Sunday 5 April 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Sunday. 5/4/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Sunday


Mountain time

If, like me, you’ve been wondering where some of the world’s fancier people are riding out this exceptionally irksome virus then I’m happy to report that I found them. Here’s how.

Earlier in the week I decided that it was time to check on my apartment in the mountains – collect the post, see the spring thaw, think up some interior updates and breathe the alpine air. I headed out of Zürich on Wednesday afternoon around 16.00 and was surprised by the amount of traffic on the roads. Where was everyone going? Was this what rush hour looks like in these times? I thought that most people were supposed to be working from home but, given that there’s a lot of manufacturing in this part of Switzerland and factories and labs are still open, it was probably the usual wave of traffic. By the time I reached the end of Lake Zürich the traffic had started to thin and 20 minutes later, when I passed the last exit for the city of Chur, the highway was largely empty – save for scores of Swiss military vehicles heading in all directions. As many battalions are currently mobilised to support the police, border guards and the medical community, I wasn’t that surprised to see so many convoys in transit but it made me wonder what they were up to as they weren’t close to the border, none of the vehicles were sporting red crosses and only a few cars were from the military police.

Just beyond Chur I noticed a fenced enclosure packed with bales of barbed wire. If you untethered the prickly bundles there must have been enough wire to secure tens of kilometres of frontier. Was this the cargo of all those trucks? Could it be that Switzerland is looking at a harder border in the short to mid-term to control the spread of infection while it works on its own social and economic strategy? Perhaps. For those of us who’ve enjoyed the open frontiers of the Schengen area, we can be quite sure that it’s going to be a while before road and airport border posts return to normal as countries look to reassure their citizens that they’re doing everything to stem another outbreak.

While still contemplating the barbed wire and counting the military convoys, I was briefly reminded of the day after the September 11 attacks, when I was in a convoy of my own heading north from New York to Toronto. With the help of a resourceful concierge, we managed to secure the last three Ford Crown Vic rental cars at Westchester Airport and, with a group of colleagues, left New York to wait things out on the other side of the border. I recall how the journey up the interstate was punctuated by massive National Guard convoys all rushing south to assist the recovery effort in lower Manhattan. September 11 had a different sense of urgency and gravity than what we’re currently living through. Then it was a series of events within a confined window that altered politics, the economy and some aspects of daily life. Today the hours pass slowly, infection rates and death tolls rise quickly and there’s little sense of when and how this will all end.

After two hours and 20 minutes in the car, the frozen lakes of the Engadine came into view and I sped along the snaking road toward St Moritz. The traffic picked up again and it wasn’t as quiet as I’d expected. Why were there so many taxis at the train station? Were there really that many people coming up the mountains? And overhead: one jet, another and then another, all landing before the darkness curfew. Were that many people flying in privately to hunker down in their houses? I guess so.

When I arrived at my building I was greeted by much of the communal space having been turned into an anti-coronavirus airing cupboard and food-storage facility. As I’d been informed that some Milanese weekend residents had been in lockdown since late February, I was somewhat prepared for extra hygiene measures but this was a bit extreme. I swiftly invoked the Swiss neighbour’s version of a riot act and informed the building supervisor that it was essential to maintain some order, that clothing should be aired on balconies and not in front of one’s apartment and that this was Switzerland not Italy, and that meant following rules. The next morning the mess was cleared and order restored.

On a tour through town I bumped into a friend and asked him how he was doing. Shortly after, a few more people gathered and then a couple of others. While everyone was Swissly socially distanced it did beg the question – was the town full? “Packed,” said my friend. “Every chalet is full. Who wants to be in a big city when you can be connected to the world up here?” He did have a point and there was the answer to the whereabouts of the fancy people. The Mittals, the Heinekens, the Ruffinis are likely in their sprawling chalets in Suvretta or Gstaad or Verbier.

As lovely as the mountains are, I was happy to be back in my car on Friday returning to the city. Though the evenings do drag a little, there’s plenty to be getting on with in the world of work, I like being in the office every day and can’t wait to enjoy those glittering mountain lakes when they’re swimmable and we get back to something that resembles normal.


Drawing conclusions

Illustrator Mathieu de Muizon’s witty takes on the world have enlivened magazines, newspapers and our own weekend newsletters – with which we’re guessing you’re familiar (writes Josh Fehnert). So imagine our surprise when the postbox yielded a letter from our favourite Frenchman sharing a light-hearted but civic-minded take on staying safe in strange times: a self-made survival guide with advice and amusement in equal measure.

“Well, the past few weeks have been strange – so filled with dread and anxiety [that] I figured we could all use some light shined on the subject,” says de Muizon. “I wanted to create something that gave decent advice but turned it up a notch in the direction of weirdness, since this will become the everyday as we move forwards. It seems like we could all use a laugh.” So as we adjust to new rhythms of life (and De Muizon, from Marseille, entertains his two-year-old), does the scribbler hold out much hope for how things might pan out? “I believe that this situation is giving people some time to think and reflect,” he says. “In a strange way it shows different kinds of living: less transport, less pollution, more time with loved ones. It shifts our priorities a bit. But that’s only because I am in a relatively safe position already, otherwise this would make me very, very stressed. No-fingernails-left stressed.” Hold on to those fingernails, we’ll need some of that optimism – and a few mirthful illustrations – to see us through. Merci, Mathieu.


Future noodles

From the outside, Soba Ichi in Higashi-Koganei station, west Tokyo, looks like any other track-side soba restaurant (writes Fiona Wilson). There’s the standing counter for quick noodle slurping and the usual jugs of iced water, boxes of chopsticks and tubs of sesame seeds for extra flavour. One crucial difference though: there is no chef. Here the cooking is done by a robot. I made my way to Soba Ichi on a weekday mid-afternoon to avoid the commuter crush (definitely desirable at the moment).

Instead of menus and waiters, there’s a machine with a button for each option. I went for duck soba and slid my ¥1,000 note (€9) into the slot. No sooner had my ticket and change spewed out than the robo-chef – visible behind glass – kicked into action, dropping the buckwheat noodles into boiling water. In barely a minute (a digital counter tells you exactly how long), I had my steaming bowl of precision-cooked noodles. Only ¥540 (€4.60) and they tasted alright too. This is a trial to see how robots might play a role in an industry struggling with a shrinking workforce. I was glad there was one human in the process: a man who handed me the noodles and said a cheery “thank you” as I left. Good to know there is still room for the human touch.


Any court in a storm

Most of the UK’s public tennis courts shuttered last month and this week Wimbledon confirmed its cancellation for the first time since the Second World War (writes Genevieve Bates). With nowhere to practice and zilch to watch, I’ve found myself turning to online tutorials to keep my forehand fair and backhand robust.

Enter Croatian-born coach Nick Aracic’s Intuitive Tennis programme, specifically the online lesson titled, “How to practise tennis at home: off-court tennis drills”. In just eight minutes – and in a confident North American-meets-Eastern European lilt – Aracic demonstrates a range of exercises covering strength, footwork and hand-eye coordination. The video is shot in his leafy garden but I could do most of it inside my central London flat. (I ruled out exercises involving balls, mastery of which would be at odds with the health of my husband’s antique-glassware collection.)

The best tip involved adding weight to your racquet head. First, find a book that fits inside the racquet’s frame and lash it in place with electrical tape. You then, Aracic suggests, undertake “shadow swings” of each shot: forehand and backhand ground strokes, volleys on each side, overheads and serves (mind that light fitting, though). You’ll get a cardio workout, especially if your footwork is as fast as Aracic’s. “Now all the weight is in the head of the racquet,” he says. “Something very interesting happens – the weight of the racquet almost pulls it round by itself so you get a much larger finish than you normally would.” Presto: a fluid, smooth motion without any pauses, not even at the top of the serve.

Despite the uncertainty of the lockdown and not knowing when my next match will be or even when there’ll be professional tennis to watch on TV, it feels like a small win to have a racquet in hand. Try it – the release just might keep you from reaching breaking point.


Bach and north

Swiss artist, film-maker and photographer Michel Comte has spent most of his career travelling the world and capturing iconic portraits for fashion houses and magazines (writes Nic Monisse). For now though, he’s at home in Zürich, working from his sunlit studio with views over the lake. Here he talks Japanese breakfasts, what he’s missing and why he’s got his eyes on the Arctic.

Where do we find you this weekend?
I’m in Zürich. I normally travel a lot – I was meant to be in Hong Kong the other week – but instead I’m home, working on my installations for the Vatican City, London’s Old Royal Naval College and Lausanne. They’re all due to open in November but we’ll see what happens.

How are you handling all this extra time at home?
I think I’ve always been a workaholic. I work at home until lunch then I’ll head to my studio, where I’ll work until the evening. When the days are longer, I’ll spend even more time at the studio because I can work outside. I’m working on sailboats [for a project next year in the Arctic]. The moment I can, I am going to go up to the North Pole to prepare for the sail. I’m also talking with [publisher] Steidl on a daily basis, preparing for several books we have coming out.

Soundtrack of choice?
It’s a big mix, I listen to all kinds of music. I usually start my day by playing Bach; I listen to The Goldberg Variations by pianist Glenn Gould. I listen to a lot of funk too, Miles Davis very frequently and very contemporary music too.

What’s for breakfast?
I love to eat natto – fermented beans – on rice. It’s a Japanese dish; my wife, Ayako [Yoshida, a film director], is Japanese so we eat mostly Japanese. I’ll also drink a green juice and make a matcha latte.

News or not?
I read several papers: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Monocle, current affairs. It’s a mix. Sometimes, I read the FT Weekend too.

Walk the dog or downward dog?
I have two dogs. A big white one called Luna and a little mix called Geoffrey. We have three cats too; we call our home the animal house.

Some exercise to get the blood pumping?
I run and I swim. I run every single day, in the forest; there’s a track about 10 minutes from my house where I usually do about 10km. For my swim, I’ll go in the lake in summer.

What’s for lunch?
I love sashimi. Today we had tuna and salmon sashimi over brown rice with avocado and natto.

Larder essentials you can’t do without?
We have incredible oils; we have the best balsamic bought from a little shop in a little village called La Maddalena in Sardinia.

Sunday culture must?
I read between three and eight books a week. I read non-stop, fiction and non-fiction. Right now, I’m reading Stephen Hawking.

A glass of something you’d recommend?
I really like very fresh passionfruit-vodka martinis, with lime and unsweetened. I make a pretty good one myself but the best you can get is at the Aman Hotel in Tokyo. Typically, we don’t drink a lot though, a bottle of wine lasts a week and a half for us.

Dinner venue you can’t wait to get back to?
In Zürich, I look forward to going back to the Kronenhalle; I usually go with my father in the afternoons when it’s empty. And, Heidi Weber’s Centre Le Corbusier. I always like to spend time on the first floor there. I look forward to returning to The Monocle Café on Dufourstrasse too. It’s a big hangout for us, we’ll have a matcha latte and talk with our Monocle friends.

Sunday evening beauty or betterment routine?
I meditate every morning for 20 to 25 minutes. I’ve been doing it for about two years now. It’s really great; it makes me more focused.

Will you lay out your look for Monday, what will you be wearing?
My uniform for the past 35 years has been a Canadian tuxedo: full Japanese denim, with a T-shirt or hand-knitted cashmere sweater underneath and a leather jacket over the top or a trenchcoat – I love the new Mackintosh. If I go out, I wear a tuxedo with a black Comme des Garçons kilt.


Rigatoni with pistachio pesto and sun-dried tomatoes

The world is complicated enough without needing to fuss over dinner. With this in mind we’ve prepared an irresistibly simple pasta dish to delight in.

Serves 4


50g pecorino cheese
1 garlic clove
25g basil
70g roasted pistachios
6 tbsps olive oil
500g rigatoni
150g sun-dried tomatoes
1 tsp peperoncini (chilli) flakes
Black pepper


  1. For the pesto, grate the pecorino and dice the garlic finely. Pluck the basil leaves. Purée everything with the addition of thepistachios, a pinch of salt, a good grind of pepper and the olive oil.
  2. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente (a minute or two less than the packet advises if it’s dried pasta). Drain. Keep 150ml of the cooking water.
  3. Mix the pasta with the pesto and salted water, season to taste and arrange on plates. Serve topped with the sun-dried tomatoes and peperoncini flakes.



Domestic bliss

Now that we have a bit more time to both pore over a good book and think about updating our digs, Apartamento Publishing’s new title, Praxis, Agustín Hernández, couldn’t have landed at a better moment (writes Nolan Giles). It’s a singular book from the team behind Apartamento magazine about one clever architect and one home that’s well worthy of retreat within.

Hernández’s geometric concrete treehouse-cum-home-studio, constructed in the Bosques de las Lomas neighbourhood of Mexico City, is still standing today. The architect channelled the bright and colourful culture of 1960s Mexico City into a unique brand of modernism that looked back to the pyramids of Mesoamerican architecture, while casting concrete construction into the future. Apartamento’s printed escape into this moment is an indulgent one that we’d suggest exploring.


Plant it here

We saw space in our Sunday line-up for a few suggestions for the growing number of home gardeners. First up, window boxes.

“Now is the right time for people to be thinking about planting out their window boxes and there are plenty of options that give a little bit of colour and a promise of something flowering,” says Peter Milne, co-founder of The Nunhead Gardener in southeast London. He took a few moments to talk to us as he migrates his lovely garden centre’s wares online (writes Josh Fehnert).

The first question Peter asks clients before helping to pick the plants for their window boxes is about the aspect: how much sun and light they get. “The same as indoor plants, outdoor ones fall into two categories: ones that love a sunny spot or ones that like shade,” he says. “Do the opposite and you’ll just be disappointed because they won’t do particularly well.” The Nunhead team recommends something evergreen that won’t lose its leaves come winter (the lower-maintenance option that saves a re-planting job when the colder weather comes back). Peter’s list of crowd-pleasers includes euonymus shrubs, heuchera (a herbaceous perennial, aka coral bells), begonias (“which flower all summer”) plus geraniums and other pelargoniums that love the sun but can hack the shade too. Oh, and maybe a muehlenbeckia, or maidenhair as it’s sometimes known, for good measure. Happy planting.


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio

00:00 01:00