Although I hate the cold of winter I do find it very beautiful. One of my most vivid memories of recent times is a series of days I spent in Berlin about eight years ago, stuck inside and ice-bound (we had found ourselves in the curious and unexpected position of being able to buy a small apartment in the beautiful Schoeneberg area of Berlin that summer, and had gone back there in order to try and furbish the place a little over Christmas. D having had his wallet stolen by supposed IKEA furniture delivery people; there was not enough room for me in the van, and I saw him vulnerably being driven off by six perfect strangers in the dark; my stupid self also not having realised that, because of the Japanese extended national New Year’s holidays and the banks being closed, I wasn’t going to get paid for four or five days and so also had no access to any money, and no way of getting it; we were broke; literally, some Euros left in my wallet aside for survival provisions only from the local Turkish grocery store, trapped inside our new sparsely furnitured abode with nowhere to go).
The temperatures were like none that I had ever experienced before. Once they reached minus 22 in the evening and -16 in the day ( I am a lizard; I have no internal protections towards this biting cold, I need external heat, sun, or artificial, in order to feel alive), but compared to Japan, with its useless air-conditioned heating – drafts, winds, a baked Alaska of hot and cold unpleasantness that leaves you at once sweating and shivering, never comfortable, utterly hideous – but don’t get me started on that else you will be reading an entire piece on the ins and outs of heating systems – our place in Berlin, a solid, Altbau building from 1900 with dense, stone walls, and thick-glazed windows, proper central heating, and perhaps the cosiest place I have ever been in, was warm enough – so warm! – for me to just lounge about in pyjamas and spend the day lying on our new leather sofa, looking out into the courtyard and watching the accumulating snow.
We had nothing to do, and nowhere to go. I think there were a couple of books available, a magazine, and we had bought a sleek new black stereo from an electronics shop somewhere, whose acoustics were subtle yet all surrounding in that elegant space, but only one CD – some cello concertos by Bach, and while D, occasionally cabin fevered and restless, would irritate about what we were going to do but eventually succumbed to the peace of the white outside the window, I essentially just gave myself up from the offset to the sight of the ice – the ever growing ice – beyond our window. Each day, the same grave, sonorous music played in the background, and I watched the icicles on the apartments in the courtyard opposite get longer and longer, more entrenched; elongated, thick as carrots, twisting downwards like frigid candelabras; transparent, glinting in the sun that would once in a while raise its lazy head in the grey dark blanket of the Berlin skies.
Somehow, the serendipity of Bach, in Germany, in the middle of winter, the world slowed down in extremis to a snow’s pace of nothing as the tree in the centre of the courtyard shouldered the snow and stood proudly bearing the shuddering temperatures out there, while we sat, together, in different parts of our new place just looking, listening and being – the beautiful bare essence of existence – it remains one of my most cherished memories. There was some kind of essentiality to it, as if that were all I needed. Just stalactites; sentience, and beauty. A tropical summer lover, so intrinsically drawn to heat, at heart, yes, but so warm inside; so snug; like a caged leopard in the zoo, the biting, Northern European cold was kept at bay for me to observe, to bask in pleasure to, separated only, but crucially, by a huge pane of clear, impenetrable glass.
There is something about East Europe in the wintertime. Berlin aside (and Berlin is very much East Europe; a different world to the student exchanges I had in Frankfurt and Cologne,: far stodgier and more conservative places, as representative of Deutschland as San Francisco is of the US; Berlin a pulsating, fascinating architectural and cultural hybrid of east and west, of communism and western decadence, of darkness and of light). Although the fierce, forbidding quality of these stalwart, grim-faced zones has a certain inexplicable pull on me (as a see-saw to my more familiar, French-Latin real self), I had never ventured this far into the ice zones of Ost-Europa when we first spent a summer in Berlin on an intuitive whim in 2008 except for another snowbound weekend I once had in the city of Prague, with a friend, a spur of the moment trip that was cancelled for twenty four miserable hours due to bad weather, stuck at Heathrow airport, and eventually involved an emergency landing in Slovakia, in Bratislava, due to the non visibility of the freezing cold fog, and a bus that drove us for hours and hours in the moonlight across frigid country landscapes until, exhausted, we finally reached the Czech Republic, and were dropped off in Praha just before dawn, when we came across Charles Bridge in the rising mists, the city beginning to stir, as classical and Gothic as anything could be – thrilling – and I took out my camera with its black and white film, and felt I was witnessing vampires, about to elude me into slumber.
Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, I have never visited. Warsaw is unknown to me also. I do love the largely instrumental Side 2 of David Bowie’s Cold War saturated, fear-clogged, Low, though, recorded during his depression and cocaine addicted period in the Hansa studios with a view of the Berlin Wall as he made his revolutionary music with that other genius, Brian Eno;his fogged, miserable instrumental Warszawa incredibly evocative of the mood of that time, that separation, when Europe really was completely divided – my visit to Prague was only four years after the Velvet Revolution occurred there – and we viewed our paler skinned Eastern brethren as the more brainwashable other, crushed under repression, but really not knowing anything at all, except perhaps for the artistic refraction of some of the country’s soul in the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski, with their empathic views of humanity, and piercing, crystal sharp dolefulness (the soundtracks of his films such as The Double Life Of Veronique and Red are often played when I am yearning for a certain emotional clarity, when I want to go straight to the heart of things; a director with an earnestness and unyieldingness in telling the painful truths of humanity while not being misanthropic nor crucifying his audience with self-hating cynicism, like, say, the unflinching cruelties of the Austrian Michael Hanneke).
No. Kieslowski’s films and music speak to me somehow of a certain ‘purity’ ( I have often wondered whether Christmas would be more meaningful, less pollutedly commercialised, in Warsaw somehow and, my horror at the current, increasingly white nationalist politics of the country notwithstanding, imagined that the Catholic, less money based celebrating of Christmas there might restore some of my childhood magic of that time back to me); I think of shadows, and candlelight, and grand old buildings and avenues, and snow. Were we to ever actually live in Berlin for any period of time – our apartment in Schoeneberg waits, currently occupied, until the day, which may never come, that we pack up our bags and leave Japan- there is no doubt that we would be studying those maps of Eastern Europe and embark on train journeys when the moment was right, to all of that area’s capitals and beyond (we both adore travelling by train, just watching the world go by in real time; the solidity of it, the reality, and yet the theatricality, almost, each scene framed by the confines of the train window). Berlin to Warsaw takes around six hours, and it might be the first of those trips, along with Tallinn, and Kiev, and Sofia.
Warzsawa, Puredistance’s take on the Polish capital, released near the end of last year to great acclaim by many niche perfume lovers, is an intriguing and high quality extrait strength scent that I was pleased to see didn’t fall into the ultimate banality I find to be the bane of the emperor’s new clothes majority of niche releases. Elegant, full, wistful and yet refulgent, it is a velveteen, interior perfume reminiscent of Robert Piguet’s Fracas from 1948 in heft and emotional texture, while substituting the tuberose for a long lasting jasmine and styrax musk accord that smells simultaneously rich and strangely haunting; the patchouli, and vetiver, orris-touched base weighting the more flirtatious violet and galbanum top like a floor touching green velvet evening dress; nostalgic, perhaps, but not old-fashioned, reminiscent indeed of the high aristocratic society the perfume is intending to evoke, old money that has lost its crown but not its traditions, celebrated at champagne soaked events held behind closed doors, unconnected – quite deliberately – to the twenty first century that lies beyond.
Speaking again of those train journeys, though, and the Agatha Christie-like pleasure of wood panelled cabins; and drafts of brandy and bunker beds as the continent speeds magnetizingly by you, I have sometimes wondered, the adventurer in me yearning to see more of the world, as much as I can, whether to embark on the slightly daunting adventure that is the Trans-Siberian Express. I have friends that have done it; travelled the short distance from Northern Japan to Vladivostok just a short hop across the water, and travelled across Siberia, taken detours in China, gone through Moscow, taken connecting lines through St Petersburg and ended in Paris, and been amazed and fulfilled by it, the somewhat arduous journey complete, ready to go back home to England, just across the channel. It appeals to me in some ways, the physicality of it, but I wonder if it is just too gruelling though, and whether it would be too confining always being stuck in one cabin, no matter how icy and petrifying the ice- blue, silver-birched views from the train compartment window.
No, I think that travelling, one day, from Berlin, train by train, might be better. Stopping in Warsaw, and capitals beyond. Staying in hotels. Waking up to the unfamiliar; opening curtains to new, old metropolises. Eating breakfast on napkins; coffee; letting the perturbing and soul stirring smells of a new place enter within you, the newness of the air; the statues in the parks, the restrictiveness of the buildings, the held without – you may look but not enter here – my eternal curiosity and voyeurism of what lies within, what rooms, what people, what smells, limited, instead, to the immediacy of the touch of the button on a phone camera.
Moscow has always been the final destination, though, the one place I have always yearned to visit, and will. I have no idea why, really, except that I was always so touched, as a child, by something in the vastness of Russia; the firebird, those illustrated snowy fairytales I would absorb to my delight as a young child, the Russian classical music I loved from an early age also; Tchaikovsky, yes (and you know all about my fatal love for Black Swan); the Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty; Rimsky Korsakov and his Scheherazade, which sumptuously swirled in the air of my bedroom as an aching hearted child lost in my imagination; but then, also, later, the harder, brittle, cerebral, colder, ice-like composers who represented the more Stalinesque (but utterly brilliant) side of Russian culture; Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Scriabin, the impossible longings of Sergei Rachmaninov, but above and beyond, and my favourite composer of all time, Igor Stravinsky, whose ballet music in particular – Orpheus, Petrushka, Apollo, is my own personal elysium. My sanctuary. There is something in this music that goes to me deeply, in an almost otherworldly way – Orpheus, particularly, and literally – and I connect all of this internally with a need to visit the country from where its inspiration originated.
Realities and fiction. The political daily actualities of a turmoiled, bigoted, ultra-culture ruled by dictators and ideology and nuclear missiles (or could that be America?); the glacial, gay-hating fear of the city itself, an environment I imagine to be so brutal compared to where I live now, but still, nonetheless, despite all of this….. one day I must go to this place, abscond to coffee shops and lavishly decorated restaurants, indulge my fantasies; dress in a full length fur coat and go to the Marinksy theatre to see the Bolshoi, as snowflakes dance all around us, and, perhaps even wear the perfume Karenina, by Roja Dove, a man who already has a Ballets Russes inspired chypre, Diaghilev, in his collection and is in all likelihood probably something of a Russian romanticist himself.
I loved Anna Karenina. I once read the novel one summer as a student, and got lost in its intricacies and social decora and its snowy, Russian tragedies, preferring it, ultimately, to its perhaps more cleverly constructed French counterpart, Madame Bovary. Karenina, the perfume, is a Roja I can decidedly wear myself quite contentedly; dense, crushed together, powdered, floral, it is an extroverted violet rose carnation patchouli with a deliciously strong clove undercurrent that is unusual in contemporary perfumery: that more arch, medicinal spice being seemingly generally undesired in the vagaries of the current trends.
But it is a spice I love: the one I love the most, and combined here with other loves – ylang yang; vanilla, and a romantic, aldehydically bergamot overture, the clove, the heat of this perfume, forms an accord that while not quite in the realm of poetry, is a tapestried, sense-appeasing perfumed backdrop, a plush elixir.
I will keep this one in my collection, certainly; a 10ml bottle of the eau de parfum that I think will last for many years. Sometimes I will wear it, here at home, or perhaps I will save it for that snowy day when we actually do make it, finally, to Moscow. Clad in Karenina; traipsing through the snow : losing ourselves, willingly, in the windowless beyond