Saturday 5 September 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 5/9/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


As good as a rest

Perhaps a dozen times over the past 25 years or so I have returned to Mykonos for a week of heat. During that time, however, many of my once passionate fellow advocates for the island have begun to wind down their relationship with the place as its hotel owners have raised their prices with Bernie Madoff-like chutzpah, fighty footballers have headed to its bars and shouty wealth has too often distorted what was once an easy-going backdrop to the summer. Until this year, however, I stayed loyal because, despite its flaws, the island can be magical, there are still places where you can escape the madness and, truth be told, a spot of madness is also rather fun sometimes. It’s fun.

However, back in January, when the hotel that I always stay in bumped up its charges to levels that made me look around the house and wonder what I would need to sell to feed my Mykonos habit, I realised that it was time to select another island from the Greek menu. I was like someone who had never strayed beyond a tzatziki starter.

But where? Everyone I asked recommended a different spot. Patmos, insisted one; no Milos, said another. Sifnos, Naxos, Amorgos, Antiparos, Hatsoff, Trousersoff, Holidaysoff; it was getting a little confusing. It was time to contact the wise oracle of Athens, also known as my former colleague Daphne who is Greek and now back home in the motherland. I dispatched a message on a dove: “Oh wise one, where’s small, quiet and very relaxed?” And came back the reply: “Head ye to Folegandros!” So that’s where I am – in the Cyclades, on a rocky, cliffy, low-key stunner.

On day one, explaining how to navigate this island, the man at Donkey Scooters (you’re getting the laid-back vibe), explained that it is shaped like a fish whose backbone is the main road and from this sprout numerous little bones – the paths and tracks that take you down to the rocky bays and beaches. Like a little fish bone, those precipitous offshoots could apparently be lethal, he said, so be wary. He also told me not to worry if I left the key in the ignition, the scooter would not be stolen. I have tested his theory by accident and it’s true.

There’s no airstrip here for private jets, nor any beach clubs – only a couple of the bays even have even a taverna. The water, however, is that blue that makes you feel as though you are staring at an Yves Klein painting; you can find a tree to read under to avoid peak sun in the stony coves; and there are lots of cool French families being French families, Greek men looking Adonis-like, and good-looking Italians (many of whom seem to be using their holidays to catch up on a year’s worth of phone calls). And as you ease into the slow flow it’s all very restorative.

Then in the evenings when the main town, the chora, pulls in everyone staying on the island, there’s a nice movement of people strolling through the alleys and squares. Yet there’s never a crush and you can easily find a stool to perch on outside the cocktail bar Beez and you’ll only wait a few minutes at most for a table under a tree for dinner at To Spitiko. Here you’ll be watched from the pavement by an orchestra of entreating cats and kittens. For the traveller, the visitor, this is in some ways a magical summer – being able to see places so calm, being able to take in the sunset from the hill above the town and know your luck.

If you live here, however, then summer looks a little wonky. Like everywhere in the world the inhabitants are dealing with coronavirus and are taking it seriously – from waiter to boat skipper, masks are worn without exception. But the diminished number of visitors means that many hotels are closed, others are just ticking over and this summer will surely be tough on many of the people who live here and make their income. But for now, at this very moment, looking down to the bay from the Anemi hotel as a ferry comes into the port, and a real donkey brays in a nearby field, Folegandros looks pretty good. Finally, I have moved past tzatziki. And, unlike in Mykonos, I won’t require a defibrillator when I see the final bill.


Ahead of the curve

Wondering where the world’s best furniture is made? Keen to see inside well-appointed residences that will have you calling in the renovators? Are you seeking out projects that are enriching our cities? Or maybe you’re just looking for a little architectural inspiration. Either way, we’ve got you covered with a new free weekly email newsletter called Monocle Minute On Design. From 16 September, subscribers can expect insights on the design world from leading architects, urbanists and interiors experts, plus first looks at the freshest projects. Oh, you might also enjoy Monocle On Design, our weekly radio show and podcast on Monocle 24 (or however you listen) that is stuffed with stories from the industry’s finest.


New kids on the block

Whereas many children spent their summer holidays chasing ice-cream vans and running underneath sprinklers, a select few turned their hand to a little underage urbanism (writes Nic Monisse). Those who attended the Center for Architecture and Metropolitan Planning’s summer holiday camp in Prague were tasked with reimagining the Czech capital’s city centre. The annual programme encourages children aged between nine and 15 to imagine their future self not as an astronaut or superhero but rather as an architect or urban planner. Over the course of five days they’re invited to draw, design and make models for a chosen redevelopment site in the city.

Far from being a child-minding service, the project intends to inspire the next generation of city makers. “We’re trying to get children to become more empowered citizens who are engaged in discussions about the future of the city,” says the programme’s director, Stepan Bartl. Now that students are back at school after the summer camp wrapped up last week, there could be a few of them talking up their new urbanist credentials in the playground – or even rethinking its layout.


Dounia Messihi

Light FM was founded just after Lebanon’s civil war and its aim was to bring light relief – which is now much needed again during another challenging time for the city. We speak to one of the station’s DJs, Dounia Messihi, who knows the importance of switching off and finding comfort in simple things.

What news source do you wake up to?
My apartment is in the middle of Beirut and everything I see has been affected by the blast. At first I was checking the news continuously but I’ve been trying to tune out. The news is everywhere I look now anyway.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
When I do read the papers it’s in the evening, which often keeps me up so it’s not a great move. But I’ll just have a glass of water or perhaps a cup of tea beside me.

Something from the FM dial or Spotify for your tunes?
It depends on my mood but I really like French or Dutch music – funky electro tunes. And I tend to use Spotify or another streaming platform. Radio is great but I listen to it 24/7 for work and I need a bit of a break sometimes.

What’s that you’re humming in the shower?
“Jolie Nana” by Aya Nakamura. She’s a French singer and her song is awful – but I can’t get it out of my head! I’m not proud of it.

Magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
I don’t have physical magazines but I read through L’Agenda Culturel online. It’s mainly culture news about what’s happening around Lebanon, such as the latest exhibitions. But there are no activities at the moment. Coronavirus stopped activities with crowds and the blast destroyed our spaces.

Bookshop you can’t wait to return to?
In the town of Jounieh [20km north of Beirut] there used to be a red telephone box, like the ones you see in London. People would leave their books in there and you could go in and exchange them for your old ones. I don’t know if they do it any more but I’d love to go back.

What’s the best thing you’ve watched lately and why?
I watched Interstellar for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I kept turning it over in my mind for ages afterwards. Also the Planet Earth series, that was impressive too. I was really blown away – I loved the deep ocean shots.

Sunday brunch routine?
Before the blast, Sundays were for sleeping in and then there would be a family gathering. We’d drink and eat a lot. It was a joyous occasion. I’m also quite old-fashioned – I go to church on Sunday night.

What papers and periodicals will be spread out on the dining-room table?
I usually read through L’Orient-Le Jour when I do read the news. But I don’t buy physical papers so much these days.

Do you still make an appointment to watch the nightly news? A favourite newsreader perhaps?
We used to watch the 20.00 news but we’re avoiding it these days. It either involves frustrating political do-nothings or watching the faces of people who’ve lost their homes. I no longer have the energy.

What’s on the airwaves before drifting off?
I don’t listen to the radio – I need my calming routine. I cut off all screen time for an hour and practise a few breathing exercises. I tend to fall asleep quickly.


Underground press

In Coober Pedy, a desert town in South Australia, about three quarters of its 1,750 residents live underground. The town is home to some 70 opal mines, which account for most of the world’s excavation of the precious iridescent substance. Many people here live in so-called “dugouts” that are either carved from the hillside using pickaxes or excavated using Nitropril and machines for tunnelling. These dugouts provide shade from the scorching sun and temperatures that soar north of 40C. They also house everything from motels to gem shops (there are 30) and – of course – a newspaper HQ.

“It must be the only newspaper in the world that’s produced underground,” says Margaret Mackay, editor and sole employee of the Coober Pedy Regional Times. Mackay first visited the town from Melbourne as a professional photographer, on the suggestion of her opal-dealer friends who said that she’d find interesting subjects out there. She moved to Coober Pedy in 1993 and later became a volunteer at the local newspaper, and in 2005 was engaged as Editor. In 2006, she bought the paper out of from liquidation. “Some people still prefer the feel of print in their hands,” says Mackay. Though it has since shifted mostly to PDF-format online, copies continue to be printed (on request) for AUS$1 (€0.60).

What’s the big news this week?
Almost anything in a small community can be big news. This week, though, it was the mine-rescue volunteers on the front page. They often head out in their truck and special uniforms to save people from mining accidents all around the territory. But they’ve never had a changing room where they can switch into their outfits. Well, they received funding for two rooms last week – one is for the men and the other is for women. They’d been pushing for it for a while and it’s great to see it finally happen.

What’s your favourite image?
For the last issue we ran a piece about Coober Pedy being immortalised on a set of postage stamps. The Australian postal service released 10 stamps that each feature different opalised fossils that were discovered here. I photographed the young girl who works at the post office holding them up to the camera.

Do you have a down-page treat?
We’ve been running a regular bit this year called the “Dodge City Round-up”. The set-up is that there’s an anonymous source who’s providing gossip on Coober Pedy’s criminal underworld. She often rings me up to keep me in the loop with gangsters’ news around these parts because it can be a little bit dodgy here. It’s a bit of a satire as well though – nothing too serious makes it in.

What’s the next big event?
There’s not much happening here these days. But the biggest event of the year is our opal festival, which usually takes place in June. Everyone in town helps to make a float and joins a huge parade. They make the floats in different colours to reflect the shades of the opal. Lots of people come to visit when it’s on and, after it’s finished, they buy lots of opals from the gem shops. It’s a popular attraction for tourists who want to see the town.


Plot twists

‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’, Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman’s absurdist and introspective scripts are behind plenty of cult films, from Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His latest movie – which he wrote, produced and directed – provides more of the same (if it’s ever clear what “the same” is). Following a young woman and her new boyfriend on a road trip, the film makes for a mind-bending, pensive but ultimately enthralling watch.

‘Whole New Mess’, Angel Olsen. The first solo album since her fêted debut in 2012, Whole New Mess finds Olsen at her tenderest and most intimate as a singer-songwriter. Taking many of the tracks from 2019’s All Mirrors LP, the release strips each song to a lone voice and guitar. Listen out for the rendition of last year’s hit “Lark”, cast in an entirely new light.

‘The Appointment’, Katharina Volckmer. One woman’s monologue to her doctor forms the basis of this short, wry and amusing debut novel from London-based author Volckmer. Ranging from the German-born narrator’s sense of national shame to her most titillating sexual fantasies, the topics are as diverse as the tone, which skips from comic to contemplative with assured and arresting ease.


Inspire your customers

As the world gets moving again, ongoing restrictions are making it even harder for retailers to encourage customers into their shops. And though many people might say that months of lockdowns have only accelerated the demise of bricks and mortar, especially as online shopping experiences improve, this week’s guest on Monocle 24’s The Entrepreneurs says that the way to inspire customers to visit is to make sure that in-store experiences are as much about discovery as they are about the utility of shopping.

“It’s much more that you want to come in to find something new, as well as to handle something that you might have seen online. It’s about really coming to have a little bit more of a relationship with a brand,” says Matt Alexander, the CEO and co-founder of Neighborhood Goods. Billed as a modern take on the department store, the retailer launched in the off-the-radar outpost of Plano, Texas in 2018 and has since expanded to Austin and New York City. Since its shops reopened in June, the company has focused on boosting smaller brands.

“We decided to provide free space to brands that had lost meaningful sales and performance during the pandemic,” says Alexander. “Brands that might have lost big wholesale orders or didn’t have much in the way of an advertising budget or a growth plan but had a really great product.” He says that this approach not only allows Neighborhood Goods to showcase unique collections that delight customers but also create partnerships that will become more fruitful when smaller labels are back on their feet. “We’ve seen a lot of the brands ask to remain with us in a more traditional relationship.”


Should I give up my seat?

I’ll start by assuring you, dear reader, that Mr Etiquette is always the first to offer up his seat to an old stager in need. That said, the act of offering can be a little fraught. A good deed taken the wrong way can just as easily cause offence. Is that lady pregnant? Is that man of an age where he’ll be perturbed by the suggestion? As a rule of thumb it’s always better to be kind and offer.

Local customs, however, add another layer of complexity, especially as some rules really don’t travel. Giving up seats for children is a distinctly Asian etiquette, at least in Hong Kong. As children go back to school, Mr Tiddly’s cousin – a sultry Siamese who’s spent years in the Far East – has been relating tales of pensioners hopping out of their seats so that youngsters can sit down (and by youngsters we are talking four or five years of age, not four or five months). Curiouser and curiouser. So should we all be deferring to youth on public transport? Maybe not. It’s good manners to respect the elderly but able-bodied little princes and princesses should probably learn to stand on their own two feet.


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