Empire state of mind

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I’m not quite sure when the dream began but a 1990s guidebook is evidence of it beginning many years ago. The city itself never really seemed close though – we went to France and Spain for our holidays, I related to New York only through images – the horror of 9/11 and then all the films and photos in both colour and black and white. Part of me almost didn’t want to really go there because the reality could only be a disappointment. And then last year we decided to cross the pond and I spent months and weeks in giddy anticipation counting down, reading all the travel guides, watching all my favourite films, not quite believing that my dream was coming true. I will never forget the view from above, just before landing, looking out at a landscape totally unlike anything I had seen before and the reflections of the setting sun perched on the horizon. And those first moments when we saw the shimmering skyline of Manhattan for the first time from the cab crossing the Queensboro Bridge – is that really the Chrysler Building? The humidity hit us like a sledgehammer when emerging rather tired and travel stained but full of excitement that night. Exploring would have to wait until the following day though.

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We checked in at the Best Western Premier Herald Square which I definitely recommend. A small room (but then this is Manhattan) but amazingly quiet and a great location. Staying just 5 minutes away from the Empire State Building made it a natural choice for our first destination. Definitely take your time looking out at the skyline through the glass on the lower level in air conditioned comfort first – I rushed things in my eagerness to get outside.The humidity was intense, even at 9am, and crowds clustered at every corner of the observation deck but nothing could dim the thrill of being that high with the city at our feet.

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Far from heaven

3A3CAA25-2977-49C7-9160-94F9EC0CF8A7In 1993, my parents and I travelled to Italy for the first time, renting a villa high up in the hills where crickets were active all day and fireflies appeared at night. There was even an outdoor pool where I began each morning with a swim. But what most sticks in my mind is the lush green countryside with its rolling hills and cypress trees. I was reminded of these impressions the day I took the bus from Florence to San Gimigniano. There was something truly magical about leaving the city and its crowds behind to rediscover that amazingly green landscape. In truth, I wanted to journey to last for several hours and instantly regretted not buying a ticket as far as Siena. In San Gimigniano, I wandered further up the the steep slope, past the souvenir stalls with fedoras and the enormous queue for the amazing (and cheap) ice cream and found myself in a small olive grove where a man was playing a harp. I climbed up a little higher to the top of a ruin and surveyed the endless countryside around me. It’s impossible for me to describe how it made me feel, only that it was probably the closest thing to paradise I have known and that I wondered how it would be possible for me to leave this place after experiencing such beauty.

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I am still mulling over these thought a month after my return. I still hear the delicate rustling of the olive leaves in the light breeze on that perfect autumn day. It seems so immediate yet far away now that there’s a chill in the air and the leaves have turned and begun to fall. I only hope that I’ll experience that kind of beauty again and leave you with some photos from that day and some more from Florence.

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The stones of Florence

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The cathedral and Santa Maria Novella

After returning from Florence almost three weeks ago, it’s difficult to put into words exactly how it made me feel. What could I possibly add that hasn’t been said before? Part of me almost expected to be disappointed, especially in comparison with Venice, my favourite city. Florence is certainly not without its irritations – I cannot describe it as a city for walkers like Paris – despite its compactness, luggage rolls over the narrow, uneven pavements at most hours of the day, vespas and taxis prevent you walking in the road and even in the pedestrianised zones, there are bicycles, refuse collectors and delivery vehicles to consider. Unlike in Venice, it is much more difficult to find a quiet spot. Nearly every church or museum is invaded by tour groups; almost every sight is surrounded by selfie takers. And yet in spite of this and myself, I became a little more bewitched by the city each day. Walking out each morning and seeing the stunning black and white façade of Santa Maria Novella, seeing the familiar massive form of the Duomo grow ever closer at the end of the street, looking up to discover something unexpected and beautiful on every corner, never ceasing to be amazed by the evening sun on the façade of the cathedral and the campanile, sipping hot chocolate at Gilli’s while looking out at the Piazza della Reppublica, dodgling puddles in the Bobboli Gardens and admiring the lush Tuscan countryside around, taking a break on the Uffizi terrace and at the café at the Spedale degli Innocenti to bask in the autumn sunshine and admire the stunning panoramic views of the city. Since returning, I haven’t been able to get Florence out of my head. I long to be there again and my heart is full of regret for the things I didn’t have time to do.

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Donatello’s statue of St. George outside Orsanmichaele and its stunning nave

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The Palazzo Vecchio

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Inside the Baptistry

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Visiting Santa Maria Novella

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The Boboli Gardens

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I’ll be back with some more impressions of Florence very soon.

The perfect friend

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  • I’m high street and he’s haute couture
  • He loves Downton Abbey and I much prefer Gosford Park
  • I’m devoted to Chanel No 5 and he’s in love with No 22
  • He adores the screwball films from the 1930s and I have a weakness for ‘40s and ‘50s noir
  • I don’t understand Top of the Lake and he doesn’t like Orson Welles
  • He loves costume drama and I love The Sopranos
  • My china is Lomonosov and his is Royal Copenhagen
  • He lives for nuits blanches and I never paint the town red
  • He only has eyes for Maurice Ronet and I go weak at the knees for Alain Delon
  • He dreams of riding the Tube and the Métro and I long for the Berlin U-Bahn

But we share a love for the people and things that really matter, like Matisse’s work, films by Woody Allen, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut and those with Bette Davis and Romy Schneider.  Not forgetting Niederegger Marzipan, books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Saki’s stories, Paris and the Café de Flore, Café Florian in Venice, Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet, Hermès Parure de Samouraïs scarves, Raymond Chandler novels, strolls along the Kurfuerstendamm and macarons from Spruengli. Most of all, there is nobody witter or more charming I would wish to share a pot of Afternoon Blend Tea with than Jan, especially as he also puts the (cold) milk in first. He also now lives in Berlin, one of my favourite cities, and if we cannot meet regularly  at the Literaturhaus for coffee or have bouillabaisse at Galeries Lafayette, then at least I have his blog to console myself with until our next meeting.

Below are some highlights from my recent trip to Berlin.

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Lost in grammar

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Sometimes I have the craziest ideas which even surprise those who already regard me as eccentric. Like the time I decided to buy a glass table top from Ikea in Lyon and bring it home by public transport. It was so heavy I couldn’t carry it more than 5 metres before various kind and strong Frenchmen took it from me out of pity. I ended up leaving it in a shoe shop on Place Bellecour before returning with my flat mate who took it back in his tiny car with the boot open. I never lived it down.

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Then there was my decision to learn Finnish and move to Helsinki. Finland has a lot to recommend it – the Moomins, Iittala, Marimekko, Alvar Aalto, Sibelius, Kaurismäki films, stunning lakes and forests. As an autodidact who speaks French and German, I refused to be intimidated by its reputation as one of the hardest languages in the world. Every morning, I got up at 6, even at weekends, to try and learn all kinds of unpronounceable and unrecognisable words with a seemingly infinite number of case endings. The basics were OK and I loved the sound of this strange and beautiful language. But then once you get on to talking about saunas and Sibelius, likes and dislikes, future, past and subjective possibilities, all the grammar and vocabulary became one big blur. I had to admit defeat.

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But I did make it to Helsinki and even managed to successfully buy a bus ticket and later on a coffee in the stunning Cafe Aalto at the Academic bookshop. I can’t deny that I wasn’t relieved to go home after a week because on the second day, I had the worst food poisoning of my life thanks to the hotel breakfast which not only left me weak but unable to have anything other than tonic water and digestive biscuits (bought from the stunning food hall of the wonderful Stockmann’s department store).

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Picture 280 But I would still recommend Helsinki and find myself dreaming of its architecture and its fiendishly beauty language.

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Berlin in November

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Night falls on Ku’damm, Berlin’s famous shopping street

My mood going to Berlin was a little sombre. November has that effect, especially in the German capital where you rarely see the sun and darkness falls at 4pm, and the victory of Donald Trump just a few days earlier made it hard to feel positive about anything. But miraculously, after weeks of rain, the sun returned for my visit and the stunning colours of the trees in all the wonderful parks and streets lifted my spirits. And even when the rain did return towards the end of my trip, there were old favourites to return to like the cafe at the Literaturhaus on Fasanenstrasse, which I cannot visit without thinking of this post, Café Einstein on Unter den Linden for the old fashioned café au lait and the most enormous piece of German cheesecake which I miss so much, the excellent Buecherbogen and the Autorenbuchhandlung bookshops on Savignyplatz, Quartier 206, Galeries Lafayette and Dussmann on Friedrichstrasse, the Film Museum and the Sony Center cinema at Potsdamer Platz. It’s a shame the staff at the Helmut Newton Foundation are so unfriendly because I really love the building and the collection, but it was a great pleasure to see the C/O’s Gordon Parks’ exhibition at the Amerika House where the atmosphere is much more relaxed and you can even sneak a photo. Hope the photos will inspire you to take a trip to Berlin as well.

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Flying to Berlin Tegel

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First view of the Spree

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In Tiergarten

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The view from the top of the Siegessaeule towards Potsdamer Platz

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

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Der Rufer/ The Crier on Strasse des 17. Juni

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The Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park

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I love the trees on Puschkinallee

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The Molecule Man sculpture, with the Oberbaum Bridge in the background

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Bikini Berlin, formerly a rather seedy place with sex shops, now one of the chicest, coolest places to shop and hang out

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At the zoo where most of the animals sensibly stayed inside on this cold day, with a few exceptions

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The Literaturhaus cafe

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One of my favourite places for French films and cultural events

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The Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz

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The cinema at the Sony Center

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Shopping at Quartier 206

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Galeries Lafayette where I always buy French books and then go for afternoon tea

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Some images from the excellent Gordon Parks exhibition at the C/O

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A rare selfie

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The World Clock on Alexanderplatz

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Marx and Engels

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Elegant columns by the Neues Museum

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Enjoying my favourite snack before flying back to the UK

L’invitation au voyage

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On my way to the bus stop in Berlin, a fox crossed my path, our eyes met and then it continued briskly on its way. It didn’t seem the most promising of mornings – bitterly cold and a little foggy but as our plane took off from Tegel, I pressed my nose against the window to enjoy the panoramic view of Berlin with all its landmarks in miniature illuminated in the dark. And then in Zurich, as if by magic, the clouds on the horizon cleared to make way for brilliant sunshine and probably the last really warm and beautiful day of the year, almost an Indian summer. I explored as many of the charming, winding streets as I could, surprised by the sudden steepness of certain places, admiring the beautiful Chagall stained glass inside the Fraumünster and its slender, elegant spire outside. My eye was constantly caught by shop windows full of the most beautiful chocolates, bread and pastries. But on a day like that, it was the lake that proved to be the ultimate attraction. I lost track of how long I spent walking along its shores, or sitting beside it, soaking up the glorious sunshine, listening to the sounds of water lapping, birds crying, the voices of passers-by and someone nearby playing a musical instrument.

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First view of Zurich

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The Grossmünster in Zurich

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The Pavillon Le Corbusier

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Zurich’s beautiful opera house

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Eventually though, my need for refreshment got the better of me and I headed to Sprüngli’s on Paradeplatz, waiting patiently in line while all the time casting an eye over the astonishing range of cakes on display alongside. I envied those children who must be brought here regularly because it really is the most wonderful place where trying one kind of cake just isn’t enough.

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Another walk was needed after overdosing on coffee and cake

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In the evening, I braved the cold to walk a short distance to the Arthouse Movie cinema, a charming little place with plush red seats and space to hang coats at the side, to watch François Ozon’s Frantz, one of the most beautiful and poignant films I have seen.

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Zurich is, of course, also the home of my friend Jan who writes the beautiful Clovis Sangrail fashion blog. It was even more wonderful meeting him in real life and we spent a charming afternoon at Café Felix with its old-fashioned and rather OTT decor, talking and laughing over tea and too much cake. The minutes turned into hours and then it was already time to leave and head out into the darkness to the train station and then to the airport. I felt no desire to head back to the icy streets of Berlin. There was still so much I wanted to see, so much I wanted to talk about but in spite of the melancholy feeling as I boarded the plane that night, I knew how lucky I had been to have had the loveliest of weekends and that Proust understood all too well that the greatest pleasures go by all too quickly.

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