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Paris. London. Italy

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Why all Parisians have been studying botany for months on end; how Londoners sing praises to unknown heroes without too much ado, and what Italians do during the day to experience magical ease by evening time

Paris

By Darya Knyazeva

In April, France experiences a major event, marking the beginning of the next five-year cycle: the first round of presidential elections. That month, there will be no way to escape politics: it will cover all walls, all TV sets, all newspapers and conversations in cafés. In the street, active groups of the Left Front will be singing uplifting songs and waving red banners, while the owner of a souvenir shop, wrapping a Sacré-Cœur magnet in cellophane, will suddenly ask: “Have you heard the latest about our Fillon?”

The political landscape of France is diverse: back in January, as many as 80 candidates vied for the Élysée Palace. Most of them have not obtained the necessary 500 signatures of commune mayors, but suspense around the future choice was serious anyway. Who will France favor? The one promising any citizen €700 no questions asked or the one planning to cleanse the country of migrants and thus free up work positions? The one considering work on Sundays asocial and environmentally unfriendly or the one planning to abolish the 35-hour work week, to the entrepreneurs’ joy?

Tensions have been running high since October 2016, involving in discussions even such people who were traditionally distant from politics — students, housewives and liberal artists. The candidates’ discussions competed with “The Game of Thrones” for viewer numbers. How many bottles of wine were lost in bets for the primaries results is hard to count. Everyone was so excited that it was of little importance when the most venerable ‘mounts’ had left the race — the former and the actual president, both in the quite re-electable age bracket. This meant that France was no longer prepared to believe the figures of gravitas, as well as various fables about stability and political experience. France wanted new, unexpected decisions; it was ready to question itself in a most serious way.

For us, outside observers and apolitical lovers of the beautiful, the events were mostly interesting for their aesthetic value. After all, few people abroad knew that the election marathon had witnessed a true War of the Red and Blue Roses.

A red rose, firmly clutched in a worker’s fist, became an official emblem of the Socialist Party back in 1971. The flower symbolized an ardent hope of the working class for a happy future, while the implied thorns were warning that reaching that future was impossible without strict measures and temporary hardships. Starting from the 1980s the fist was depicted increasingly rarely, the thorns became visible, implying that the struggle for the ideas would be painful not for the working class itself, but rather for those who disagreed with its ideas.

The French republicans do not possess an official symbol. They have a color: blue. In the political palette, which coordinates colors and convictions in a complex manner, it is associated with conservative values. However, since 1995, when Jacques Chirac, the mayor of Paris running for President, let slip in an interview that he loved apples, it was that fruit that became an unofficial symbol of the right-center wing. It happened fast and easily: the satirical show Les Guignols went out of its way to indicate that Chirac had no program other than devouring apples, while Claude Chirac, Jacques’ daughter and his communications adviser, made Newton’s fruit a mascot of the election campaign instead of writing indignant refutations. Under the slogan “Eat apples!” Chirac finally became a president — after two unsuccessful attempts with such decent slogans as “Jacques Chirac now!” and “Long live tomorrow!” The unofficial republican apple became green, to stress, on the one hand, an ideological contrast with the socialists, and, on the other, the neoconservative nature of new federalists, who were staying far from religious doctrines and financial elitism.

And then, in November 2016, Marine Le Pen, the president of the ultra-right National Front, a person quite remote from the rights of workers and minorities, presented the official symbol of her 2017 election campaign — the blue rose. Specialists in political symbolism froze in stupor: what could this possibly mean? The position of the rose became subject of deep and thorough analysis (the flower tilted to the left — was it a hint of bonding with political adversaries?), as well as the morphology of the stem (smooth, straight, similar to a needle or dagger) and the hue of blue (was it republican enough?). Le Pen reminds us that in the language of flowers, a blue rose means “to make the impossible possible”, and that deep down, a rose is a feminine symbol, while Marine is one of the few fair sex candidates for the top position in the civil service. However, political symbolism mavens have never been satisfied with official versions.

Some might think that the author became too involved in the conundrums of political botany. And yet, the choice between those plants would tell us whether Galeries Lafayette would work on Sundays, how much a taxi to the airport would cost, and whether the nice cafe, where the kitchen works — a miracle! — non-stop from two to seven, would still be functioning next time you come there.

London

By Anastasia Denisova

“We’ll meet near the giant strawberry!” said the message from my Helsinki friend. The city famous for its Scandinavian uneventfulness surprised me with its monuments. Steel stalks with hefty speckled berries was an object of modern art. It was also the embodiment of the Finnish saying “Motherland is strawberry, foreign land is blueberry”, which is something that means more or less “East or West, home is best”.

On my return from Helsinki, I looked at London with increased attention. The capital of the United Kingdom, I must say, is even more progressive, monument-wise.

“The Animals in War Memorial is one of the most surprising and touching. It is dedicated to all the animals who had been helping people during the first and second world wars”, explains Alexa, a Londoner. Every day, she walks her dog in Hyde Park. She expresses the feelings of everyone who supported the erection of the monument in 2004. £1.5 million were needed, and the whole nation chipped in. Horses, dogs, pigeons, mules are commemorated with lines on the front of the monument: “This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time”. A post-script below says: “They had no choice”.

“Well, I cannot walk unmoved by children with suitcases near the Liverpool Street tube station”, says Mark, who takes the tube to central London every morning. “This is a memorial commemorating the Kindertransport operation. Before World War II had even begun, about 10,000 Jewish children were saved from the Nazi regime. They were transported to Britain and other countries to obtain a new home, education and protection.”

Among the more positive sculptures is “A Pear and a Fig” in the financial jungle of London’s City. On Liverpool Street outside Spitalfields Market stands a bronze fruit couple, commemorating the history of the market, which used to specialize in fruit and vegetables, but has now largely switched to cashmere scarves and döners. On the other hand, succulent fruit is a metaphor of an ancient Roman feast, an ode to trade which produces prosperity.

Joining the fantastic gallery of bronze metaphors, a few meters from the monument stands another huge structure — a white goat on a pyramid of boxes. This independent cloven-hoofed animal, I Goat, is the symbol of London’s nonconformism as a whole and Spitalfields specifically: in this capital, it certainly makes a lot of sense to swim against the current.

“London is a very democratic city”, says Alexa. “It does not simply accept immigrants from the whole world with their traditions and cultures, but it can see the nature of every person, their feelings and achievements”.

In all times, architecture and art helped project ideology to the masses — to say “we’re an empire, so we build huge palaces to show how rich and powerful we are”. This exists in today’s London as well, but there are other things too: tenderness, small joys, fragments of simple human history. This city is grateful to the trader who brought coffee to England, and to the elephant who carried heavy military loads on his back during the war. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together — this is about London. A time to honor all citizens — with the monuments.

Italy

By Elena Golovanova

The land of Italy has a hot temper and warm blood. The first is expressed in earthquake shocks (sometimes, unfortunately, destructive), the second gives the Italians a boundless pleasure — the country’s hot springs.

“Where are you going for the holidays?” I ask my friends. “I wanted to go to Madrid, but he”, my friend nods with annoyance at her husband, “dug his heels in and says he wouldn’t go anywhere, he needs a beauty day, you see”. Her brutal man (an accurate beard with sparkles of silver, owns a company renting out building machinery) smiles. “Beauty day” in Italy does not revolve around sex, age or income level. Bathing is prescribed to oneself not for medical reasons, but for the pure joy of it. It is customary to soak in pools with sulphur or iodine-bromine water, offer one’s shoulders and flanks to powerful hydromassage streams, lie down in marble baths, communicating lazily with various people who happen to be in the vicinity. The high-domed hall is humid, hot and resounding; the surface of the pool is decorated with just a few ‘floats’ (you can’t go in without a swimming cap). Nobody applies crawl or breaststroke — everyone is moving languidly. You can also get a massage procedure or some kind of mud wrapping. In between the hydro-therapeutic sessions, you can lie on a sun lounger, covered with a snow-white soft bathrobe, not thinking about anything at all.

Most thermal resorts do not work in winter; the season starts around April, by Easter. That’s the right way to do it, when time comes to emerge from hibernation and prepare for the summer. The resort closest to our large city looks like this: a huge old-fashioned park, in the center stands a Grand Hotel-like building, on the hill behind the city there is a fortress (one of the attendants proudly told us that its collection boasts an “unconfirmed Da Vinci”); there is even a Michelin restaurant in an ivy-covered house on the outskirts. Taken together, if you’re looking for a place to spend a one-day holiday — this is it.

Do you know how many such places there are in Italy as a whole? Virtually anywhere you travel, a thermal resort will be found in the vicinity. It could be a historical bathhouse with a liberty-style pavilion and its own brand of cosmetics based on thermal water (like at Salsomaggiore in Emilia-Romagna); it could be a realm of glamour (like the Terme di Saturnia or Montecatini); or a modern spa center with therapeutic rooms and a forest view (like Pigna in Liguria or the glass cube of baths in Merano); or simply a huge hotel at the springs like, for example, the one in Montegrotto.

Montegrotto is in the Euganean Hills not far from Venice. The hills look like huge mounds drawn by a child. This is one of the most famous thermal areas of the whole Italy. Its large hotels have half a dozen pools, with covered ones merging into the uncovered with water of different temperatures and different healing qualities. There are many water attractions like grottoes, waterfalls or Japanese springs with alternating icy and very hot water. For hotel guests, the use of all that luxury is included in their stay, while other people buy tickets. By the way, you might run into a situation we have run into: on Saturday, the line for the Bibione baths was huge, and we had to wait for about two hours.

If you begin studying the thermal waters seriously, you will find that this topic is boundless, and there is no sense in taking your bathing suit out of the bag. In Tuscany, Lombardy, Lazio you might find “free terme” along the way — natural, stone-lined hot water pools. People park nearby, jump into the water, smudge themselves with curative mud, splash themselves and move along, happy and renewed. The most extravagant baths are in Bagno Vignoni, in Tuscany. In this tiny town (only about thirty people live there today) the main square is filled with water. On cold days, steam rises from it. In the Renaissance years, Bagno Vignoni was built right around the source, and bathing on the main square had continued until 2012 (you can see how it went in Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia” of 1983). Today one can only bathe in the facilities available at the nearby hotels.

What is a beauty day if not a short respite? After all, the dolce far niente, ascribed to the Italians, is a myth of sorts: in real life, they work a lot, and their everyday existence is far from easy. But they do know how to protect themselves and to give joy to one another. In any case, I am still witnessing numerous Italians offering each other gifts — for Christmas and birthdays — of booklets consisting of discount vouchers for the baths.

Published on: December 28, 2017