Saturday 8 August 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 8/8/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday

Image: Philip Cheung


Our friends in Beirut

This time last year, almost to the day, I was heading to Beirut on holiday to stay in an apartment in an old Ottoman-era house in the city's Gemmayze district. From there I could go to Papercup, the book and magazine shop run by Rania Naufal that had hosted the launch of Monocle's guide to the city, visit the stunning store of another old Monocle friend, fashion designer and couturier Rabih Kayrouz, and share the generous company of Kamal Mouzawak (pictured) at his restaurant Tawlet in the Armenian neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael, just a short walk from the apartment.

And a year later? The explosion that ripped through the city on Tuesday evening has destroyed friends' homes and businesses and left several badly injured. The roads that a year ago were filled with honking taxis, men fixing cars in ancient courtyards, rattling printing presses, photography galleries filled with temptations, the sounds of builders working on another dubious apartment block, the smokers, the fruit sellers, the nightclub owners, the dating couples, the begging children – destroyed.

How can a country so rich with amazing people, such an extraordinary landscape and an abundance of culture let its people down so many times? I wrote earlier this week about Monocle's deep connections with Beirut and Lebanon, a country that seduces people who go there with its contradictions and live-for-now attitude. But let's return to the streets of Beirut again.

Readers who have had a link with Monocle for some time, or perhaps came to our conferences in Lisbon or Schloss Elmau in Germany, will know Kamal. He's a man who uses food to bring people together across sectarian divides; he's provided the chance for village women to share their produce at Souk El Tayeb, the farmers' market he founded, and in the restaurants he has established across the country. He's done his utmost to defend the nation's glorious architecture too, with old houses restored with tenderness and remade as inns. He's a campaigner; a fixer. To do all this requires resolve. But when speaking on Monocle 24's The Briefing this week, his voice was cracking. There are limits of endurance.

Yet when we spoke by phone yesterday there was more: there was anger too – and it's anger that is widely felt in the city as people confront a failed political class. But, in the meantime, he is back up and running: his kitchen is making sandwiches for the volunteers and he's cooking meals for the old and vulnerable. There is no option – the state is absent; it's a nation where you have to organise and fix everything – even in the aftermath of an explosion on this scale. "Can you imagine, not one person from the state has been here to help," says Kamal. "It's just kids with brooms clearing the streets." I see a post from another friend from their circle in Beirut, Tala Hajjar, who works in fashion: "If your windows are shattered and you cannot replace the glass, we are donating our fabric as an interim." Beirutis, all. Fixing, volunteering, tackling the void.

Why do some places, so far removed from your ordinary life, your background, become such a fixation – and why does Lebanon play this trick so often on so many people? Today I can't pick up a broom but I'd like to do one small thing and that's share a crowdfunding page for Kamal Mouzawak's community relief effort. He's one of many amazing people doing what he can to help Beirut get through the coming days – and he's doing it with the simple offer of food. Perhaps this morning you might find time to help. And then? Those brooms need to sweep away more than the debris on the streets. They should be a symbol of a greater clear-out that's needed of weak leaders, the greedy and the corrupt.


Word to the wise

Italy is a country of unwritten codes (writes Ed Stocker). God forbid, for example, you order a cappuccino after midday; your attempt is sure to be met with a smirk from your waiter. And then there's the whole linguistic tangle you might find yourself in over the use of the informal tu versus the formal lei when addressing people. Having once lived in Argentina, I was at least used to the concept. But that country is extremely relaxed when it comes to greeting people. The only time that I had to slip into the more deferential usted in Spanish was when interviewing politicians and never with, say, my friends' parents.

I now realise that my immediate use of the informal with my partner's mother in Italy might have been something of a faux pas. This realisation happened when I clocked that her other son-in-law was addressing her formally as Signora, despite having known her for years. Plus, not only was I calling her Patrizia but I'd also shortened it to the uber-familiar Patty.

We've subsequently had a chat about it and it's all cleared up. But it shouldn't be assumed that you can be informal just because you're an informal person. Luckily, being a foreigner, you're given a free pass to make boo-boos like this. My advice? Err on the side of caution and, if in doubt, you can always ask someone how they would like to be addressed. Posso darle del tu? works wonders.

THE LOOK / JACINDA’s earrings

From ear to ear

When New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern went on TV in June to declare her country coronavirus-free, the beaming Kiwi leader delivered the good news wearing one of her signature pairs of earrings: four gold hearts on a dangly chain hanging from each ear (writes James Chambers). It was the same set that she wore on a cover of Time magazine published a year after the Christchurch mosque shooting in 2019. Her deft handling of the aftermath of that incident catapulted her to global fame and followed an already captivating year when she marched at Pride in Auckland, brought her baby to the UN in New York and dazzled the queen of the UK at Buckingham Palace in a Maori cloak.

While the traditional clothes and headscarves come and go, Ardern's earlobes are consistently adorned and her accessories often support her global advocacy for love and kindness. Ardern wants to change the ugly nature of politics. At the same time, she has a piercing progessive agenda and her heart-shaped jewellery is not exclusively reserved for celebratory occasions: she recently wore the earrings during an interview about an opposition party sexting scandal and to talk tough on China.

There are also plenty of other symbolic shapes in her jewellery box. Some of Ardern's pieces use materials that champion her progressive and inclusive causes, from pounamu (a greenstone found in southern New Zealand) to black feathers made in the country from recycled bicycle-tyre inner tubing that caused a mini fashion frenzy earlier this year. One thing that all of these fetching designs share is their considerable length. After all, Ardern is, as she declared at the UN, a child of the 1980s, an era that is synonymous with big hoops and geometric shapes.

Voters in New Zealand can expect Ardern's favourite accessory to be out in force as she seeks re-election in September. Her tough-talking opponent, Judith "Crusher" Collins, has a huge fight on her hands to prevent Ardern from winning a second term. Ardern, or Aunt Cindy as she's now called, is likely to kill her with kindness.

Image: James Bareham


Melissa Bell

US journalist Melissa Bell started her career in India, where she helped to launch Delhi’s business newspaper Mint in 2007, before taking up a role at The Washington Post and then co-founding news website Vox. Now Vox Media’s publisher, she is responsible for its editorial strategy and oversees business growth across all of its titles, including Vox, SB Nation, The Verge, Eater and the newly acquired New York magazine. Here she tells Monocle the ingredients for a perfect breakfast sandwich, and why you should visit Washington for a bookshop alone.

What news source do you wake up to?
Twitter is my morning news service. A long-standing rule of mine is "never tweet". But I do lurk a lot.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
Lukewarm coffee with milk. I've started to try to trick myself by making my cups half caffeinated, half decaffeinated in an attempt to wean myself off my five-cup-a-day addiction to coffee.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
Spotify. It is one company that I'm comfortable with knowing all my personal data around song preferences: their Discover Weekly soundtrack is truly amazing.

What's that you're humming in the shower?
Nina Simone. Her amazing song "Mississippi Goddamn" has been rattling around my head a lot these days.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
New York magazine, DwellNew York Times Magazine, Monocle. And I read The New Yorker for the cartoons.

Are you a subscriber or more of a newsstand browser?
I subscribe to New York magazine, of course. Otherwise, a newsstand browser.

Bookshop you can't wait to return to?
Capitol Hill Books in Washington. I visit this city just for this bookshop. It's the perfect mix of precarious towers of books, grumbly old men and, on the second Saturday of every month, free wine and cheese to help you browse better.

Is there any cultural gem you have rediscovered now you have more time?
I'm catching up on all the books that were too big to lug around the city. Currently knee deep in The LuminariesWolf Hall is up next.

What's the best thing you’ve watched of late and why?
Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You. I've been obsessed with the recent slew of series created by women that manage to take the creator's pain and stare at it with humour, fearlessness and forgiveness: Russian DollFleabagInsecure and now I May Destroy You It's so powerful and encouraging to watch.

Sunday brunch routine?
My partner and I compete over who can make the better breakfast sandwich. My preferred ingredients: a fried egg, prosciutto or salami, rocket, mustard, cheddar cheese and veganese on a pain au lait bun. It's our once-a-week decadent meal.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news? A favourite newsreader perhaps?
Nope. I haven't owned a TV, or had cable, in nearly 15 years.

What's on the airwaves before drifting off?
I listen to podcasts as I fall asleep, usually narrative or interview shows. I'm currently listening to Vox's Land of the Giants, which is about Netflix. It's a fascinatingly in-depth tale about the making of that monolith.


Taking flight

'House of Hummingbird', Kim Bora. Kim Bora's directorial debut is now available to watch on US network Well Go after the South Korean's film launched to huge acclaim on the festival circuit in 2018. It's 1994 and we're in Seoul. We follow a 14-year-old girl as she floats through the events that will shape her teenage years, from her difficult family life to tragic developments in the city around her. Kim's lightness of directorial touch, gently hovering around her protagonist, lends this film its melancholy beauty.

'Help', Duval Timothy. An artist working across different media – from painting to textiles, photography to sculpture – Duval Timothy is also an accomplished musician. His brand of charming jazz is experimental, warm and soothing. Although much of his work explores his relationship with his father's homeland of Sierra Leone, this album was recorded in London and Los Angeles. Help delivers 18 tracks inspired by the compassionate idea of believing in one's ability to "be better"; these songs are definitely an aid to that end.

'The Lightness', Emily Temple. Emily Temple's first book takes us to a surreal setting: a retreat where badly behaved girls learn fairly run-of-the-mill ways to become spiritually attuned, from ikebana to meditation. Oh, and – supposedly – levitation. But this is no peaceful Buddhist redemption fantasy; there's a dark undercurrent to proceedings that turns this novel into a taut thriller about desire and dangerous consequences.


Tremor island

The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago juts off Iceland's southern coast, its islands of volcanic stone set along an active volcanic system. The youngest was formed by an underwater volcanic eruption in 1963. A decade later, another volcanic eruption destroyed a fifth of Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar's only populated island. The lava would have decimated the bay – then, the islanders' primary link to the mainland – if the townspeople hadn't halted its flow, using 6.8 billion litres of cold seawater fired from water cannon.

"A lot of people were evacuated and the population [now 4,300] has never recovered," says Sindri Ólafsson, editor of Heimaey paper Eyjafréttir. Produced by a team of two, the newssheet goes out to 800 subscribers and has been in print since 1973, the year the volcano erupted. Today the publication covers everything from the eight million puffins that arrive on Heimaey every summer to the salty tales told by resident fishermen. Here, Ólafsson shares a few of his favourite catches.

What's the big news this week?
Last year two beluga whales were rescued from an aquarium in Shanghai, where they were being mistreated. They were flown across the world in giant containers and were being looked after in a special care pool here on the island. Recently they moved them to a nearby bay, where they can continue to recover.

Tell us about a favourite image.
Typically in August, the news here revolves around Þjóðhátíð; a festival of up to 20,000 people. It's an old festival set in a valley on the island and people love to uphold its traditions: everybody on the island sets up communal tents where they share food with one another while the music plays. It hasn't been cancelled since the First World War – not even after the volcanic eruption in 1973. But this year, of course, it was. We ran an image of a lone bonfire in the empty valley.

What's your down-page treat?
We run a regular segment in the paper where we speak to fishermen. It's never big news – just a conversation with a bit of gossip and the odd titbit. For instance, I spoke to the captain of a fishing vessel in a recent issue. He told me about how he thinks one of his crew members scares the fish away and why it's a nightmare having him on board. Just poking fun, you see.

And the next big event?
Puffling season begins at the end of August, when hundreds of thousands of baby puffins hatch. Many of them will fly into town rather than toward the ocean, so every year the kids here go around trying to rescue them. But there is some uncertainty over whether or not the puffling rescue centres can be opened this year due to the coronavirus. We will be watching this closely.


Keep the doors open

While many small brands might be contemplating giving up on physical retail, this week's guest on Monocle 24's The Entrepreneurs says that, before ditching bricks and mortar, you should think about a customer's complete journey. Mark de Lange, founder of Amsterdam-based eyewear brand Ace & Tate, says that while all brands understand the importance of a seamless online experience, those with their own shops can truly own the full-brand experience.

"I think it's your responsibility as a brand to make sure that every link in that chain not only works but works well and to the advantage of the customer," he says. "These are the brands and businesses that will survive in the long term."

From modest beginnings in 2011, Ace & Tate now operates 65 shops across Europe. De Lange doesn't mind which channel a customer uses to make a purchase, as long as they are happy with their glasses.

"If we look at what modern luxury is these days, I think it's more than ever about a bigger world than just a product," he says. "It's about your complete value proposition. It's about a great product and a super strong delivery and returns mechanism. It's about clear language and great branding. I think that is something that direct-to-consumer brands have championed as a more attractive proposition, vis-a-vis traditional luxury retail. So I would think that one through very carefully."


Perk up

Hong Kong's high-end shopping malls are in a retail arms race to attract luxury shoppers (writes James Chambers). Their weapon of choice? The VIP lounge. Entry to these airline-style loyalty perks typically requires a black card and an annual shop spend of HK$1m (€113,000).

Kowloon's glitzy new mall, K11 Musea, raised the stakes last year and the Landmark on Hong Kong Island followed soon after. Video walls allow brands to customise its Bespoke salon for private events, while top-tier members can make use of the dining room and have a celebrity chef cook them dinner. Swire's Pacific Place in nearby Admiralty started work in January on its revamped Above lounge that will move up a level in floor space and cocktail shaking as well as storeys. Andre Fu returns as designer, adding a well-stocked bar and event space to entertain its 600-plus "black card" members. Afternoon is the most popular time and women are in the majority, from mothers waiting for children to finish school to lawyers clinking glasses after work before dressing up for an event and accompanying their own make-up artists into the powder rooms.

Engaging Hong Kong's high-spending male shoppers seems to be more transactional, less experiential. I recently visited the newly opened Club Avenue at Lee Gardens in Causeway Bay alongside the lounge's designer, Nelson Chow of NCDA, and black card member Samuel Chan. Although shopping more while stuck in Hong Kong, Chan rarely uses his lounge privileges, preferring to go directly to Louis Vuitton and Hermès downstairs.

His phone has a screen full of loyalty apps from luxury malls, including all of the above. How does he pick his favourite? "Lee Garden is closest to where I live," says Chan, who works for his family's property company. And that mall's other advantages will ring true with shoppers at every price point: it offers generous free parking and a cash rebate on spending.


Can I clean my colleague’s desk?

I know you've been looking at it: the discarded mugs, the boxes piled high, the shrivelled cactus in need of a glug of water – or, even better, the bin. And I agree: it's disorganised and – dare I say it? – a dirty desk. But wait a moment. Simply wading in there with the elbow-length rubber gloves might be perceived as a little invasive by the deskee in question, if done without forewarning. Instead, take a deep breath and make a casual mention of how a spick-and-span environ clears one's mind for the work ahead.

If the comment goes unheeded and the mugs continue to fester, you’re well within your rights to go ahead with a little reorganisation when they’re next away. (You can also play the pandemic trump card and mention the need for greater hygiene – well, it’s got to be good for something). But don’t let them get too used to their new spring-cleaning fairy or you’ll find yourself spending a little more time than you’d wagered cleaning up after others. Don’t get me started on the litter tray of a certain Mr Tiddly...


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