High on Oxygène: Jean-Michel Jarre en Monaco

Jean-Michel Jarre plays for the Princess and Princess of Monaco

After a few days of scandal and gossip that spread, like an epidemic, from the boutiques of Monaco to the pages of Mail Online, Charlene said “I do” and the celebrations kicked off.

Rumours of extraordinary extravagance: €1500+ per-head dinners; tens of thousands of flowers and rivers of champagne are probably true – arriving at the concert last night with a spare bottle of water in my bag, I was pleasantly surprised to find an open bar overlooking the port, serving a variety of drinks including champagne – absolument gratuit. So, the crowd was in very good spirits – literally.

Monaco — by Jean-Michel Jarre

Few performers could pull off this kind of concert with the same Gallic panache and vigour as Jarre; despite giving the concert “in the presence of” the royal couple, he was the star.  Familiar pieces from Oxygène and Equinoxe dominated the set and moved a crowd that was somewhat ungenerous with its applause; within a half-hour, the fireworks were more spectacular than most grandes finalés, the velvet-blue sky filled with multi-coloured lights and smoke, music and explosions co-ordinated to heart-soaring effect, for two hours.

Jarre and his vintage (1970s) electronica are now older than many of the crowd (although the principality’s population is certainly old enough to revel in nostalgia), but have, like the composer,  aged gracefully enough to command centre stage in the world’s most glamourous square mile.

Red and white for the Prince and Princess – Jarre in Monaco

We Have a Chest: Cheryl Cole hits Cannes


Cheryl Cole and her (now) internationally famous décolletage

It’s true that you’ve never got your camera to hand when you really want one, and I kicked myself earlier in the week as I happened upon DeNiro, Jude Law and Linn Ullmann exiting the back of the Majestic Hotel, where the Festival Jury had been meeting. Ten minutes later, walking along the Croisette, I heard shouts of “Claudia, Claudia!” and hey – there was La Cardinale,  who waved back at her fans in delight.

However, all is not lost, dear reader. Instead, we bring you Cheryl Cole, instantaneous star of the red carpet at the premier of Habimus Papam (We Have a Pope). Bucking both tradition and her snugly-fitting dress, the chanteuse elected not to wear black for her audience with Il Papa, instead working on the principle that, when surrounded by foreigners who may not be quite sure who you are or what you do, flash something that they can’t possibly miss and they’ll be sure to hurry off and find out. In truth, that’s exactly what I did — having mistaken her for a white-clad Latina who was perhaps a relation of Morena Baccarin — and that she was at Cannes. Malheureusement pas.

If, for some strange reason, you’re not an X Factor or footie fan, and aren’t sure quite who Cheryl Cole is, she’s a British (soon to be international!) Pop Superstar.

So, for the shot of Cheryl, an  opportunity for another caption competition, perhaps. I’ll go first:  “If you’ve gorrit, flaunt it!” or maybe  ‘The Mammae and the Papa”.

Palais du Festival, 2011
The Palais: Faye Dunaway and her elegantly folded legs survey the red carpet. And Cheryl.

Welcome to India

Mudras above the immigration desks bestow blessings upon arriving travellers, Delhi Airport

“What’s that smell?” I asked my neighbour as the airgate connected to our plane, and local air seeped into the cabin. We’d struck up conversation during the closing credits of True Grit, and chatted sporadically throughout the eight-hour flight from London (If you didn’t get a chance to see the movie, do – it’s terrific).

“It’s the smell of burning; it’s virtually everywhere in Delhi.”  She anticipated my next question: “Everything – they burn everything here. Rubbish, tyres, plastic, whatever”.

Eight years had passed since I was last in India, and although I’d taken for granted that weird smells and bonfires were ubiquitous, I’d been backpacking, busing and slumming it back then, so didn’t expect the BA cabin to reek of torched garbage as soon as the doors opened. India 101, Lesson One – expect the unexpected.

Cannes Film Festival competition poster, Delhi duty free
Cannes Competition, Delhi duty free

I hadn’t expected to be greeted by a competition for the Cannes Film Festival as I passed duty free, or by a Costa Coffee outlet as I exited customs; it’d be a while before I’d come across a chai-wallah, which is perhaps what I was expecting, wholly unrealistically.

India’s businesses struggle to market the subcontinent’s exotic culture as unique, authentic, compelling; yet simultaneously modern, business-orientated, and importantly, a comfortable fit for foreign investment.

Weird superstitions, millions of gods and religious holidays every five minutes support a travel market worth tens of billions of dollars annually, but are less of a draw for multinational corporations and their businesses.

Amit Gulati, head of the Indian industrial design firm that came up with “Expressive India” – the “basic positioning” for the airport’s Terminal 3 – provides insight into such a situation in a Q&A: Delhi Airport’s ‘Hands’ Sculpture, the Wall Street Journal’s India blog. In response to questions over whether the mudras hold religious significance, he proves somewhat difficult to pin down.

While acknowledging that its difficult to find anything whatsoever in India that has no religious connection or significance, he suggests they refer less to Buddhism or Hinduism than to yoga which, despite “religous undertones”, is now “perceived to be secular”;  the hand gestures mean, essentially, what you want them to mean.

This technique, used by businessmen throughout India, is familiar to anyone who’s ever bought anything dodgy, suspect, faux or potentially faulty, and is known as “same same, only different”.

Further reading:

Mudras at Delhi International Airport (PDF download, 423k)  courtesy Incubus Design.

Notes from a Lay Bye: Road travel in India

The hardest of hard shoulders - the road between Rishikesh and Delhi

Yup – that’s how they spell it. “Lay Bye”.  Local interpretations of the Indian Highway Code are a source of much-needed mirth at moments of stress. When you’re on any one of the subcontinent’s zillion roads, this means pretty much all the time.

Unfortunately, my auto-rickshaw was careering too fast along the wrong side of the road for me to snap the “Elephants have Right of Way” sign on the bridge outside Rishikesh , and it wasn’t until I was almost upon it that I registered the utterly random single word THANKS (displayed in English and in Hindi) in eight-inch reflective lettering en route to Delhi International Airport. A prompt, perhaps, for passing travellers to meditate on the virtue of gratitude.

Indeed, Indian roads provide a unique opportunity for the most powerful meditations; the certainty of death and uncertainty of the time of death being the most obvious.  If you travel far enough – say a few hundred miles – you’re certain to see a fatality – either in medeas res or in the form of a cadaver abandoned by a roadside or maybe in the midst of fast-moving traffic, with trucks, cars, rickshaws, pedestrians and elephants hurtling and hrrrumphing past.  If there’s anything left of your heart after a few weeks of being driven around India, you can be sure to find it in your mouth. So, whenever possible, take the train.

Fountains, frozen, the Louvre Paris

I.M Pei's fountain, Musée du Louvre, Paris, frozen at 1/200s

And not a drop to drink…

This edit was inspired by an extremely severe bout of winter flu during which I lay parched and feverish with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, yet strangely nauseated by the taste of water. Hydrophobic, like a rabid dog.

Although no dog has ever explained to a human exactly how our world appears to its own race, it is believed that their ability to capture motion is considerably better than ours, with excellent night vision though poorer colour sensitivity. This means that TV and film, for example, are perceived as a series of rapidly-moving stills, and the effervescent, monochromatic columns of water shown in this image are visible to them without digital technology and post processing.

You can approximate this effect for yourself by wearing coloured glasses on a moonlit night, waiting five minutes for your vision to adjust, and blinking furiously while focusing intently on a fast-moving body of water. Things will happen. Passers-by may shy away, thinking you are mad. You may meet someone interesting; a policeman, perhaps.  A hobo, lover, or stray dog.

Give it a go, some lonely night.

Pei's triangular reflecting pool replicates both the image and form form of the Pyramide and its facets

Love is…in the air

OMG - it's full of starlings: a heart-shaped murmuration above the Nice Opera

Moments before swooping to their roosts as the sun set on 2010, the last starling murmuration of 2010 formed a heart that beat twice before dispersing into the evening air.

A number of theories attempt to explain the birds’ behaviour: the ‘safety in numbers’ principle (self explanatory); or that none of them wants to be first to roost; and lastly perhaps that each wishes to roost next to a bigger and more successful companion who may lead them to their source of food the next day.

The French name for starling, “etourneau“, derives from the Latin “sturnus“.  Although it carries intimations of eternity, the word has an entirely different etymology. However, entirely credible that Rome, with its millions of starlings twittering furiously, fluttering and swarming across the skies, dropping tons of toxic shit onto its priceless ruins, may have earned the nickname ‘eternal city’ through such a misunderstanding— “La cité des etournaux” has a certain ring of truth to it.

Alors, love and magic on New Year’s Eve — may 2011 bring you both.


Santas’ Secrets: caption competition

At first glance, two jolly old Santas climbing a wall above Sorrento’s night market.  Closer reading of the image poses some interesting questions: why are they wearing those tiny (and empty?) manbags – rather than the usual over-the-shoulder sacks?  Why are they working as a pair? Are they scassinatori – burglars? Is there no end to Italian corruption?

And what could they be saying to each other?

So…the first totallygone Christmas caption competition.  Enter a comment (by January 31), and the winning entry gets a framed 8×10 from the archive or flickr collection.

Update 1/2/2011: After careful consideration, much deliberation and soul-searching, the prize goes to Nick Alexander. It was, as expected, a very close race, with all entries demonstrating the kind of wit and literacy common to my friends. However, for context and dialogue, he gets the print, and runners-up get a file, in whatever size or format, of their choice.

Full of … Grace

Grace Kelly, the Monaco Years, at the Grimaldi Forum, Montecarlo

Grace Kelly – The Monaco Years, an exhibition marking the 25th anniversary of her death, eclipsed attempts by all others to do the same, which was, of course, the point.

Her dresses were later passed to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, but Monaco’s most memorable and moving exhibits were letters that the then Princess Grace exchanged with Alfred Hitchcock.  Ironically, these mourn the passing of her Hollywood years; the ultra-conservative Grimaldi and his Monégasques would have absolutely no truck with their Princess playing a psychologically damaged femme fatale, being ravished by Sean Connery, or otherwise cavorting around L.A. as in her days of yore.

Princess Grace writes that she was “heartbroken” to give up the role of Marnie – again, an ironic choice of words for a newlywed. Hitchcock’s compassionate reply suggests a tenderness for which he’s not usually remembered.

Clearly, the princess discovered too late that she’d chosen a crown over an acting career, distracted perhaps by the enormity of her choices. Years later, her 21-year-old daughter Caroline would blurt that she couldn’t “stand to carry the burden of her [mother’s] unrealized ambition”.

And ambitious she was: Oleg Cassini, her erstwhile fiancé, claimed Kelly said she’d “rather be a princess than a countess,” maybe forgetting for a too-long moment that, perhaps, what she wanted all along, in fact, was to be what she was — an actress.

A little drop…of belle epoque

Rue de la Liberté from the Place Magenta, Nice

Although the Carré d’Or lacks the almost medieval charm of Vieux Nice, its turn of the (19th) century architecture has its own appeal.

At left, the Boulangerie Multari, a chain of bakeries selling extraordinarily delicious tartes and other farinacious delights.