en ce moment – highlights this week

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how to do Florence in 36 hours

Having just returned from a whirlwind tour of Italy that included stops in Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, I wanted to record for you all my best travel tips for maximizing the amount of culture, sightseeing, food, and fun in some of Italy’s most iconic cities.

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inventive cuisine and culture collide at embassy chef challenge

In case you missed it, the Embassy Chef Challenge took place this past Wednesday, at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center. It was an exquisite evening of cuisine that managed to both represent cultural mainstays, and wow local foodies, and dining enthusiasts with inspiring new twists.

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en ce moment – weekly highlights + inspiration

“Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” Twyla Tharp

Your weekly dose of arts and culture highlights… last week’s Embassy Chef Challenge, and Madame Butterfly; Markus Lüpertz exhibition now open at the Phillips; and New York City Ballet in town next week.

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district culture: not to miss this month of may

There is so much to do this May in DC. Maybe it’s the nice weather we’ve been having lately, or the surplus of arts and culture events on the agenda that is really making me feel the FOMO. Every weekend there is so much going on to take advantage of. Time to get out and start enjoying!

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art adventures in washington dc: be a tourist in your own city

I opened a fortune cookie the other week that told me “you live your life in art.”

Here are some of my favorite things to do in the city when I feel like going on an adventure, or looking for inspiration.

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Gone Girls and Girls on Trains: Feminism’s New Heroines

IMG_0488It’s been very refreshing to watch how lately women’s (and some men’s) literary tastes have evolved from novels like Twighlight and 50 Shades of Grey, both featuring “heroines” who seem to be in constant need of reassurance from the dominant male figures in their lives, to books that are actually bolstering feminism. Thankfully, novels such as The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl arrived to reverse recent regressive steps for literary feminism. Both novels are thoughtful criticisms of society’s treatment of women, particularly how society discounts female emotion, as well as thrillers that are entertaining and suspenseful enough to have drawn in all audiences.

The love-story-gone-awry is far-fetched and unbelievable in a literal sense, but at it’s heart, Gone Girl explores male-female dynamics and reflects the sexism of today’s culture. Through the voice of the alluring, beguiling and psychotic narrator, Amy Dunne, and the saga of her foolproof scheme to frame aloof and neglectful husband Nick for her murder, Gillian Flynn’s cynical tale captures the universal truths of what modern sexism wants from women.

In contrast to the way women are expected to respond to male transgressions in real-life, through the actions of Gone Girl’s protagonist, Amy, Flynn skillfully illustrates the extent that women have been conditioned to ignore subtle displays of rudeness and disrespect from the men in their lives. By showing the opposite, Flynn effectively illustrates how pervasive sexism still is, and what today’s sexism wants from women: “a woman who doesn’t care too much… who gracefully bows out as soon as she’s no longer wanted, who makes no demands and puts up no resistance.”

Flynn shows how devalued women’s emotions have become, and how normative it is for women to “not care,” and to concede to the preferences and wants of their partners by dramatizing the reverse of such behavior through the actions of Amy, the wife who is figuratively abused and made to feel like “something to be jettisoned if necessary… something disposable” (Flynn). Amy’s complex plan to make her husband pay for his emotional neglect and own up to his wrongdoings is a dramatic response proportionate to the extent to which society and women themselves ignore these faint indignities.

Gone Girl affords male transgressions the figurative weight they often, regrettably, do not carry in reality. We pass over the subtle indignities, the small snubs and the little injustices, because they are so worn into the woodwork of the female experience that they have become so invisible to us… [Amy’s] overreaction is an appropriate reaction to society’s underreaction.” (Rothfeld, The New Republic)

Amy is calculating, conniving and committed to her plan of framing Nick; she has studied how to pull of the perfect fake murder, allowing no detail to escape her in her quest to ensnare Nick in her deadly trap. But Flynn shows that even a woman as intelligent, resourceful, and beautiful as Amy is trapped in the patriarchal system: her one mistake of getting robbed at a motel forces her to turn to stalker-ish, clinging ex-boyfriend Desi Collings, and become the damsel-in-distress in order to survive.

Nick’s infallible indifference toward his wife is perhaps the most insulting of his behaviors, propelling Amy to create a punishment suitable to his crime; disappearing and leaving him to explain, grovel and apologize to national audiences, and to convincingly show police and detectives that he really cares and loves her: that he is not a murderer. Flynn shows the reader again and again that, “men don’t have to care, or even respond to female caring, because they hold all the cards,” (Rothfield) as even though Amy is brilliant, funny and beautiful, she is only “something disposable” to Nick; she’s just the wife who can easily be replaced with an equally smart and pretty girl.

Amy is not without her flaws, of course, and has played her equal part in the deterioration of their marriage. She is not a trustworthy narrator either; she admits that she “wears personalities like fashion trends” and that “Diary Amy” is a persona she concocted to be perceived as “likeable” by the police and the public. However convoluted are Amy’s lies, and warped, mixed up personalities, the emotional weight of her narrative rings true for all women: she is viewed as replaceable and disposable by the man in her life and she feels powerless to make him care for, value or even acknowledge her.

The Girl on the Train’s Rachel is a much more sympathetic and likeable character than Amy, although her narration is still unreliable due to her alcoholism and frequent blackouts. In a similar sense to Amy’s retelling of stories, the reader cannot trust the factual accuracies of Rachel’s memories. But however nebulous and imprecise these blacked-out memories may be, the underlying instincts and emotions to Rachel’s memories ultimately prevail, even when no one wants to believe her.

In one powerful scene during which Rachel recalls a fight she had with ex-husband Tom, she remembers feeling “scared” and “terrified” during it, even though Tom told her that she threw a lamp at him. She’s confused that she felt these things since according to Tom she was behaving violently. Later, the scene comes back to her in vivid detail, and she sees that the emotional impact of her memory was spot on, as Tom had lied: he was actually acting violently toward her in the scene.

Through a different approach, Watkins accomplishes the same goal of illustrating the depreciation of women’s value and emotional currency in our society. In contrast to Amy Dunne’s character, and her conniving and bitterness toward her lazy, unappreciative husband, Watkin’s heroine, Rachel, is a dramatization of desperation and pitifulness (someone who is later revealed to have been abused and mistreated) who gets drunk and leaves whining messages on her now-remarried ex-husband’s phone. Through this approach, Watkins similarly shows how quick society is to discount or discard the emotional truth of women, “why we hasten to dismiss women who seem broken and confused,” as well as the extent to which “women can be manipulated to question our own perception.” (Fallon, Huffington Post).

The Girl on the Train takes a less defiant angle [than Gone Girl]. Rachel comes off as pathetic — women won’t want to emulate her — but Hawkins’ masterful deployment of unwittingly unreliable narration to evoke the aftershocks of abuse and trauma is an equally powerful way of exploring women’s marginalization.” (Fallon)

Perhaps these novels, their underlying themes and commentary on women in today’s society can serve as reminders to us that however unfair society’s standards, we have the choice to accept them or not. Maybe not, if such hyperboles as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train are even required for us to realize how often women still allow themselves to manipulated, and the pressure and expectation imposed on us to act “cool,” agreable and like we don’t care. In either case, I look forward to the next hit novel that offers Feminism a new heroine.

“We’re lucky in our lives”

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” Pat Conroy

 
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Seven blank, impressionable faces stared at Julie.  The faces belonged to her high school students, who were sitting quietly in their chairs, copybooks open and pencil cases set, ready to be told what to do.  She didn’t just see them staring at her, she felt their stares; they were like sponges ready to absorb whatever she might say or do next. 

Out of the corner of her eye, Julie watched them too while she wrote down the names of the absentees in the attendance book.  She shuffled through her handouts she was about to pass out, and noticed that some of them were actually whispering to each other.  They were whispering.  Was she too intimidating that they wouldn’t speak at a normal decibel?  

Some of the pencil-cases were covered in graffiti-style lettering, with the names of celebrities or boyfriends or girlfriends tattooed on them.  They had glue-sticks and little bottles of white-out too, with which they used to paste loose pages in their notebooks and meticulously cover up mistakes.  All the supplies of a student handy, they sat there quietly, ready to copy something down, glue, or white out a misspelling. 

Julie was just as much afraid of them, maybe even more afraid than they were of her.  She was outnumbered, whereas they swam in the safety of being in the same boat.  If they all thought her weird, then it was so; she was just some freak foreigner who had been appointed to stand before them babbling on in English. 

“Today we’re going to talk about cultural exchanges,” Julie said, not entirely believing this statement.  It was more likely that she would talk, presumably to herself, and fourteen eyes would stare at her absently, while glancing at the clock, counting the minutes until they were released from jail.  Once, when standing in front of the room, facing the class to give a presentation, one boy, Marvin, had turned around one hundred and eighty degrees, mid-sentence, to check the clock.  Apparently he had been turned off by the sound of his own voice, having been forced to speak for five minutes on “the notion of progress.”

“What are the challenges of visiting other cultures?” said Julie, commencing the discussion. She hoped that a hand would raise so she wouldn’t have to call on someone.  Whenever she did this the kid would begrudgingly read their answer in a barely-audible monotone, sounding and looking as if they’d rather be anywhere else in the world.  Then Julie would say something encouraging like “great answer” in a voice that was too fake which she despised. 

“We have to adapt,” said one of the girls, Léa, timidly, “When you visit other countries, it’s always more interesting than where you are from, but it’s harder too.”

“Everything is new and exciting; it’s not the daily routine that we’re used to,” added Mégan. 

These kids were from the tiny town, or perhaps even the surrounding countryside.  A girl, Louise, had told Julie that her village consisted in three hundred inhabitants who did not even have a Boulangerie at their disposal.  Perhaps this made travel all the more impressive to them.  Their daily realities were sheltered from instability and risk; safely tucked away on the outskirts of the beautiful, the interesting, perhaps even the dangerous sides of life.  That’s what the suburbs essentially were: communities whose purposes were to facilitate the daily routine.  

 

“Yes, I agree,” said Yann, “Other places are always more cool than where we’re from.  Like Canada. Or America.”

“I don’t think so,” says Nolan, “I’m French but I still love Paris and her monuments.  Big Ben, puhh,” he fills his cheeks with air and let’s out a short puff, in an expression of London’s less-than-thrilling effect on him, “but the Eiffel Tower… That’s spectacular.” He said the word spectacular with such conviction that it was impossible to forget it.

And it was spectacular.  There were not so many things which measured up to the shimmering, glittering Eiffel Tower after dark.  In a city where there was still poverty, ugliness and stress, there was also a bit of magic that awaited one at the end of his day.  The glistening lights droned out every hassle and made each person and his quandaries insignificant.

“But we see it all the time,” Florestan jumped in, “After a while it’s not that exciting to us anymore, like the same way it would be to some tourist.”

“I don’t agree,” said Nolan, “It’s magnifique.  I don’t ever get tired of it.”

It wasn’t difficult to see his point of view.  When the lights began, there was nothing else to do but stare for the first minute, and somehow they consumed all of the other senses as well.  Maybe that was what is was to truly appreciate something: to still sit and marvel at what had already wowed you tens or hundreds or thousands of times before.

 

“So what can we learn from cultural exchanges?” Julie asks the next discussion question.

“I think we realize how lucky we are in our lives compared with some other people,” Yann blurts out.

A generic version of this answer echoes around the classroom; everyone else repeats a variant of taking things for granted, not appreciating the rights we are lucky to have.  Julie senses that the first boy to speak has something else to say. 

“So who are you talking about specifically?” she asks, “Can you give us an example?”

“My older brothers are soldiers in Djibouti.  Over there, men have to pay to love a woman.”

“Like prostitution?”

 “Yes.  It’s very common, but the girls don’t like it.  Some of the men have three or four girls.  If he doesn’t have any money to pay for one, he has to love another boy.”

This wasn’t exactly part of the lesson plan.  No, it was better: a rare, pure occurrence was the moment when a student said something real rather than a sentence read out of a copybook.  Julie could picture his brothers coming home in all the heroic glamour of soldiers.  They were already the prized, older siblings idolized by their kid brother, and then they would tell him something like this, shattering all illusions that real life was just a cool pursuit of not having to do homework.  Horrific stories weren’t always a few degrees removed by the pages of a newspaper or a plasma screen TV: somewhere far away, they were actually happening.  These first-hand accounts from relatives or friends carried more weight.  They did not compare to the objective tone of a news reporter or emotionless black and white letters which bore the facts.

These kids weren’t so fragile; they were sixteen and seventeen years old.  Some of them worked hard, some were smart and original, but nonetheless they were limited in experience.  Spending one’s days in a gated-in school, in the middle of the forest, in a town which probably wasn’t even marked on most maps, was certainly a limiting, sheltered way of life.

Maybe she should say something more on comment, she wasn’t sure what, but it seemed like heavy thought to just allow to hang in the air.  Instead, she let the discussion continue as an entire two volunteers were already raising their hands to speak again.  Perhaps it was enough for these kids to recognize some of the injustices of the world.  As long as they remembered that they were lucky, they could do something to help later on.  For now, maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to being going to school in the forest, living in a teeny town.

the beautiful people

“Our waiter hates me,” said Julie, “Did you see that?  All he says to us is ‘Je vous écoute’.  He couldn’t get away fast enough.”  

“He said Bonsoir too,” says Charlene.  His curt demeanor wasn’t necessarily rudeness in this situation, but was the culture of many European restaurants.  They were learning that restaurants in France didn’t have the same consumer-oriented feel as those in the U.S. did.  Instead of your server flirting with you, animatedly reciting for you a catalogue of specials and promotions, and dropping by every five minutes to “check in,” or “make sure everything’s alright,” one is basically left to his own devices in these establishments in Europe.

They tried to flag down one of the waiters rushing past, but this was another impossible task which had led to a few meals being eaten in McDonalds to avoid these tests of patience.

However, even the McDonalds couldn’t be considered “fast food” in the same way which was meant in the States.  The pastel-colored macaroons and other delightfully miniature pastries gave the café the appearance of a small child’s tea party spread.  The ceramic cups for café au laits and cappuccinos would also never be associated with a McDonalds in the U.S..  Even the water there, which was only offered in evian bottles surpassed the standards of most casual dining institutions in the United States, further confusing the American tourists.  

The rest of the family was in that place where you were in awe over everything; where you felt as if you were in a dream or a movie.  These were the phrases people often used when describing a visit to a foreign country; the feeling of being so deep in culture shock it was difficult to distinguish reality from the trance you were in that wasn’t quite real-life.  Euros were referred to as “monopoly money,” the scarfs people wore seemed like ads in a magazine and the miniature espressos which could be spotted everywhere seemed so commonplace that it even seemed natural that you were drinking one.

Perhaps this was the best part of going to a new place, this “honeymoon” stage where it was difficult to see any faults and only the beautiful and the charming could be captured by one’s eye.      

Nous avons un reservation pour ce soir,” 

“Vous parlez très bien le français.  Vous préferez parler en français ou anglais?” says the man standing at the desk.  

Français.  C’est bon,” says Julie, encouraged by the compliment.  It was always reassuring to hear someone say that you spoke well.  Between the hundreds of dispiriting encounters with locals where you were literally at a loss for words, your accent was off, or other person simply judges you to be so incomprehensible that they switch to English or find someone who can, these small victories made one feel like speaking a foreign language wasn’t a completely hopeless endeavor.

They’re standing at the hostel bar later and not long after they arrive, they are approached by two men, one of whom starts speaking to Julie in French.  They make small talk for a few minutes and then he introduces himself and his friend, who is shorter, with dark curly hair and is sporting a plaid scarf, to the two girls.

Ça Va?” the friend turns to Charlene who has yet to add to the conversation.

“I don’t speak French,” she says unapologetically, not bothering to hide her boredom in her inability to comprehend any of the dialogue.

“American?” he says.

“Yes,”

“Where in the States?  Not from the boon-docks,”

“We’re from outside of Washington D.C.” 

“So you’re not hillbillies then,”  He says, looking more interested now, “You’re real Americans.”

“It’s okay,” says the short guy jovially to Charlene, “I don’t like the French, even though I am French.”

“Why?” giggles Charlene.  

“They are so condescending,” he says urgently, “And snobby.  They think that they’re better than everyone else.  You must agree?” He looks at Julie, who is silent for a moment, searching for the right words.  He takes her silence as confirmation to his point.  “I know you think so too,” He goes on.

“I don’t necessarily think that,” says Julie diplomatically, “I think there are French people you encounter like that.  I’ve met them more often in Paris than elsewhere, but there are people like that in every country,” She concludes logically, adding, “And I’ve had many good experiences with the French too.”

“So there aren’t any snobby French people in the town where you learn English?”

“I teach English.”

“Teach.  Learn.  They’re not the same thing,” says the tall guy.  The correction seems lost on his friend.

“Not really,” she responds to the original question, “It’s a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.  I don’t think there’s much of a reason for people to be stuck up.”  In glittering Paris, where people came from far and wide to appreciate art, cuisine, history; where the true Parisians have money and are considered cultured and refined, snobbery seemed like a given quality.  And fashion particularly was a reason, and perhaps even a justifiable reason for this attitude, as Parisians could be categorically considered the best dressed.

“The way Europeans dress is so practical,” said Paula as they pass an attractive family linking arms as they stroll onwards.  People are walking by cloaked in wool peacoats and leather jackets, scarfs, fur; warm clothes that looked chic and made of high quality material.  There was an understated elegance to the way they dressed which wasn’t present in the mainstream U.S. population.  There, yoga pants, clunky Ugg boots and puffy ski jackets were acceptable or even fashionable attire for running errands or going out, where they screamed tourist in Europe.  

“People think I’m French,” Julie added, as an endorsement to her good fashion sense, “I get asked for directions all the time.  And sometimes I can even tell them the right way to go.”

“I like the ésharpes,” said John.

“Are you going to get one of the bags that the men wear too?” said Paula.

“You can set the trend in the D.C.” said Julie.

“Please don’t wear the man purse,” said Charlene, “You can’t pull it off.”

“I’m going to wear it when I visit you and tell everyone I’m your dad,” said John.

“You hardly notice any overweight people over here,” said Paula, “And if you do see one, you just assume they’re an American.”

This refreshing absence of the obese also seemed to make clothing look several times more glamorous, as the thin always served as better live models.  One of Julie’s students had commented on this fact; she was confused as to why she never saw any fat people on American television series and Julie responded that “they only show the beautiful people on television and in the media.”

“It’s true,” said John, “Sometimes when I’m waiting for the train I count all the overweight people I see to pass the time, and it’s like eight out of every ten people needs to loose weight.”

Things were smaller, sleeker, more compact: the cities, the cars, the clothes, the people.  It was even liberating to observe that one didn’t really need the superstores, the gas-guzzling vehicles, the huge houses which seemed to sprawl endlessly across the suburbs between U.S. cities, instead of the way that European towns were compacted around the town’s interior.  This thoughtfulness is soon interrupted…

Attention!” a woman shouts at Julie and her father, who have stopped walking, standing  in her way.  Despite being deep in culture shock, her sharp scold reminds them exactly where they are.

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