Marlene in Paris.

In 1936, Marlene Dietrich entered a jeweller’s shop in Paris and uttered some unforgettable words to me: “I would like to see some pearls”. Some pearls. Not to necessarily buy any, just to see some, in a tone that left no doubt about having some infinite riches on her hands, while suavely smiling, with that ironic twinkle of hers, not in her eye, but in her lips, unmatched sophistication and wit, the sort of smile that demands an IQ way above average, quite Einsteinesque a brain, just with a much better hair-do, or, in that particular case, a hat by Travis Banton, of course, later in that movie it turns out she’s utterly broke, anyway, I was deeply impressed. Deeply. In 1999, I entered the Hermès shop in Cologne, uttering the words “I would like to see some cufflinks.”, but it just wasn’t the same. I had aimed too high. But now that you know about my connection to Marlene Dietrich, I give you Flammarion’s edition of Pierre Passebon’s collection of some of the best photographs ever taken of her, the collection’s still on display in Paris, until February 25th at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. But if you can’t make it to 5-7, rue de Fourcy in the Marais within the next 48 hours, you just enter a bookshop and repeat after me: “I would like to see some photographs of Marlene Dietrich.”

From Rioja with love.

My grandmother used to travel and bake a lot after retiring, she had all this time on her hands and filled it with some culinary creativity, and as she was fond of red wine and Spain, she ended up baking but one cake only, her masterpiece, her Rioja cake, commonly and less specifically known as her red wine cake, as in the 1970s, Rioja was quite uncommon a beverage in Germany and she didn’t feel the urge to explain her extravagances to just anybody she had over for tea and sympathy, she was a teacher, the most loved one of her village, her funeral was crowded with former students, she must have been a hell of a teacher, anyway, I, being more into France than into Spain, have always replaced Rioja with some Bordeaux when I made that cake, but now, just to cherish her memory, I opened a bottle of Rioja, the batter takes a quarter of a litre, as well as vast amounts of cocoa, chopped dark chocolate, this one is from Venezuela, quite fitting an origin, it’s a Spanish speaking country after all, anyway, the cake‘s obviously soaked with flavonoids from all that red wine and cocoa, kind of an anti-ageing approach to baking. I think, I’ll have another slice just now.

Transporting trees.

This is a true story. Picture it, Zurich, January 2017, I had just made my mind up to leave Zurich for good and was looking for a place in Berlin, which turned out to be way more difficult than I thought, but that’s another story, anyway, facing the fact that I not only had to look for an apartment but for an apartment with a balcony, a spacious one at that as I was the proud owner of three big olive trees, two huge palm trees and one very small Japanese maple tree, I felt a certain degree of despair growing inside me. As lamenting one’s fate has never produced a solution, any, never, I tried not to and started looking out for some help in case I’d end up balconyless – and thus my parents’ garden came to mind. So, I stuck the Japanese maple tree with its terracotta pot in my Freitag bag, not so much a Sophie’s Choice kind of story as I just had to pick the one most likely to survive the trip, made it to Zurich main station and boarded the next train destined for Germany. My co-travellers during the following seven hours showed some mixed emotions, some found me lovely, I seemed to embody nature’s saviour, surely all of them Green Party enthousiasts, some hated me fiercely for my somewhat space demanding endeavour, strangely neither the Swiss nor the German train attendants interfered in any way, reinforcing my trust in mankind. Both the tree and I made it home safely, it never made it to my Berlin balcony though, it got planted in my parents’ garden, as for the olive trees, their trip is a totally different story…

Having coffee with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This is 14, rue de Tilsitt. Tilsitt, by the way, is that place in East Prussia where Napoleon signed a peace treaty in 1807 with the Russian Czar Alexander I and Prussian king Friedrich-Wilhelm III after winning the battle of Friedland – of course, there is an avenue de Friedland, too, quite next to it actually, as both streets belong to the architectural ensemble of Paris’ star-shaped Place Charles de Gaulle, with the Arc de Triomphe in its very middle. Anyway, numéro 14 of rue de Tilsitt was the address of none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda’s, of course. It was quite fine an address, some embassies around, avenue Foch as well, Paris’ most exclusive démeure, though at that time still called avenue du Bois, as Maréchal Foch, whom it was named after, a French héros of WWI, had only died in 1929, quite fitting for this fine couple, and especially for an author who has always felt so much at home with the rich and famous. Hemingway, ha!, Hemingway not so much, he and Hadley lived on the other bank, in the quartier latin on Rive Droite, the area intellectually dominated by the Sorbonne and fine old schools, their first apartment was on rue du Cardinal Lemoine, far less elegant, ever so far less, his tiny apartment had its loo in the staircase, to be shared with others, Gertrude Stein came for tea nonetheless. It was so small a place, Hemingway had to rent a room close-by, on rue Descartes, to have some space, or more precisely, some peace and quiet to write his stories, including the ones Hadley lost when traveling to Switzerland, they were never found, they’re lost forever, the lost generation, however, stays on, having me for coffee at the café downstairs on 14, rue de Tilsitt.

Paris for breakfast.

There are days when you don’t wake up in Paris, those normal days at home, in your very fine yet so very ordinary sheets, when you suffer from the same old view from your bedroom windows, the same old soap in the shower, that same old boring Diptyque soap instead of the hotel branded stuff that screams you’re abroad, far away from home, on the loose, free, it’s not so much branded with some hotel logo, but with the far more prestigious emblem of your very own liberty, whether it’s a place in the Himalayas, the Australian outback or, in my case, Paris, Rome, Helsinki, St.Petersburg or Edinburgh, as, with me, nature is almost always replaced with architecture, preferably from before 1900 AD, that late massive Finnish art nouveau and the exuberance of Brussels art deco are an exception, anyway, thank heavens there are days when your parents return from France, bringing you Proustian madeleines in form of Paulian croissants, those real ones, with that inimitable taste, au beurre, crispy as hell, as if they just came out of the boulangerie on rue de Rennes, not your father’s suitcase, and however German your homemade Sunday coffee is, you’re transported to the streets of Saint-Germain immediately. This way, thanks to fine parenting and modern transportation, your life in exile from any place abroad is worth living after all.

A Russian in the closet.

I think, actually, I’m pretty sure, I am Russian. How else could you explain all these traces of my Russian, how should we put it, homeland? Mother country? Native land? Everything in my kitchen, and there lives the soul, not in the living room, not in the drawing room (if you have so many rooms to pick a drawing room), no, these are only for showing off your good taste and status, but the soul of one’s home is to be found in the kitchen, there you find the things that define you, in my case, Russian teas. Admittedly, I bought most of the boxes not in Moscow but in Paris at La Grande Épicerie de Paris or, quite a tinier shopping experience, at the little Kusmi shop on rue de Seine, but who cares. The varieties are called St.Petersburg, Prince Vladimir or Russian Morning No. 24. Does it get any more Russian? I think not. Then there’s my Russian tea glass, ancient and hoary, from the time we still had the Czar. And everything’s red, red!, the most Russian colour of them all: the toaster, plain red, my salad cutlery (okay, it’s more to the lobster side of red, but still red), my cheese cleaver, my chopsticks (agreed, these are oxblood, a blue-ish oxblood, but still, they’re red) and even my detergent’s red. Have I given enough evidence? If only I spoke Russian to wish you a nice day in my mother language…