Opinion

Anya Schiffrin

The French way of cancer treatment

Anya Schiffrin
Feb 12, 2014 21:56 UTC

When my father, the editor and writer Andre Schiffrin, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer last spring, my family assumed we would care for him in New York. But my parents always spent part of each year in Paris, where my father was born, and soon after he began palliative chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering my father announced he wanted to stick to his normal schedule — and spend the summer in France.

I humored him — though my sister and I didn’t want him to go. We felt he should stay in New York City, in the apartment where we grew up. I could visit him daily there, bringing takeout from his favorite Chinese restaurant and helping my mother.

I also didn’t know what the French healthcare system would be like. I’d read it was excellent, but assumed that meant there was better access for the poor and strong primary care. Not better cancer specialists. How could a public hospital in Paris possibly improve on Sloan Kettering’s cancer treatment?

After all, people come from the all over the world for treatment at Sloan Kettering. My mother and I don’t even speak French. How could we speak to nurses or doctors and help my father? How would we call a taxi or communicate with a pharmacy?

But my dad got what he wanted, as usual. After just one cycle of chemo in New York, my parents flew to Paris, to stay in their apartment there. The first heathcare steps were reassuring: my parents found an English-speaking pancreatic cancer specialist and my dad resumed his weekly gemcitabine infusions.

Why we put up with the Davos whirlwind

Anya Schiffrin
Jan 22, 2013 17:53 UTC

Thomson Reuters finance columnist Felix Salmon once noted that there is an inverse correlation between how important you are and how much time you actually spend at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Film stars, heads of state and the likes of Bill Clinton swoop in, speak on a prestigious panel, take a couple of important meetings and fly out within a day or two.

Things are very different in our house. After months of rending of hair and gnashing of teeth over the size of our invitation stack, we typically rock up on Monday or Tuesday, stay for the duration and tear ourselves away on Sunday afternoon after the black-tie gala; in 2011 there were all-you-can-eat Indian hors d’oeuvres and free shawls for everyone. While in Davos, we partake of everything we can: the pork-fat canapés at the Victor Pinchuk lunches, watching Imran Khan at the after-hour parties, attending university nightcaps (note to Columbia: please find a venue with at least one chair). We always drop by the Indian Adda in the Café Schneider for a cup of chai and, time permitting, we sign up for the free snow-shoeing lesson.

Our enthusiasm stems mostly from the fact that it’s so hard to get to the snowy alpine town, and economists believe in amortizing their expenditures (although you could look at the time on the Davos airport bus as a sunk cost). The other reason we stay so long and do so much is, frankly, we are comped, and so, as good guests, we want to make sure my husband is available to speak on whatever panels the WEF assigns him to. These can be pretty obscure. As I recall, we drew the line one year when they asked him to speak on a panel about parenting. You could say my husband is singing for his supper, but only if you count being gloomy about the world economy for the last eight years as singing. In any case, he can never resist an opportunity to talk about how dismal things are, and the joy of Davos is a sympathetic and captive audience that is actually interested in economics.

The tide goes out in Spain

Anya Schiffrin
Dec 27, 2012 15:44 UTC

In his entertaining lectures at Columbia Business School, the economist Bruce Greenwald likes to employ cite the line often used by Warren Buffett: When the tide goes out, you can see who is not wearing a bathing suit. This is the feeling I have in Spain. In year five of the financial crisis, I can see which of my relatives and friends had no swimming trunks. The slow downward slide is horrendous for the people living it. Over and over we see the bewilderment of those who worked hard and paid taxes. They don’t understand why they are seeing their first-rate healthcare system being undermined, pensions and salaries cut, and their education system — still not up to par — being squeezed further, while being told they have to bail out the banks because that is what Germany insists on. The downturn is persistent enough that the country’s largest bookseller, Casa de Libro, had a shelf dedicated exclusively to books about the “crisi” (see picture).

Spain under Francisco Franco was often referred to “la vida en blanco y negro,” or life without color, because it was so grim and gray. Franco’s departure showed the pent-up energy and creativity of the Spanish people. It was but a short time before the economic disparity between Spain and the rest of Europe — large even before Franco but a yawning gap in the years of his dictatorship — dwindled. Barcelona, for instance, became a global center for design.

In this harsh new world, many people are now irrelevant to the daily functioning of the economy. Architects, graphic designers, book jacket designers–-these kinds of professions now seem like a quaint memory. No one needs them, and the fear is that, if and when the economy recovers, many won’t be needed then. The few friends who have jobs live with the threat of layoffs and repeated pay cuts.

The end of the world in the heart of Mayan country

Anya Schiffrin
Dec 20, 2012 22:01 UTC

Although the Russians and the Chinese are reportedly fretting about the end of the world tomorrow  — according to an interpretation of the ancient Mayan calendar — down here in the Yucatan, which was part of the Mayan empire, the locals couldn’t care less. Nor does anyone in Mexico City seem to notice. They are too busy thinking about what the new government is going to get up to. With its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, sworn into as president on Dec. 1, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is back in power after 12 years out of office.

The new president is known in Mexico for a) being married to a famous soap opera star and b) not being able to answer when he was asked at the Guadalajara International Book Fair to name three books that had influenced his life. After mentioning the Bible, he blanked out and apparently could not remember the details of anything else he had read. He has, however, brought in young talent from the party’s lower ranks, and we met some of these officials in Mexico City last week. As in the Egyptian revolution, many in this group are elites who have been educated overseas. But instead of protesting in the streets, they paid their dues, waited patiently for their turn. Now they are raring to introduce reforms. The major parties have already come together to agree on a list of priorities, taken on the teachers’ union and pushed to give private capital access to the massive, state-owned oil company Pemex, which has been faulted for a decline in production over the past eight years. Included on their to-do list is tax reform; a complete overhaul of Pemex; improving education; introducing new technology to speed up the export of goods to the U.S.; and increased cooperation with like-minded Latin American countries.

In short, the new government is in full-blown honeymoon mode (although no one we saw mentioned fighting poverty or drug trafficking). We’ll see what gets accomplished.

Austerity and the new Spanish poverty

Anya Schiffrin
Sep 24, 2012 16:19 UTC

During the parts of my childhood I spent in Spain in the sixties and seventies, life was what we call “de la vieja escuela,” strictly old school. My grandmother and her sisters, who were all widows or spinsters, had money left from their husbands and fathers but lived frugally. Ice cream (not artisanal but bought from the kiosk on the corner) was a treat for Sunday lunch. My great-aunt Clementina left an embarrassingly cheap 25-cent tip whenever she took me for an afternoon snack of hot chocolate and churros (fried dough). The same old leather address book sat by the phone in the living room for decades until it was all worn out, and even then no one saw the need to replace it.

I thought those days were over, but now every time we go to Spain we see the slow-motion unraveling of a world that was built after the end of the dictatorship that Spain lived under for nearly 40 years. With 50 percent youth unemployment and 24.6 percent general unemployment there is no hope and no end in sight. I no longer remember when the crisis began to hit the careful middle class that I grew up knowing, and the literary and artistic types I lived with in Barcelona in the exciting years after General Franco died.

First to go were vacations abroad, then it was buying clothes and eating out. Friends who had apartments left to them by their relatives tried to rent them out or sell them, but there were no takers. They moved in with each other to save money. They moved to the suburbs because it was cheaper. About 18 months ago, my friend Ana told me they had come up with a wonderful idea: Once a month her friends would come over and bring a dish, and they’d all watch a DVD together. It sounded like fun until my husband pointed out: “That means they don’t go to the movies anymore either.” Last June in Barcelona, Ana said: “We know none of us will work again. What we worry about is the young people. All those 20- and 30-year-olds living at home with their parents.”

Electricity comes to an impoverished Mozambican island

Anya Schiffrin
Jul 26, 2012 22:19 UTC

Antiquated electricity generator on island of Ibo, Mozambique

On a recent visit to the remote Ibo Island in the Quirimbas Archipelago in northern Mozambique, we were struck by the island’s stunning views and the soft white-sand beaches, the mangrove swamps and the wooden dhows that have plied in the Indian Ocean for decades. Beautiful though it is, the island is poor, and few people live there. The island has been abandoned many times throughout history, and cries out for more development and for businesses to come and turn the crumbling colonial-era buildings into boutique hotels, cafés and craft shops. Some are optimistic that recently discovered energy reserves will boost the island’s fortunes, but our timing was perfect to witness a smaller revolution: the arrival this spring of electricity.

We dropped by the spanking new Pasteleria Bela Horizonte on the main street to buy the fritters known locally as mandaze and find out how the arrival of electricity had affected the bakery’s business. Owner Assina Nmnuarkha surveyed the tidy seating area of plastic chairs and tables in her café with pride. She pointed to the refrigerator in the corner filled with soft drinks and then, pointing behind the counter, she broke into a wide smile: “Now we can watch television!”

“When the government came to make the announcement, we assumed it was the usual lies and promises,” said shopkeeper Abdel Ismail Musa, speaking in Portuguese through a translator. “But they put it in quickly, and we were so happy.” Leaning on the counter of his little shop, which stocks an array of speakers as well as skin creams, machine-washable diapers and hair ties, Musa said he had recently sold a large television set.

Tunisia’s Arab Spring turns to anxious summer

Anya Schiffrin
Jul 6, 2012 17:53 UTC

We visited  Tunisia last week, during a scorching heat wave. The women we met were wearing sleeveless summer dresses, but a couple of them said that when they go out, their neighbors now tell them off for wearing revealing clothes. With the religious Nahda party now in power, uncovered women worry that their daughters won’t be able to wear bikinis and wonder which countries their daughters can move to if things get worse.

Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began, but the stories we heard reflect the larger sense of uncertainty and debate about how to have a democracy in a place where the word means something different for everyone. Another sign of tension was the Tunisian court decision last week to uphold the seven-year sentence given to a Tunisian who posted a cartoon on Facebook depicting the Prophet Mohammad in the nude. This small country faces stresses and strains as it continues on its path away from the dictatorship of Ben Ali.

The uncertainty means that progress sometimes feels slow. Many of the country’s institutions – the Central Bank, the state-run TV station and the Ministry of Interior – are staffed with the same civil servants as before the revolution, and many of the judges remain from the old days, so not many people trust them. What do you do when people need jobs – and there is massive unemployment – but many of the major businessmen in the country were linked to the dictatorship? How do you reform the media, which acted as a mouthpiece for the government? How do you transform the state-run television station into a public service broadcaster? And what steps can everyone agree on?

Can Bhutan become like other countries – and should it?

Anya Schiffrin
Jun 12, 2012 18:51 UTC

On our way to Bhutan’s capital earlier this month we drove through a long valley surrounded by tree-covered mountains. This magnificent scene of natural beauty was dotted by the occasional Buddhist chorten. A  river rushed below – spanned here and there by a shaky pedestrian bridge made of planks and wire draped with prayer flags.

After this uplifting drive from the airport, it was a bit of a shock  to see downtown Thimpu surrounded by half-finished four- and five-story buildings. We passed 2 miles of frozen construction sites that resembled Bangkok after the 1997 economic crisis, when parts of that city became a ghost town. In Bhutan’s case the housing bubble has not yet burst, but the demand for raw materials from India has been so enormous that the country now has a temporary rupee shortage and has restricted imports of construction materials.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg is probably not famous among Bhutan’s citizens, but he might be pleased to know they have some ideas in common:  Bhutan fines people for smoking in public and has banned the importation of cigarettes for resale. The Bhutanese recently added an extra tax on non-essential imports: cars and foreign junk food. As a result, construction seems to have slowed. But the shacks of the Indian laborers who do the building in Bhutan remain, sometimes screened from public view by a green fence. “We are building proper housing for them,” a government official promised.

A Chinese view of Savannah

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 19, 2012 15:51 UTC

A recent New York Times story about high-end U.S. retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany marketing directly to wealthy Chinese visitors reminded me of some of the extreme Chinese shopping I’ve witnessed in Europe. Stopping in the Zurich airport branch of Sprungli on my way home from Davos, I saw a Chinese man (who spoke no English at all) spend $900 on Swiss chocolates. Offered a free taste by a saleslady as a courtesy for buying so much stuff, he waved it off. Apparently he was not actually a chocolate lover but just buying gifts for some lucky friends. On the tube in London I saw Chinese women en route to Heathrow with the most enormous Louis Vuitton shopping bags and clocked the resentful glances of their fellow passengers. It reminded me of how Americans abroad used to be rich and universally loathed.

While Chinese tourists in the 1 percent may be living large, for those in the 99 percent travel is often less luxurious. Evan Osnos’s clever piece in the New Yorker last year described his trip on a tour bus with a group of Chinese rushing through Europe and eating Chinese food. A Chinese friend once admitted to me that she regretted missing out on Italian food during an organized tour through Italy; in Peru a tour guide told me that the Chinese were famous for bringing their own food. Clearly there is an opportunity here for a canny tour operator, and based on my last weekend in Savannah I’d like to suggest that Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans be added to the list of must-sees for the nouveau Chinese tourism market.

After my trip to India with my parents last November went off mostly without a hitch, I was ready to travel with other people’s parents. So when my young friend Dandan announced that her mom – who teaches at the Shanghai Maritime Engineering College – would be making a maiden voyage to the U.S. in time for Dandan’s graduation from Columbia, I invited them both on a girly weekend I had planned with Nguyen To Hong Kong (another Columbia student I spend a lot of time with) as a last treat before the two young women graduate and leave the U.S.

The limits of happiness

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 3, 2012 18:19 UTC

Despite being a cynical New Yorker, I was charmed by Bhutan on a visit there a couple of years ago. The beauty of the unspoiled scenery, the rhododendrons in bloom, the mountains and the monasteries — all were uplifting. The quiet intelligence and the thoughtfulness of the people we met were inspiring. Bhutan is  a country of  traditions and pride in local culture. Visiting the villages we saw astounding feats of archery, which is the national sport, and we took long walks with a local guide who also happens to be a serious cyclist and has helped spread mountain biking throughout the country. One scene stayed with me: Walking to a monastery one day we passed a man sitting on a mountainside doing embroidery as he looked out over a dramatic view of cliffs and mountains covered with trees. With him was a friend who peered over the embroiderer’s shoulder as he stitched. We went for a long walk, and when we came back a few hours later, the two were still there embroidering and watching.

Peace and quiet and the time for leisure must surely be part of what makes people happy, and the Bhutanese have become famous for popularizing the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which is a favorite cause of the current prime minister. The Sarkozy commission (which my husband co-chaired) also worked on the subject and in 2009 issued a report that provided a framework for how to think about going beyond gross domestic product and how to measure success in a broader way.

The Bhutanese are out in full force this week for a conference on happiness. There was an all-day meeting organized by Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University on Sunday, and on Monday diplomats from all over the world met at the United Nations to discuss what constitutes happiness and how it can best be measured and promoted. The star of the morning was Costa Rica’s president, who spoke about the country’s conservation laws and the need to protect the environment. It was also agreed that altruism, compassion, social life, feelings of belonging, political stability and good health are essential to happiness. The Bhutanese spoke of the importance of community and their program of introducing meditation into schools to promote contemplation, concentration and quiet reflection.

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