In the summer of 1980, after having visited friends of my parents in New York and San Francisco, my mother and I sent my father back off to Europe and continued our journey to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where we stayed at the Grand Hotel Oloffson, a 19th-century Gothic gingerbread mansion, set in a lush tropical garden, a place once described as the darling of the theatre people, the literary set and newspaper men. And a literary place it was indeed. The moment we sat down on the Hotel’s beautiful porch to have a cold drink, we were directly transported into a novel, all of a sudden we were part of the set of Graham Greene’s The Comedians. None other than Petit Pierre approached us, ever so elegantly, just like in the book, wearing a fine double-breasted suit despite the Caribbean summer heat, his perfectly knotted tie seemed to be mocking the indolent temperatures, a walking cane with a silver knob gave him even more grandezza, as he strutted from table to table, looking for some material for his columns. Of course it was not Petit Pierre, but Aubelin Jolicœur, so my mother explained to me, as I at the age of 12 was not that familiar with Graham Greene’s work, the Haitian journalist and columnist that was the inspiration for Graham Greene’s character who then took a place at our table, started chatting with my mother, even flirting a little bit, totally ignoring me, leaving me to sip my icy lemonades for ever and ever. And so, before he took us to his gallery with Haitian naive paintings, in a black limousine steered by one of his sons, I started to write one of the hotel postcards to my best friend Daniel in Luxembourg. For some reasons, I never sent it off but took it home with me, as a souvenir maybe, just like my mother took one of the ashtrays. Looking at it now, it makes me smile that while somebody taken out of a famous novel was sitting at my very table, I had no other things to tell him about than the beautiful hotel pool and its cool water. But I can somehow get my 12-year-old me – the pool situation was gorgeous indeed. I must return soon, this time with the book…
There’s no film more stylish than Breakfast at Tiffany’s, obviously because of Audrey Hepburn’s glorious looks, she’s always dressed head to toe in Givenchy, but Manhattan in general and her apartment in particular are quite stylish, too, the latter not really furnished, but it had some well-chosen, quite exceptional neighbours—some kept handsome author and a Japanese photographer into intimate portraits—and most importantly, a cat called cat. Cats, to me, are the ultimate accessory. They never bother, except when they’re hungry, they take great care of their fur, they sleep a lot, they go for walks on their own, they’re quite independent, actually, they’re totally aloof which has always been a signature characteristic of interesting people if you ask me, and they never cease to surprise you, sometimes they wake you up at four a.m. and bring a dead mole instead of the usual dead mouse. My favourite attribute, however, is when they visit you during tea time, they lie next to you, ever so nonchalant, and make you forget about your book, and while you sip your tea swooning over them, they have a snack of their own: some blades of grass that make your sandwich look quite dull. I’ve told you, nothing more stylish than a cat.
Some time ago, in 2015 to be precise, when photos on Instagram were all square, I mistook myself for a food stylist and arranged everything I ate and drank in a fancy manner—a manner Marella Agnelli played a big part in, or the book on her I had just bought the same year at a Zurich book shop. I arranged müesli, tea or some cake from Sprüngli’s on some fine china, placed it on dear Marella, took enough shots to choose a best one from, and posted it on Instagram—not very successfully though, the New York Times food section never called, 23 likes just don’t turn you into an influencer, I guess. Anyway, I would have forgotten all about it, if these very pictures hadn’t attracted somebody’s attention again just now, today, after all these years, after all these billions and billions of photos we see on Instagram—it must be a sign. And so I give you the 2015 Marella Agnelli Food Shoot.
Some weeks ago, I posted a photo of Babe Paley on Instagram and one of my followers, a great Parisian lady named Marie, suggested a novel on that famous style icon in her comment, she gave me the title of a French book about her and the other swans from 5th Avenue, the very book you see on the photo. I was intrigued instantly and replied that I’ll read it asap, but truth be told I forgot all about it very soon, mainly because one is totally overexposed to information these days, but mostly because my list of books to read is already overextended as it is, ironically including the book this book’s based on, Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers, which I started some weeks ago and then forgot all about it, anyway, this very afternoon I was looking for some leftover cigarettes, I keep storing half-emptied packs in a particular s.o.s-drawer for nicotine droughts when there’s no fresh pack left, I keep forgetting about buying those, too, and on that side table a book was lying, a book I don’t recall buying or ever having seen before, but its title was so familiar, looking at it, I found myself in one of those moments when you wonder if you’ve lost your mind, but it then occured to me that not only Marie had told me about that book but also Katja, a friend from real life, as a matter of fact she had given it to me when she last visited, she had just finished it and recommended it highly, I, however, had all forgotten about it. The moral of the story? There is none, just that forgetful people are people, too, and that coincidences happen to work in mysterious ways, C. G. Jung had some theories about it, I must look them up one day, I forgot the details, but first things first, it’s tea and swans for now.
Of course our garden’s not really a secret one, it belongs to a house with an address, as a matter of fact, the postman knows about us and our house, he delivers our mail on a daily basis, sometimes though, when heavy rain weighs down the overhanging branches of our huge magnolia, a magnolia inhabited by a sweeping wisteria at that, the poor guy has to make it through this our jungle, but as soon as he complains, it’s understandable, he’s very tall, 6.5, I guess, we’re all smaller, I’m the tallest with 6.2, anyway, as soon as he complains the branches get cut, but however successful he has made out our house in this green, flourishing opulence, he’ll never make out some of the roses, or the bust my mother put some place years ago and that I rediscovered only yesterday, or the bamboo wind chime, a wind chime that’s mostly mute as the climbing ivy’s leaves not only hide the apple tree’s apples but also block the orchestration of its pieces, until cut free again that is, but then again, if he did know about all that, it wouldn’t be a secret garden, now would it?
There’s that particular time of day called the blue hour, supposedly a very nice moment to celebrate because it’s so romantic, but I’ve never been really aware of when it starts or ends, I seem to have missed thousands of blue hours in my life—today, however, I was enjoying a blue day. While I was having my first coffee in the garden, the one supposed to bring my brain back to life, the blue hydrangeas in front of our blue garage doors suddenly caught my attention, and I couldn’t stop looking at this blue still life all day, from every angle possible. In fact, it’s so beautiful a scenery that I forgot all about my coffee and had to make a fresh one. Later, I mean. Because I forgot all about making fresh coffee, too…
I spent the entire day in the garden, comfortably installed in a chair, looking at what was in front of me, and wasn’t bored a single moment. He must really be into roses, you might think, and partially you’re right, but truth be told, I had my iPhone with me, initially to take some more shots of the garden in bloom, when it suddenly occurred to me that I had Netflix on it, now an Obama approved entertainment device, and as I felt like something British, I started the original version of House of Cards, after I had made tea of course, as I can’t watch anything British without the most British beverage there is, tea. Over Fortnum & Mason’s Royal Blend—royalty, by the way, is quite British, too— I took a crash course in advanced manipulation and found Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart much more interesting a character than Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, you may replace “interesting” by other adjectives such as vicious, refined, monstruous, vile, evil, foul, wicked, elegant, cynical, or pleasant. Pleasant, mainly because I like a character, any character, well played, quite especially such a complex character as this excelling manipulator on the run. Well done, Mr Richardson. I watched series 1 entirely, intermitted with occasional looks to the left and to the right, to hydrangeas in bloom and ageing terracotta pottery, and if it weren’t for my cat and his dinner, I’d still be outside, watching series 2 and my garden in the moonlight.
At the beginning of James Ivory’s wonderful film Howards End, a perfect adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel, Vanessa Redgrave walks through a beautiful cottage garden, it’s hers, no doubt, she’s so very much at ease, she’s contemplating everything with such devotion as if she wanted to soak it all in, as if these flowers, trees, and the mere grass she’s walking on were as essential as the oxygen in the very air she’s breathing in, she’s completely in her element, utterly invigorated—this scene is of no particular importance to the film, at first glance she might appear just as another elderly Victorian lady from another English period drama, her role is just a supporting one anyway, but to me, this scene is everything, to me, it’s the best scene of the entire film, however more significant the rest of the content is, it’s just so true a moment, there’s nothing better than to take a walk through your garden, paying a visit to all these plants you’ve known for years and years, watch them grow and bloom, branches, boughs, and trunks, leaves and blossoms, they all have your complete attention, every single one of them, and this attention is what takes away your every problem, some kind of gentlemen’s agreement, you care for us, we care for you—pacta sunt servanda, and on goes the hose.
In any city, summer is strenuous, public transportation resembles sauna with a dress code, the air gets saturated with pollution and the wrong kind of perfume, you feel like signing any petition that wants to ban these repugnant heavy oriental colognes for men, unless you’re on a diet, then any repulsion is convenient, anything that keeps you from eating, you might want to sign anyway, think of the others that want to enjoy their ice cream cones, all kind of tourists ask for directions, nice and off-putting ones, and while they’re heading for a drink, enviously you sent the nice ones to a nice place, you have to face another meeting in a tie. Escape, I say! To Zurich! That’s the only town where heat is enjoyable, it’s got everything you need, lots of shady places, a lake to jump into, and a fresh breeze from the Alps. Besides—I have no scientific explanation though—nowhere will you find a bluer sky. That photo you see above, it’s not photoshopped, really, it isn’t! I cross my heart! It’s just that blue. Absurdly blue, actually. So blue, it makes me just blue to write about it.
It’s strange that all of my favourite teas are named after some men of nobility, English and Russian aristocrats like Earl Grey and Prince Vladimir, both obviously with a penchant for citrus fruits, agrumes, as the French call them, in fact, bergamot is quite elegant an aroma, especially when compared to the bitter-sweet smoke than infuses your air when brewing a lapsang souchong, no Mediterranean orchards come to mind, you’re rather transported to some opium den in 1920s Shanghai, quite depraved a situation, you wanted nothing but tea and refreshment and suddenly you’re an outcast looking for oblivion, although I’m suddenly remembering a rather smokey blend by Twinings named Prince of Wales, but as there were also opium dens that mirrored the finest to be found in China, with luxurious trappings and female attendants—why not to HRH The Prince of Wales? And then there’s that Frenchman Mirabeau, a count involved in numerous scandals before and after 1789, he rooted for both king and revolution, nobody ever knew whose side he was ever really on—knowing this, it’s amazing he died of natural causes. Liquorice and lychee in Mariage Frères’ Mirabeau blend reflect quite accordingly his ambiguity: a down to earth character as long as the earth is done in chinoiserie.