Heaven and Earth in Corso Venezia

Heaven and Earth in Corso Venezia

29 December 2014

Crisp winter day. The cold blue sky – as clean, majestic, and utterly indifferent as a blue-blooded aristocratic behaviour.

On the sixth floor of a palazzo in Viale Monza, one feels closer to the sky than to the busy road underneath.

At 9am, most persiane are still down. An hour and a half earlier it was still dark. Italians rise with the light.

This is the Mediterranean world – get up late, stay up late. Enjoy the light and the open space. Take your time, don’t rush through the hours of the day as we do in London. Live through time, instead.

A man, hat-in-hand, on Corso Venezia – one of the richest areas in Milan. He waits, he takes a step towards each passer-by and then, out of the blue, asks – Non mi vedi? “I’m here. Don’t you see me?”

Indeed, what is wrong with us all, passing through life in such a rush, neither seeing nor hearing the others as flesh and blood individuals right here, next to us? Most of the time we only see them as a collective, and in a predetermined, often institutionalized setting. Other than that, we treat people passing by as just shadows. Non mi vedi may be the most natural question in the world – be that the Mediterranean one, or elsewhere. It may well be that God spoke to us right there and then, between the misery and the lush life on Corso Venezia, through the words of a beggar.

To be continued.

On our love for books

On our love for books

29 August 2014

Sartre, Oeuvres Romanesques, Collection la Pléiade.

Books are like lovers. If you abandon them, they take revenge. And they always win.

It was a magnificent day in Paris, two days ago, and my return train to London was leaving in three hours. I was in a hurry to get back to the hotel, collect my stuff and head to the station. Just before turning onto Rue Vaugirard, a bookshop springs out from nowhere, right under my nose. I would have perhaps managed to ignore it, in the circumstances, had it not been for the tables outside. So clean and tidy at the front, more messy and grey at the back. The usual mix of literature – old and new, leather-bound and scruffy. The philosophy books were leading the show, right in the front row, and unbearably white. Collection: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Sartre, Camus, Platon. Coup de foudre, without a chance. I take in the view and try to focus my sight and my mind on as many individual books from that row as possible. As it turns out, my focus range is not something to boast about – so after a few moments of panic, I stop at Sartre. Oeuvres Romanesques published by Gallimard in 1982. It includes Nausea, the four volumes of Ways to Freedom, some extracts from his diary, and fragments of his correspondence with Simone de Beauvoir. (See below).

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Notes from Paris

In the city of words

Notes from Paris

24 August 2014

What is it about this city that wakes up the writer in me? Is it the history of literature, art, and philosophy that manifests itself everywhere, the symbols of the past that welcome and embrace you at every street corner, in each café, on every bridge, in every square, beyond each set of gates, arch, curtain or greeting? Is it the stylish literary cafés, and the brand new award-winning books displayed therein, behind thick glass and shining frames? Is it the domes, the goggles or the imposing statues donning on you from everywhere – even the balcony of private apartments on quiet, unassuming streets? Is it the chess-playing solitaire figure sitting by himself at one of the street-facing tables at …. Café?

Or the perfectly lined up chestnut trees in the Jardin du Luxembourg? The floor to ceiling filled up multi-storey bookshop, antique shop, and literary café, each with its own century old story to jump out at you from a menu, newspaper, leaflet, or conversation with its owner, always eager to talk to you about their latest Heizel edition of Jules Verne, or newest prize-winning novella? Is it the history itself of this place – where even the simple baguette, cappuccino, or falafel has its histoire? Or is it the people leaving therein, who eat and breathe this art, history, and philosophy?

It’s actually more simple than the above and more complicated at the same time — it’s the language itself, and its lively presence among people, cafés, river, gardens and statues. It’s how language insinuates itself everywhere like a smell, light or colour – smog and perfume, sunshine and shadow at the same time. Not only fully fledged stories, science and theories, not just experiments and masterpieces worthy of international acclaim and public gallery display, not just metaphysical tomes or sophisticated accounts of the universe, but also – especially, immediately, inevitably, irresistibly close and most importantly, everyday names and idioms. Mona lisait, Le vin qui parle, Cafeotheque, L’Academie de biere, Tabac de l’Arrivee… Everyday language, so full of life and inspiration.

This is the city of words, with a life of their own. That’s how it breathes life into our literary subconscious and wakes up the writer in us.

Art for sale

Art for sale

7 January 2012

Lovina, Bali

“This one was done by my cousin, an old man”, we are told by the owner of the small art gallery in Lovina. He proudly points at a big painting on the main wall. But he is also casual, relaxed, as if we were some old friends stopping by for a cup of tea and a bit of gossip. There is such warmth and personal feeling in his demeanour, again the very opposite of our utterly reserved and strictly “professional” behaviour in the West. In similar situations, we overload the conversation with “expert” details and sophisticated analysis, enhanced by a perfect politeness, which does little to induce a sense of meaningful experience in the listener. All such sets of carefully constructed and safely neutral information leave her empty and poor in real life experience.

The man in Lovina was talking to us as if he’d known us for a long time, although we’d just stepped into his gallery for the first time a few minutes before. But his warm welcome and attention, his stories and willingness to have a meaningful communication (not to ‘explain’, but to exchange live stories with us) was utterly touching, and it has indeed left a unique mark on us. He was talking to us with the openness and warmth of a friend you share a glass of wine with, in a bar by the sea, on a warm summer evening. His discourse was so genuine and simple, so direct, so unplanned – humble and dignified at the same time. It didn’t matter to him whether we were going to buy anything or not from his shop – or it didn’t matter enough to make a difference in the way he was talking to us.

The act of communicating, of sharing some true, genuine meaning with us was more important than any material exchange. So what if we were not going to spend our hard currency in his shop? We’d shown interest in his art, and that was all that mattered to him. He would tell us the stories of his art all the same – about Mahabharata and Vishnu, the god of wind, and Barata, the god of sea. He would tell us about the Kamasan painting simply because we’d asked (and he could see that we were genuinely interested in what it meant), not because we could be potential customers.