Redefining style – the ABC’s of Villa Necchi Campiglio

Villa Necchi Campiglio, Milano (Ask about me - I'm the girl that tried to lock herself into the second floor bathroom!)

Villa Necchi Campiglio, Milano (They may vaguely remember me if you mention a girl with an orange bag that tried to lock herself into the upstairs bathroom with a Martini bottle.)

style |noun|fashionable elegance

A few good reasons to go to Villa Necchi Campiglio (near Porta Venezia): (a) you want to know how the other half lives, (b) you are the other half and miss the lavish lifestyle, (c) your girlfriend/parents are in town and you don’t want them to think you booze all day when they’re not around (which we know you do), (d) you love architecture, design, the 1950’s and period houses, (e) you love wearing vintage clothes and time traveling, (f) if Don Draper were an Italian industrialist, he would live here, (g) it looks like a Martini ad, it feels like a Martini ad, the black marble bathroom IS a Martini ad, (h) the guides are really nice and will tell you about a secret tunnel (if you ask in a hushed voice), (i) it’s totally “Upstairs Downstairs” Italian-style, (j) they let you peak in the closets, (k) they let you try on the vintage Chanel (I’m totally lying – they most certainly do not), (l) they have an entire closet with only HAT BOXES!!!, (m) royalty like totally stayed there – a lot, (n) it has a Dr. Seuss themed flowerbed, (o) you just bought a 1950’s one-piece that would accessorize the pool really well, (p) for a special price, you’ll offer to sunbathe by the pool and talk like Sophia Loren, (q) no green and yellow here, but lots of sage and ochre, (r) Portaluppi, Portaluppi, Portaluppi (really difficult to say quickly, and yet it’s the genius architect’s name), (s) the ladies of the house loved cats and supposedly had a tree cut down because the cat wouldn’t come down (which somehow doesn’t sound very nice for the cat – I like it!), (t) they have male models walking around doing fashion shoots (with a look saying “I’m not just stylishly leaning against these books, I’ve actually read them… their covers, I mean”), (u) the foyer looks like the inside of a liquor cabinet (when they were still called liquor cabinets), (v) the doors would inspire fabulous jewelry, the ceilings fabulous sock patterns, (w) there is a totally random star shaped window in a second floor corner of the building that looks into a bathroom and is totally out of context with the rest of the carefully designed building (yet the guide resolutely denies it has any symbolic or political meaning), (x) it has a Conservatory like in Clue (the board game) where Ms. Scarlet could kill Colonel Mustard with a dagger on the Portaluppi lapis lazuli table, (y) it is scientifically impossible to walk through the brass & glass opus of an entrance without flicking your hair back (even if you have none) – I dare you – try it and (z) MVB suggested it and she’s never steered you wrong before.

(This post is for my ever fashionable friend Melanie – the Miu Miu kitten says Meow Meow.)

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Redefining love of culture

italian-job-original-poster

culture |noun| the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively

I was in second grade when I was quarantined at home for a month with the chicken pox. My teacher Mrs. Marosay (who also called me MMM for Mariana Motor Mouth) had my brother bring me home some books to better pass the time. Among the pile was my first poetry book – The New Kid on the Block by Jack Prelutsky. A dozen of those poems are still ingrained in my memory to this day. I could also tell you about the first time I fell in love with a museum… (we were at the Uffizi in Florence, I was 11). The first time I cried in a movie… (it was Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, I was 4). Or my first love affair with dance or theatre.

If prodded, my husband Luís would tell you similar stories from his initiation to the world of sport. At 10, his father took him to see Benfica at the stadium for the first time. Sick of sitting in his seat, the rambunctious youngster took to running about the aisles when a sudden roar from the crowd told him Benfica had scored. He ran to his dad asking for the replay – alas, the days before jumbo screens!

As you can see, in our household live two very different people. No one would have ever put us together if we hadn’t stumbled upon each other 8 years ago now. But although different passions fuel us, you could say that we drive side by side in parallel lines. Every once in a while, I’ll pull him into my car (for a trip to La Scala or the Royal Court Theatre), every once in a while he’ll pull me into his (for a Champions League or a Premier League match). The platform from which we share in each other’s interests may be small, but it is one that I take great pleasure in. It’s an opportunity to enter a new world – and a fascinating one at that!

I’ve always enjoyed playing sports, but my interest in it mostly stops there. This year, however, I feel like sport deserves that I give it some Aretha-style R.E.S.P.E.C.T. After all, it is largely due to Luis’ head dive into the world of sport that I get to write full-time – something for which I am incredibly thankful.  In addition, his professional shift will most likely have a permanent impact on our life together – and my interest in him, makes me very interested in the force that catalyzes that: namely, L.O.V.E. And I don’t mean his love for me. I mean his love for sport. So for this year, I decided to sit in his passenger seat for longer spells.

True to form, I have been to quite a few live sporting events with the FIFA-folk. Leicester brought me football and rugby. Milan so far has added volleyball and basketball to the list. Not to mention the seemingly eeeeendless hours in pubs watching football (out with the screen-corner pint glass, in with the Martini cocktail glass). With few exceptions, televised sport leaves me looking for split ends. But the immediacy of live sport is an entirely different story. To go to the Olympics in London, to see a Lega Calcio match live, even to see Luís play football with the FIFA-folk is infinitely more engaging for me. (A few months ago I saw a discussion board at the newly opened Tanks of the Tate Modern London that asked “Does live art have to be experienced live?” This just goes to show that the “live vs. televised” debate is not unique to sport, although I can’t imagine a field where it stirs quite as much interest – be that intellectual, emotional, legal or monetary.)

But of all the sporting events, football is queen. This week, Luís took me to see AC Milan – Barcelona at San Siro. The physical act of going to this stadium is quite the metaphor for life in Italy – beautiful from a distance, a frustrating mess as you’re coming into it, but wonderful once you’re there (as long as your patience doesn’t run out – Italians have a penchant for trouble). Despite my mild interest, it is impossible not to feel awe-struck by the whole thing. What is monumental about it is not just the vast amount of mid-city open space, but the palpable tension that encloses it. Any wrong move by those very talented young gladiators (oh, I mean footballers) and they set off a chain reaction of compressed springs. Or have you never heard the sound of 80,000 people whistling in protest? It’ll make your neck sink into your shoulders! Add to that the smell of pot, the solemn Champions League hymn, the twinkling flashes, the opening banner covering various rings of the stadium, the constant cheering… (and jeering) and you have a veritable bombardment of the senses.

Being the profoundly creative place it is, Italy intermingles the arts and sport with revealing spontaneity. Giorgio Armani sponsors the Milanese basketball team (which is very nice of him given the literally gargantuan task of suiting those boys up), Dolce & Gabanna does boxing (must be the propensity towards shiny fabrics) and San Siro describes itself as “La Scala dello calico” (the opera house of football). Not only is this ingenious, it also exposes the driving forces of Italian culture – yes, because a Scottish FIFA-friend once pointed out that, just like the arts, sport is culture. So to be fair – because I do love them – maybe I should add dynamism to the generalizations that I make about Italians!

Yet for all of my acquired openness to the sports world, I hear it from a different volume than my more enamored neighbors (hubby included). I don’t have a readily accessible database of sport statistics, I don’t have a drawer full of jerseys and I don’t have a collection of football-themed jewelry. I guess it’s a little like explaining what music feels like to someone who is deaf. But their perceptions intrigue me and people have been very gracious when I ask to be reminded where Messi is from, what off-sides is again and why so-and-so got a card. (Damned if I can tell!). In proportion to my unfamiliarity, my obtuse angle also frees me up to gather all sorts of wonderful imagery – the scrum that looks like a giant Kafkian tarantula making it’s way stealthily across a line, the rugby line-out that pretty faithfully replicates a typical lift in classical ballet (with only slightly less elegant ballerinas) or the father and son, all three of which wear matching Leicester Tiger jerseys (the third element being a stuffed Tigger sporting a carefully knit version of the established attire).

One thing I’m certain of, sport is a powerful thing. It’s ability to bind or splinter, to crush or exult, to challenge and teach truly important life lessons, never ceases to amaze me (or imprint upon me the weighty responsibility of those active in this field). And for all my lack of technical knowledge or spontaneous interest, it is a pleasure and privilege to be able to live sport in this way, for this year, with these people – most of all, with Luis. And I know who my number one fan is too. I don’t need him to understand the in’s and out’s of my field or to even particularly like them. He likes me. That’s enough. Each is running his own race here – but the finish line, we’ll cross that one together.

The Eskimo writer

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Gadget fidgeting – Parco Solari (FYI – Botox looks like a mini-polar bear in the snow!)

writing |verb| the activity or skill of marking coherent words on paper 

Milan is melting like a giant popsicle. The big fluffy flakes made their first appearance Monday morning and by Tuesday night were already dripping away. It was short-lived, but for a few days this cavernous city was almost kind.

Snowstorms made fairly regular stops in Washington D.C. (where I grew up), so why the excitement? It’s cold, it’s wet, it makes doing virtually anything a Japanese obstacle course. And, importantly, it makes us wear really unattractive clothes – like a little nation of Michelin men. So what is it about a snow snooze that makes us feel like Christmas has landed on our doorstep out of hours?

We were up in Madonna di Campiglio last weekend for some skiing with a Dutch FIFA-friend. True to his origins, he was impossible to miss in his bright orange jacket. This proved to be a strategic advantage, given my (ahem) meditative skiing style. No matter how many adjectives I can come up with – and I’m a writer now, so I can come up with a lot – now matter how many photo uploads to Facebook, nothing comes close to capturing what it feels like to be up on that mountain. (And that’s not just because it was a sunny -10º C.) To pop off a ski lift and find myself on the edge of that immense space, is truly something. It’s not a conversation I care to rush. Out of the gently groaning expanse, something assures me that, although infinitely small in the universe, I am looked after to the most infinitesimal detail of my existence. Now I’m ready to swish my way down into the scenery. And by now, as you can imagine, the speed-demon Dutchman is long gone – so thank God for his bright orange jacket.

On our way back down to Milan, I found myself craving one of my childhood snowstorms – the ones that, in one fell swoop, erased any other plans you might have had and sentenced you to a day of building snowmen, drinking hot cocoa and having lots of buttery toast. I was soon to find out what a grown-up version of me would do in the same circumstances.

The lockdown from the snowstorm was more self-imposed than actually necessary. This was a watered down version of a storm at best, and yet nonetheless effective in throwing me into a creative maelstrom. When I caught sight of the first flakes on Monday morning, I thought this would be the perfect excuse to enter a writing competition that ended in 4 days. It was an ambitious project – I had 4 days to write, re-write and review an entirely new short story with a rather complicated plot line. This was going to take time, it was going to take dedication and it was going to take a tub-load of tea. (Depending on how things went, I might need some vodka as well.) Whenever I got into a tiff with my stubborn characters, I’d stretch my legs over by the window and watch the snow accumulate on the electric cables, on the cars below, on the towel plopped on the floor of the balcony across from mine ever since I moved in. (Incidentally, that’s the model’s apartment I’ve mentioned before – naughty, messy models!)

By the end of the day, I’d written my fingers to the stub and my head into an overheated fuzz fest. I desperately needed some airing, so I went with Luis to walk Botox in the park. From every corner, you could hear dogs howling with pleasure as snow swirled down thickly. Around a pop-up carousel, Botox frolicked in the snow banks like a bunny rabbit. He was enchanted by the refreshing lickability of this white substance from the heavens and was weirdly enthusiastic about peeing in the stuff. I kept trying to capture the Willy Wonka scene with my Blackberry until I realized that, again, nothing would come close to communicating how magical it all felt. So I stopped fidgeting with gadgets, and just felt thankful.

Some days have since passed and I’ve submitted my story to the competition. My writing books tell me that rejection is a fact of writing life. I figure, if that’s the case, than I better get cracking – better move along and get this first piece in so that the “yes” piece, can make it’s way up the line. The editor Ted Solotaroff wrote an easy fittingly entitled “Writing in the Cold” where he says “Rejection along with uncertainty are as much a part of the writer’s life as snow and cold are of an Eskimo’s: they are conditions one has to learn to live with, but also learn to make use of…” He calls on us to persist – because this is a truly daunting task. We are trying to encapsulate in words the impish, the impossible and the impactful elements that can make our existence magical.

Fuel: 2 parts caffeine + 1 part Aperol Sour

A young Ernest Hemingway’s passport photograph

creativity |noun| the use of the imagination or original ideas, esp. in the production of an artistic work

I had visitors – that’s why I’ve been cybernetically silent. There were pressing issues. I was busy enjoying their company. I was busy scandalously ritualizing early afternoon Aperol Sours in the sun-baked window of a worn-in (rather than -out) cult bar in Brera. I’m not secretive – I’ll tell. I was busy mixing with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Lucio Fontana in Bar Jamaica (or Giamaica, as it used to be spelled). The smoke was a bit thick from all of the time-warping, so I’m not sure if I got the Hemingway that was recovering in a Milanese hospital from his World War I injuries or the one painfully reminiscing about the nurse who broke his heart during that time. (And thus, from pain, A Farewell to Arms was born. Ernie heartily agreed with my “embrace your scars” mantra. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places,” he self-quoted. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get matching tattoos across the street.”) Patrons tend to pay their bills now at Bar Jamaica, although that was not always the case. Their list of famous moochers is headed off by non-other than a certain dictator whose name starts with an M, ends with a –lini and has a –usso in the middle.

I’ve found it’s the older places I like the best. In these, the walls and heavily varnished furniture have absorbed decades of conversation – like the tavern-owner in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities that keeps records of the revolutionary clientele’s conversations in her constant, encoded knitting.

An amusingly snooty guidebook I bought when I arrived in Milan mentioned a neighbor of Bar Jamaica’s – the Marc Jacobs Café in Piazza del Carmine. Don’t get me wrong, if anyone at Marc Jacob’s wants to send me the Hayley stripe dress (size 0), I won’t complain. But that bait would be very necessary to get me to sit at one of those tables during aperitivo hours. Bar Jamaica is to that kind of place, what Hemingway’s devastatingly good looks are to Donatella Versace’s plastic surgery binge – nothing about tormented beauty, all about tormented self-worth. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, if Hemingway’s face is his autobiography, Donatella’s is her work of fiction.

Give me middle-age men drinking Campari mid-morning, give me yocos (young cosmopolitans) drumming away at their MacBooks, give me fur-clad ladies drinking matching colored tea with slices of lemon, give me waiters in bow ties and I’ll give you a kiss, because that means you’ve brought me to Caffé Cucchi – another favorite! Working our way through marocchinos, I vented to my visitors yesterday that Milan can be exasperatingly secretive. There are all of these decadently frescoed rooms to visit (but only when there happens to be an exhibit going on), all of these fabulous art collections (but by appointment only), innovative private galleries (lodged in interior courtyards behind forbidding wrought iron gates), intriguing shops (where you need to be buzzed in), wonderful conferences and libraries (for members only). There are world-renown cultural experiences to be had (such as Da Vinci’s Last Supper or a performance at La Scala), but only following gargantuan planning. (Thank goodness at least Michelangelo’s Pietá Rondanini at the Castelo Sforzesco is easier to chat with.)

This week, for instance, I was on my way to pick up my friends at their hotel, when something familiar stopped me dead in my tracks. What was this I saw out of the corner of my eye (through a crack in a gate, across a misty quadrangle, under a sputtering streetlight)? The La Scala logo denounced, a mere stone’s throw from my loft, the location of the Ansaldo Workshop – where I have been trying to book a visit for some time now. From the clues I pieced together à la Hercule Poirot, the decrepit industrial titan bearing this badge appears to be not only where the theater’s costumes and sets are made, but also a buzzing cultural center for new artists under the name Officina Creativa Ansaldo. But I guess Time Out has never heard about it, since their site has no mention of it. (Actually, I’m convinced their pulse of the city is taken telepathically.) Even the Daily Secret folk – who take seriously the art of discovering a city’s hidden in’s and out’s – don’t seem to have an active operation in Milan. Are they, just like me, having trouble cracking this nut open? Is the Milanese culture set convinced that secretiveness is the only thing that will keep us tuned-in? Isn’t content more to the point? I find this a suspicious strategy, but maybe I am tormented as well.

Matisse said that creativity takes courage. My take is that the creative process does not exhaust itself only in the making, but also in the giving.

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