New: country, language, currency

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hope |noun| a feeling or desire for a certain thing to happen

As a storyteller, you need to know when to listen, just as much as when to speak. I am silent now. I am listening.

“Things change. And friends leave. Life doesn’t stop for anybody,” (or so says Stephen Chbosky in The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

Our move from Milan is upon us. We are packed up once more, leaving our car in a state of delicate equilibrium that defies the very laws of physics. The four of us (Luis, Botox, Eclisse and I) are Switzerland bound – a land of hyperbolic rules, where stopping your neighbor from flushing his toilet is a basic human right. Orson Welles put it like this, “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Let’s just say I hope to be setting myself up for a pleasant surprise with my low expectations – it’s strategic.

These physical transitions mark the passing of time in such a measurable way. (Somewhere off in a corner, J. Alfred Prufrock repeats himself. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” he says.) Needless to say, it goes by quickly. The seasons are also changing – which is fitting. The week began by welcoming snow, followed by fresh warm sunshine. Now, of course, it’s raining as if Noah himself were on his way to take us to Neuchâtel by Ark. Man, getting through customs with all those animal passports is going to be a stinker. And I see ever more distant an opportunity to show-off my new Mafalda 86 sunglasses – the ones I’d been dreaming of buying since Milanese post no. 1.

My sister asked me the other day, if I’d miss it in Milan. I’m ok, I told her. I put a lot of life into my days here. Nothing major was left undone or unsaid. I left my writing clam enough to oil open some stiffly closed doors – it was almost always worth it. I engaged with the city again and again despite the occasional kick in the shin. There were also some unexpected acts of kindness. Perhaps this uncertainty was a little trying at times, but that makes me no less thankful for… all the members of the local Botox Fan Club (although I suspect some people joined thinking it was something else), the girls night out with my friend’s long-standing group of girlfriends (including the one that gave me a ride home on her bicycle while I held her spanking new Valentino shoes), the barista at the Design Library that always served-up my third coffee of the morning with a great big Congolese smile, the Florentine police officer that gave me restaurant tips to get me out of the pouring rain, the coffee that turned into lunch that turned into an afternoon with a stranger passionate about her projects, the Damian Lewis look-alike that took it upon himself to see that the we got off the train at the right stop (when no Cinque-Terrese seemed capable of giving us correct information in the midst of a snowstorm), the friend of a friend that bought me a drink (on an evening where we ended up testing the acoustics in Piazza dei Mercanti)… and the list goes on.

A lot of writers will tell you that you should only wrap up your day’s work when you know what you need to write next. It’s fitting then, that I left a few odd bits to be enjoyed (or revisited) if life takes a detour in this direction again. (It already has so twice before, remember.)

Switzerland will have it’s own dynamic – certainly much different from Leicester and Milan. It will also require us to begin looking beyond our stay there. What job opportunities lie at the end of our four-month Neuchâtel stint? In what country? Will I be able to keep writing?

We’ll see. For now, we listen. Easter is upon us – and that is a time for hope.

Cinque Terre - some rays of light at sunset on a stormy day

Cinque Terre – some rays of light at sunset on a stormy day

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Expeditions

workspace |noun| a space in which to work

Da Vinci said an artist’s studio should be a small space. Small rooms discipline the mind; large ones distract it, he said. What, oh what, would Leo say of our Digital Age where the internet makes artists studios potentially boundless? I guess it doesn’t matter – everyone knows he was full of crap anyway.

Every writer seems to have an opinion on the matter. Raymond Carver retracted an earlier statement in which he said where you live doesn’t affect your writing. Martin Amis recently said a writer should be able to write from inside a Tupperware. (OK, what he actually said was “It doesn’t matter where you are. The room where you write is a hermetically sealed world. It doesn’t really interact with what’s out there.”) Although my sass-bone is tickled by Leo’s inability to retort, I am significantly more subdued when it comes to Martin Amis. After all, he’s an accomplished writer – I’m a nobody. I suspect he could obliterate me from the face of the literary planet with the thought of a sneeze and Carver isn’t around to defend me anymore.

In any case, my current obsession with artistic workspaces is all Annie Liebovitz’s fault. A few years ago, I saw an exhibit of hers at London’s Hamilton Gallery called “Pilgrimage” in which she photographed artistic workspaces (or props) of the likes of Emily Dickinson, Martha Graham and Georgia O’Keefe. (I recall this day with reluctance. It was also the day I was accosted mid-Mayfair by a choir of dead turkeys. It was Christmas and it was all deeply wounding.) Anyway, the photographs completely reeled me in. I realized that, even before falling into bed with writing, I had always been attracted to spaces of artistic creation. Magnetically. So now that the Writing Times have dawned for me, the search for my own creative workspace feels a little like – well – mattress shopping.

What do we look for in our artistic workspaces – those delivery rooms of our personal art? Clearly, the answer is just that – personal. Given my itinerant dynamic this year, I don’t get to inhabit my workspaces for long, which is too bad because the Design Library here in Milan has certainly grown on me. Instead, I’ve heavily invested in my portable spaces – my notebooks, my detachable mood walls, my virtual creative spaces (Facebook, Pintrest, this blog). And, rather than being planned and selected, I get the feeling that creative workspaces accumulate around us much in the same way fossils are formed. But, then again, what do I know – I’m full of crap too.

Be that as it may, I decided to indulge my obsession by pounding the pavement and visiting a few emblematic workspaces in this incredibly creative city. I soon realized that the transition from internet voyeur to actual visitor would require real stamina, unflinching patience and exceptional bureaucratic persistence. Oh, the Milanese and their eternally locked doors!

Ansaldo Workshop - fairy painter at work

Ansaldo Workshop – fairy painter at work

Stop no. 1: Long gone are the days in which railroad tracks and carriages were built at the Ansaldo Workshops – a stone’s throw from my loft. Now, these monumental warehouses are the scenery and costume hub for the La Scala opera house.

On your visit, you’ll get the feeling of stumbling into an orderly playroom for giants, where fairy welders, painters, sculptors, carpenters and seamstresses perform their magic with a quasi-religious respect for tradition. From the height of a suspended walkway, you get an amazing view of enormous canvases rolled out onto the floor, over which artisans labor standing-up. (Everyone seems to be working in their pajamas – aka, their blue La Scala overalls – which makes me and my little Peter Pan complex think why stop there? Why not work in harnesses hung from the ceiling from which you can swing to and fro while listening to arias – an operatic Cirque du Soleil?) Anyway, this privileged angle allows you to zoom in and out on the whimsical scene. Zoom into the particular and you’ll find the lone artist that uses what looks like a refined broom to add color to a canvas or the sketcher that creates carefully measured lines with charcoal extended on a stick and a giant ruler. Zoom out and you will quite literally see the big picture: the set for next season’s main production.

Despite my lack of craftiness (in the sense of these people anyway), what I wouldn’t do for a little corner from which to write! Each morning, I’d high-five welder and sketcher alike en route to my throne (a leftover prop). I’m pretty sure I’d get snubbed by the seamstresses – Mean-Mommy Elephant-from-Dumbo complex. As far as pathologies go, I prefer my own.

The Designers - Castiglioni, Magistretti, Zanuso, Sottsass

The Designers – Castiglioni, Magistretti, Zanuso, Sottsass (from left to right)

Stop no. 2: The studio of the famous 20th century designer Achille Castiglioni next to Castello Sforzesco is a place brimming with stories. (If you walk into the Flos flagstore near San Babila, half of what you’ll see was designed by Castiglioni decades ago and is still incredibly modern.) If Ansaldo is a giant’s playroom, this place is a child’s treasure chest. Every corner of it is filled with prototypes, postcards, knick-knacks, toys, props (a bag of which he often took with him to the university where he taught design), old radios, bicycle seats, sculptures made out of cigarette packets, ordinary wicker rug dusters, laboratory flasks, film reel, a Swiss milkman’s seat, masks, copper cake tins, a maquette made out of Parmesan cheese… everything fodder for Castiglioni’s creative mind and everything with a story attached. To give but two examples, the cake tins were “borrowed” from friend’s houses and later inspired a hat for a Domus magazine competition. Makes me wonder about my own friends – not a cake tin among the bunch. The cheese maquette is actually Castiglioni’s final project for his undergraduate degree: a model for a fascist’s house. I’d say his feelings about the task were quite clearly conveyed in his chosen material. (And let’s not forget we’re talking about the economically depressed Italy of the 1940’s, where the cost of that amount of cheese is not entirely negligible.)

Another thing that caught my eye was a beautiful black and white photograph of Castiglioni, Magistretti, Zanuso and Sottsass. They were all great Italian designers of their time and were close friends. So much so, that to visit their studios is to find each other’s work in them. In the picture, they are old men, but their faces are full of playfulness – a joie de vivre present in their work. I somehow feel like they wouldn’t have been as creative or happy outside of this friendship.

Castiglioni’s meeting room is my favorite in the studio. In it, you find a great big table with an enormous ashtray and a variety of chairs around it. Some were designed by him, others were not – they’re there because they’re good design. Not surprisingly, each tells a story – the one designed to make the sitter sit straight and named after his wife Irma, the “telephone chair” (Sella) which is uncomfortable as an invitation to make calls brief.

When my days of nomadic living come to an end, I’d love to replicate this tutti-frutti chair philosophy to lamps – I’ll call it my lamp bouquet. A tradition, I’ll admit, I’ve already begun, as you’ll see…

Portaluppi's Museo del Novecento seen from the Duomo rooftops

Portaluppi’s Museo del Novecento seen from the Duomo rooftops

Stop no. 3: In addition to Villa Necchi-Campiglio (starred a few posts back), Piero Portaluppi, a very quirky 20th century Milanese architect, also designed the Museo del Novecento building… which I have in full view… from the Duomo rooftops… from which I am writing these very words…

When I walked into the elegant bright green marble entrance of Portaluppi’s former architecture studio (with beautiful bronze lettering), the silence intimated me. I knew it wasn’t usually open to visitors, but I didn’t realize I would be the only one there – along with the person who kindly opened the proverbial and literal door to the place. Over the phone, I’d told him I was a writer – not an architect – and that I was interested in stories. Stop by, he’d said. I have plenty of those and indeed he did.

Portaluppi’s style is functional, geometric. Ornamentation is used sparingly, but is intense when present, as are his materials – the richest woods, the most beautifully hued marbles, wonderfully intricate polished mosaic floors. My host showed me exquisite furniture designed by Portaluppi for his personal use or that of his architectural clients. They are full of hidden compartments and sliding sets of drawers. To reproduce them today would be prohibitive. Alas, the world would be a better place if only we could get a few Russian oligarchs interested in this, instead of easily identifiable Cattelans and Emins.

This was, however, a man with some seriously weird habits. In gloved hands, my host pulled out an über detailed personal accounts ledger where even a tailor’s debt left by his son killed in the Second World War was recorded. And do you know how much you spent last year on hats? Nothing, however, tops the notebook where the young Portaluppi painstakingly recorded… the volume of milk consumed in a year, the amount of minutes spent riding his bike, the quantity of correspondence exchanged with male friends vs. ladies vs. “babes” – all this data compiled in beautifully painted watercolors. Quirky doesn’t begin to describe this guy, but one thing is certain – I find him beautiful in the details.

Eclisse and the author

Eclisse and the author

Stop no. 4 (fourth and final): I don’t care what the laws of physics say, sand does go through the hour glass faster towards the end – so I wasn’t sure I would find time to visit Vico Magistretti’s studio at the end of my Milanese days. But one day, I found myself at its door. An extraordinarily kind girl (incidentally, Magistretti’s granddaughter whose childhood portrait hangs discreetly in a corner) again gave me an earful of stories – how if Magistretti could have invented anything, it would have been the umbrella, how his faithful basset hound died of old age so he named the lamp he was working on after him (Dalù), how he acknowledges that we feel affection towards objects because they tell our story. To hear these stories is to love Magistretti and to want to own “a piece of him”, to be a part of this community.

The studio is presently compiling a virtual scrapbook, where owners of bought, gifted, won or found Magistretti design objects are invited to send in a picture of it with a short account of it’s story in their lives. Here is what I sent in for my Eclisse lamp:

“This year I am on an adventure. I can only take with me what fits in my tiny car and tiny budget – already full of books, husband and dog.

But I so wanted my first Magistretti! Yesterday I went out and bought the smallest one…

‘Ciao, Eclisse. How would you like a life together?’”

This little lamp will begin by telling the story of this year – much like this blog – and will maybe then tell the story of Luis’ first sports job and my first publication… here’s hoping! For now, it represents our future – a story told in the future tense.

Conquering the Scalonians

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conquest |noun| the subjugation and assumption of control of a place or people by use of military force

“Hello. I’d like a quote for a sky writing message, please.”
“How many letters?”
“Let me see. I-W-E-N-T-T-O-L-A-S-C-A-L-A. That’s 14 letters.”

Would that be overkill? Sorry, no matter how understandable my enthusiasm. More planning went into this little expedition than bringing my dog Botox into the UK or pulling together an offering memorandum – those horrible volumes I used to write before I learned words had souls. I feel like some sort of celebration is warranted. But first, let’s retrace our steps through a little technique we writers like to call a flashback.

(Note to self: One day, I’d like to open a creative writing themed bar. I’ll call it Love Letters. I’ll serve cocktails with names like Plot, Conflict, Teenage Skaz, Magic Realism and Metafiction. “I’d like an Interior Monologue please.” The waiters can dress-up like their favorite writers, but only one person can be Hemingway at any given time. What should go into a Flashback cocktail, I wonder? Besides gin, obviously.)

As if foreshadowing difficulties to come, I began a La Scala expedition journal even before arriving in Milan. It is a brave account of the countless initiatives taken in procuring suitably angled seats for a ballet at the emblematic Milanese opera house – from tapping Italian secret agents, to hacking attempts; from dawn raids, to anonymous blackmail. Having been ultimately successful in my endeavors, I feel I owe it to art lovers everywhere to impart my hard-earned sagacity to them. This is my legacy.

What you wear to La Scala is your own call. My advice concerns your outfit when venturing to the box offices – a crucial issue that is often overlooked and is, to my mind, the origin of so many ill-fated encounters with the Scalonians. (You know, the terse bellicose peoples that inhabit the La Scala box offices.) So here goes.

Wear urban safari clothes. In the savannah, you’d wear a khaki colored get-up to blend into the shrubs, right? In this case, the goal is to make yourself a blank slate, so the Scalonians on the other side of the glass can glean from your appearance as little information as possible. We’re going all black, baby. The type of fabric is a question of personal taste, but remember discretion is key (aka, keep vinyl and fur to a minimum, you kinky little vixens).

Wear a red clown nose. The Scalonians are a fierce people. They speak a language of grunts and evil looks. You will not be able to avoid this no matter what language you speak, no matter how incandescent your smile, no matter how generous you décolletage. Best to shift around the power balance by wearing the nose – it is very difficult to manhandle someone who looks that stupid.

Take a compass and a sextant (which is not a sex toy, for all you ignoramuses out there). The Scalonians live in two colonies they call “box offices”. One is buried deep within the Duomo tube station and is protected by a Labyrinth wherein roams – you guessed it – a Minotaur. Basically, this guy is a retired opera singer wearing a leftover prop, but the bastard can run like hell and he will run after you so – and this is my next point – wear comfortable running shoes. Use your compass to keep yourself orientated. Keep hydrated. If you have a spare Taser gun, it wouldn’t hurt to bring that either. As for the second colony, it’s accessible only during the brief moments of dusk… on the days that the moon is in the third quadrant… and Jupiter and Mars are aligned… thus the sextant.

Some theorize the Scalonians have a Bat Cave complex. In my humble opinion, this thesis is not without merit. Why else would they make their colonies so cavernous? Why else would they envelope their day ticket practices in such senseless mystery? Why else would they so ardently try to keep us from prying deeper behind the glamour of the opera house, as if Wayne Manor it were? And just like Bruce Wayne, the Scalonian leaders make rare appearances at global performing arts networking events  – or so I’ve been told. So there are two ways in which you can go about this. You can either wear a bat mask, as a sign that you recognize and pay homage to their leader. Or you can make a bat signal by taping a cut-out bat symbol to the head of your flashlight. Once you’ve slaughtered the Minotaur, put on the red nose and breached the threshold of the colony, take the bat signal and flash S.O.S. in Morse code on the ceiling. Either way, you should be home free.

As you may have gathered, you will me covering a lot of mileage here, so bring plenty of snacks, toilet paper and an extra pair of underwear. If you tend to get disoriented from extended periods in the darkness, a glow in the dark watch is highly recommended. If you tend to get scared, bring your teddy bear (just make sure he/she is also wearing a red nose and bat mask).

If you’ve done all that and your organs and limbs are intact and teddy is OK too, you tell me who deserves the clapping, the roses, the skywriting – the pampered divas on stage… or you?! The Scalonians will be slow to recognize defeat, but –worst case scenario – I can always offer you a Flashback cocktail at my new bar. We can decide together what other ingredients should go into it. Besides gin, obviously.

Epilogue:

We made it in the end. Our prize was Notre Dame de Paris with Roberto Bolle (whose Youtube videos I had scoured while in Leicester to research a story I was working on). We paid through our red clown noses for them, but our seats were fabulous, as was the performance – Bolle’s flawless body dancing the role of the hunchback, Yves Saint Laurent costumes (with lots of hyperbolic hats), incredible cathedral façade (complete with enormous sloshing bell).

Before the caped-crusader-wanna-bees led us to our seats (unlocking the door to our box – yet another Milanese barrier), we took a photograph of an old dressed-up German couple in the foyer with their clunky camera. They were almost as cute as the little girl that twirled her way around the predictably elegant fashionista crowd. She nearly knocked down a lady wearing her vintage Dior clearly not because vintage is in, but because she’d bought it decades earlier and still liked it – kudos!

I do wish we had taken Botox though. He would have felt right as home with the amount of injectables abounding. I felt like warning the little girl prancing around in her black dress: Look around you, child! There is a lesson to be learned here about the dangers of plastic surgery. Aesop or the Brothers Grimm have nothing on this!

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