The Twelfth Floor Heterotopia

Arlanda Airport

The other day I was in a government building and asked a guard where I could find the bathroom. ‘On the twelfth floor,’ she grunted. Then she disappeared, turning on her rubber heel, keys clanking. Right, to the twelfth floor.

The twelfth floor signalled my entrance into a heterotopia of first world bureaucracy. Michel Foucault, the 20th century French intellectual, describes a heterotopia as an enacted utopia that expresses a vision of a societal ideal. A secular higher power directs meaning within these spaces. The power may be cultural or political or social as long as it illustrates the operation of a group. Some may enter the area while others are prohibited. These spaces reveal how we structure our world and respond to taboos. They possess both intellectual and practical functions. As I examined the limbo-esque twelfth floor, I better understood my community.

In addition to public rest rooms — so-called public, I had to show an appointment confirmation and passport to pass security and access them — the twelfth floor boasted a café (aptly named Café on Twelve) and empty locked rooms. I saw a man on his phone and a woman waiting for the elevator. The emptiness evoked the distance the building put between its functions and visitors. Although the visitors had been chosen to enter, they were shielded from the bureaucracy’s inner workings. Shades of pale and mossy green covered the walls like an alien’s living room. After seeing this sinister hue, the tenth floor’s plastic pink felt like the cheery. Whereas the public amenities floor intimidated me with closed doors and strange colours, the tenth floor distracted me with a bright, false cheer. Openness and restriction characterise government bureaucracy.

Foucault argues that access to space and spatial relations dictate modern life. The sites we visit define us. Frequenting a museum or being admitted to a hospital gives us a distinct social identity through which to perpetuate culture as reflected in a given area. Government buildings accomplish a similar function. Entering one of these guarded edifices associates the individual with a specific ideology, defines them according to the law and asserts their role as an ordinary citizen. The government building is a heterotopia in that it mirrors society and social relations while existing separately from the daily orbit of most citizens.

Myriad citizenship identities were being formed and performed during my visit. There were the deviants; arguing with the guards over phones and restrictions. Others acted as enforcers, upholding social norms. Some played the atemporal: they were waiting when you arrived and waiting when you left, casting them in a separate orbit from the standard 30-minute appointment. Our purposes impacted our roles. Some sought citizenship, others green cards renewals and others foreign visas. Although the heterotopia echoed the country in which we lived, our respective sections of the mirror corresponded with our social identity.

Despite our unique roles, we were all social others — individuals seeking to alter our citizenship status — in this heterotopia of deviation. A heterotopia of deviation collects individuals whose actions, and consequently identities, digress from the social norm. Foucault argues that the heterotopia of deviation has largely replaced the heterotopia of crisis (at least in modern cultures), which dominated in centuries when knowledge directed relations between groups and individuals. A heterotopia of crisis collected individuals in a critical mental, physical or emotional period. Foucault cites boarding schools, old-style honeymoons and military service as heterotopias of crisis that separated people in compromised states from routine life. Rather than cast out people in difficult periods, we rebuke people who exhibit a strange identity.

Time impacted the social and governmental interpretation of my national identity. Defining my identity as ‘deviant’ as opposed to ‘in crisis’ was a product of the 21st century’s loosened borders. Whereas immigrants to the US during the early 20th century were processed en masse on an island, modern migrants are processed in varying degrees of public view. Migration is no longer solely the product of a crisis — of money, of religion, of food, of family — that brings migrants to a new space. While contemporary migrants may be undergoing crises, the motivations are varied. I was a deviant: I was deviating from the path my country had set for me and, accordingly, entered into spaces that delicately pushed me away from others. They pushed me toward the desolate twelfth floor.

Crossing the threshold of the heterotopia ushered me into alternate temporal realms. My time within the building was sectioned: there was my appointment time; the queues, waiting for my number to be called; and my brief appointment. Time’s regimentation within the heterotopia foreshadowed the new demarcations I’d experience upon leaving: there would be the time to send my application; the window of time during which I could enter the country; the days when I’d be permitted to pick up a residence permit; the years for which I’d be allowed to stay within the country; the hours I’d be permitted to work; the day on which I’d be required to leave. My new experience of time within the heterotopia anticipated how I’d experience shared cultural time upon leaving.

But even as this heterotopia acted upon us visitors, it also acted with us. This was how I arrived at the twelfth floor. Although the building could have been closed in a fortress of hidden governmental rules, society’s insistence on viewing itself as a democracy required it to be at least partially open. So I had the terrace café and a toilet amidst an alien-green hallway of closed doors. My heterotopia of bureaucracy asserted that my society was open, even as it partitioned my time, directed my identity and determined my movement.

Five Friday Reads 21.08.15

Kaffemisjonen

Cynar: Against the boredom of modern options

If you shop for liqueurs by the label, you won’t choose Cynar. Unless you really like artichokes. A large hand-drawn image of the spiny flowerhead pops on the bright red label. Cynar, a bitter liqueur introduced in Italy in 1952, is proud to include artichokes in its proprietary blend of 13 herbs and plants. Poured over soda or mixed with scotch, Cynar has transitioned from a cool Italian aperitivodigestivo to a cool ingredient for making twists on classic cocktails.

Pezziol — a food company from Padua — created Cynar for an Italian public besotted with lightly bitter pre-dinner drinks. Among these were Campari and Aperol, introduced in 1860 and 1919 respectively, which punctuated aperitivi hours with americani and aperol spritzes. Cynar’s popularity depended on its ability to offer a unique experience of bitter in an already saturated market. They succeeded. This success may be due in part to the boom economico, which encouraged Italians with more leisure time and income to try new drinks at their local bar.

Originally advertised as fighting “against the stress of modern life”, Cynar caters to those looking for a slightly-sweet amaro with health-benefits beyond its digestion-friendly herbal blend. Artichokes may be the font of the drink’s wholesomeness, but the vegetable is more evident in the aperitf-digestif’s marketing than in its flavour. Early advertisements featured Italian actor Ernesto Calindri smiling over a small glass of Cynar, imbuing the novel amaro with old-school luxury it otherwise lacked. When Calindri wasn’t sipping his digestivo, ads featured women drinking Cynar from glasses made of artichokes and young Italians walking through forests bursting with artichokes. Not only was Cynar a delicious drink, it was also a healthy indulgence.

Despite it’s relatively low ABV, Cynar probably doesn’t deserve the healthful reputation it maintained, even if it diminishes stress. Underneath faint herbal notes, Cynar is quite sweet, making it a welcome mixer with stronger liquors such as aquavit and scotch. But Italians didn’t embrace Cynar drinking strong cocktails. Originally, the amaro was drunk straight over ice or mixed with soda for a bracing aperitivo. With only 16.5% alcohol, Cynar provided a new option for drinkers tired of their americano and not ready for a negroni. Cynar’s similarities to other bitter Italian liqueurs allowed it to become popular — it’s unique flavour ensured its continued success.

But it required more than a smiling actor to convince American cocktail-enthusiasts to embrace Cynar. There is no Cynar spritz to inspire memories (real or imagined) of glamorous aperitivi in Milan. This has become its virtue. With the absence of a sacred drink from which thou-must-not-deviate, Cynar provides an intriguing taste layer to classic cocktails. Bartenders might make a Toronto cocktail swapping out Fernet Branca for more approachable Cynar. Brunchers could opt for a mimosa, made robust through the addition of the barely biter liqueur. Whereas Cynar provided a new drink option for Italians, it now provides a new flavour option for cocktail lovers.

In 1995 the brand was sold to Campari Group, the Milanese company that owns Aperol, Averna and Campari. The amaro increasingly appears on savvy liquor store shelves outside of Italy. Whereas Cynar once tempted Italians with the promise of a modern, healthful and tranquil drink, it now presents cocktail enthusiasts with a ready twist. Cynar: against the stressors of modern life, against the boredom of modern choice.

[Image via Serious Eats]

Five Friday Reads 14.08.2015

New York

For a Fresh Metaphor on Coffee, Add Cardamom to your Brew

IMG_0405

For a fresh metaphor on coffee, I add cardamom and cloves to my brew. The spices’ impact is obvious from the moment the hot water hits the beans. Vegetal and sweet and floral: I drink my coffee newly alert.

I first tasted spiced coffee at a stand at Smorgasburg, Brooklyn’s food flea market. The operator — Bunna Café an Ethiopian restaurant in Bushwick — promised Ethiopian coffee made authentically with cardamom and cloves. I sipped timidly. But soon I was slurping at the drops between the melting ice cubes. The coffee was barely sweet, simultaneously light and rich. Bunna’s twist on my favourite summer coffee reinvigorated my reaction to iced coffee.

That’s what Bunna wants. The restaurant frequently holds coffee ceremonies to acquaint customers with the Ethiopian mindset. Coffee is crucial to Ethiopians. It is a key export, daily ritual and cultural touchstone. The coffee ceremony welcomes guests, fueling conversation as the beans — toasted immediately before serving — are subject to three rounds of brewing. From plastic cups of iced coffee to cultural events, Bunna presents Ethiopian culture as a fresh metaphor on coffee.

But adding cardamom to coffee isn’t a new habit, nor is it uniquely Ethiopian. Cardamom-growing countries — from Thailand to North Africa — infuse it into their coffee to refresh their brew. But the spice’s high price tag reserves these preparations for unique occasions and special drinks. Sometimes entire pods are ground along with the beans, other times they are left whole and chewed as a breath freshener while sipping. The resulting coffee may be drunk black, with sugar or condensed milk. Since a single pod will transform a pot of coffee, the brewer may share their wealth without being ostentatious. Like the coffee ceremony elevates the daily rite of coffee drinking, including a new spice in a cup retrains the taste buds, forcing a re-examination of the daily ritual of coffee drinking.

If you have coffee and cardamom, you too can celebrate. Choose your coffee — Ethiopia, as the birthplace of coffee, has more indigenous varietals than other coffee growing regions.[1] Just before you dump the warm water over those grounds, add the spices. You need less than you think. Then brew. And smell: slightly musty, floral, and warm. Drink. It’s coffee, but there’s something else. There’s a fresh metaphor.

[1] Freeman, J., 2012. the Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee: Growing, Roasting and Drinking, with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press. pp. 22-23.

Five Friday Reads 07.08.2015

Ravenna

  • Spending Time Alone‘ from New York Magazine. A mental geography of a solo New York. You will crave alone time after reading this.
  • An Illustrated Tour of Ice Cream Styles Around the World‘ from Serious Eats. Although ice cream seems like a blanket term for a delicious frosty treat, this article demonstrates the fascinating cultural inflections put upon chilled and sweetened cream (anyone else want a Mid-west custard about now?)
  • A look inside the world’s superhouses‘ from The Guardian. Even if these homes don’t appear wholly livable, the magnificent juxtaposition between interior and exterior forces you to contemplate the meaning of home.
  • ‘In the Gin Garden’ from Fool Magazine (6). Gin fuses together alcohol, botanicals and tradition, all with a healthy dose of juniper.
  • What It’s Really Like to be an Airline Pilot‘ from The New York Times. For pilots, jet lag isn’t the biggest challenge, it’s place lag and the mental jumps that accompany constant movement.

Three Lines, One Universe

La Garisenda, Bologna

“Dante, perche Virgilio se ne vada/ non pianger anco, non piangere ancora/ ché pianger ti conven per altra spada” 
‘Dante, because Virgil has departed,/ do not weep, do not weep yet– / there is another sword to make you weep.’

Canto 30, Purgatorio, Dante’s Divina Commedia. We’re in terrestrial paradise, the Garden of Eden. I’m particularly fond of lines 55-57. Virgil, Dante’s pagan guide up to this point, has just left and Dante is bereft at his departure. But Beatrice, the poet’s celestial love, won’t let Dante mourn for long. So — despite her indirect appearance in Inferno 2 — she utters her first words in the poem. They mark Dante’s first and only naming. Academic commentators eagerly dissect the tercet’s consequence. Should Dante’s name take precedence? Should Beatrice’s appearance? Should Virgil’s absence? Or should we abandon scholarly analysis and respond to them all? Together they articulate the mix of love, hope and loss that growth engenders.

You’ve experienced the emotion Beatrice describes. I call them Virgil moments, or ‘altra spada’ moments. Virgil moments portend change. They are the instances that reshape perception as we shift from one state to another. When Beatrice says Dante’s name; when she repeats ‘piangere’, to cry, three times; when she evokes the ‘altra spada’: she articulates ineffable feelings.

I’ve learnt that most feelings surpass language. Commentators will tell you that the triadic repetition of ‘pianger’ in lines 56-57 accents and admonishes Dante’s three invocations of Virgil’s name in lines 49-51.[1] They cite Virgil’s Georgics as the origin of the first formation, when Orpheus’s severed head calls out to Eurydice, his wife. Yet the parallel isn’t perfect. Dante’s appeal to Virgil approaches an anaphora that uplifts heathen Virgil to the heavens, while each instance of Beatrice’s ‘pianger’ evokes a unique meaning. We mustn’t weep but we may need to cry soon when we’ll shed newly painful tears. Beatrice reminds us that moments may alter our intents and emotions.

Airports and frequent departures trigger Virgil moments for me. My lingering gaze over the terminal invites others to share my sorrow. We don’t want to leave, but an unrelenting urge propels us toward the future we believe in — that we must believe in. We climb, releasing loved ones as new ideas and experiences guide us. I retract my gaze and scan my passport. These transitions, these Virgil moments, bridle us for the rivers of pain — of loneliness, of sorrow, of disappointment —so that we may benefit from rivers of joy — of success, of money, of fortune.

Beatrice calls the bad we encounter the ‘altra spada’. I prefer to treat Beatrice’s altra spada as a metaphysical symbol, but it has precise referent. Commentators agree that this ‘other sword’ is the Lethe River.[2] Drinking from its waters to earn passage into heaven, Dante instantaneously relives all sin. It’s painful; more painful than Virgil’s departure. The pilgrim then discovers sublime joy with a sip from the Eunoe River, which erases his memories of hurt and restores his faith. Dante took the former from the Bible but invented the latter, suggesting that divine words fail to describe human suffering. Thus, Dante urges us to interpret the ‘other sword’ beyond the boundaries of religion and of the character’s journey. Dante-pilgrim isn’t privileged to encounter this ‘other sword’; we all encounter it.

For me it’s the soap. After using up a bar in my last destination — or tossing it just as the logo has smoothed away — I forget about it until I arrive. Undressed and unpacking my toothbrush, I realise my soap is gone. I crave the scrubbed clean feeling I once enjoyed every night. Travel dirt lays atop my skin like an emotional scar, scoffing at my journey. ‘You thought you could reach the upper echelons?’ It hisses. ‘You’re the same person you were. You don’t understand.’ I throw water on my face. I swear to buy soap tomorrow. I do. Washing away days of travel, I rejoice in my novel routine. A bar of soap can be replaced. Still, my new one becomes a lifeline. Until, that is, it’s time move again.

Dante-poet articulates the struggle to integrate oneself into a new situation. Dante-poet articulates the burden of leaving and the catharsis of progression. In their specificity, these three lines rise above Dante-pilgrim’s journey and transcend Dante-poet’s fourteenth century Italy. In these three lines, the Commedia becomes universal. These three lines are The Divine Comedy.

[1] This quote isn’t important enough to break up your reading, but should your copy of Purgatory be buried under a pile of magazines: ‘Ma Virgilio n’avea lasciati scemi / di sé, Virgilio dolicissimo patre, / Virgilio a cui per mia saluti die’mi’ — ‘But Virgil has departed, leaving us bereft:/ Virgil, sweetest of fathers, / Virgil, to whom I gave myself for my salvation.’

[2] I shouldn’t play favourites with commentators, but I’m partial to Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi’s succinct description: “per qualcosa che ti infliggerà ben più dolorosa ferita” — for something that will inflict a much more painful cut. (Chiavacci Leondari 30.57)