Here’s to you, Bagelstein!

We often think of Paris with an air of wholesomeness. Sure, just the name Paris—or for that matter any European city—brings with it connotations of love affairs, pickpockets, and all the other wild fantasies of city life that are anything but wholesome, but in the end there is a no real presence of danger in our thoughts of these things which instead have an operatic quality of near tongue-in-cheek innocence. We call the pickpocket an artist. We gush over Paris as the city of love.

Of course we’re aware that this idea of Paris is completely romanticised, but I in no way want to break that. Rather, I’d like to continue to breath life into fragile kindling that is the romanticised idea of Paris. There is, after all, a deal of fun in idealising something, in knowing that we’re deluding ourselves. Maybe it’s odd then that the subject for this small post didn’t come from a narrow street lined by ancient lamps and vines of ivy or an organ grinder in the square or a back alley cinema (all of which did exist), but rather from the logo for a popular chain of bagel shops in Paris called Bagelstein, of which there are more locations than I can keep track. I’ll say there are around 30 from a google maps estimate.


The Bagelstein logo immediately caught my attention as I was walking through one of the more crowded, popular parts of Paris called le marais. In the center of the logo is an image of non-other than Ernst Lubitsch, a German-born film director who made some of the greatest American romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s. That the Bagelstein bagel company, which fetishises mid-century American culture as much as we fetishise French culture from the same era, chose Lubitsch as their mascot seemed rather odd, and as I kept walking, dodging through the crowds of American and Japanese tourists, I began to ponder over this.

Lubitsch, so far as I know, has never before been connected with bagels. There certainly aren’t bagels in his films that take place in an escapist art deco world of old Europe with all its luxury, charm, elegance and wit. Just the image of Melvyn Douglas or Mariam Hopkins or some other star from the Lubitsch canon dressed to the nines going into a bagel shop and ordering an everything with cream cheese made me laugh.

It was also bizarre to see such a rather obscure figure given the dignified honour of having his face plastered onto storefronts in over 30 different locations around Paris. In America Lubitsch has never really received the same attention as most of his contemporaries who already could never aspire to climb their way up the ladder of pop-cultural attention high enough to be put on any logos. And yet contrary to all of this, here he is, palm on cheek, grinning at some unheard joke, surrounded by a combination of French and English: Bagelstein, Depuis 1789, Beaux & Frères, The Old-Fashioned Homemade Bagel. It’s that kind of homespun Americana that the French buy into like we buy all of the romanticised images of Paris we know really can’t exist outside of our dreams, or for that matter outside the movies.


                                Lubitsch directs Design For Living (1933)

So appropriately enough it was as I was watching a Lubitsch movie, Design For Living (1933), on one of my last days in Paris, that I finally came to understand the Bagelstein company’s philosophy in choosing Ernst Lubitsch for this logo. Lubitsch’s Hollywood ideal of Paris as the picturesque home of left bank bohemian artists and right bank swanky aristocrats, where even the impoverished are dressed like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, and everyone has a sharp one-liner ready at moment’s notice, is the equivalent of the French ideal of America which could be summed up with my host family’s dismay that I’d never taken a road trip down route 66 or all the black and white photos of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe lining the walls of the Bagelstein stores.

France and the US are two countries tied together by these kinds of cross-cultural ideals. I can understand why most mock it, why most say that Americans will never know the real Paris, why there are even cafés and bistros around Paris that advertise in their windows: the real Paris. But as a disciple of the cinema I’ll take Lubitsch’s side here, buy my ticket, and likewise into the fantasy, completely aware of it. Here’s to the Paris of the movies, and here’s to you, Bagelstein.


Vincent Vega in Beijing

For me, the most horrific scene is Pulp Fiction was Vincent Vega’s recounting of his time in Europe. I’m almost not kidding. When I first watched the movie, despite enjoying the incredibly witty dialogue, I was still very much irked by the fact that when Americans go abroad, they notice that country’s version of American products, completely ignoring the rich history and culture of the country itself. Typical America-centric mindset, I scoffed, feeling myself morally superior to Vincent in my ability to truly get at the spirit of a country that I am visiting.

China is the first Asian country that I have ever visited. I had studied Chinese for but a month before coming, and, because Chinese uses characters instead of an alphabet, I was less than functionally illiterate. In addition, Chinese is not an Indo-European language and has a proud history of usually coming up with this own words for neologisms (i.e. the word for computer literally means “electric brain”) instead of simply transliterating from English or other European languages. As much as I loathed myself for doing it, upon initial I clung to the instances of Western culture in China, as being something familiar.

However, I quickly grew out of this self-loathing, as American products are also a part of modern Chinese culture. For the most part, Americans have great buying power in China because of the dollar to RMB conversing rate. However, American products were still slightly more expensive than their Chinese counterparts. And possibly this isn’t merely because of the jet fuel required to fly over these products.

In any case, greetings from Beijing! Here’s some American products that China simply does better.

  1. Oreos – Besides the original mysterious white (that is apparently vegan), Chinese Oreos’ fillings also come in a variety of flavors, for example orange-peach, raspberry-blueberry, and green apple. The addition of flavor definitely enhances the experience. And makes one wonder why Americans have not thought of this first.
  2. Red Bull – At Columbia, it is my main source of energy. In China, it is much sweeter and not carbonated. Western Red Bull can be found, but is significantly more expensive. Chinese Red Bull, if my roommate and I read the label correctly, has more caffeine than the Western variety, which is not that apparent upon consumption. Red Bull is China’s only energy drink and is quite popular. My language partner even thought that Red Bull was originally a Chinese brand, and it took me some time to convince her otherwise.
  3. Lays/Pringles – These iconic American chips come in various Chinese flavors such as Peking duck and spicy tofu. The chips themselves are smaller than their American counterparts.
  4. Jack and Coke – I am told that the mixture of Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola is popular mixed drink in the United States. In Chinese stores, a premixed version of the cocktail is sold, distributed by the Jack Daniels Corporation. I have feeling that in the United States this would be an infringement of some sort of copyright laws, which would not allow the combination of Coca-Cola and Jack Daniels products. However, this iconic American mixed drink exists in premixed form in Chinese convenience stores.
  5. McDonalds – Pretty much the exact same as the States, only more efficient at preparing the food. After paying, I stepped aside and was almost instantly handed my meal.
  6. KFC – Everyone says that Chinese KFC is better than the original. I have not had the original, but I will take the experts at their word.
  7. Pizza Hut – Pizza Hut is a sit-down restaurant in China, the kind to which you would bring a date. The menu not only includes artisanal pizza such prosciutto pizza, but also serves escargot and steak as an appetizer. The Pizza Hut logo in China even bears (in English), the title “Artisan Pizzeria.” No offense to the American institution, but Chinese Pizza Hut puts it to shame.

I believe this may be indicative of the Chinese attitude towards the United States. The word for America in Chinese literally means “Beautiful Country”; Chinese students watch American TV shows, movies, read American books, comment on the attractiveness of American presidents. The fact that Pizza Hut is a sit-down restaurant shows to how high a standard China holds America up.

Till next time,

Venya Gushchin

Green Paris

“Go green” is a mantra that I’ve been hearing since my childhood. In the United Stares, environmentally friendly habits are depicted as steps that anyone can take in order to reduce their effect on the environment. Americans are advised to take a shorter shower, buy paper products made of recycled material, or get a Prius or another small, fuel-efficient car. In our haste to adjust daily habits and combat climate change, we’ve forgotten that habits are created—Americans developed these wasteful patterns in the first place.

What has come as a shock to me here in France, then, is the way that environmental consciousness is not a particularly deliberate choice—it’s part of the natural French rhythm of life. Parisians, and likely the French people as a whole, have created a lifestyle that seeks to avoid many of the excesses that plague life back in the States. There are a few habits in particular that speak volumes about the mindset here.

You know the deafening roar that accompanies a New York City subway as it approaches the station? Not here. Most of the Parisian metro cars are electric, emitting only a slight buzz as they make their way to the platform. But the metro is only one of the transport options here: Paris is incredibly walkable, and the Vélib is a bike sharing system that’s cheaper and more popular than Citi Bike back home.

How about the huge Columbia washing machines that are somehow able to hold all of the laundry I’ve put off for two weeks? Not in Paris. European washing machines take longer, but use much less water (and treat clothes better). And when I’m finished washing, I hang everything up to dry in my room. The home where I’m staying has a dryer, but my host family chooses to forgo it in favor of the eco-friendly, natural way to dry clothes. And dishwashers are also less common; instead, I wash my dishes in the sink after dinner, careful to use as little water as possible.

Two weeks ago, Paris temperatures hovered around 100°F/38°C. To say the least, it was hot. But Paris, with its historic buildings, is largely devoid of air conditioning—even window units are unpopular. Buildings that are air conditioned aren’t kept at frigid temperatures like in New York. These factors combined left the whole city melting. But instead of wasting energy cooling spaces, Parisians simply took it in stride. Whether it was finding a public pool, taking a cold shower, or simply fanning yourself on the metro, everyone bore the heat without wasting much energy.

This isn’t to say that France has it all figured out. Parisians are hopelessly in love with bottled water, and the city’s smog is still a problem. But cultural values here place an emphasis on treating the environment with respect, so Paris’s carbon footprint is in good hands. Over my five weeks here, it’s been eye-opening to see consumption not as something that needs to be reformed, but as something that Parisians are constantly thinking about. These mindful habits are definitely going to stick with me when I get back to the U.S. in two short weeks.

On Mothers and Opportunities

Before I start writing I think it’s worth mentioning that I have a limited stance in terms of experience on this subject: women in Amman. This being said, I wanted to share some observations.

I’ll start with a somewhat embarrassing story at a Jordanian gathering. I went to Iftar (when people break the daylight-long Ramadan fast) with a friend’s host family. While saying hello to people, men kiss each other on one cheek once and on the other cheek thrice. But from men to women, a handshake suffices most of the time, and I thought I had the greeting situation mapped out. However, I didn’t.

I was shaking hands left and right and then I came across a woman who didn’t look more conservative or reserved than the others. But when I extended my hand, it rested in the air for give or take 5 solid seconds before she kindly declined, due to her view that “women shouldn’t touch men they’re not married to”. Although in the moment I was ashamed at the foolish cultural mishap, we actually got to talking later about life in Amman, her children, her former job, etc. in what I’ve come to call “Arablish”, and I realized it wasn’t personal at all, but just part of cultural practices.

While this singular event isn’t particularly important in and of itself, it got me thinking about the role of both women and men in Jordan, and I began noticing things far more serious than what I related above.

Thrice I have seen women in heart wrenching situations in Amman.

The first of these happened when I was in a car on my way to a mall colloquially known as “Sweifia Mall”. A woman, fully covered except her face, was walking between cars at a stoplight. Next to her was her young son, and his arm was very visibly broken near the elbow. He walked alongside her as she showcased his injury, implying that any money anyone gave her would be used for the operation her son obviously very badly needed. I could spend a lifetime in dictionaries of every language and still not find the right words to describe the expression on her face, or his. It was one of those somber moments that really makes you think about your own life and that of others abstractly, and I still had it present in my mind when the next such event happened.

I was walking along the streets of the “balad”, the center of Amman, on my way to a restaurant to eat Iftar. At one point I looked to my left, and a woman was sitting with her small son sleeping in her lap. His shirt was open, and on his chest was a protruding, painful- looking bump in the shape of a “C”. I have no idea what could possibly cause such a thing, but the woman had a similar expression to that of the woman I had seen just days before.

Just today, hours before I sat down and began writing this post, I saw a woman on the side of the road sitting down, with three young and dirty children playing around her, as she seemed to rest. They looked very poor, and I wonder how their lives are, just like I wonder how much money the other two women needed for their respective children.

There is a very common mindset in America for those who want to avoid guilt at living around wealth inequality. This mindset dictates that if someone is homeless or poor, it is because he or she doesn’t want to work. Instead, they are “free-loaders”, eating from food stamps paid for by the taxes of hard-working Americans, or enjoying their position as the “welfare queen” or “lazy bum”.

Here, the poor aren’t viewed in this way. In fact, the most beautiful thing about Ramadan in my opinion goes beyond the lights and celebrations and Iftars to the fact that the poor are helped. In fact, there is a giant tent outside City Mall where Iftar is served for those who can’t afford to eat any other way.

However, things are different for women. Whereas in America people are quick to point out that maybe the poor could do something to earn money, from my experience here I have noticed that opportunities to work are practically nonexistent for women who are uneducated, very conservative, or come from a lower socio-economic situation. I don’t mean to imply that men or religion are invariably oppressing women, but when some women consider themselves unable to do things like shake a man’s hand, and parties are segregated by sex, and it is rare to see women working outside more cosmopolitan places like malls, it sheds light on just how many things differ for women and men in this society.

More to follow on Amman,


Cidade Maravilhosa

I’ve only been in Rio de Janeiro for a little over a week, but I’m already enamoured with this city and the people in it.

I arrived in Rio last Saturday, but I’ve been in the country for a total of 2.5 weeks. I came to Brazil in mid-June to explore some different parts of the country: Amazonas (the northwestern state of the country containing the Amazon River & Rainforest and the populous city of Manaus), São Paulo, and Iguazu Falls – I also had a chance to explore parts of Argentina.

I tend to forget how big of a country Brazil is and how different its regions are – for example, the economies of Amazonas and Iguazu rely mostly on ecotourism (they actually strongly reminded me of a mix of Indonesia and Florida), whereas São Paulo is as urban and crowded as Taipei. Rio de Janeiro itself is one of the most diverse cities I’ve been to – where else can you relax on stunning (and extremely crowded) beaches like  Ipanema or Copacabana; hike undisturbed, tranquil mountains; experience urban nightlife; and see what life is like in a favela, all in the same city?


Gorgeous view of Rio’s beaches, nature, and urban metropolis – photo taken from Sugarloaf Mountain

Some major things that surprised me about Rio at first:

1. The food. It’s so weird eating so much cheese and meat for breakfast. Gone are the days of just eating cereal or yogurt or skipping breakfast altogether. Here, people take their time with massive café de manhãs complete with chicken, ham, turkey, cheese, fruit, cereal, yogurt, tapioca (a type of crepe made with tapioca flour), and dozens of different types of fruit juices – the fresh fruit here is incredible. Açai is also wildly popular here since açai is a Brazilian berry; almost every single block has at least two juice / açai bars. Brazilian açai tastes pretty different from the trendy açai bowls in America, but I enjoy both.

Typical Brazilian breakfast - açai with fruit and granola, bread, ham and cheese croissants, turkey, cheese, and coffee

Typical Brazilian breakfast – açai with fruit and granola, bread, ham and cheese croissants, turkey slices, cheese slices, and coffee

Brazilians also tend to eat large lunches (a sandwich or a slice of pizza does not count as lunch here), and smaller dinners. Cheese is in literally every meal and pretty much every snack – I honestly don’t think a vegan could live here.

2. The friendliness of locals. People are so friendly here! While I was on Ipanema beach last Saturday with a few friends, a beach vendor stopped by to try to sell us sarongs. Though we declined, she ended up talking to us for about 45 minutes about life in Rio, things and places to avoid, and her Brazilian friends who had married gringos and moved to the United States – she pulled out her phone and scrolled through a dozen photos of friends’ weddings.

Sunset at Ipanema beach

Sunset at Ipanema beach

3. At the same time, Rio is actually pretty dangerous. Though I’d been continuously warned about the danger of the city, I didn’t quite realize the extent to which that was true until living here. Never have I clutched my Longchamp tighter or closer. I try not to bring my iPhone with me when I leave my apartment, and I usually only carry a small amount of cash rather than bringing a wallet. Though the neighborhood I’m living in (Ipanema) and the nearby neighborhoods (Leblon and Copacabana) are very nice, safe, and beautiful, many parts of the city are not. A friend on the Columbia-Rio program recently got his backpack cut open with a knife by robbers while we were in Centro (the bustling financial district of Rio). I guess there’s a reason why every apartment in our neighborhood is gated with multiple doormen, locks, and security checkpoints. Wealth inequality is painfully, blatantly obvious in Rio – from our upscale apartment’s window, you can see the beautiful Ipanema beach on one side, and a favela (a slum / shantytown that I’ll discuss in my next blog post) on the other.

The view from our apartment balcony - it's right on the beach!

The view from our apartment balcony – it’s right on the beach!

Overall, I absolutely love Rio so far – the city’s lifestyle is so wonderfully calm yet upbeat and vibrant. When I’m not mixing up my Spanish with my Portuguese, I’m learning a lot about the language – luckily, Brazilians talk a lot with hand gestures, which helps me pick up on what they’re saying.

So excited for another 3 weeks here. 🙂

– Mabel

Old country, new democracy

It’s already been more than 2 weeks into this incredible journey! Time has whizzed by and I find myself in a hotel room in downtown Istanbul, thinking that I should have done this earlier.

I first landed in Tunis on May 31st, and was immediately struck by the number of flags everywhere. The nationalistic fervor following the toppling of dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 is still alive in Tunisia, and this young democracy was a fascinating place to be. My program is Democracy and Constitutional Engineering, which means that we’ve been talking about what goes into the making of a constitution- and what better place to explore that than Tunisia, where they just finished making one?

So, in Tunisia, we hung out with some politicians from the Islamist (and largest) party, met the Minister of Defense, and some civil society activists to learn how Tunisia decided to go about putting together their constitution. When we weren’t doing this, we were learning how to test hypotheses with a statistics program (Stata). Long hours went into both Stata and exploring the city of Tunis.

About to meet with Ennahda (Islamist party) officials in downtown Tunis

About to meet with Ennahda (Islamist party) officials in downtown Tunis

Our hotel was a little ways outside the main city, for security reasons, but that gave us the added benefit of a beautiful swimming pool and a very beach-y vibe. I tried to venture out of the comfort of the resort as much as possible and ate most of my meals in a nearby town called La Marsa. Tunisian street food is very Lebanese influenced, so I ate a lot of shawarma and wraps. But my favorite part of the food experience was a spicy but slightly bitter sauce called harissa. Very much in the same way that I put sriracha sauce on everything in New York, I got extra harissa on all my food in Tunis. French fries with mayonnaise is also a Tunisian street food staple- everything comes with a helping of fries and mayo!

Spot the harissa

Spot the harissa

This short study abroad program is made all the more exciting by the inclusion of students from universities around the region. We live and learn with three Tunisians, three Egyptians, three Lebanese, and three Turkish students. Not only do they add more context to what can otherwise be a uniform Western-liberal political discussion, the Tunisians and Turkish students have been extremely generous and invaluable by taking on the role of de facto tour guides (shout-out to Amine!).

PGF-ers hanging out at the ruins of Carthage

PGF-ers hanging out at the ruins of Carthage

I’ll round this post off with a little slice of the discussions we had in Tunisia, in classes and with the political actors we met. Since the democracy is new and fragile, all the actors are trying to wade through the waters of uncertainty and decide how best their democracy will function. For example, we met an incredible lady named Amira Yahyaoui, who runs a non-governmental organization named Al Bawsala. Their role during the constitution making process has been to create transparency in legislative dealings by reporting on all meetings and discussions. Amira has become something of a household name in Tunisia due to the wild success her organization has had in increasing public access to information and facilitating consensus. But theory we studied in class says that over-scrutiny can lead to polarization and difficulty for politicians to horse-trade and compromise, since their constituents are always watching. It will be interesting to see how Tunisian democracy fares in the future with this level of scrutiny, and if it will ever become a hindrance to the consensus-building approach adopted by most political actors in these early stages of democratization.

Ramadan Kareem, and watch out for a Turkey post coming soon!

Off the glamor

Greetings from Paris!

I’ve been here for a week now, and everything has been wonderful. After a few days of wandering around (my iPhone says I walk about 16,000 steps a day… this is quite unprecedented), I’ve seen many of the famous places that make Paris a legend – the Eiffel Tower, the boat tour “bateau mouche” on the Seine, the Basilica of Sacred Heart, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Les Deux Magots, etc… Those places are packed with tourists taking photos, and I really now get the charm of Paris.


Paris is picturesque, oh so romanesque — I have a feeling that I’m walking in a painting or a classic European romance or a famous Hollywood movie. All the buildings have breathtaking architecture, which I am dying to do research on. The little flowers on the balconies, the white paint contrasted by dark green window panes — everything gives you a feeling of being lost in a wonderland.

I cannot help but draw a comparison between Paris and NYC. Yes, they are both famous cities in the world, but they are quite different. In Paris, the buildings are quite low in comparison to the skyscrapers of New York. There are so many open spaces — gardens, parks, grass beds,… all placed right in the middle of a quartier that you can see people sitting down, relaxing, reading, having picnics… everywhere. The architecture and layout of the city really encourages relaxation, walking and sightseeing, therefore the pace of life seems to be much slower, calmer and more focused on enjoying the moment than New York City. This is when I realize what an impact on the culture of a community architecture and urban layout can have. Powerful.

IMG_3556The subway comes every 2-4 minutes without fail, therefore I have not seen the usual “Times Square war” around rush hours. If one misses a subway, one can wait and the next train will come soon. I guess the frequency of the subway really makes for less aggressive subway riders 🙂

Of course, all of these observations I’ve made are incredibly limited and cannot be taken for a true picture of Paris, but this is merely an impression of a visitor who has been living here for one week.

However, despite all these differences, there is a striking similarity that I’ve only discovered yesterday.

IMG_3757How many photos of such a store have we seen in popular media as a representation of Paris? If we see a photo like this, we would probably think it belongs to another city, or maybe a lower-income part of New York City, one of those “sketchy” areas that we dare not trespass at night. This is on the Boulevard Barbès, and it is, too, Paris.


As it turns out, Paris is not just the City of Lights. It is also a city of people of color, of dirty subways, of trashed pavements. It is not just St. Germain-des-Près with Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton; it is also a city of cheap knock off stores and bins of dirty old shoes for 5 euro. It is not just a city of high arts, of world-famous museums, of breathtaking architecture and churches; it is also a city of ugly lodging buildings, of homeless beggars. It is not just a city with five expensive, graceful cafés and brasseries on every street; it is also a city of not-so-expensive KFCs, not-so-clean boucheries, of not-so-glamorous street vendors.

Paris is, unexpectedly, a city of real life and real people.


What then, goes on with these people, on these streets, in these shops? Visitors spend thousands of dollars to fly across the world to take photos of Paris, to ascend to a city of unforeseen beauty and pleasure, to enjoy a glass or two of high class wine while watching the streets full of fashionable Parisians. What about the underdog of this very same city? Do they struggle? Do they find the legend of Paris ironic and laughable? Do they find comedy or tragedy in the popular representation of their city that is so far from an accurate representation of their life?

Paris, the city of Love, of Lights. New York, the Capital of the World, the city of Hope, of Dreams.