It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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Science says comparing yourself to others is a sure road to unhappiness. Comparing yourself to fictional characters, responsible for nothing, with no consequence to their actions and only answering to the whims of the people who wrote them might be even worse.

Re-watching Sex and the City Seasons 1-6 (SATC) this summer, I haven’t so much been questioning why I don’t have a wardrobe equal to Carrie Bradshaw’s, why I don’t have brunch with my friends every weekend or why I don’t get dates. I love my wardrobe and I know why I don’t have brunch or get dates more often: I’m not interested. It’s just not part of my lifestyle or plan at the moment.

Six seasons didn’t make me wish I had a life similar to the SATC characters. Instead, six seasons made me wish I wanted a life like theirs and question why I don’t. Shouldn’t I want to see my friends more? Shouldn’t I have three friend to complete me? Shouldn’t “having a boyfriend” be one of my goals for the upcoming months?

I am pretty content with my life at the moment, and I have been for a few months now. No, I don’t “have it sorted” but I feel I am exactly where I should be and more importantly, exactly where I should be to get to where I want to be next.

Last month, I launched the new website I had been working on for six months, Women in Foreign Policy (#wifp). The aim is to inspire girls and young women to pursue a career in foreign policy by featuring women already working in the field. It’s been a lot of hard work and I still spend at least 15 hours on it every week. This block of time, though a significant part of my not-at-work hours, has made me less stressed because I have finally landed on a project that crystallises much of what has been important to me for the past few years and which I had been struggling to articulate: foreign policy, women’s rights and women in the workplace.

Women in Foreign Policy demanded a new prioritisation of my life, which was easy and natural as soon as I had decided to launch the site. Out went the TV series, the friends I had been seeing by habit rather than for pleasure, the cinema sessions. After the website became a definite, these things were not sacrifices, not even compromises. I had taken one big decision, which meant all the other, smaller decisions required as a consequence were easy to reach.

As a result, the lifestyle I am leading, in many ways a slight extension to what I have been doing for years but with more purpose, is the opposite of what SATC argues for.

SATC is all about human interaction. There are scenario reasons for that. My weekends, between barre classes, sugar-free cooking and typing on a computer wouldn’t make for good TV. As an introvert, I recharge by spending time on my own, writing this blog, reading a book, and so on. Social situations exhaust me, sometimes even when they involve my favourite people.

Introverts are absent from SATC. Susan Cain, who has made a career arguing the introverts’ case in books and TED talks, said to The Guardian that “society has a cultural bias towards extroverts”, a phenomena particularly visible in American series and films. So with every SATC episode I watched, I felt I should reach for my phone and text a friend to meet up. I never did, because launching the site on my self-imposed deadline of 1 September was what mattered most this summer. Seeing friends was for previously-agreed dates, not for last minute whims. Judging by SATC, this makes me a terrible friend but in my book, it’s because friendships need investment and I invest best when things are organised.

Of course, interactions with men to romantic ends, something my life has been void of, are as important in SATC as interactions with friends. As much as I enjoy the characters of Big, Petrovsky and Steve, I have no interest in getting a real-life equivalent - it’s not part of my current life plan. Although most friends and family have stopped bringing up the topic beyond an irregular tease, SATC made me feel that, just a few days after my 28th birthday, I should be yearning for a mate or fear ending up an old maid.

By myself, I feel good about those decisions. Being forced to question my choices, even by a TV series, is good. It’s part of the reason why I am where I am now rather than in the dull lull I was in two years ago, a dissatisfaction I could have carried forever. However, although I am truly happy with my decisions, I need to learn to be at peace with them, even when the representation of a different lifestyle reverberates the image of my life as a boring, lonely and odd choice.

Posted at 5:20am and tagged with: TV series, Women in foreign policy, wifp, blogger adventure, first person,.

Maybe it’s the upcoming school year. Maybe it’s the change of season. Maybe it’s confirmation bias. Of late, my Feedly has been filled with more articles than usual about wardrobe clearing, often illustrated with photos of Carrie Bradshaw pondering the content of her walk-in closet.

With my impending move to a new flat the floor below mine, last weekend I set to rationalise my closet, which comprises of: two chests of drawers (one for underwear, one for trousers and capes), four under-the-bed drawers (for jumpers, sportswear, pyjamas and handbags), one wardrobe (for dresses, skirts, hanging tops, folded shirts, t-shirts, scarves and stripes), an in-wall closet (for coats, jackets, hats and two boxes of out-of-season clothes) and a set of apparent shelves (for shoe boxes). I don’t have a walk-in closet; I have a walk-in bedroom filled with clothes.

I wasn’t just motivated by the prospect of moving. After five years working in the fashion industry, and 18 months writing about foreign policy on the side, I am going through a phase of fashion ambivalence. Maybe Leo should have said: ”There are three things in the world you never want to let people see how you make ‘em: fashion, laws and sausages.” (The West Wing 1x04 “Five votes down”). Last month, slightly sickened by the contrast between tweets on Gaza and tweets on seasonal trends, I purged my Twitter feed of most fashion-focused accounts.

My ultimate aim, by clearing my closet, was to make space. Not space I can fill with new items, as is often the drive behind a closet clear out in fashion magazines. Not even space so that I can spend less time in the morning deciding what to wear. I plan my outfits for the week ahead every Sunday, a routine that takes no more than 15 minutes and means I always know what to wear. I want to create space because creating space to think, creating space to act has of late been a mantra of mine. I wanted my wardrobe clearing to be the equivalent of my 30-minute lunchtime meditation session in Saint Faith’s chapel at Westminster Abbey: something that would help me stand still.

That’s for the intention. The reality has been somewhat different, as I have only managed to fill two large black The Kooples canvas bags with unwanted clothes and shoes, and flogged a few items on eBay.

Considering all the writing available on the topic, clearly I’m not the only one struggling. Wardrobe clearing (or detoxing, or rehab, depending how hip and conceptual you want to make it) is a burgeoning business with companies like Wardrobe Mistress (UK, starts at £595), The Organized Move (Southern California) and Clos-ette (USA) offering it as part of their services. It’s not just for busy-ness, practical or can’t-be-bothered reasons. Strangers have no emotional attachment to your clothes, nor are they under any misconception that you might just wear it, one day.

My dresses are particular culprits when it comes to the “I might wear it one day” illusion. Yes, I own a few that still have their labels on. Back in November 2012, I wrote about these dresses as “concept clothes”, items “generally bought in the sales, because I either think I look hot in them, have been lusting after them all season long or think they would be perfect for a cocktail party or a date, never mind I never go to either.”

Had I stuck with the intention for my wardrobe clearing, I should have gotten rid of these. Piled them high on my bed, folded them and filled another (couple of) those large black The Kooples canvas bags with them. But I couldn’t. They’re just too pretty, too exciting, too promising (although of what?). More importantly, looking at them makes me happy. As a middle ground, I swore I would wear them in the next few weeks. But then August decided to pretend it was October, and since the concept dress is never warm, that didn’t happen either. I could probably wear them under my latest concept coat: an oversized, laser-cut olive leather lace number I promised myself I would buy when I first saw it on the runway. I eventually purchased it last month for a fraction of its original price. Because I am so worried about damaging it, it remains in my credenza at work - as I don’t want to carry it home when there’s even the slightest chance it might get rained on. When it eventually gets home, I am thinking of hanging it in my bedroom so it can be admired every day. It’s not a coat, it’s art.

The “if you haven’t worn it in a year, get rid of it” rule features in pretty much every single wardrobe clearing article. Other recurrent themes include sorting your clothes by type, then by colour and making sure that you can see everything. Inspecting my wardrobe recently, a friend was surprised by how organised it is. I have my mother to thank for that, as she always classified our clothes by type and taught us to iron. Well-ironed clothes fold better and are easier to sort than not ironed ones, fact. Ironing is a great time investment when it comes to your wardrobe. It’s also a great thing to do while binge-watching Netflix or box sets and, if you’re anything like me, takes out some of the guilt of spending time Just Watching TV.

Another favourite wardrobe cleaning advice is to only keep clothes that fit you, not just body-wise but also lifestyle-wise. As my body hasn’t changed in 10 years, this isn’t one that helps me chuck out clothes. In fact, when I go back home, I still wear some of the t-shirts I bought age 15. I have been working in the same place for over four years now and I think my colleagues might get worried if they saw me going a full month without stripes. And yes, since this is fashion, I have even worn some of the concept dresses to the office, when I needed to self-justify not giving them away.

Most of my concept dresses come from MAJE, which brings me to the last recurrent advice I have noticed about clearing your wardrobe: only keep items of clothing you can match with others you own. No point owning a great silk shirt if you have no bottoms with to wear with it. I solved that problem a while back by only shopping at a few brands, which is why my wardrobe is exclusively made up of Burberry, Kookai, The Kooples, MAJE, Petit Bateau, Des Petits Hauts, Sandro and Zadig et Voltaire. I know they’ll always fit together, likely because the same team always designs them. Even though inspiration and fabrics change season to season, they stick to the spirit of what made their brand popular and as such, it makes their clothes easy to mix and match.

This isn’t an article however about how I couldn’t clear my wardrobe because it’s already perfect as it is. I am proud of my wardrobe. In fact, when I think about whether or not me, aged 10 to 15, would have been happy of what it is like, my measure of success in all domains, I am sure I would be blown away by the wardrobe I have put together, in absolute modesty of course.

Going through my wardrobe, trying to apply the clearing out advice found online, made me realise how much I love the clothes I have. It also made me realise I take issue with these type of articles because of the consumerism they exemplify.

If you believe The Devil Wears Prada, Anna Wintour archives and reorders the content of her closet every season. But Anna Wintour has a duty to the business model she represents to show that clothes should be renewed everything six months (or less, if you count pre-collections). That goes through the editorials and articles in Vogue as well as her own public appearances. You and I? Not so much. Buying trends, datable, obvious trends is what creates the clear out need as their shelf life is short and they will have to go to make space for the next ones.

My other issue with the concept of a wardrobe clear out is that it presupposes discontent with its content. But if you know who you are and what your style is, if you have decided on what image you want your clothes to project, and if you’re not buying compulsively, is there any need to clear, beyond the ill-fitting, the stained and the broken? Hand on my heart, I can say I know every single item in my wardrobe right now, and love every single one of them. So they all stay.

Posted at 7:58am and tagged with: first person, wardrobe, Anna Wintour,.

My secret crumble: lessons from 15 years of crumble baking

My sister Camille, who claims Bree Van De Kamp as her Desperate Housewives counterpart (at least on the cooking front), once shared her theory that you can pretend to be a good cook by mastering one savoury and one sweet dish. My sweet one: the fruit crumble.

I build entire menus around the fruit crumble, the perfect comfort food. It works on children and adults, it is adaptable to any season and to any fruit bowl, it is a great way to use leftover fruits and it is almost impossible to mess up, unless you leave it in the oven a bit too long.

Not that I have been a stranger to crumble disasters. There was the blueberry and peach crumble that burnt just short of being inedible. It taught me that to bake a crumble to perfection, you should turn off the oven as it is still slightly undercooked and leave it to finish baking as the oven cools down. But aside from that near carbonisation, most incidents occurred at the topping-making level, particularly at the flour-adding stage.

Camille and I started making crumbles in our early teens, after we found a recipe in Julie, a girls’ magazine she had a subscription to. Even though neither our parents are the crumble type, the crumble is linked to memories of Nevers summers and pêches de vigne, the flavoursome, fleshy white and red peach that grew in our gardens by the basket-load. We would gather the fallen ones in the warmth of a late summer morning or the heat of a mid-afternoon. Camille would get on with the peeling while I would make the topping.

One year, we decided to welcome our parents back from a work weekend away with our special: a pêches de vigne and stewed apple crumble. Too much enthusiasm getting the flour out of the packet meant our parents were met with a yummy dessert, a just-cleaned-to-the-last-corner kitchen and two freshly showered daughters. Ten years later, making a summer berry crumble for 12 in my London flat, windows wide open to deflect the July heat wave, a draught that turned the kitchen white surprised me. Not what you want two hours before guests arrive. So this is my second crumble-baking learning: adding flour needs to be handled with care.

And while on the topic of topping, here is my third lesson: use salted butter. Most recipes advise unsalted butter but I find the salt, contrasting with the fat of the butter, the sugar of the crumble and the slight acidity of the fruits gives the desert an additional depth of taste. Possibly because the salt-fat-sugar combo is so addictive.

I also differ from many recipes when it comes to assembling the topping. I never use anything but my fingers to do it, first because it was one of my favourite parts of the baking process when I was cooking with my sister, and as such is fuelled with memories, and also because no fork, no pulsing gives as good a result. Now for the less glamorous details: you need to really wash your hand and trim your fingernails. Also: no nail polish. I never put the mixture in the freezer or the fridge, although that’s something I only heard of recently, rather than because the eventual result is bad.

I keep mentioning contrast and texture because this is what makes the crumble the perfect dessert. To add crunch, I often add almond flakes. Some recipes suggest multiple types of nuts, or even oats, but I stick to almonds, because I also include ground almonds in the dough and I don’t want to overpower with too many flavours. Almond flakes burn easily so it’s best not to add them from the start. I tend to scatter them on the crumble at the same time as I turn the oven off.

Making the perfect topping however counts for naught if the fruits aren’t quite there. They need to be perfectly peeled. Biting into a spoonful of melting, fragrant apple and ginger crumble and finding a little leftover of skin isn’t the contrast you’re going for. I count the time it takes to peel the fruits in terms of TV shows. For instance, a rhubarb, pear and apple crumble for 15 is a three West Wing-episodes crumble.

To reach the required texture, so the fondant perfectly contrasts with the crunchiness of the topping, some fruits, particularly winter ones, need to be stewed first. This is another chance to add depth, for instance with cinnamon or mint. The spice is more powerful if it was added at the stewing stage rather than on raw fruits, before putting the dish in the oven. Plus the spice used is an indication of what to serve with the crumble: rather than vanilla (expected, safe and boring vanilla) go for cinnamon or ginger ice cream. If you’ve added either to the fruits it will complement them perfectly.

Not all fruits should be stewed though: for a mango and apple crumble, you should stew the apples but use the mango raw. Same for kiwis. Summer berries don’t have to be stewed but doing so will increase the juices, which means they will ooze over the topping and slightly candy in the oven. If your stewed fruits have rendered a lot of juice, apply a very thin layer of flour to the bottom of the crumble dish to keep the desert moist rather than runny.

After 15 years of crumble-making, I have settled on the following ingredients and proportions for four people, essentially a twist on The Guardian's “How to make perfect crumble" recipe:

  • 100g of plain white flour
  • 50g of ground almond
  • 35g of Demerara sugar
  • 35g of caster sugar
  • 125g of salted butter

And here are a few recipes I am hoping to try over the next few months:

Pear and blueberry crumble by Simply delicious by Alida Ryder; Paleo strawberry crumble by Stephie Cooks; Five ingredient strawberry crumble by Jessica in the Kitchen; Ginger peach crumble by Gimme Some Oven; Salted caramel apple crumble by Lauren’s Latest; Blackberry chocolate chip cookie crumble by Love & Olive Oil; My mum’s famous 5-ingredient rhubarb crumble by Cloudy with a Chance of Wine; Peach and blueberry crumble by Cooking Classy; Poached pear crumble by Sips and Spoonfuls; Paleo cherry crumble by Confessions of an Overworked Mum.

Posted at 2:02pm and tagged with: food, first person,.

I come from a family where we don’t do football. Ever. Until 1998, and the World Cup came to France, I’m not even sure I knew such an event existed. In 1998, I was 12 and I read Jane Eyre for the first time.

But the World Cup being in France that year, we got into it. My mum put up a calendar of matches on the fridge, as she does for the Olympic games. I have no memory of all the criticism around coach Aimé Jacquet or the team selection; I just know it existed because of the post World Cup coverage. Until quite far into the competition, this was just something going on in the background.

1998 was the last year my grandparents, my sister and I went on holiday to the seaside town of Brétignolles-sur-Mer. We had been visiting every summer for at least five years. Although it took my grandmother another 12 years to die, she was already diminished. My grandfather was still a giant to me.

The place they had rented was a shithole, the type you only accept to live in in cities where rent is very expensive or in resorts, where landlords know they can get away with anything since it’s for just a week.

For the duration our stay, we didn’t watch a single match (no TV) but we kept on top of the news thanks to Ouest-France, the local newspaper my grandfather was reading. Ouest-France is a West France institution, the French-speaking paper with the strongest readership, different variants depending on where you buy it and every summer, a scratch game. Or at least it did, in 1998. Ouest-France and my grandfather are linked to the extent I can’t see it without thinking of him.

Every day, sitting on the tiny patio, we were reading the news, until one day we realised Les Bleus were actually getting somewhere. At some point, I started cutting articles and keeping them. I had an obsession with archiving, aged 12.

We drove back from Brétignolles to Le Mans on 12 July, the day of the final. There were people on the side of the road wearing striped blue, white and red make-up, waving flags and honking. “We haven’t won yet” my grandfather, the man who had painted Austin Healeys in his garage for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and started the family tradition of disliking football, remarked.

Yet when we got home, just a few hours before France-Brazil kicked off, we switched the TV on. There was an Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Stade de France and then the game, of which I have little memory except for being very excited when I went to brush my teeth at half-time, my grandmother refusing to watch with us and my grandfather exclaiming “that was unnecessary” when Petit scored the third goal.

Then I remember the analysts taking over; France black-blanc-beur, the idea that this victory could be the start of a new, all-encompassing French society; President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s leaps in the polls; the crowds on les Champs-Elysées around the players’ bus…

One week later we were back on the road, travelling with my parents to the Somme. In the small village where we stayed, we continued another family tradition, that of buying Paris Match for big national events. That Paris Match is still in my cupboard but really, it should join the ones we found in my great-grandparents’ house about multiple Pope deaths and the de Gaulle family. 1998 was 16 years ago.

Four years later, I was in high school. My only memory of the World Cup in Korea/Japan is joining some of my classmates at the on-campus flat of the Welsh language assistant, who was dating one of them. France left at the group stage.

2006 is another good World Cup memory. It was my first year at the London School of Economics and my friend Stacy really got me into it. She wrote a blog about the Trinidad and Tobago team and I suddenly knew who Dwight Yorke was.

I went to see the match against Sweden at a bar by the Barbican, with mostly Trinidadians and Tobagonians. The room was heavy with hope because that game was a 0-0 draw. Later, Stacy told me there had been a few heart attacks in Trinidad, during the match. Then I went to see the game against England in a bar by King’s Cross. It was so busy that Nicholai had to perch me on the bar to see. The atmosphere was very different. Stacy wrote a few articles in the FT about the team and I was very proud. Seeing your friends’ names on an FT by-line never gets old.  

In the end, Trinidad and Tobago didn’t qualify but I have kept my red jersey, which I wore a few times that summer with pride, in between donning my postwoman uniform. Nobody else in Nevers had a Trinidad and Tobago football shirt. The games against Sweden and England remain the only two football matches I have ever seen on purpose in a bar.

Although mostly following Trinidad and Tobago during the group phase, I was also keeping an eye on France, if only because Stacy had written her third year IR dissertation on the politics of French football. The evening of the final against Italy, she sent me a text along the line of “good luck even though a victory would totally prove my dissertation wrong”. I kept it until I had to give up my French mobile.

The day of the final, we were in Le Mans again, for my goddaughter’s christening. My grandmother was in her cycle of hospital stays that would see her to the end of her life. I was wearing a white Kookai dress I keep forgetting I still own. When Zidane head-butted, everyone around the dinner table felt that all was lost. The following week, we bought Paris Match again, where some prize-winning novelist wrote that Zidane’s problem was hubris.

Since 2010 was another group stage World Cup exit for Les Bleus, I have little memory of it. I just remember the team refusing to disembark a bus. That day, I was meeting someone I was teaching French to, who was teaching me writing and he, like much of the British media, made fun of the French propensity for striking. My grandmother died that summer.

This year, I had hopes for another long World Cup until I heard on radio France Inter that the French squad’s aim was to reach the Quarter Finals; anything beyond would be a bonus. That’s not the spirit. François Hollande could really do with a trophy win, as could French society. But really, I am supporting Argentina because I drew them in the sweepstake at work and there is £40 at stake.

Posted at 4:30pm and tagged with: first person,.

Four books are currently sitting on my bedside table: In My Shoes (Tamara Mellon), the Jimmy Choo co-founder’s autobiography; The Compass of Now (DDNard), a part-coaching, part-autobiography book teaching you “to be happy and fulfilled regardless of the circumstances”; The Making of Her (Susie Nott-Bower), about a makeover TV show and The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (Kim Ghattas).

Last December, I vowed not to spend another penny on books until I had read all the ones I currently own. In keeping with this resolution, I haven’t paid for any of these titles. The deviance is that back in December, none of them were on my shelves. The Compass of Now and The Making of Her were both sent to me for review by PRs, In my Shoes and The Secretary were both lent to me by friends.

Not buying books has had an unexpected effect: I read less and I am actually less focused on what I read. I flit around from one book to the next. Discovering that I hadn’t read 15 books in the past four months, a low figure for me, resulted in some reading introspection.

At first, I struggled with the sudden decrease in my reading rhythm. Devouring books is part of who I am, it’s why I choose to spend so much time on my own.

I looked at the practical reasons. Since realising, during the February Tube strike, that taking the train home would save me between 20 and 30 minutes a journey, my public transport reading time has shrunk from 45 minutes a night to 15. I am working on the launch of a site about women, foreign policy and education, scheduled for September, and the time I invest in it isn’t spent reading. Since I was a child, I have preferred reading over doing. Deciding to launch this website, putting together its critical path to hit the self-imposed deadline and realising the work that needs to go into it, has forced me to rethink this.

Shifting priorities and shrinking time on public transports aren’t the only reasons for reading less. I only realised the third explanation after seeing Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. The film brought back my Saint Laurent obsession and I re-read Lettres à Yves (Pierre Bergé), extracts of which feature in the movie, Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon (Marie-Dominique Lelièvre) and The Beautiful Fall (Alicia Drake)in the space of ten days. This was reassuring (I can still read!) but more importantly, it showed me the role of flow in my reading habits.

Choosing books linked to what is going on in my life at a given moment is key to my reading. I am not one to pick titles based on glowing reviews or on what’s in the 3-for-2 promotion at Waterstones. All the unread volumes on my shelves tell the story of what I was doing when I purchased them. Laurence Benaim’s Yves Saint Laurent was my first biography of the couturier, bought at his Petit Palais retrospective. The Cairo Trilogy (Naguib Mahfouz) was my way to investigate the Arab Spring and to learn more about a country I had holidayed in and had studied at university.

When I don’t read a book at that specific time however, the momentum is lost. Purchasing The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer an Archeological Scandal (Charles Allen) was logical when I was working at the British Museum, helping put together a catalogue for a Buddha exhibition in China. Although it still sounds intriguing, it makes less sense now.

Of course, this made me question the sustainability of my book-buying habit. Not only did I spend significant money for the purpose of a gratification that never came, but that money has been immobilised ever since.

Not buying books was the answer to a financial imperative. As I near 30, not saving money starts to be more irresponsible than carefree. Tying up money in books is less financially viable than investing money in fashion: whereas I can re-sell the latter for a decent price on eBay, the going rate for a read book is often too low to make it worth more than the read, or so I tell myself. Considering the number of second-hand books I have purchased online for £0.99, I am only too aware of this. Arguing that books are an intellectual investment is only valid if I actually read the books.

2014 is meant to be the year where I reap my investment. Unexpectedly, the self-imposed ban has had another consequence: for the first time, I am asking for things in the name of this blog.

Trying to figure out how I would cope without buying books for a year, I suggested last December I would ask publishing houses to send me books to reviews. So far it has worked, thanks to the launch of Books4Media, a platform linking industry PRs with journalists or bloggers. This is how I learnt about the publication of Suffragette Autumn, Women’s Spring, of The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War and how I got in touch with Lynn Michell at Linen Press. Most books on Books4Media are from small publishing houses who are more than happy to put me in touch with their authors. This fits nicely with my desire to base more Fashion Abecedaire articles on people and to celebrate achievements, especially women’s achievements.

The most unexpected thing to come out of these four months though: I haven’t even been tempted to but a single book. Not once. I am planning to spend the next quarter investigating that change.

Posted at 10:00am and tagged with: book review, first person,.

My 11 year-old snow bunny jumper

Purely in terms of cost per wear, this is my most profitable item of clothing. I have been wearing my beige snowflake jumper every winter for 11 years. My parents, as I had no disposable income at the time, bought it at Camaieu, the French ready-to-wear womenswear retailer, during the winter 2003 sale.

We’d gone to the local shopping mall, on a Saturday afternoon in January, for the express purpose of sale shopping, a bi-yearly family occasion scrupulously respected. It was the end of the day and, through the automatic glass sliding doors next to Camaieu, we could see that night had fallen. I hadn’t found anything I liked yet, which I’m sure would have annoyed me, when my mum picked up the jumper and told me that since I was small, I needed to wear something with interesting details. I’m pretty sure my sister hated it, if only because of the turtleneck, one of her fashion phobias. What I thought of it, I have forgotten. Taste, when it comes to this jumper, is secondary. This jumper is purely utilitarian. It has served me better than any of my other jumpers, of which there are many.

Normally, I estimate the worth of an item of clothing according to a very scientific formula: (price paid)/(number of compliments received). Des Petits Hauts and Diane von Furstenberg always win, as does a pale green Spring/Summer 2010 Burberry Prorsum skirt (bought at a sample sale) and all my Beatrix Ong shoes. This jumper never earns me any compliments (a sign in itself, my sister would say), but its original price, likely under 50 euros, divided by the number of wears, makes it different kind of wardrobe winner.

Although I have been wearing it for 11 winters, there aren’t many pictures of me in this jumper. It isn’t occasionwear, it is comfort wear - an item to throw on when I don’t want to get dressed or when it’s too cold but I can’t wear a blanket because that’s not deemed socially appropriate. This jumper is the promise of winter, of days leaving and coming back to the house when it is dark, of likely snow, of Eurostar return tickets and of Christmas approaching. It is a wardrobe holy grail, since it is bland enough to go with absolutely anything. To smarten it for work: skinny black jeans and heeled ankle boots at work; to be comfy at the weekend, old and faded jeans. During my first winters in London, I used to pair it with a Gryffindor-inspired scarf my grandmother had knitted for me, not because they went well together but because they were my two favourite items of knitwear.

The only photo of me wearing it is for my dad’s birthday, shortly after I had bought it. What can we learn from that picture? That on 7 March 2003, Nevers was freezing and I had gotten my first short bob haircut.

Six months later, the jumper followed me to London. I had bought it pre-relocation plans but its ease of care (machine washable knitwear!) combined with tales of grim British weather convinced me to add it to my suitcase. A Camaieu jumper was significantly less cool or expensive than what most of my Lycée français classmates wore but many of them came to identify me with it. In fact this winter, I have worn it to meet up with two people who knew me well at the time, and they both recognised it.

But despite accompanying me to London, to Lyon and then back to London, the snowflake jumper doesn’t evoke memories as much as it reminds me of my taste evolution. 2003 was the year I decided that browns would be the best colour palette on me. It seemed elegant and refined and so very grown up, because at 17, I really wanted to be grown up, which was synonymous with Having It Figured Out.

Most other brown items I bought that year are gone, since I’ve moved on, colour-wise, but the snowflake jumper remains, a steady presence in my winter wardrobe. It isn’t about being grown-up anymore, because I actually am a grown-up, it’s about reminding me of who I was when I bought it. When it’s cold outside, when I wonder why on earth I live so far from my family or why I am willingly putting myself through the madness of yet another Fashion Week, my Camaieu snow bunny jumper reminds me of the hopes, dreams and ambitions my 17-year-old harboured, and how I’m still the same person.

Posted at 5:44am and tagged with: first person, wardrobe, camaieu,.

During my only year in French higher education, my literature teacher imparted two pearls of wisdom to me: by the end of the curriculum, I would have enough reading to last a lifetime and there was no clever way to organise one’s bookshelves.

Bookshelf sorting has been a pastime of mine ever since I was a child. I’ve tried the by-author method, the by-collection method, the by-topic method, sometimes getting into quite anal Excel spreadsheet cross-referencing during the Summer holidays. On Sunday afternoon, I tried a new method of sorting: the books I have read vs. those I haven’t.

Book buying has been an ongoing budgetary issue. Books are heavy. Books take up a lot of space. Books are expensive. But books are also so easy to justify. I could be spending the money on less worthy pursuits, like drinking or smoking. On less lasting ones, like going out. On less educational things, like so many things available for purchase.

Books, on the other hand, are perfect. They teach me and they talk to me. They entertain me. They feed my writing. They help me fall asleep and busy the hours in between segmented sleep cycles. Books can be bought from charity shops and then it’s not just buying a book, it’s donating For The Greater Good (although not the good of the publishing industry).

Yet in 2014, I won’t buy another book until I have read all the unread and half-read ones on my bookshelf. This will be my new year’s resolution. No more book buying. My Sunday afternoon sorting was to see exactly how many unread books I have at my disposal. My estimate was around 40. I stopped counting after 52, when I realised that, unless I read one book a week, this new year’s resolution would have to carry on into 2015. Possibly long into 2015,  since quite a few  books are over 750-pages long. And we’re talking Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln here, not Harry Potter 750-pages long.

My decision not to buy anymore books had two catalysts. I feel quite shameful about sitting on this pile of books, which is essentially a pile of cash and knowledge, and not reading any of it. I might discover I hate some of them and that they should have been donated to the charity shop a while ago. I need to save money and my estimate is that I can save between £10 and £200 a month by not buying books. As I said, I am a big book buyer.

So how do I not buy a book? As stupid as this question might sound, and as obvious as the answer might be, I need a strategy. Even though I won’t be buying books, I will be reading them - and reading calls for more reading. The second I finished The Sense of an Ending, I had to find as much Julian Barnes as I could. Laura Jacob’s feature on The Group in the July issue of Vanity Fair prompted me to buy it. Hearing Lionel Shriver talk last September resulted in my buying two more novels of hers on eBay. After going to see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris in August 2010, I bought my first biography of the couturier. One thing led to another, and now there are five biographies about him on my bookshelf, not to mention one of Pierre Bergé. Just minutes ago, looking on the Oxfam Books site for the sole purpose of linking to it in this article, I got thoroughly tempted by some Ian McEwan and The Future Homemakers of America, and I don’t even know what this novel is about. Nothing deserves to be called a rabbit hole more than the world of books.

To not buy books, I will stay away from eBay, Amazon, the paved street next to work which has both an Oxfam bookshop and a normal bookshop, Waterstones…in fact, any place where books are sold. I will also refrain from the Amazon wish list or the Amazon basket, because not buying any book for 52 weeks and then bulk buying dozens on 1 January 2015, isn’t exactly the point of my new year’s resolution. I might sign up to my local library. I’ve registered on Read It Swap It, a website which enables users to swap books with others. My sister introduced me to the concept in October through Bibliotroc, its French equivalent. Except on Bibliotroc, you collect points for each book sent, which you can then spend on any book available. No need to wait for an alignment of book desires between you and another user, which makes the journey slightly better (though both sites have terrible UX). I might ask my friends more often if they have a book I am looking for. And lastly, I might just use this blog to ask some publishing houses if I can review books.

So here’s to 2014: a year of reading books, but not buying them.

Posted at 5:54pm and tagged with: book, reading list, first person, 2014,.

We’ve all had a co-worker or a friend, often a man, who likes to brag about only getting four or five hours sleep a night and being able to function perfectly. However, he rarely makes the connection between his sleeping pattern and how irritable he might be, or the mistakes he might make…

Sleep, or rather the lack of it, has been on my mind a lot lately, and not just because of confirmation bias. Last month, Stylist ran a feature about how “you look tired” was the worse thing you could say to a woman (the article failed to explain why it wasn’t as cruel to men). Before that, BBC News had published a first-person account by Michael Mosley on how sleeping one additional hour every night can change your life. When I told Ashley Milne-Tyte, expert in women in the workplace and founder of The Broad Experience blog and podcast, I was writing this article, she reminded me Harvard was on a mission “to get companies to take sleep seriously and add it to their health and wellness programmes”; part of an initiative branded Re-start America.

At the time, Milne-Tyte was working on a radio segment for Marketplace about how “showing up to work tired is just like showing up to work drunk”. Apparently, US companies lose $63 billion a year due to sleep deprivation. There is no hard data in the UK but in 2008, The Telegraph suggested the issue “costs the economy millions” while a 2010 study by health insurance company Bupa claimed it costs the country £1.6 billion in sick days. 

I made the only serious mistake I’ve ever made at work less than 24 hours before a June menswear show, around 3pm on a Friday afternoon, having slept less than six hours in total since the Wednesday morning. I deleted 50 rows from a mission critical Google Doc. This being Google Doc, the mistake was fairly easy to repair, in theory. Except it took me longer than it should have to remember that the revision history function existed, let alone how to use it. And it’s not the only reflex that had gone awry. Doing my little post mortem the week after, I could remember thinking, before I started deleting, that the Excel filtering function had changed. Lack of sleep stopped me from realising I was working on the source Google Doc, rather than on the Excel download I thought I had opened. 

People tend to discover the value of sleep after sleep deprivation upsets their lives. At The Shriver ReportKaren Brody explains how, as the under-slept mother of two toddlers, she started suffering from anxiety attacks in a supermarket, which forced her to take pills for three years. Pat Byrne founded Fatigue Science, a Canadian start-up selling fatigue management technologies, following his nephew’s death in an accident due to sleep deprivation. Arianna Huffington hit her head after fainting because of tiredness and sustained a head injury. 

This accident turned Huffington into a sleep campaigner. Addressing a TEDWomen audience in 2011, she argued that sleeping to your body, soul and brain’s content had the potential to unlock ideas, make you more productive and more creative. Sleep deprivation has been linked to memory loss, the difficulty to process information and heightened irritation. It has been used in Guantanamo. It is recognised as a method of torture by the UN and international law because “ongoing sleep deprivation is an extraordinarily cruel form of torture which leads to a breakdown of the nervous system and to other serious physical and psychological damage” (International Society for Human Rights definition).

When you read the pros and cons of getting enough sleep, why anyone would willingly choose the opposite becomes a mystery. And I don’t think it’s just because their addled, sleep-deprived brains can’t process the information on the topic. I think it’s because not sleeping much has become linked to virility and power, which might be why it’s ok to tell men, but not women, that they look tired. There is a romanticism attached to the idea of not sleeping enough: working hard with a team throughout the night to solve an issue, staying up all night to talk about life and philosophy on a Left Bank cafe, cramming for finals etc. There is also a self-importance to it: if you are going to sacrifice what many see as a basic human need, surely it means what you are doing is more serious than what everybody else is. 

Hollywood, as with many contemporary mores, is partially to blame. One of my big frustrations with The West Wing was that, although it was regularly suggested they pulled long hours, administration members never seemed tired, unless it was a plotline requirement. Even then, it was exaggerated tiredness, the type where you sleep in your office, borrow a co-worker’s shirt the next morning because yours stinks and survive on a cocktail of Red Bull-aspirin-eye drops. Sleep was to The West Wing, as it is to most TV shows, what money was to Sex and the City.

The thought that people in the upper echelons of the business and political world take pride in their lack of sleep scares me. A 2011 study by Duke University suggested 18-hour work schedules for traders was partially responsible for the financial crisis. The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, “evoked a strategy shift during risky decision making such that healthy human volunteers moved from defending against losses to seeking increased gains”.

I am always worried when I read interviews with leaders bragging about how they only need four hours a night. Margaret Thatcher was famously one of them, as was Winston Churchill. Or were they? In a BBC News article published shortly after Thatcher’s death, Tom de Castella highlights how their reputation for needing little sleep contributed to their political legend: “for the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister”.

Castella quotes studies suggesting that about one percent of the population can function on four hours of sleep like the 99 other percent can on eight hours. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a lot of them at the top because having 20 hours a day available means you get a four hours head start. 

Yet Castella also acknowledges there is a lot of one-upmanship on the topic, especially in competitive, testosterone-fuelled environments such as finance. If your colleague says he only gets five hours a night, you might feel the need to only get four or be perceived as less able. Whether or not he actually survives on five hours is another matter. Sleep is personal. You can get as much as you want, or as you can, and yet claim whatever you want. I feel about people who volunteer that they need very little sleep to function the way I feel about models and actresses who say they eat loads and never exercise: disbelief but on the off-chance it might be true, a bit of jealousy. 

Recently, my mentor challenged me to stop thinking my level of tiredness, which I let rule my life, is actually linked to me getting exactly the seven hours I think I need. His example was that for years, he was convinced that he would be exhausted unless he got eight hours a night, until he read a newspaper article which explained seven could be enough and changed the way he looked at sleep. Just like that, he stopped feeling tired on seven hours a night.

My sleep paradigm doesn’t so much revolve around how much sleep I think I need, rather that I have hard-wired my brain to think that unless I am asleep by 10pm, I will be exhausted the next day, no matter the amount of shut-eye I get. This came from a realisation, while at uni, that my most restful sleep was done by sleeping between 9pm and 1am, having an ‘awake’ period until about 2am and sleeping again until 5am. The awaken period used to freak me out, which in turn meant I couldn’t go back to sleep, until I started researching it and discovered segmented sleep is quite normal and is actually the pattern often followed in pre-industrial societies. It’s the perfect time to catch-up with your neighbour, go check the cattle or read a book. 

Whether it’s how we organise sleep, how much time we think we need, or the belief that we don’t need much, our views on sleep need to be challenged so we get real about what we need to be at our very best.

Posted at 2:11pm and tagged with: sleep, management, work, first person,.

Nevers, the making of a ghost town

Nevers was never a vibrant, busy city but when I was a child, it had over 6,000 more inhabitants than it does today. When I was a child, la Nièvre, the county Nevers is in, had given France its then President (François Mitterrand) and a Prime Minister (Pierre Bérégovoy). Under their government, the county gained the French Formula 1 race, which was held in Magny-Cours, barely 20 minutes away from Nevers, and the country’s latest hospital. But today, neither doctors nor Formula 1 fans want to come to Nevers. It’s too quiet, too complicated to get to. The circuit doesn’t host Formula 1 anymore and the hospital isn’t quite as much of an example anymore. 

The first thing to go, back when I was in primary school, was the caserne (barracks). Before the military left, I remember sitting in a traffic jam at noon, on the way from school to lunch. Last time I went back, during the 3pm, 5 minutes-long drive from the station to my house, I spotted just three cars and four people on foot. For every end-of-war commemoration, we would be woken up on bank holidays by a canon. Postings to Kosovo were real, not just another headline in the news, because some of my friends’ dads went. And then one day, the children went too. The disused caserne was meant to become the new nursing school, to host the county archives, to be turned into a real estate development. Over a decade on, it hosts a pharmacy and wild grass. So do a lot of houses, abandoned and never sold when the militia left. The city didn’t cry over it with as much to-do as Mrs. Bennet, but it really should have. Instead, Nevers became the perfect city to buy a manor for the price of a London studio. The problem is: hardly anyone wants to. 

When Mitterrand left and Jacques Chirac took power, Nevers, a traditional, anchored left-wing city, found itself on the wrong side of the political spectrum. The left doesn’t have to do much to win elections there beyond making sure its name is on the ballot. Mayorship isn’t as much earned as it is bestowed to pre-determined heirs who run the city until they feel like leaving. Didier Boulaud, who took over from Bérégovoy after his suicide by the Nevers Canal (most of the city believes it was state murder), held the job for seven years. The power check that’s meant to happen through the risk of losing elections has so far been close to nil. It doesn’t happen through the local rag either, since it is the kind of paper where spelling mistakes are considered acceptable – editing would be against editorial independence. 

The newspaper, which I even wrote for in high school, used to be printed locally, right by the train station. These days, fewer trains pass through Nevers, and the nearby restaurants and hotels seem to have a new owner every time I return. There was hope, at some point, that a high-speed train (TGV) linking Paris to Nevers would resuscitate the city. A support meeting was held; apparently, the turn out was so high, the highest of all the cities the TGV would be stopping at, that partition walls had to be taken down. The hope of an entire city, riding on a train. How very industrial revolution. The TGV project has been shelved until further notice because of a train derailment a few months ago. Reason: tracks might not have been taken care of as well as they should have. The TGV budget will go into refreshing the tracks, and Paris will remain two hours away.

Nevers is a beautiful city and I wouldn’t have grown up anywhere else. It has a rich history with a church, l’Eglise Saint Etienne, a model of Roman art which used to be pictured in the dictionary. They’ve stopped doing mass there though because they couldn’t afford to keep the heating on and nobody wants to pray when it’s cold. There is a cathedral, which survived a WWII bombing, revealing the presence of a 6th century baptistery. The very first Loire Castle, geographically at least, has been standing proud since the 15th century. Nevers hosts an incredible artisan industry, la faience, a high-end type of porcelain brought back from Italy during the Renaissance. It has been featured in classic movies, such as Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour and gave its name to a fencing thrust, or at least to the duke who invented it in the book Le Bossu, la botte de Nevers, guaranteed to kill one’s adversary with a swift hit between the eyes. 

Yet for all this richness, cows and pilgrimage are probably Nevers’ two strongest points. The cows: le Charolais, offer the best type of beef. The pilgrimage: Bernadette Soubirou, the saint who saw the Virgin Mary in Lourdes and came to the Nevers convent. Unearthing her years after her death, the nuns realised that her body hadn’t rotten and, claiming a second miracle, covered her in wax and put her on display in the chapel, where you can see her to this day. As a result, Nevers is something of a compulsory stop for people on their way to Lourdes. These are the days when the train station becomes busy again. 

Nevers definitely has the potential to develop again, but it doesn’t know how to capitalise on it. Stuck in the middle of France, far from the sea and the mountains, it hasn’t developed the writers’ or yoga retreat economy many fledging French cities are enjoying. Big city inhabitants crave country vacations, foreigners come to Burgundy for food and drink and a little bit of culture on the side – all activities Nevers is more than able to provide. There are enough destitute farms around to start up a high-end B&B chain, not to mention all the inhabited mansions within the city. Yet the local tourism authorities haven’t bothered to publish an English website, the city’s presence on social media, in any language, is non-existent and advertising campaigns to encourage people to visit are nowhere to be seen. Until Nevers takes an audit of its local strength and comes up with 21st century solutions to exploit them, the city isn’t going to revive. In the meantime however, I would strongly encourage you to go spend your holidays there. I can promise you peace and quiet, good food and a nice castle.

Posted at 6:04am and tagged with: first person, france,.

Cairo on my mind

The other day I found an essay about Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood and America written for my third year LSE course about Egypt during the Cold War. I had chosen to study the topic after spending an extraordinary two weeks holiday in Cairo in late August 2008, exactly five years ago.

I’m not very well travelled and, by the time I landed at Cairo International Airport, I was the furthest away from Europe I had ever been, apart from a trip to Malta, aged 11. I had been warned against Cairo. You’ll hate the smell. You must be careful; it’s a dangerous city. You’ll be really hot. I braced myself for disliking it yet it took me one quick morning walk around Maadi, the residential, expat-filled South Cairo location we stayed in to love it.  

My time in Cairo happened in incredible and very lucky circumstances. I went with my friend Elisa, who knew the place well, havingspent part of her childhood there, and we stayed at her parents. Most mornings, her dad dropped us off at Tahrir Square and we went to visit the city, hopping on the metro or into taxis. Upon hearing we were French, every taxi driver said two names: Carla or Chirac. The first lady or a former president was what France seemed reduced to.

At the Cairo Museum, we saw the Tutankhamen statues that were pillaged in January 2011. I was working at the British Museum at the time and the museology of the place would have been enough to make it interesting, even if there were no artefacts on display. Many explanatory labels probably dated back to the 1902 inauguration of the museum. The museology at the Coptic Museum was another story altogether. We visited it shortly after its renovation, and the place provides state-of-the-art conservation. There has been multiple reports of backlashes against Copts all over Egypt in the past few days.  

People told us things in 2008 that we didn’t necessarily pay attention to but which sound different, in retrospect. About how more and more women had to wear the Niqab because men went to Saudi Arabia en masse to make money working in oil. About how Cairo was becoming a dirtier city because Copts, who traditionally took care of the rubbish, were leaving. Nobody ever talked about Hosni Mubarak, then in his 27th year running the country. We spent some time with a young man our age living in our apartment building. There were multiple photos on the walls, including many of his grandparents under the monarchy. The clothes worn weren’t dissimilar from the ones my own grandparents wore in photos taken at the time.   

Elisa and I spent a couple of afternoons teaching Greek history at Collège Mère de Dieu, a religious institution for girls ran by Catholic nuns in Garden City, right by the Nile. Last Friday, there were reports of gunfire in this area as protesters tried to walk through it to get to Tahrir Square. I marked some homework one evening, while listening to France 24 in the background. Rachida Dati had just announced she was pregnant.

The girls we taught would be in their late teens or early 20s by now. Have any of them taken part in the Arab Spring or in the more recent protests? On which side? Have any of them been wounded? Killed? Is this intimate link with the place, the fact that I recognise locations in news reports the reason why I am more upset by what’s happening in Egypt than what’s happening in Syria? Is it because I understand a bit more about it and its background than I do about most developing situations? 

In 50 years time, somebody studying at the LSE will write another essay on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt and American foreign policy. Their ideas will be shaped by the events of 2011, 2013 and the years to come, events that create history. It’s impossible to predict what their conclusion may be, but I think it’s safe to say theirs will be different to mine. 

Posted at 6:00am and tagged with: first person,.