An Irishgirl abroad — New York life through a European lens

Alain de Botton’s poor parties

Posted in Books by Frieda on May 28, 2010


Today in the Guardian the popular philosopher, Alain de Botton, was the subject of an aggressive attack. He was interviewed in the Times about his ideal dinner party, and revealed that he buys ready-meals to feed his guests. He also likes his guests to be vulnerable, and here things get complicated, or maybe just plain patronising. Without his oversight, he thinks that conversation would be boring, so he asks people questions: “What’s everyone afraid of at the moment?” or “Why have you come out tonight?” or “What’s the point in your life?”

Why not get straight to the point?

The Guardian’s food blogger rightly took him to task for serving up pre-prepared Marks & Spencers fodder, and for dividing up a measly two bottles of wine between eight people.

Infinitely more surprising to me, since I’m a former a classicist and de Botton is after all a philosopher, is his failure to note the dinner party’s philosophical pedigree. How could he forget! Plato, Xenophon, Plutarch, Athenaeus and Aulus Gellius all staged symposia, using the dinner-party to showcase intellectual bickering, Socratic brilliance, discussion, and argument.

De Botton thinks everyone should contribute to conversation (an idea of Plato’s and of Plutarch). So far so good. But vulnerability shouldn’t be dragged from guests by questions, it should organically peep into life. Plutarch, my most beloved ancient sage, advised giving extra wine to shy people, and mixing water into the drinks of  rowdier guests. In Plutarch’s Table Talks (at nine books, it’s well worth a read) the questions for discussion arise from the spirited conversation itself.

My favourite Plutarchan question is Concerning the Suitable Time for Coition in book 3. It’s actually a group of young men that bring up the subject. They’re horrified because Epicurus introduced the “unseemly” topic in his Symposium (note, Mr. de Botton, Epicurus wrote about dinner-parties as well). A doctor called Zopyrus contradicts the modest youngsters, suggesting that it’s only right and proper for a philosopher to talk about such matters. “For my part,” he says, “I wish that Zeno had put his remarks on ‘thigh-spreading’ in the playful context of some dinner-party piece and not in his Government, a work which aims at such great seriousness.”

Philosophical conversation doesn’t have to be about deep subjects like life and death. Philosophers should not start tedious arguments (I paraphrase Plutarch) or make people uncomfortable. Plutarch prefers to sprinkle philosophy in with seriousness so he can teach his subject subtly. Even the imposing Plato makes the comic playwright Aristophanes a character at his Symposium, to brighten the narrative.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that de Botton’s parties don’t sound like that much fun. De B. doesn’t drink, he says; he likes to set friends up but often one person takes advantage of the other. And he ends with this: “I think the ideal note a dinner party should end on is everyone feeling that we should all live in a commune, or couples going away thinking: ‘It’s so much better to be in a big group than just us.’

Compare and contrast Xenophon, 4th century BC: at the end of his Symposium, an actor and actress perform a risque erotic scene, showing Dionysus making love to Ariadne, and mixing representation with reality. It’s so highly charged that afterwards the guests all rush off home: “Whilst those of them who were unmarried swore that they would wed, those who were wedded mounted their horses and galloped off to join their wives, in quest of married joys.”


Sex and the, er, Abu Dhabi

Posted in New York by Frieda on May 26, 2010

Carrie in the good old days

SATC2 is nigh upon us, opening in the US tomorrow. Already the soundtrack is out in stores, the HBO shop is selling relevant memento items, and swarovski crystal is advertising champagne toasting flutes like those Big holds in his very own hands. If I sound jaded others are less so. The facebook group has 1.7 million fans and women have apparently (according to reports) block-booked seats in the opening shows. Tomorrow, it seems, the city will be awash with women stalking the streets in stilettos as part of SATC2 celebrations.

Yesterday I paused in mid-town to take a closer look at a huge SATC poster pinned up in the entrance to an indoor car park. I’d heard the women’s faces are so stretched and airbrushed that they look barely human. Up close it’s true: Carrie’s eyes bear an alien hood of makeup, she’s wild-looking, whirling her transparent skirt and has her mouth open for no particular reason. Also odd is Samantha: with doe-eyed blond innocence she looks as though she could be at a high school prom, even though the film, and real life, puts her somewhere in the age-range of fifty.

The film looks dire. Watching the trailer I was appalled to see the trip-to-foreignland (aka Abu Dhabi) twist, which is the movie-plot version of what lazy primary-school students write when they don’t know how to finish essays. “Then I woke up and realized it was a dream.”

Reviewers have rightly called out the naive orientalism of the Abu Dhabi journey. Nick McGeehan pointed out the UAE’s appalling record on women’s rights in the Guardian, sadly crying, “Carrie, this is wrong”! Hadley Freeman put it best: “Not since 1942’s Arabian Nights has orientalism been portrayed so unironically. All Middle Eastern men are shot in a sparkly light with jingly jangly music just in case you didn’t get that these dusky people are exotic and different. Even leaving aside the question of why anyone would go on holiday to Abu Dhabi, everyone who has ever watched a TV show knows that the first rule is: don’t take characters out of their usual environment.”

Several outlets have had men review the film as if part of a cruel experiment. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw gives it one star (“boring”); David Edelstein dubs it “depressing” at NYMag; for Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, it’s an “endless nightmare.” It’s intriguing that the Guardian and Salon have both male and female journalists assess the film. We rarely get a specifically female take on “bromance” movies or sci-fi. Something about SATC makes it so gendered that one person’s panning is not enough.

Meanwhile at least one US critic — and yes, a woman — has attempted a defence. Heather Havrileskey calls it “cathartic” and says female friendship is important. She makes the fair point that “Any movie that women choose to see in droves will immediately be written off as silly.” But when she argues “The truth is that there just aren’t that many smart, fun stories about women friends to choose from — others have tried, and mostly failed. It’s no small feat to tackle the female psyche,” I have to disagree. What about Kissing Jessica Stein? What about the Sex and the City series? Is it any easier, by the way, to write about the complex psyches of men, or of people in general?

Michael Patrick King’s the culprit; he wrote and directed SATC2. When George Eliot wrote “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” in 1856 she lamented the “particular quality of silliness that predominates in them–the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic.” SATC2 is certainly a silly frothy film about ladies; we can take some comfort in the knowledge that it’s been penned by a man.


Last night I went to see a five-woman comedy show called Powersuits at the Upright Citizens Brigate Theater. I realized I’ve never seen women do comedy before. Andrea Rosen, Giulia Rozzi, Brooke Van Poppelen and Arden Myrinwomen were all in their early thirties, while the headline act, Janeane Garofalo, was a bit older and had been in Reality Bites. They contradicted the stereotypical notion I discovered I held, that comediennes are either dorky or dowdy: they were gloriously glamorous, as well as witty and fun.

There certainly are smart sassy sexy New York women out there. The thing is seems there’s no evidence of them in SATC2.

PS. I accept, I haven’t seen the film, but I have watched the trailer. If it’s good, I promise I’ll recant.

PPS. The New York Times has a gentle, fair review plus lots of clips. Take a look.

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Recommended: Twigs hair salon

Posted in Local, New York by Frieda on May 18, 2010

Julie Reale, one of three stylists at Twigs

My second post in the Things I Love about New York series. This time it’s a Manhattan hair salon!

One Friday night in autumn 2008 when I first arrived in New York and had little else to do, I was wandering around the East Village. I spotted a hair salon and popped in for a cut. There I met Julie Reale, a blond, tattoed, talented stylist who would become my New York Hairdresser. She whispered to me that she was about to leave that salon and set up on her own. We exchanged contact details.

Just a few weeks later she’d set up Twigs, a delightful salon further east in Alphabet City. It’s a supercool place: the decor is warm and simple. The floors are wooden, and flickering green silver birch screens adorn the walls. In the basement a red wood-stove-light creates a sort of ski-resort feel. The building may or may not have been a rub-and-tug brothel in an earlier incarnation, but Reale and her friends Janell Waddington and Kristiana Andrews transformed it into a cosy, bright space.

Most importantly, Reale’s cuts are good value (starting at $85) and consistently excellent. I’ve received compliments on my hair from strangers and friends in Dublin, New York and San Francisco. Once at a book launch, a random woman started taking photos of me, sweetly explaining it was my haircut, not me, that she wanted to snap.

One of the impressive things about this business is that the girls set it up at the peak of the recession, yet it’s fared extremely well. Reale says she’s noticed a trend. “There’s a lot of stuff closing down, but I feel that a lot of really nicer places are opening up,” she says. That makes sense. Another business I know that flourished in the last two years  is Roots cafe in Brooklyn, which like Twigs provides a friendly, high-quality experience.

Twigs salon

The downturn brought other benefits. “Because of the recession, we got to negotiate on everything,” Reale explains. She and the other girls had been pushed out of a former salon by the high rents they paid for chairs, but with their own salon they could do deals. “The landlord, the contractor; people are willing to be more flexible.”

Reale is from Albany but she’s a de facto New Yorker. She’s lived in the city for 12 years, and shares a rent-controlled apartment in the West Village with her boyfriend. From an early age, she wanted to be a hairdresser. “I met my sister’s friend who was a hairstylist, when I was a kid,” she explains. “She looked like Joan Jett and had a really cool car. And I thought, I wanted to be like her.”

It’s a flexible job. “We don’t have to work in flourescent lighting, there are no cubicles. And you don’t get secretary spread!” she says. Incidentally this ties in with an article on happiness in the Guardian last month, which said that hairdressers rank as the happiest workers in the UK.

Reale’s apartment is also shared by two dogs, and a cat. In her spare time she works on her own canine-fashion website called The Punky Pup, an excessively cute business that sells punk rock t-shirts, collars, tanktops and accessories, for pets.

East Village is sometimes overrun with NYU students and tourists (especially at the weekend), but Alphabet City, named because it begins at Avenue A, is just a little ways off from that, and it’s more diverse and residential. The whole area was Patti Smith territory in the ’60s and ’70s — the rockstar gave her first poetry reading at St. Mark’s church — and it’s rich with history, late night second-hand bookshops, family-owned pizza joints, design stores, coffee shops and restaurants.

In short, go there. And get your hair cut.

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Booked by the cops!

Posted in Irish, Local, New York by Frieda on May 13, 2010

My local station

“Where’s your ID? Are you here legally?” The two police spoke at the same time, loud and threatening, as if that was all they cared about. I was very glad to be a US citizen. And mad at myself for getting caught. “Are you here legally?” Officer Daly repeated. “Oh, come on,” I said, “My dad was American, I’m a citizen. Come on.” He stopped asking.

But I realized how bad it would have been if I’d been illegal, like so many other immigrants in New York. This is when you get caught: a small misdeamour or mistake and you’re on the plane back to Ireland, never to return. That Thursday, I was on my way back from an event at the Irish consulate, where I’d lunched with senior Irish educationalists at a networking event. I was wearing a short black dress, silver pearls and a blazer. I hopped into the 5th Avenue station and used my monthly card. Then I decided to step out again and make a call, to see if a Manhattan friend would like to meet for a drink. She wasn’t in, so I went down to the train again, but this time, as is usual with New York metro cards, my card ($89) wouldn’t work — you need to wait 18 minutes between use.

Feeling a bit rebellious, I snuck under the turnstyle — or “crept under” as my charge card later stated. In fact I’d done it earlier that week rushing to catch a train at my local station, and not gotten caught. Who cares? I thought. I’ve paid for monthly travel.

I was scooting down the platform when my eyes were drawn towards Officer Almodovar. He was smiling at me, and beckoned me to him. At first I smiled too, thinking he’d chastise me and let me go, but as he took my name, address and phone number, writing with incredible slowness, I realized that wasn’t to be. I pleaded, begged, told the officers they’d ruined my day, and finally became stonily silent. The fine was $100.

“But I paid, I have a monthly card!” I argued, several times. “We can’t bend the rules for anyone,” explained Daly with determined logic. He was a narrow-faced fair-skinned short-haired man several years younger than me. “We can’t have different rules for different people.” He pointed out I could have asked the attendant to let me through and this wouldn’t have happened. Not that I’d known that. He started to give me advice on how to get an ID card so I wouldn’t have to show my horrible, out-of-date NYU ID. He was quite nice. Meanwhile middle-aged Almodovar grinned in a way that made my blood boil. Commuters looked at me in surprise as they went by — a nice young woman in a posh part of town, getting booked by the cops.

Last night over drinks, I discussed this with a friend, a German science post-doc. who works at NYU. He told me how he’d been rushing for a train late one evening, and his card was out of money. He sped under the barrier, to find a cop on the other side. “In France, or Germany, there’s always some leeway, you can talk to them,” he said. “But not here. They were really serious and aggressive.” He’d gone through the same emotional cycle as me: friendly surprise, smiles at the cops; attempts to chat and plead; ending up in aggrieved silence.

“It’s $100,” Almodovar said when he’d written down all my details, with faux-reassurance adding, “We’re going to say that you broke the rules but it’s not a criminal act.” I asked if there were alternatives to payment. “You can turn up to a summons, if you want to.”

“Thanks, guys,” I said over my shoulder, as I headed off in a blackened mood. See you in court, I was thinking, already formulating arguments. It felt as if people were still staring; I was trembling, and too embarrassed to look at the yellow slip documenting my crime.

I’ve since mislaid the little yellow sheet, but my hearing’s sometime between 8.30am and 2.30pm on June 4th, in the not-very-glamorous MTA adjudication bureau.

I know I was in the wrong. But my crime was technical, not moral. I’d bought the bloody metrocard after all. I just hope the judge will agree.

For more info. see the MTA rules of conduct.

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