Monthly Archives: April 2013

What Is ‘Semi-Industrial’ Food?

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One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.

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But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.

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Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.

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What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.

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It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.

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I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.

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I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.

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It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:

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First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.

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Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.

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Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.

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These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.

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Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.

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If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.

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The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.

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But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.

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Filed under Food, Personal, Pictures, Travel

On Quitting My Job

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Last week I was in Lisbon for work.

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Well, one day for work. I went the weekend before and walked around before I had to get my game face on.

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This is my last business trip for my current job. I put in my notice last week.

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They say changing jobs is as traumatic as losing a loved one or getting a divorce.

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I’ve never had either of those things happen to me, so I have nothing to compare this to.

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Lisbon is a good place to walk around and ruminate.

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The city is basically a series of hills, installed to allow it to view itself.

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Even the locals look impressed.

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For about 300 years, the Portuguese were a major European power.

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Profitable pillaging, royalty in the tabloids, franchises in Asia, Africa, the Middle East.

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At the time, Portuguese people must have thought it would go on forever. Conquest, expansion, power, wealth. Just follow the trend line from past to present to future.

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Then in 1755 an earthquake shook Lisbon to the ground.

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The empire never quite recovered. While Lisbon rebuilt itself, it lost its colonies to resistance, competition, neglect.

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Now, for all its charms, Portugal is a minor power, alone, its former colonies still speaking its language, but no longer singing its anthems.

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I was in Portugal to have meetings, shake hands.

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Knowing it would be the last time didn’t make me do it any different.

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‘Looking forward to working together’, I would say, realizing later I was lying. 

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My boss asked me why I was leaving, and I told him ‘I think I’ll be happier doing something else’.

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and he said, ‘You’re young enough for that to be a good reason. But just.’

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I’ve got a bunch of projects lined up, but nothing permanent.

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When I tell people I quit, the first thing they say is ‘You’ll be fine!’

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I think that’s true. This weekend, looking outward from Portugal, it sometimes felt true too.

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I’m not afraid for my future, or of it. I just wonder if that’s what you think right up until the ground starts to shake.

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Filed under Personal, Pictures, Travel, Work

Things I Thought While Hanging Out at a Fancy Spa

Yesterday I spent all day at a fancy spa. I’ve never done this before (a birthday was involved), so the day ended up being a kind of experiment to see if I’m the kind of person who might in the future.

Here are my findings:

  • Spas, as a business model, seem to be primarily about positioning. The spa we went to had a bunch of hot tubs, some saunas, a ‘steam bath’ (I felt like broccoli) and a big pool so salty you float . It was all very pleasant, but at least three of those things are readily available at municipal pools all over Berlin. A spa day costs $30, entrance to a swimming pool costs around $4. We paid, essentially, to say we went to a spa rather than a swimming pool. 
  • Since this is Germany, the nakedness was mandatory and ubiquitous. The norm at spas seems to be: If you’re sitting or otherwise stationary, you must be naked. If you’re in motion, you must be wrapped in a towel. I don’t care to speculate as to why this is the case.
  • After living in Northern Europe for eight years, my relationship with nudity has gone through phases. When I first moved to Denmark, I was like ‘I could never go to a sauna oh my god me naked is horrifying.’ Then I did, then I did again and again and again (you get invited to saunas a lot when you live in Denmark) and I got used to it and started to sort of like it. That freedom nudists are always talking about is a real, if fleeting, thing. Then that wore off, and now I’m just indifferent. Naked, not naked, whatever. 
  • I am aware of the irony that my comfortableness being naked is, as I get older, negatively correlated with how good I look being so. 
  • The only thing I actually like about nakedness-mandatory situations at this point is looking at other people. Maybe I’m not supposed to like admit that or whatever, but the human body is totally fascinating. The diversity of proportions alone is worth a coffee table book, or at least a Tumblr.
  • The only that really surprised me about the bodies yesterday was how much plastic surgery was on display. Lots of inflated lips, tucked tummies, stationary boobs. I may be the first naked gay man to say to another naked gay man ‘oh my god: these tits’ in a semi-public setting.
  • And another thing: It’s genuinely meaningful that no matter where you go in Berlin, you’re likely to see gay canoodling. Yesterday the big salty pool was primarily peopled with couples holding each other and floating around like slow-motion bumper cars. Some of the couples were straight, some were lesbians, some were gay dudes. No one seemed to notice or care.
  • The other reason the gayness stood out for me is that it was really the only thing you can tell about naked people. Without clothes to tell you someone’s social class or category—goth, chav, rich prick, hipster, etc.—you really don’t have anything to go on. I was alarmed at how disconcerting I found this, and at the relief I felt when I realized I could use eyewear, flip-flops and reading material to categorize people. Phew.
  • It’s sort of funny how spas have this quasi-therapeutic framing. You often hear people (OK, northern Europeans) talk about how sitting in the sauna all day ‘pushes out toxins’ and is ‘cleansing’, as if those concepts exist and have meaning. 
  • Part of the package yesterday was a massage, and my masseuse, thumb-deep in my kidneys, kept saying things like ‘oh you have so much tension here’. When I told her I was a runner, she told me she’d pay special attention to my legs to ‘loosen them up’. Spending a Sunday in the sauna is a super-pleasant, and massages are objectively the best thing ever, but I think the health benefits are less based in scientific evidence and more based in the human need to think that anything weird and slightly taxing must have a purpose beyond itself.
  • I don’t know if this is related to the previous point, but after six hours I was exhausted. Exhausted like I had just run up a hill, rather than sat in various configurations of warm water underneath one. And so ravenous!  

Conclusion: Hella fun, hella doing this again. Just next time, I’m bringing higher-class flip-flops.

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Filed under Berlin, Gay, Germany, Personal

Romania Wasn’t Built In a Day Either

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Last week I was in Bucharest, Romania.

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It sounds all exotic. Dracula! Dictatorship! Problematic EU accession! But really, it’s just a normal city. Restaurants, traffic, outlet stores, teenagers in trackpants drinking cider at bus stops.

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I basically sat in cafes all week, watching it go by out the window.

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The only actual like Thing I did was visit the Parliamentary Palace.

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Which is apparently the second biggest building in the world, after the Pentagon. It’s basically the size of Rhode Island, and just as superfluous.

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Ceausescu started building it in 1983. The idea was to have the whole Romanian Communist Party working in one place. He also built big residences next door so everyone could live in one place too. If this sounds like a good idea to you, you have never had a job.

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Ceausescu was overthrown (and executed on national TV!) on Christmas Day 1989. The building wasn’t finished yet, so the new government had to decide what to do with it.

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Most of it is grand corridors and rock-hard ballrooms. Great for a wedding or corporate conference, but not so great for the 98 percent of your life that is not those things.

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By the time the new, democratic government took over, the country had already fed billions of euros, millions of man-hours, to this beast. Our tour guide told us these are the world’s heaviest curtains. And we told him that is the world’s least interesting fact.

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The new government couldn’t just walk away from something 80 percent finished. So they basically said ‘haters to the left’ and kept building.

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Now only about 70 percent of it is used, and it costs millions of euros every year to maintain. They’re constantly criticized for the cost, the waste, the sheer pointlessness of it all.

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The rest of my time in Bucharest I spent repeatedly realizing how happy I am not to be a politician.

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You work your whole life to get into the halls of power, then when you finally do, you find they’re full of unruly foster kids.

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Messes you didn’t make, but have to clean up.

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Suddenly a cafe window seemed like a pretty good place to be.

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