Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Beach Art in Rio

My first crew layover in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was admission to a free outdoor art gallery.  Artistic expression abounds on the south side of Rio!  It began with our crew layover hotel’s lobby where one of several magnificent costumes for Carnival greeted guests.  Not 20 yards from the front of our crew hotel, walking toward Ipanema Beach, I passed a mural painted on the stone wall running alongside the road.  So vivid, and full of life in color; I tried to decipher the meaning from the mural. Angry?  Political?  In love?'

The ruler straight sidewalk of geometric alternating black and white design running along the length of the famous Ipanema Beach is a standout.  Standing at one end, and trying to spot the opposite end, the pattern harked of rounded-edged square metal links, an unbroken chain for miles, coming in and out of black/white focus with the switch of my adjusting eyesight. This traditional style “Portuguese pavement” (Calçada Portuguesa) of paving the way with natural stone has been used since early Roman times (think of the vias in Rome - which are slowly being paved over citywide by asphalt). The Portuguese adapted the method, using the decorative black (basalt) and white (limestone) cobblestones in artistic and symbolic patterns, now found all over Portugal, and the former Portuguese colonies of Brazil and Macau.

Each cobblestone is cut in perfect dimension, and placed with careful precision to give the smooth and even overall effect.  One of the Portuguese speakers on my crew, who is from northern Brazil, explained to me the importance of the sidewalks to the Cariocas (as locals in Rio call themselves).  The sidewalks, if damaged, are repaired immediately in the same old-fashioned method traditional craftsmen (calceteiros) have used in Portugal since 1849.  Because the job is back breaking, the work in Rio is often done by poorly paid laborers, like the one I came across when walking to Ipanema Beach.

The other famous beach in Rio, Copacabana, is 2.5 miles (4km) long with a black and white wave swirl, swishing along the entire length of the beach, a pattern designed by the noted Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. He modeled his design after the famous Rossio Square in Lisbon, Portugal, a design translated as “the wide sea.” But, the most captivating art at Copacabana Beach were the sand castles, elaborate and labor intensive, prizeworthy at any sand castle contest in the world.

Later that evening as our crew was walking through a section of the Leblon neighborhood on our way to dinner, I spotted a mini-truck, saturated with design, and eye-popping color, conveying the message “this truck sells fish!”  Someone directed their passion - for their creative side, or for their business - into painting that truck!  The wall of graffiti behind it created a nice background canvas, quite by accident I am sure.

None of these individual artists, ordinary citizens to world-renown professional, knew what a collective and spectacular display of art and expression they created within a 5 mile stretch of Rio de Janeiro.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Fashion & Flying Fusion on the Runway - CHANEL Haute Couture Printemps-Été 2012

All ice blue and cool vibe groove going forward down the runway, Chanel hit the stratosphere with its 1960‘s Pan Am inspired Spring 2012 collection.  This was a moment in retrospect to the days when women “dressed” to fly.  Furs, jewels, gloves, hats - and those to-die-for-suits and fitted dresses - all part of what was expected of the traveler in the early days of luxury, jet engine travel (Boeing 707, anyone?).  
Despite a few futuristic space travel dresses, the overall collection reflected the era of a modern age of flying with the advent of the jet engine.  The evening dresses were pure ethereal simplicity, and captivating.  In fabrics of pale blue tweed, trademark Chanel suits were shown, the height of suited glamour.  The stand-out dress of the collection was sheathed with iridescent paillettes, paired seamlessly with stockings bejeweled with crystals reflecting the blue and silver colors of shimmering spring rain.

Always striving for a set design that is cutting-edge in an industry that sews it’s salts on what is next and hip, Chanel unveiled its collection in Paris’ Grand Palais, with its ceilings of glass allowing a suspension of space between the runway and the sky.  The runway’s aircraft ceiling mood lighting reflected the interior cabin of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  The set design was sleek, streamlined and ultra-modern in its look when viewed from above; Pan Am of the past meets Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Chanel channeled retro Pan Am stewardess when being young, beautiful and a stewardess was the epitome of hip, cool and glamorous, as they circled the globe, effortlessly drinking cool cocktails out of uniform at only the finest establishments in the City of Light.  The Chanel spring collection empowered the vision of the multi-lingual stewardess who traveled the world, one glamourous trip after another. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Having Dinner with Bob Dylan - London, England

Tonight I ate dinner with Bob Dylan.  And Paul Simon.  Oh, and Jimi Hendrix.  And a host of other legends of the folk rock music era of the ’60’s.  Across town in Soho during that time, I envision the Austin Powers swingin’ set dressed up, rockin’ everything oh-so-British, when, near’s Earl’s Court, a movement all its own was happening as these folk rock legends were discussing the changes to come with the social movements taking root, all while they played their music in a coffeehouse called the Troubadour.

If I didn’t know what I was looking for on Old Brompton Road, I surely would have missed the entrance tonight as the facade does not adequately reveal the treasures inside. Even though the Troubadour has a few seats outside (for the downright brave in the damp cold -2C/28F weather) and plate glass windows fronting it, this is a traditional coffeehouse - nothing neon and flashy to grab the attention of the passerby.  

It pays tribute to it’s namesake, as the menu squares off its meal choices with titles such as “Intro” (appetizers) and “Finale” (desserts).   I chose to start with a champagne and a kir royale since it was before the 7:30 pm 2-for-1 cocktail cut-off.  I sat at a small bistro table, next to a rack of newspapers, but was far more interested in listening to the multiple conversations going on all around me.  My initial waitress was French; after that, it was British all the way.  Being such a famous place, and a Friday night, I expected to see more than locals squeezing their way in; instead, it was all sophisticated, twenty/thirty something, laid-back locals, deep in conversations.  My dinner was above my expectations.  Admittedly, I half anticipated standard food choices, and sub-par taste.  Instead, my “Intro” choice of Ciabatta Grill with goat cheese, portobello mushroom, spinach, tomato and rocket, with a light pesto sauce was spot on - filling and fresh.  The waitress laughed when she saw my plate - it was licked clean. 

Afterwards, I trekked downstairs to see where the legends themselves played when they were still unknowns.  For £7 before 10:00 pm (£8 afterwards), I would have been able to stay and listen to five different talented artists playing their music, which is the best deal in London town going on a Friday night.  I walked in on a packed house listening to Morrissey & Marshall, and wished I could have stayed until the 2:00 am closing. 

The intimate, bohemian feeling - the colorful old tin coffee pots lining the top of the windows, the bistro tables allowing tête-à-tête conversations, the absence of “famous faces” photos, the music of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By”, Stevie Nicks’ “Rihanna’ and Peter, Paul and Mary playing in the background - is what gives rise to the continued success of the Troubadour as an authentic, and original, coffeehouse.  No place could possibly replicate it since its musical history is the aura that plays through the air.  It’s a true original.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Shopping the Black Market - Shanghai, China

Going shopping at the black market in Shanghai, China is an art unto itself.  My friend Janet, a former flight attendant, was in Shanghai for a couple of years, and I went over to visit her for one week.  Janet grew up in Hawaii, and is ethnically Chinese, Filipino and Spanish - she is very beautiful, and looked like a local.  Her driver introduced her to the black market vendors he knew, getting her foot in the door, and from there, she made her own connections.  This is not the shopping market to venture into without guidance.  I expected the black market to be rickety stalls, and hush-hush deals; it turned out to be an enormous, modern, underground shopping mall.
Janet told me to follow her lead, and stick with her, as some parts of the “underground city” were off limits - the activity in those sections a little too criminal.  Her driver dropped us off, and down the steps we went into the black market of Shanghai.  The first store we went to was the preliminary stop in the process.  Janet spoke to the male vendor, an older man who welcomed her with a familiar smile, broken English and more pens that she could use in a lifetime.  Janet bought some small items, and motioned for me to do the same, which I promptly did.  Now we could be taken to the serious shopping vendors.
Down one of the corridors of the labyrinth of the market we followed her vendor friend.  We turned a corner and it was like walking into the Louis Vuitton store on Avenue Montaigne in Paris.  Blond wood paneling throughout, neat rows of designer bags like museum pieces lining the shelves, customers eyeing the goods with a sharp eye.  Janet acknowledged the necessary “hello’s” and before I knew it, the far right wall opened up like a scene from a James Bond movie.  This was the real deal goods - Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada - all lining the shelves of this private, and very small showroom.  I picked out a LV summer handbag, and a brown and cream Prada handbag.
There was absolutely no way to tell the difference between an authentic designer handbag bought in Paris, and a black market bag bought in Shanghai.  The most minute detail was covered. I turned my handbags inside out and could not find a stamp, or mistake.  The handbags even came with the soft chamois storage bag, embossed with the brand logo.  The Chinese can copy anything, and since they are the ones who make the bags for the actual French and Italian designers, it is easy for them to re-make them for the black market.  Supposedly, some of the workers bring the leftover materials out of the factories; hence some of the areas Janet and I avoided in the black market.
There were people at the market with black garbage bags hauling merchandise both in, and out.  Despite how “normal” this mall looked, it had a distinctly different feel to it.  Two handbags were enough for me.   My Louis Vuitton didn’t last six months; my Prada bag I still use, four years later.  I am sure I could never find the market again, and don’t really want to unless I am with another local.  It really is the safest way to go.