Three writers hold forth on calming pleasures, from connecting with our roots through recipes to (gently) rethinking the city and reliving treasured trips.
At some point even the most house-proud of us will experience a sharp pang of home-envy. The worst case of it I ever suffered was on a reporting trip to Rio de Janeiro a few years ago. An aggressively generous hotelier had encouraged me to visit a friend of his, who lived in the historic hilltop district of Santa Teresa. The friend in question was an elderly woman who had once been married to one of Brazil’s most revered 20th-century furniture designers. With little else to do that afternoon, I agreed to march up the hill to the old colonial mansion.
As my hotelier had promised, the mistress of the house was extremely charming, immediately inviting me in and offering me a full tour of the property, including the lush garden, complete with its troop of white-faced monkeys. Undoubtedly the most jaw-dropping aspect of the house, however, was the bank of floor-to-ceiling windows upstairs, which opened out onto a view across the tiled roofs tumbling down to Guanabara Bay (glittering that day despite the infamous pollution).
Whereas the view from the downstairs windows was hampered by a colossal almond tree, here we were above the canopy. Suddenly, with a fresh breeze and nothing impeding that vista, I understood why the Portuguese colonists had opted to construct their villas all the way up here, away from Rio’s sandy beaches.
Living in an apartment (a perfectly nice one, it must be said) in North London, a view is the one thing I crave more than anything else. That sense of space, of tranquillity and escapism, and of nature being close enough to touch. Don’t get me wrong, I often enjoy living in a crowded city and even like the fact that, in true Hitchcockian style, you can occasionally watch a suspenseful drama unfold from the comfort of your own sofa. But more often than not, in a city like London, sitting still inevitably involves looking at that other window onto the world: the dreaded backlit screen.
That’s why, when I really want to get away from it all, I picture a room just like that one in Santa Teresa, with wooden shutters opening onto a shimmering view.
About the writer: Previously a Monocle staffer, Alagiah is now editor of the London-based art and design website and magazine It’s Nice That.
Moving to a smaller city has been an exercise in learning the value of quality over quantity. And in no part of my life was this clearer than in my relationship with food and cooking.
My hometown of Singapore (population 5.9 million) provided a dizzying array of restaurants, bars and hawker centres serving myriad cuisines. Of course, my new base – the charming but comparatively village-like Bergen in Norway (population 280,000) – was always going to be a different kettle of fish.
That’s not to say it has less to offer: the fare from long-standing delicatessen Solheim Kjøtt or the shellfish just plucked from the North Sea at restaurant Cornelius are hard to beat. But sometimes I allow myself to get a little homesick.
My tastebuds are used to sweet tropical fruits, rice with handfuls of textural sides, and fiery curries. So every so often, I put aside my Norwegian brunost (brown cheese), potatoes and sweet toffee-tinted gravies, and wheel my shopping cart to Bergen’s speciality shops.
“Every meal is serendipitous, depending on the season and whatever shipment has arrived at the grocers.”
The staff at my favourite smile kindly – if perhaps a little wearily – as I stake out the latest stock of pandan, kaffir lime or belacan (shrimp paste) from Southeast Asia.
With none of my beloved hawker stalls within reach, I donned my apron and took my mum’s advice to learn the intricate recipes at home. I used to take my favourite foods for granted; today, I’m spurred to simmer and stew for hours, learning perseverance and most definitely respect, for the cooks of Singapore’s street kitchens. Nasi Lemak, once a “quick” pick-me-up of mine, took some four arduous hours to perfect.
But the trade-up, with the addition of a group of curious newfound friends and prosecco (a delightful pairing I’m happy to report), makes the process all the richer.While I might not be able to grab Singaporean dishes on a whim, I’m now reconnecting with the recipes of my roots. Every meal is serendipitous, depending on the season and whatever shipment has arrived at the grocer. I’m slowing down, paying attention to every aisle, and every shopping jaunt becomes a treasure hunt.
About the writer: Zulkiflee worked for Monocle in her native Singapore before moving to Bergen. She’s proud to say that she makes the meanest chilli crab, prawn noodles and mee rebus in Norway – but only because she knows no one else in the region who’s making them.
Gentle. A simple word but a good one. And helpful in tackling big unwieldy ideas. Take cities. There are many buzzwords that suggest how they should be made and remade, such as resilient, sustainable, walkable and inclusive. But “gentle” takes in all of these and many more. That’s why we have decided to start our very own Gentle City Movement. These will be a few of our demands:
- Let cities slow down
We need streets where pedestrians and traffic share the spaces, ensuring that everyone takes care of their pace and doesn’t hit the accelerator.
- Let cities come to a halt too
Provide benches and park deckchairs so that citizens of all ages can watch the world edge by, feel the sun on their faces and enjoy moments alone while surrounded by humanity.
- Use materials that soothe
Less plate-glass and glistening metal, please. Use brick that warms in the sunshine, timber for its connection to nature, stone that invites touch and has a satisfying sense of permanence.
- Use street signs that surprise and encourage, not just to admonish and warn
How about “please lock your bicycle to our railings – we will not remove it” or “you are welcome to sit on the grass”?
- Make a splash
Fountains are entrancing, jets of water playful, drinking taps generous. And as water hits marble or paving, it lifts the spirits.
- Leave space for nature
Just seeing greenery is proven to do wonders for our mental health. But go further and make your city a welcome refuge for a passing hawk or a fox-trotting nocturnal visitor.
- Make walking a joy
It’s good for the body and the environment too. Make going for a stroll a joy with the aid of good wayfinding systems and a sense of security even after dark.
- Create spots where conversation flows
Boules courts, news kiosks and ice-cream stands all help turn a square into a living room for the city, where people gossip and pass the time of day with friends and strangers.
- Waste less
Create buildings that are well insulated and taxis that are electric. Make it easy and rewarding to recycle too.
- And reuse
Don’t knock it down; fix it up. The patina of age appeals to everyone. A jumble of buildings from various epochs makes a city feel rich and full of potential.
Well, it’s a start. And with a little push, perhaps we can start this polite, generous and forgiving urbanist movement that’s good for everyone and gentle as it unfolds.
About the writer: Monocle’s editor Tuck has been heading the magazine since its launch in 2007. He also presents Monocle 24’s radio show The Urbanist, where he delves deeper into his interest in all things metropolitan.