Category Archives: summer

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.

Drinking Iced Coffee in a New York Summer


When June’s humid haze descends, New Yorkers drink iced coffee. Commuters grasp their squishy clear cups, condensation running down their wrists. Cafes measure days in plastic lids. In New York, iced coffee isn’t a simple summer drink — it symbolizes the New Yorker’s commitment to the city.

Whether from Starbucks, Blue Bottle or the cart on the corner, New Yorkers buy more iced coffee than any other city in America. The environment demands it. Crowded streets amplify the heat and poorly ventilated apartments offer little relief. But a city that esteems its velocity requires fuel and so cool coffees replace hot ones. The switch is simple. Brew coffee, chill it in the fridge and throw in ice cubes before serving. This formula unites New York’s diverse iced coffees.

New York boasts more iced coffee variations than Starbucks does simple syrups. Add ice cubes made from coffee; buy cold brew concentrate from the grocery store; sip on New Orleans-style iced coffee infused with chicory; or wait for a pricey cold brew. If New Yorkers embrace cold-brew mania, it’s because their coffee shop serves it. Unlike hot coffee’s litany of extras, choosing iced coffee is the choice. The guy in plaid shirt clutches a Starbucks cup, the girl in the black dress one from Joe and the kid with the afro grips one sans-logo. Together, they’re New York’s iced coffee drinkers.

Whereas warm coffee inspires debates as to flavours and the best cafes, iced coffee elicits these arguments for a few weeks at the start of summer. During this time, AM New York and The Daily News publish a flurry of stories about cold coffee mania. But iced coffee isn’t a trend. Personal preferences are established before the summer’s first cup. He automatically poured in milk, she mechanically drizzled in agave and the kid instinctually added nothing. While clear plastic cups reveal these changes, the underlying brew unifies the differences. It’s iced coffee and the motivation for drinking remains the same: struggling through a New York summer, trying to keep it together.

French Grocery Store Baking Mixes

Montmartre at dusk

Earlier this summer, I finally put the baking mixes I bought during my two (!!) trips to Paris this year to good use.  They sat on my baking shelf, waiting patiently, pleasing and threatening at the same time for months on end.  Perhaps it’s because the directions were in beautifully indecipherable French, or perhaps it was because I was impossibly smitten with the cute packaging, but, for a while there, it looked as if they were more decoration than food.

You may be wondering — I know I most certainly would be — what possessed me to buy French baking mixes.  They’re not light.  They’re not toss-them-in-your-suitcase and stuff-your-underwear-in-them types like French yogurt jars.  What they are, however, is shocking.  Having a baking mix for treats as finnicky as macarons and brioche is so perfectly incongrous that I knew I couldn’t possibly live without tasting the final product.

French Baking Mixes

First, I tackled the brioche, hoping that maybe I would finally be able to make something roughly akin to the beauty from Bakeri.  The directions were easy enough to follow, sans translation.  You simply tossed the dry mix into a bowl, added some milk, stirred, let it rise for a bit and then whacked the shaped in the oven.  While I didn’t get a gorgeous rise — the bread barely fit my American-sized loaf pan — I was happy with the results.  It was far from the best brioche you’ve ever eaten (see above re: Bakeri), but it had a flavor that was as French as that indescribable Italian flavor.  My parents and I agreed that we’d probably buy this brioche if it was sold at a nearby bakery.

The macarons — while not quite up to Pierre Herme standards, let’s be frank, not even close — were shockingly delicious.  If they sold these at a New York bakeries claiming to sell macarons (or Parisian macaroons), then we’d all be happier.  The baking process was similar, though with the extra snappy step of whisking up the ganache to sandwich in between the two meringues.

You take the packet labelled number one out of the box, dump it in a saucepan with some milk and stir, making a type of puddingy-custard.  The cookie is dumb-easy, involving a trio of egg whites whipped to stiff peaks folded with the contents of the packet number two.  From there, you put the meringue mix on a baking tray and shove that into an unpreheated oven.  You quickly turn on the temperature and then raise it after a few minutes.  The resulting macarons are not be picture perfect, but they’re delicious in a homey way.  I wonder if mothers bake these for their children’s birthday parties in France?  Or am I the prime customer?

Buying baking mixes and other random foodie items when traveling is a fantastic, light-hearted way to take a bit of your trip home with you.  Using these purchases and sampling them afterwards, I was transported to the moment I bought them in Monoprix and La Grande Epicerie, respectively.  They may not be a substitute for real French pastry, but they’re a fantastic mini-escape when you can’t make a trip for it.

What’s your favorite random buy to bring back from your travels?

Scenes from New York: The Bridges

Brooklyn Bridge

When I was a kid, learning about the Brooklyn bridge was a Big Deal, caps included.  We heard the story about the man who built it, were told all about his misfortunes and successes.  Then we walked across it, an army of four year olds with a handful of exhausted teachers.  As you can imagine, it wasn’t exactly fun.

During high school, my daily train ride took me over the Manhattan Bridge.  Some friends and I became fascinated with the idea of walking over the bridge.  We never made it across together, but have been trading stories of our attempts ever since.

The other bridges in New York?  I’ve never thought of them until recently.  Now, however, I’ve crossed four, on four consecutive weekends. There wasn’t much of a plan attached and that was part of the beauty of it.  My dad and I set out some days, ready to walk and ready to see the city in a new way.

The Brooklyn Bridge is the blockbuster of all the bridges.  Its famous and it knows it.  Mobbed with people even early on a Saturday morning, you would not call walking across the Brooklyn bridge a pleasant experience.  The board walk style wooden slats are quaint and it is a touch iconic, but the views aren’t inspiring and the lack of cloud coverage on sunny days makes the walk a bit wearisome.  It is, perhaps fortunately, the quickest bridge to walk across.


If the Brooklyn Bridge is the blockbuster, then the Manhattan Bridge is the little sister, constantly overshadowed, but going for a completely different look anyway.  On the Manhattan side, you enter just off the hustle and bustle of Canal Street.  From there you are whisked away to a comparatively peaceful walk, even with the N and Q trains rumbling beside you every so often.  The downtown side is for pedestrians and the uptown side is for bikes, which helps ease traffic on the narrow pathways.  While the Brooklyn Bridge has up close and personal views of the Financial District, the vista from the Manhattan Bridge is more picturesque.  After all, it includes the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, as well as a more complete view of Downtown.  After getting off the bridge in Brooklyn, you’re merely steps away from the F train or an awesome sandwich at No. 7 Sub.


Despite the easy access to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, the Williamsburg bridge was my favorite of all the ones I walked across.  The entrance is in South Williamsburg on Bedford Avenue (be sure to fuel your journey with a meal at Marlow & Sons, which is practically right next door).  You’re sure to need a bit of extra energy as this bridge feels longer than the others with a much steeper incline at the beginning.

That’s only where the differences begin.  Unlike the other two, the Williamsburg bridge doesn’t offer picture postcard views of Manhattan, but rather an eye-opening view of Brooklyn’s geography.  Just as you think you’re reaching Manhattan, you’ll realize that you’re seeing downtown Brooklyn.  It’s uncanny and a fun way to challenge your ideas about New York.  The bridge is divided into two large paths for walking and biking (downtown and uptown sides, respectively).  The bridge isn’t pristine  Graffiti covers nearly every surface and the combination of all the colors gives it a pleasantly run-down appearance.

It’s not only the walk over the bridge that makes the journey enjoyable, but the neighborhoods on either end.  If you find yourself tired when you arrive at Delancey Street (where the bridge lets out), you’re merely minutes away from a coffee at Cafe Grumpy, a lovely meal at The MasalaWala or a crumbly cookie from Beurre & Sel.


Getting to the Queensborough Bridge might not be easy, but is a fun way to spend a fall Saturday.  From Manhattan (because why would you enter in Queens?) there’s an entrance on 59th street between 1st and 2nd avenue.  Everyone’s grouped together from the beginning; the bikers, the runners, the mosey-ers, which makes the path a bit of a free-for-all.  As you walk, you’ll get to contemplate Roosevelt Island, Queens and the awesome weather vanes on top of the bridge.  If you’re thinking of doing something on the other side, well, don’t.  Just walk back over and fortify yourself in midtown at the city’s poshest coffee shop, the newly-opened Ninth Street Espresso on 56th street.  You’ll be happier.

What’s your favorite way to get to know a city’s geography?

Summer Reading Recap


No matter what I accomplish during the summer, I am left with the lingering sensation that I could have done more.  If only I had managed to make one more smoothie, eat one more ice cream or wear that white dress one more time!  Unfortunately, summer ends and we reunite with our riding boots and thick sweaters.  Iced coffee gives way to hot chocolate and we trade beach songs for Christmas carols.

Okay, so maybe I don’t mind that last bit so much.

We discussed summer reading earlier in the season and, I’m ashamed to say, I read barely any of the books on that list.  I did read some stunners, but my summer was dominated by working my way through my back log of paper back swap books.  Here are the top five books I read this summer, in no particular order.

1.  The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson – If you speak or are learning English, you must read this book.  It’s a fantastic romp through the language, discussing why it’s unique and examining at it’s transformation across the ages.  You’ll learn some random facts that you’ll be pulling out for months afterwards.

2.  Rules of Civility by Amor Towles – Historical fiction books are pretty hit or miss for me; fortunately, this one belonged to the former category.  Set in New York during the late 1930s, Rules of Civility follows the lives of three friends who meet ones New Years Eve over a year.  The book surprises on every page and creates characters that feel as if they could live in any era.

3. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters – Not only is the plot gripping, Walter effortlessly weaves together an astonishing variety of stories. From Italy in the 1960s to modern day LA, the book discusses love and struggles through the ages, without once feeling like it’s biting off more than it can chew.

4. Tribes by Seth Godin – Talk about inspiring; this svelte volume discusses how we need to choose to become leaders in our respective fields, regardless of whether or not we think we are the “leader type.”  Godin’s words are empowering and will no doubt have you eager to go out into the world and create change.

5.  The Life and Time of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson – Now, I wonder how big the audience is for this book, but if you are a kid of the ’50s (specifically a male one) or the child of someone from the ’50s then you will love this.  The book felt like a story my dad would have told me as a kid with a pinch of A Christmas Story thrown in for good measure.

What was the best book you read this summer?