Sunday 28 February 2021 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Sunday. 28/2/2021

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Sunday


Open plan

Achtung! Attenzione! Caution! You’re about to enter complicated territory, so please proceed with extra care. I say this because if you’ve been confined to the same city, municipality, state or country for the past year then you could be in for a shock when you start to venture back out into the big wide world.

On Thursday I jumped on the train to Chiasso (the last main rail stop in Switzerland before crossing into Italy) and was pleased that it was one of SBB’s shiny new Stadler Girunos: smart interior, good connectivity, spotless and silent. Two hours and 15 minutes later I jumped off at Chiasso and was greeted by Mario – my Milanese driver for the past 26 years. To mark our anniversary Mario managed to get us to the centre of Milan in a symbolic 26 minutes (normally it’s 45) and, after a few sharp lefts and rights, dropped me at the hotel for the start of a whirlwind 36 hours of presentations, meetings and general catch-ups. Here are a few notes from the road.

1. Testing my nerves
Would more people be inclined to do PCR tests if it wasn’t quite so unpleasant? I’ve been brain-scraped about a dozen times in the past year and while some doctors and technicians know what they’re doing, most have a similar touch to the apprentice your builder might hire to scour the paint off your ceilings. Italy requires a test going into the country (ditto Switzerland on the return) but the Guardia di Finanza didn’t even pay us a second look driving through the border, and on the train back there was no sign of the Swiss border police. If countries are going to have everyone follow along and be taken seriously then they should show more tooth or not bother with the measures.

2. The show must go on
Milan is having a slimmed-down, low-key version of its usual fashion week but the city was nevertheless perky, energetic and alive. For sure, 20C and sunny skies helped pack out the cafés and terraces but this was the first time in a year that I’d seen real commerce in action – wares being displayed, press releases distributed, baubles being fingered. (Stop it! You know what I mean!) Events were being held all over the city, temperatures were taken at every entrance and while some of the safety measures were a bit odd, it did the trick. It’s three months till the Venice Architecture Biennale is supposed to get underway and if Milan’s efforts this weekend are anything to go by then Venice can confidently put on a good show.

3. Masking a problem
If I was particularly cynical and resided full-time in conspiracy corner I might well believe that Italy’s textile industry was responsible for the “you must be masked at all times unless you’re having a cigarette, sitting in a café, chatting on the phone, running with your dog or riding your bike” rule. That said, I also sensed a different level of fear amongst many Milanese. A couple of people said that after a year of lockdown they were now scared of travelling, while another said they were nervous being around people who were not wearing masks – even though they weren’t breaking any rules by doing so on the ski slope. It reveals that opening up is going to be tricky, as a year of heavy measures in some countries have already left psychological ticks and created a climate of total risk aversion. With so many different and conflicting rules about distance, plexi-protection, hotel-room decontamination, mask-here-no-mask-there, curfews and much more, someone needs to take the lead in creating a simple rulebook that countries and companies can follow, particularly as people start to mobilise over the coming months.

4. Double-masking: also a problem
Fashion and media people are supposedly notorious spreaders of the virus and it’s for this reason that we were asked to “double-mask” when entering the HQ of a globally renowned fashion brand. I also know this to be true because food-delivery cyclists and couriers didn’t have to “double-mask” and therefore don’t carry the virus – just salads and urgent fabric samples. If you’re in need of a proper workout then take an FFP2 mask, plus your regular daily-use mask, pop them on top of each other, forego the opportunity to take the lift, climb the endless flight of stairs and then try to explain your media plans for 2021 in a very large room where everyone is seated so far apart that you have to crank up your volume, but no one can hear you scream.

5. The pasta-and-wine divide
This week, Switzerland opted to keep its restaurants closed for another month: perhaps one of its least popular decisions of the past year. In many parts of Italy, however, restaurants are open. It’s no surprise that this causes considerable border friction as Milan’s restaurants welcome gastro-day tourists from across Switzerland while operators in Lugano and Zürich can only curse the federal government while watching loyal customers enjoying themselves down the track in Como and Milan. This same situation is playing out in other border regions across Europe and requires a fix that creates a level playing field for all businesses looking for a smooth path back to normal. All that said, I don’t think a plate of pasta and glass of wine at A Santa Lucia ever tasted quite so good. Cin-cin.


Final call

Berlin’s Tegel airport closed last year after 72 years of service (writes Hester Underhill). A remarkable feat of brutalist architecture, it was not only an important piece of urban infrastructure but also a monument to the city’s divided history. “It’s a West Berlin icon so people feel very attached to Tegel,” says photographer and regular Monocle shutterbug Felix Brüggemann. “It connected that fenced-in side of the city to the rest of the world for years.” Brüggemann joined forces with fellow Berlin snapper Robert Rieger to document the airport’s architecture before its final departure.

The duo have now published an 88-page book of their shots, all taken while the airport was deserted during the city’s first lockdown in spring 2020. It’s a paean to a side of the city that is fast disappearing. Subjects range from its distinctly retro signage to the spacecraft-like control tower, as well as the hard-edged concrete terminal buildings that long greeted and waved off passengers from its beloved central hub.


All about that base

Sicilian baker Giovanni Mineo and pizza chef Simone Lombardi from Padua have combined their talents to create an all-day café-bakery in Milan’s Porta Venezia. Here, wholesome grains take centre stage.

Mineo’s naturally leavened breads have a thin and crispy crust, while Lombardi, who delighted customers during his stint at Dry Milano, concocts a range of savoury creations with dough. Try his tasty contemporanea pizza with potatoes, Genoese red pesto and crescenza cheese to go.

Subscribe to Monocle’s Digital Editions to access the latest issue of the magazine, our back catalogue and regularly updated tips for exploring key cities worldwide.


Russia with love

A senior associate fellow for London’s Royal United Services Institute, an adviser to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the director of Russian affairs consultancy, the Mayak Institute – Mark Galeotti is a go-to voice on Russian affairs. Keen-eared Monocle 24 listeners will also recognise him from his regular contributions to our news shows. He takes a step back from putting Putin’s reign in context to talk about the perils of pooch ownership, his nose for news and a tasty Georgian wine recommendation.

Where do we find you this weekend?
I was recently deflated to realise that it’s been a year since I was last in Russia. I’ll be in Leafy Teddington – a perfectly nice southwest London suburb that, when it’s where you’re confined, for no fault of its own, begins to feel like an upmarket open prison.

What’s the ideal start to a Sunday? Gentle start or a jolt?
I tend to be an early riser and a quick riser. Sunday’s no different.

Soundtrack of choice?
I’m a news junkie. BBC Radio 4, Monocle 24, Times Radio or, if there’s nothing on that grabs me, a podcast. Alexa also used to be able to play me Russian news broadcasts but that seems to have dropped off the menu…

What’s for breakfast?
If I’m busy, I tend to skip breakfast. I know it’s one of those things that you’re not meant to do but where would we be if we did all the right things? Frankly, I’m more of a chocolate biscuits and a cup of lemon tea for elevenses person.

News or not?

Walk the dog or downward dog?
I miss having a dog. I’ve had dogs most of my life but spent quite a chunk of the past 15 years living abroad, most recently in Moscow, Prague and Florence. Given that I was also doing lots of short hops, having a pet wasn’t an option. Now that I’m settled back in the UK, I find myself in a flat that doesn’t lend itself to doggishness. But soon, I tell myself, soon...

Some exercise to get the blood pumping?
Exercise is good but I’m not a jogger and find it hard to motivate myself. When the gym was open, I tried to get there most days.

Lunch in or out?
At the moment, lunch out would be a furtive sandwich on a soggy park bench. But in normal times, having also lived for some seven years in New York, I must say the classic, long Sunday brunch – pancakes, friends, the right amount of booze – is something they get right.

Larder essentials you can’t do without?
Nutella. Pretty much everything else is optional.

Sunday culture must?
As a bit of a workaholic who works for himself from home and whose significant other is stuck about 6,000km away, so Sundays are often not that different from other days. I will probably be writing. When I want downtime, it’s something suitably untaxing, such as an episode or two of a sitcom or some silly sci-fi.

A glass of something you’d recommend?
Some Georgian wine, a rich and complex red like a saperavi. And that’s Georgia the country, not the US state. I’m still amazed that its wine and food isn’t more widely known – it’s truly wonderful.

The ideal dinner menu?
I could come up with highbrow suggestions to try and sound impressive. But honestly, a nice roast chicken – or better yet, a good pizza – and I’m happy.

Sunday evening beauty or betterment routine?

Will you lay out your look for Monday, what will you be wearing?
I won’t. But if I did, odds are that it would be black jeans and a black long-sleeved T-shirt. It’s simple, comfortable and if I have to do a meeting or an interview on video, I can just throw on a jacket and look vaguely respectable.

Galeotti’s new book ‘A Short History of Russia: From the Pagans to Putin’ is published by Ebury Press.



Our Swiss chef’s take on an Italian favourite: meatballs with a rich red-wine sauce. This is an excellent main with either some warm crusty bread or mashed potato flecked with wholegrain mustard. Enjoy.

Serves 4

For the meatballs:
25g parsley
50g breadcrumbs (ideally from the day before)
50ml cream
400g minced pork
400g minced beef
1 egg yolk
Salt and pepper
Nutmeg, a pinch
1 tbsp flour

For the sauce:
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 carrot
100g celery
4 tbsps olive oil
2 tbsp smoked paprika
100ml red wine
300ml beef stock
400ml fresh tomatoes or 250ml chopped pelati (canned peeled tomatoes)


  1. Mix the breadcrumbs into the cream.

  2. Finely chop the parsley. Chop the onion and garlic. Grate the carrots and celery or dice thinly by hand and set aside for the sauce.

  3. Combine the minced meat with the egg yolk in a bowl and add the breadcrumbs and parsley. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

  4. Form equal-sized balls of a few centimetres in diameter and dust with flour.

  5. Fry the meatballs in oil in a large frying pan for about 5 minutes then remove onto kitchen towel to soak up the excess oil.

  6. Sauté the onions, garlic, carrot and celery in the same pan for about 5 minutes, add paprika powder and stir, then deglaze with wine and stock on a medium heat. Add tomato purée and the meatballs to the sauce, season to taste and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes. Serve in a large bowl or directly from the pan.


Mind your manor

The Columns hotel is a reimagined 19th-century building in Nola’s desirable Garden District. Once the home of a wealthy tobacco merchant, then a boarding house, the 20-room mansion is framed by the towering white columns that give the new opening its name. Many of the building’s period details, including a mahogany staircase and stained-glass skylight, are updated mementos of the building’s past.

The bar, with its chandelier, wooden ceiling and leather stools is an irresistibly snug spot for an evening sazerac or gimlet. Outside, the restaurant spills from the porch into the garden, which is dotted with inviting tables and tropical plants. Once a gathering place, the elegant space continues to entice diners with its menu of roasted gulf oysters, Broadbent Country ham and classic cocktails.


Flagging support

Few are the left-wing politicians or parties who’ve ever swaddled themselves in their nation’s flag and found that it doesn’t itch a little (writes Andrew Mueller). The syndrome is especially pronounced in the UK, where among some sectors of the left – specifically the sectors which were until recently running the opposition Labour party – it is commonplace to regard Britain’s history and traditions with embarrassment at the very least. A leaked Labour party strategy document recently suggested that the party should celebrate the flag, the military and other stolid, and rather unimaginatively obvious, symbols of the state. Reaction from within the party, including from a few of its members of Parliament, demonstrated just how tough a sale this is going to be.

But it is a sale that needs to be made, I’d argue. Every populist marauder who has succeeded lately did so posing as a patriot, while depicting their opponents as somewhere between disloyal and treacherous. You can see it already ahead of next year’s presidential election in France, where far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen is attempting to present herself as the only reliable custodian of the Tricolore.

The left cannot win over the kind of voter who was seduced by, say, Donald Trump’s occasionally literal flag-humping. Leaders would do well to remember that there are ways to be both progressive and patriotic but they all boil down to one crucial precept: meaning it.

A reformer is, perhaps by definition, someone fixated on what’s wrong. Left-wing politicians have a telling tendency to look and speak like they think everything is. The question voters end up asking is: if you don’t even like us, why do you want to govern us? If recent anti-establishment revolts have taught us anything, it’s that voters respond to politicians who sound like they’re on their side (even if, as is very often the case, they’re not).

Mueller is the host of Monocle’s flagship current-affairs show ‘The Foreign Desk’.


Bath time?

Yoga classes and vinyl records aren’t typical features of the traditional Japanese sento (a public washhouse) but these are challenging times for the bath business and Takuya Shimbo, co-owner of two such Tokyo venues, is doing everything he can to keep this beloved slice of Japanese culture afloat. Shimbo is the third-generation owner of Daikoku-yu, a 72-year-old bathhouse in northern Tokyo. Three years ago, he and his wife Tomoko also took over Kogane-yu, an older bathhouse five minutes’ walk down the road.

At one time there were thousands of sento in Tokyo. An essential feature of any neighbourhood, the sento provided communal bathing facilities when few people had baths of their own. Now that 95 per cent of people have bathrooms at home, the customer base is shrinking and, while some sento survive gloriously intact, many others have closed. Shimbo is determined that the sento won’t be scrubbed from Japanese life entirely – in fact, it could yet clean up.

When coronavirus hit, Shimbo launched a crowdfunding appeal to keep the plan on track. The response was overwhelming: 1,034 people chipped in to raise ¥6.58m (€53,000) – more than double the original target. The transformation is striking but for all its raw concrete, blonde wood and fresh tiling, Kogane-yu retains the core elements of the classic sento: the changing rooms, the noren fabric curtains that divide each room, the rows of low showers and, of course, the large segregated baths.

There are new additions too, including a cypress-wood sauna, a craft-beer bar and a schedule of events. The sento-going demographic is generally older but Kogane-yu is bringing in a fresher audience. “We play vinyl in the background,” says Shimbo. “Analogue records are a great conversation starter between our younger and older patrons. I really feel that the sento can play an important role in building communication between all of its customers. People in Tokyo and Japan love bath culture. Today more and more people from overseas are getting interested too. Business is tough this year but this is a long-term project. We’re looking at the next generation, not next year.” Regulars have always known that the sento is about more than bathing. It’s a place for the community; somewhere to linger and chat. And now a younger crowd is learning too. “Kogane-yu has been around for a long time,” says Shimbo. “And we want to keep it alive for a long time to come.”


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