­er instru­ment I’ve ever played.  No won­der music began real­ly tak­ing off when this tech­nol­o­gy was intro­duced.

(*Why dig­i­tal?  Because it has head­phones.)

Not that I can be said to actu­al­ly play the piano.  Over the past cou­ple of months I’ve “learned” it in much the same hap­haz­ard way I learned to type thir­ty years ago— with­out any dis­ci­pline or tech­nique what­so­ev­er, dri­ven pure­ly by the urgent desire to trans­duce.  (Now that I think of it, most of what I know is char­ac­ter­ized by this rather slop­py approach.)  I’m sure I could achieve bet­ter results by study­ing it prop­er­ly with a teacher, and I’m still painful­ly slow at read­ing from the staff.  But: I began mak­ing music any­way, with the piano, a hand­held recorder, and some nota­tion soft­ware.  There have been some late nights.

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treasure hunt

Over the past year I’ve set the kids a num­ber of trea­sure hunts, which are both fun to make and always in demand.  Like any­thing one tries a few times, it’s got­ten quick­er.  This morning’s was assem­bled in record time and under duress.  It turned out decent­ly giv­en con­straints and incor­po­rat­ed a shop­ping trip, though I’m regret­ting not hav­ing made Eliot’s half of it hard­er.  Next time..

The struc­ture usu­al­ly works like this.  Clues are writ­ten on slips of paper, which are hid­den in var­i­ous places, each point­ing to the next.  There’s some sort of prize at the end.  These were the clues:

My notes:

The library is use­ful as a place to hide clues— it’s a source of fun things to read, and shelf col­umn, row and book num­ber form a coor­di­nate sys­tem, which is good for math prob­lems.

The Dylan Thomas poem was Where once the waters of your face, with the fol­low­ing clues in a jar of salt and in sage:

Thanks to Ilse for tak­ing over from A5/E6.  She MMS’d me their favorite Schiele paint­ings from 1909-10,

.. after which I texted back the final clue lead­ing to their prizes:

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kindergarten: saudade do futuro

I hope not to get in trou­ble for post­ing, ver­ba­tim and with min­i­mal com­men­tary, an update we’ve just received from Eliot’s kinder­garten.  I find this fas­ci­nat­ing and, in its way, rather utopi­an:

As you know, we have been exper­i­ment­ing in our room with dif­fer­ent kinds of learn­ing sup­ports for our class­room, such as “wig­gle spots” to sit on, head­phones for qui­eter con­cen­tra­tion, and “pri­vate offices.” Many of the kids seem to have high oral needs right now, so we intro­duced two “chew tools” this week — chewy straws and gum. The gum is all nat­ur­al, no chem­i­cal sweet­en­ers, and sug­ar free (sweet­ened with xyl­i­tol). We will con­tin­ue to sup­ply straws as need­ed as well as chewy snacks at choice time. The gum seems to work bet­ter than the straws and be more hygenic as it does not touch hands or oth­er sur­faces once it is in the mouth.

A need to chew on pen­cils, cloth­ing or hair is a com­mon kinder­garten behav­ior, and pro­vid­ing alter­nate chew­ing expe­ri­ences can help focus and con­cen­tra­tion as well as be relax­ing for kids. How­ev­er, gum is not a choice for all fam­i­lies, so if you would pre­fer that your child not use this chew tool, please let me know.

This is dif­fer­ent from the kinder­garten of mem­o­ry.

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fennel indecency

Like the fried fiori di zuc­ca, there are some dish­es whose ratio of low effort to extra­or­di­nary result seems like a vio­la­tion of some nat­ur­al— or at least moral— law.  This is one such.  The recipe comes orig­i­nal­ly from Frank, the Tus­can restau­rant on 2nd Avenue between 5th and 6th Street in New York, which was for a while in the late 90s an undis­cov­ered beau­ty but has suf­fered being writ­ten up, famous and mobbed for many years now.  Frank is still very much worth the vis­it, espe­cial­ly at 11:46pm on a Tues­day.  Frank, the man, was kind enough to share this improb­a­ble fen­nel stunt with us back in the day.  The fla­vor was so com­plex that we were hard-pressed to believe that it was a three ingre­di­ent dish.  Frank, you shit­ting me?  (Accom­pa­nied by appro­pri­ate large-ampli­tude hand ges­tures.)  Of course, when two of the ingre­di­ents are the most per­fect hard cheese ever invent­ed and an aro­mat­ic bulb full of com­plex poly­cyclic what­sits, one under­stands that the “sim­plic­i­ty” is only super­fi­cial.

Take one or more bulbs of fresh fen­nel and wrap them tight­ly in tin­foil with no leaks.  Roast them in the oven at 375 degrees for.. a good while.  Open them care­ful­ly over a bowl, as you want to save any liquor that may escape.  The bulb should be soft and juicy all the way through.

Cut each bulb in half length­wise and put into a ramekin.  Don’t leave too much sur­round­ing space.  Pour all the juice in there.  Now, coat with heavy cream and a gen­er­ous quan­ti­ty of grat­ed Parmi­giano-Reg­giano.  Don’t be faint­heart­ed about this— the fen­nel should be near­ly sub­merged.  (That’s why you cut them in half and used indi­vid­u­al­ly-sized ramekins.)  Put these ramekins back into the oven at Fahren­heit 451 or so— the tem­per­a­ture at which good sense burns.  When the guys are good and cooked, you can grate a bit more Parmi­giano on top and run them under the broil­er very briefly to char the upper sur­face.


This needs to be accom­pa­nied by a nice crusty baguette, because the bits of fon­du­ta or what­ev­er the hell it is sur­round­ing the intense­ly fla­vored fen­nel bulbs will be con­sumed by you and your friends one way or anoth­er, with a dis­creet­ly swirled fin­ger if all else fails.

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fiori di zucca

The sea­son won’t last much longer, so it seems a good time to share the tech­nique we use for mak­ing one of the loveli­est things one can pop into one’s mouth, e.g. with a glass of pros­ec­co before din­ner with friends: fried zuc­chi­ni flow­ers.  It seems that many peo­ple do com­pli­cat­ed things with these flow­ers, like using them in soups or stuff­ing them with goat cheese, but in my opin­ion this is the very def­i­n­i­tion of gild­ing the lily.

There’s not much to it.  You heat up an inch of light oil to just below the smoke point.  While that’s hap­pen­ing, you mix flour and water to make a smooth, flu­id bat­ter the con­sis­ten­cy of heavy cream.  You slit the zuc­chi­ni flow­ers along one side and spread them out to form a sort, um, let’s call it a frilly dress-like shape, max­i­miz­ing the sur­face area.  You coat the flow­ers light­ly in bat­ter, slip them into the oil, and take them out with tongs when they just begin to brown, lay­ing them on a paper tow­el.  (Which should be kept well clear of the hot oil and flames.)  Sprin­kle gen­er­ous­ly with coarse sea salt and serve with­out delay.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly it can be quite hard to get any in your­self when you’re sweat­ing over the hot oil doing this for friends, as they seem to dis­ap­pear imme­di­ate­ly.  Anselm alone has been respon­si­ble for mak­ing off with the lion’s share of this course.

Appear­ances notwith­stand­ing, the flow­ers one usu­al­ly uses are the males, which grow on stems.  This recipe can be used for female flow­ers also, which appear a bit lat­er in the sea­son.  In Italy one can often find small zuc­chi­ni (only a cou­ple of inch­es long) fresh enough to come with the female flow­ers still attached; cut­ting the whole thing in half length­wise and pro­ceed­ing as above yields a love­ly sort of culi­nary cen­taur, half fried zuc­chi­ni flower, half zuc­chi­ni tem­pu­ra.  Move over, Jef­frey Eugenides!

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chicken marbella

Nan­cy made this for us last year, and it was great.  Appar­ent­ly a clas­sic.  Adding it to the blog now because it’s today’s shop­ping list.

  • 4 chick­ens, 2½ pounds each, quar­tered
  • 1 head of gar­lic, peeled and fine­ly pureed
  • ¼ cup dried oregano
  • coarse salt and fresh­ly ground black pep­per
  • ½ cup red wine vine­gar
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup pit­ted prunes
  • ½ cup pit­ted Span­ish green olives
  • ½ cup capers or caper­ber­ries with a bit of juice
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 1 cup brown sug­ar
  • 1 cup white wine
  • ¼ cup chopped Ital­ian pars­ley or cilantro

In a large bowl com­bine gar­lic, oregano, salt and pep­per, vine­gar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers with caper juice, and bay leaves.  Add the chick­en pieces and coat com­plete­ly with the mari­nade.  Cov­er and let mar­i­nate, refrig­er­at­ed, sev­er­al hours or overnight.

Pre­heat oven to 350°F.  Arrange chick­en in a sin­gle lay­er in one or two large, shal­low bak­ing pans and spoon mari­nade over it even­ly.  Sprin­kle chick­en pieces with brown sug­ar and pour white wine around them.

Bake for 50 min­utes to 1 hour, bast­ing fre­quent­ly with the sauce.  Chick­en is done when thigh pieces, pricked with a fork at their thick­est point, yield clear yel­low juice (not pink).

With a slot­ted spoon, trans­fer chick­en, prunes, olives, and capers to a serv­ing plat­ter.  Add sauce and sprin­kle with pars­ley or cilantro.

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testi espliciti

A recent episode of the Plan­et Mon­ey pod­cast about the trou­bled Ital­ian econ­o­my opened with some rather sticky hiphop, which on inves­ti­ga­tion turned out to be the wild­ly pop­u­lar (in Italy) and as far as I can tell unknown (in the US) rap­per from Le Marche Fab­rizio Tar­duc­ci, det­to Fab­ri Fibra:

Pis­tole in mac­chine – in Italia
Mac­chi­avel­li e Fos­co­lo – in Italia
I cam­pi­oni del mon­do sono – in Italia…
Ben­venu­to – in Italia
Fat­ti una vacan­za al mare – in Italia
Meglio non far­si oper­are – in Italia
Non andare all’ospedale – in Italia
Sei nato e mor­to qua
Sei nato e mor­to qua
Nato nel paese del­la mez­za ver­ità…

He turns out to be pret­ty damn good!  There’s a lot going on in these songs, in the pro­lif­ic machine-gun like text, in the music, in the rhythm of the deliv­ery.  The best of these tracks (espe­cial­ly on the 2010 disc Con­tro­cul­tura) con­tin­u­ous­ly sur­prise and delight with inner rhymes and dis­so­nances, missed and dou­bled beats, over­dubbed lay­ers that shift the text in and out of focus, sibi­lant or per­cus­sive syl­la­bles that seem to emerge as an instru­ment in their own right.  Maybe there’s recent Amer­i­can rap this good?  I’m not sure, but it seems like this deserves some explo­ration.

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places in corsica

This blog isn’t much of a diary.  I’d be hard pressed to say what exact­ly it is, but one of its func­tions is to record things that might be use­ful or inter­est­ing lat­er on, to our­selves or to friends or to whomev­er might hap­pen along.

The still-dis­or­ga­nized places tab is a frag­men­tary record (or in some cas­es to-do list) of use­ful places— most­ly to eat.  We all eat about three times per day, and if you’re prop­er­ly alive, you’ll agree that eat­ing is one of life’s great sources of plea­sure.  Espe­cial­ly when trav­el­ing.  And it’s not even option­al!  So in what fol­lows, I’ll record some of our most­ly food expe­ri­ences in Cor­si­ca, Provence and Paris, where we’ve spent the last cou­ple of weeks.  Then I’ll copy and paste lib­er­al­ly into the places page.  This seems a good way to relive these plea­sures one last time on the plane before buck­ling down to an inten­si­fied regime chez David Bar­ton.  And if you hap­pen to find your­self in north­ern Cor­si­ca, Mar­seille, Arles, Avi­gnon, Les Baux, or the 6th Arrondisse­ment of Paris any­time soon, you’ll have some recent intel­li­gence from the field that might add a dash of joy to an evening out.  Com­ments, sug­ges­tions and updates are very much appre­ci­at­ed.


In Cor­si­ca, we stayed at a rental place in the pic­turesque vil­lage of Lama, pop­u­la­tion 176 in 2008 accord­ing to Wikipedia.  It’s an inland ham­let perched on a steep moun­tain­side about halfway between Ile Rousse and Bas­tia.  Lama remind­ed us of cer­tain moun­tain vil­lages in the rel­a­tive­ly unde­vel­oped west of Crete, where we (not coin­ci­den­tal­ly) spent an idyl­lic cou­ple of weeks last sum­mer.

In the main square there are some sofas under a canopy where you can have tar­tine in the morn­ing, tarti­nat­ed (let’s just adopt that word) with hand­made fig pre­serves and local but­ter.  You won’t be con­fused about which estab­lish­ment I mean, because there’s noth­ing else in the main square aside from the oblig­a­tory lit­tle church.  This place also had a wood-fired brick piz­za oven and prob­a­bly does a decent job of it; piz­za was very com­mon in Cor­si­ca, betray­ing its kin­ship with Italy, which often seems stronger than its kin­ship with France.  (Though sad­ly, this doesn’t extend to the cof­fee.  Here they must need to pay their dues to their French oppres­sors, if my French Cof­fee The­o­ry is cor­rect.  A more benign the­o­ry is that since piz­za cul­ture is much old­er than espres­so cul­ture, this is an arti­fact of the length of the peri­od dur­ing which Cor­si­ca has been cut off from Ital­ian influ­ence.*)

When our friend Michael arrived, he brought with him, cour­tesy of his taxi dri­ver, a 10cm disc of some kind of no-name Cor­si­can sheep’s milk cheese with an ash rind, which was unbe­liev­ably good.  Com­plex, dense, nut­ty and rich, slight­ly dry around the edges, moist but not run­ny in the cen­ter.  Not to be refrig­er­at­ed.  We tried our best to spread the eat­ing of this cheese out over sev­er­al days.  I’m sor­ry not to know more pre­cise­ly what this thing was called or where it came from.

We ate din­ner twice at the town’s fanci­er restau­rant, Cam­pu Lat­inu, and were very hap­py with it.  (We only repeat­ed a restau­rant twice on this trip.)  The set­ting is beau­ti­ful and atmos­pher­ic, with out­door seat­ing on a stone ter­race under fig trees and climb­ing vines over­look­ing the val­ley.  As dusk comes in, around 9 o’clock, lay­ers of moun­tain­ous sil­hou­ette rise soft­ly out of the clouds on the far side in pur­ple bands.  One of the tra­di­tion­al dish­es served by Cam­pu Lat­inu, a sort of beef pot pie with juniper berries in the stew, was a stand­out.  It was unfor­tu­nate that this was being split among three of us, each try­ing to bal­ance gra­cious shar­ing against glut­tony.

Meals at Cam­pu Lat­inu stretched out lux­u­ri­ant­ly into the night.  Here and else­where in Cor­si­ca, one orders the 50cl bot­tles of Pat­ri­mo­niu wine in order to avoid the excess­es of full-sized 75cl bot­tles, but the intent to mod­er­ate is ruined by the inevitable sec­ond bot­tle.  Like a lot of local wines in Europe, this stuff is rough­ly the price of bot­tled water in the gro­cery store, sug­gest­ing that Jesus’s par­lor trick was a wash eco­nom­i­cal­ly speak­ing.  And it goes with the food per­fect­ly.  Such wine might or might not sur­vive recon­tex­tu­al­iza­tion.  There are high­er-end Cor­si­can wines too, though, and we had two excel­lent ones lat­er on at Emile’s in Calvi.  But I’m get­ting ahead of myself.

We didn’t get the sense that there are a great num­ber of clas­sic Cor­si­can dish­es.  One that came up often was can­nel­loni stuffed with ricot­ta-like broc­ciu cheese.  We were nev­er par­tic­u­lar­ly con­vinced by this recipe.  It’s bland, and unfor­tu­nate­ly seems the like­ly mod­el for the sort of “cheese can­nel­loni” made pop­u­lar in the US by fed­er­al­ly fund­ed school lunch­es and microwave din­ners.

Corte Corti

In Cor­si­ca, as through­out Europe, there are stan­dard­ized enter­ing and exit­ing signs along the roads as they wind their way through one ham­let after anoth­er.  The town names are writ­ten first in French, then in Cor­si­can, which looks pret­ty much like Ital­ian with ter­mi­nal o’s turned into u’s.  (But of course this must nev­er be men­tioned, just like it must nev­er be men­tioned that cer­tain of the many “offi­cial” lan­guages of Spain look just like Span­ish but with some j’s turned into x’s.  Orthog­ra­phy strain­ing to reca­pit­u­late ethnog­ra­phy, or some­thing.)  Corte is the town at the heart of Corsica’s on again, off again inde­pen­dence move­ment, and there, even more than else­where on the island, French spellings on the signs have been graf­fi­tied over.  The uni­ver­si­ty has posters on it that seem to sug­gest some kind of “lib­er­a­tion stud­ies” cur­ricu­lum.

The short walk from the town’s main square, Place Pas­cal Paoli, up to the cas­tle, with its won­der­ful panoram­ic view­points, is rec­om­mend­ed.  At Café de la Place on this square we had a very good hand­made pas­ta dish with san­gli­er, which are the wild pigs liv­ing on the island.  (Roger, our apart­ment guy, cau­tioned us on the day we arrived to latch the gar­den gate against these maraud­ers.)  But much bet­ter over­all was a meal we had on the ter­race of the near­by U Paglia Orba, a place focused on high-qual­i­ty region­al cook­ing.  The pro­pri­etor was kind and atten­tive to the kids, and the bill was very rea­son­able.

It was a Thurs­day.  As night fell, some kids in the street below hooked up elec­tric gui­tars and start­ed doing cov­ers of Rolling Stones and U2 songs, most­ly get­ting the lyrics right.  The sur­round­ing few blocks quick­ly became live­ly with rov­ing crowds of all ages, food stands, and musi­cal acts, most notably a band singing tra­di­tion­al Cor­si­can polypho­ny, which is quite beau­ti­ful in its belt­ed-out, fullthroat­ed open-fifths kind of way.  This tra­di­tion­al stuff attract­ed a much big­ger crowd than the Anglo-Amer­i­can cov­er acts, this being Corte Cor­ti, after all.

Gorges and Falls

The Reston­i­ca Gorges, near Corte, are worth a hike.  Bring your swim­suit.  If one wends far enough up the twisty (and very nar­row) road along the gorge and finds a place to pull the car off, one can pick a path down to the riv­er and spend a very pleas­ant after­noon swim­ming in the rock pools and boul­der­ing.  Even bet­ter, though also more tourist­ed, was the Cas­cade des Anglais in the heart of the island, a chain of water­falls, nat­ur­al slides and pools under over­hang­ing gran­ite ledges.

For a seri­ous hik­ing hol­i­day, the GR20 trail looks pret­ty great.  On the way to Cas­cade des Anglais we stopped to walk a small sec­tion of it, down a val­ley and up a hill to an aban­doned keep.

One can just make the keep out in Bing’s aer­i­al imagery (shown below at three lev­els of detail with a push­pin at the geo­t­ag of the panora­ma above):


Porto, Girolata and the Scandola Reserve

On the sea­side in Por­to, there are lots of out­fits offer­ing boat tours and rentals to explore the coast.  It would have been fun to rent a zodi­ac for the day, but we arrived a bit late for that.  We did make it out on a snor­kel­ing tour of the Scan­dola Reserve, a beau­ti­ful stretch of coast­line walled in by steep gran­ite cliffs and rock for­ma­tions.  The boat also stopped at Giro­la­ta, a vil­lage acces­si­ble only from the sea and per­haps by ATV.  Por­to and Giro­la­ta both have old stone watch­tow­ers, part of a net­work of dozens cir­cling the island built by the Gen­ovese dur­ing their occu­pa­tion, though the ruins proved hard to access.

There are sev­er­al places in Giro­la­ta good for hav­ing a glass of wine or a beer before going back to the boat.  In Por­to, we ate at Le Robin­son, which is reput­ed to be one of the few places where one can get real Cor­si­can lan­goustes, but were most­ly unim­pressed.  The prepa­ra­tion method of the lan­goustes involved an incon­gru­ous dark sauce, and they were over­cooked.


We were in Calvi only briefly, for a walk around the citadel and din­ner.  I wish we’d had more time to explore— it’s the most attrac­tive of the Cor­si­can sea­side towns we saw on this trip, some­what rem­i­nis­cent of the Venet­ian har­bor of Cha­nia in north­west Crete.


Views from the citadel were mag­nif­i­cent, and the old town high up with­in the citadel had appeal­ing-look­ing tea hous­es and shops, while the more pick­pock­et-friend­ly pedes­tri­an alley­ways below thronged with the usu­al mer­chants sell­ing hats, ice creams, and USB sticks.

Michael’s father had booked us in to Emile’s on the water­front, a Miche­lin-starred place with a sec­ond-sto­ry bal­cony.  It was white table­cloth (what Miche­lin place isn’t?), but not exces­sive­ly for­mal.  The meal was very good, and the wines excel­lent, though Michael Sr. was to be thanked for his expert selec­tion on this score, and I neglect­ed to take notes.  I let Anselm get away with eat­ing all of the truf­fles in my amuse-bouche, which prob­a­bly counts as overindul­gent par­ent­ing.  As we were fin­ish­ing up dessert and dark set­tled, Bastille Day fire­works start­ed up over the har­bor.  Pret­ty per­fect.


We had a very nice upscale lunch on the water at Saint-Flo­rent, but I’m now unable to find the name of the restau­rant, which is quite frus­trat­ing.  It began with an “M”, and one accessed it by walk­ing down a some­what hid­den ramp off the main square.  The lan­gouste in lemon but­ter sauce here made it clear what all the fuss was about.  This place also served deli­cious stuffed sar­dines, in which broc­ciu was deployed to bet­ter effect than in the can­nel­loni.

To be con­tin­ued..

*OK, anoth­er smar­tarse is like­ly to point out that the mod­ern piz­za with toma­to and moz­zarel­la was only invent­ed in 1889, around the same time as espres­so (1884).  (The 1880s were a fruit­ful decade for the Ital­ians!)  But piz­za is much old­er than this, and the addi­tion of slices of moz­zarel­la on top is, while culi­nar­i­ly sig­nif­i­cant, con­cep­tu­al­ly triv­ial.  Idea dif­fu­sion— noth­ing but a dropped com­ment in a bar— is suf­fi­cient to intro­duce the Margheri­ta recipe to an exist­ing piz­za cul­ture, while it’s total­ly inad­e­quate for intro­duc­ing espres­so to a pre-espres­so cof­fee cul­ture.

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french coffee

We’ve had a won­der­ful time abroad.  More on that soon.  But a notable minus of Cor­si­ca: the cof­fee sucks.

In fact, the cof­fee sucks in France as a whole.  For a cul­ture that so val­ues gas­tron­o­my, this is dif­fi­cult to come to grips with; I think with­out excep­tion every oth­er coun­try on the Med under­stands cof­fee.  The French just don’t get it.  They don’t do cre­ma.  They seem to extract the hell out of the shot until it flows weak and bit­ter into the cup, pro­duc­ing a kind of undrink­able dish­wa­tery flu­id, irre­spec­tive of the qual­i­ty of the beans or equip­ment.  Then, if they deign to add milk, it’s great glugs of low-fat UHT stuff steamed coarse­ly but to the brink of ion­iza­tion.  Our only decent cof­fee of the past two weeks, it pains me to say, came out of a Nespres­so machine at our friend Ivo’s in Mar­seille.

When going out, it’s unwise to order cap­puc­ci­no, mac­chi­a­to, espres­so, or any­thing of the sort; “café crème” is your best bet, if you’re phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly depen­dent.  If you’re not, just skip it.  And if you must have a “p’tit café” after din­ner, expect to use the sug­ar­cube to blunt the edge.

Why, or how, can it suck so bad­ly?  Here’s the best the­o­ry I can come up with.  The Ital­ians have per­fect­ed espres­so; after try­ing one at Sant’Eustachio, there’s noth­ing much fur­ther to say on the sub­ject.  Some oth­er coun­tries, like Turkey, Viet­nam* or Ethiopia, have their own indige­nous and aes­thet­i­cal­ly valid take on the drink.  Oth­ers, like Israel and Aus­tralia (yes, and Seat­tle), are hap­py to learn their craft from the Ital­ians, and if they’re ambi­tious, try to improve upon per­fec­tion by scor­ing real­ly spe­cial beans, con­trol­ling their process with excep­tion­al rig­or, or hir­ing unusu­al­ly hot baristi.  But the French don’t have a cred­i­ble cof­fee cul­ture of their own, and they can’t adopt the Ital­ian one, because they loathe the Ital­ians.  Also because they resist adopt­ing any­thing non-indige­nous, whether it’s food, lan­guage, tech­nol­o­gy, what­ev­er.  So instead, every restau­ran­teur, bak­er and bar­man belongs to an unspo­ken con­spir­a­cy.  Their mis­sion is to con­struct an alter­na­tive uni­verse in which cof­fee is a kind of iron­ic com­ment on how cof­fee is actu­al­ly noth­ing, noth­ing, like an aspirin, or a tooth­pick.

This seems like a frag­ile sit­u­a­tion.  It would only take one expat, one rogue bar, one cor­ner café in a fash­ion­able neigh­bor­hood, to top­ple the house of cards.  Extreme mea­sures must be in force to pre­vent such a thing.  With­held busi­ness licens­es?  Sab­o­tage?  Depor­ta­tion?

*Someone’s going to write a snarky com­ment about Viet­namese cof­fee hav­ing been intro­duced by the French.  While it’s true that cof­fee cul­ti­va­tion and the invert­ed fil­ter came from France in the 19th cen­tu­ry, cafe da is clear­ly a Viet­namese inven­tion, as evi­denced by the fact that it’s only avail­able in France at Viet­namese restau­rants.  It should also be kept in mind that much of cof­fee his­to­ry takes place in the 20th cen­tu­ry; the espres­so itself was only invent­ed in 1884.

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A few months ago, I drove past the cor­ner of 5th and Pike in the evening and saw some­thing new, a shopfront that flash­ing by looked like some sort of Bab­bagesque mechan­i­cal com­put­er, brass machin­ery grid­ded in glass and lit gold­en­ly from behind.  I would have cir­cled around the block to take a clos­er look, but was run­ning late as usu­al.  This was how I first expe­ri­enced what is per­haps the most beau­ti­ful­ly designed win­dow shop dis­play I’ve ever seen— and, shock­ing­ly, in Seat­tle!

Although the hun­dreds of vin­tage sewing machines in their win­dows did hold my inter­est for many min­utes when I went back there to explore on foot, I was com­plete­ly unin­ter­est­ed in what this shop actu­al­ly sold, once I under­stood that it involved cloth­ing.

This is because for more than a decade I’ve worn noth­ing but jeans, black T shirts, and black shoes.  Fam­i­ly, friends and col­leagues will con­firm that this is very near­ly not an exag­ger­a­tion.  The shirts are fea­ture­less, with no logos, writ­ing or tags.  The shoes are fea­ture­less too, with no laces.  Their main prop­er­ty is that they slip on and off eas­i­ly in the secu­ri­ty line (Mer­rell World Trav­el­er).

Why such a joy­less appar­el diet?— well, I just didn’t want to think about it.  I find triv­ial choic­es dif­fi­cult.  Much bet­ter to just round down these aspects of life to their func­tion­al min­i­ma: pull a black shirt from the top of the stack of iden­ti­cal such shirts, dit­to the jeans, and step into the shoes on the way out the door.  In fact I felt very smug about all this, the smug­ness of out­smart­ing one­self by set­ting one’s watch just the right num­ber of min­utes ahead.

But I’ve been wak­ing up, slow­ly and by small incre­ments, to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of clothes as a valid means of self-expres­sion.  (Yes, I live under a rock, bla blabla.)

In fact I began wak­ing up a few years ago, when Adri­enne dis­cov­ered Eileen Fish­er.  (Not that she has ever been cloth­ing-chal­lenged like me.)  This women’s clothes com­pa­ny makes real­ly beau­ti­ful things.  Their use of col­or is both spar­ing and intense.  The fab­rics are won­der­ful­ly tex­tured, and the pat­terns bor­row lib­er­al­ly from the visu­al lan­guage of oth­er forms, things like scarves that fall like torn petals, wispi­ly knit­ted jer­seys that cling and bil­low like iri­des­cent jel­ly­fish, coarse­ly woven jack­ets that some­how feel like Japan­ese but­ter­fly books.  Yet unlike the dis­tort­ed inhu­man art­works one sees in fash­ion mags, these clothes some­how feel made to be worn by real peo­ple in the real world, by women who live and work sub­stan­tial lives out there in het­ero­ge­neous envi­ron­ments that include peo­ple like— well, like me, in my jeans and black shirts.

I’m not entire­ly sure how this effect is achieved, but I think one key ingre­di­ent is a sense of tan­gi­ble work­man­ship and solid­i­ty in the fab­rics, the seams and the fas­ten­ing sys­tems.  From this per­spec­tive, Eileen Fish­er clothes are per­haps draw­ing from the same well as jeans.  Jeans are so endur­ing­ly, uni­ver­sal­ly pop­u­lar, I think because their entire nature and con­struc­tion empha­sizes a sense of secu­ri­ty in their integri­ty of form and func­tion, in the con­text of a wide range of social and phys­i­cal inter­ac­tions with the world.  In a good pair of jeans, one feels unfussy, ruggedi­zed, ready for life.  This is what is real­ly meant by “com­fort­able”.  The effect can be achieved with more del­i­cate fab­rics too, if the work­man­ship is robust and the con­text well suit­ed.

The ele­gance of the leop­ard, both func­tion­al and beau­ti­ful, is more com­pelling than the fop­pish­ness of the pea­cock.  Aside from my own issues, my dis­com­fort with fash­ion comes from two inter­twined evils, I think: first, that like pea­cocks, we’ve large­ly reserved exter­nal beau­ty for one gen­der— the oth­er one; sec­ond, that the way we express beau­ty in women’s cloth­ing seems so often to tend toward the pea­cock end of things.  Trans­gen­dered pea­cock.  Girl-pea­cocks make me uneasy because I men­tal­ly mir­ror their dis­com­fort and lack of bal­ance, rather than enjoy­ing their fragili­ty and the dubi­ous sense of con­trol that’s sup­posed to give me as a male.  On the oth­er hand social­ly accept­able beau­ty in (social­ly accept­able) male clothes is of such a sub­tle and con­tin­gent char­ac­ter, it makes me think of a bunch of hens cri­tiquing each oth­ers’ dull brown plumage.  Is James Bond’s suit and tie so much bet­ter than Dilbert’s?  I sup­pose so, but it’s all shades of tedious, if you ask me.

The Asian jun­gle fowl, now that’s more my kind of chick­en:

How mag­nif­i­cent is that.  My own exper­i­ments along these lines began in earnest with this pair of orange shoes.

I’ve found them to have a real effect on my sense of self and well­be­ing in the world.  Peo­ple— strangers— smile at me more with these on.  Even with no oth­er ele­ments, or per­haps espe­cial­ly with no oth­er ele­ments.

Bet­ter jeans fol­lowed (Adri­ano Gold­schmied Pro­tégé, for what it’s worth), and oth­er small things.  Final­ly, All­saints was brought back to my atten­tion.  The inside is as appeal­ing as the out­side, con­tin­u­ing in the same prewar/postpunk vein.

This store very much cap­i­tal­izes on the val­ues of den­im cul­ture.  Hol­lis Hen­ry sure­ly shops here— though a turn-off for us both would be its fetishiza­tion of the “authen­tic”, includ­ing chem­i­cal treat­ments lov­ing­ly designed to mim­ic skate­board trau­ma, or the pati­na of sev­er­al con­sec­u­tive nights’ sleep in the gut­ter.

Still, All­saints is as charm­ing­ly asperg­er­sish in its approach to clothes as the shop dis­play sug­gests, sort of like Bloc Par­ty.  Even the safe­ty pins are cus­tom-made.

The palette ranges from dirt, through cer­tain oxides, to the neu­tral grey­line, to blue, to just shy of white.  The design lan­guage is con­strained enough, and the mate­ri­als and work­man­ship appeal­ing enough, to make it pos­si­ble for me to shop here with­out over­load­ing my deci­sion cir­cuits.  There’s a solemn­ly play­ful sense of “hood­ie cou­ture” about some of these things, e.g. the fol­low­ing object:

Although at first glance it might appear to be made for anoth­er species, in fact that tubu­lar head struc­ture piles up into a sort of hybrid between hood, turtle­neck, scarf and.. ruff.

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