I have always had a love/hate relationship with New York City. It is magical and mean. Exhilarating and exhausting. Gorgeous and gritty.
Right now, however, after four days here, I have a love/love relationship with New York City. I expected a ghost town. I imagined a city as it would be after a hard-fought yet lost battle. I envisioned New York City as a shadow of its former self. I was wrong.
What I have discovered is “New York 2.0.” It feels somewhat like the city in August, when many are taking refuge in fancy Hamptons houses. Yes there are fewer people, but the people who have remained seem softer, kinder. Restaurants and retailers are open, although in a limited fashion.
The waterfront sidewalks are filled with runners enjoying the fall temperatures, all fully masked. The city takes COVID precautions more seriously than even D.C.
All of the outdoor dining and sidewalk patios in Tribeca and SoHo give this concrete jungle an incredibly European feel. People are beautiful, dressed in fancy clothes and stilettos, wearing makeup despite their masks. They are eating, drinking, laughing, even more on display than during “normal” times as this is all happening outdoors.
Midtown feels different. The office buildings are closed, and the streets are empty of the harried, hurried, high-powered executives always rushing. The tourists have also mostly stayed away. What is left are the essential workers, the street cleaners, the delivery men and women, the construction workers, and the marginalized. It certainly feels different, but it does not feel dead.
Uptown… well, I am just heading to the Upper East side for meetings… I imagine I will discover yet another version of New York City in that neighborhood. Indeed, the feelings seem different from one neighborhood to another.
New York City today is not like it was on March 2nd, when I was last here. Because the world is not like it was on March 2nd. But New York is not dead. Maybe it felt like the Apocalypse two months ago, but New York today feels alive. As Mark Twain would say, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” New York may never be the same as “before,” but New York will always be New York.
When your Mom is mentioned in Greek Vogue, you blog about it. Actually, I should have written this blog post a while ago, to share this beautiful project called Sharing Perama, that my mother Barbara Polla ideated and then made a reality on February 20, 2020 (02/20/2020 – an auspicious date). This Vogue article is just an excuse and the timing is perfect.
I owe my love of Greece to my maternal grandparents who moved their family of five to Tinos in the mid 1960s and spent two years discovering the country, absorbing Greek culture and philosophy. During this time, my mother, then a teenager, met Papa Georgios (Father George), a clergyman based in Perama, a working-class suburb of Athens in the district of Pireaus. Papa Georgios took care of the refugees and the poor of his parish. Inspired by him, she volunteered and assisted in his efforts, until his imprisonment and then execution by fascists in 1967. More than 50 years later, she wanted to honor him and his core values of kindness and hope. Thus the project Sharing Perama was born.
Who better to work on this than the British artist Robert Montgomery, whose poetry and conceptual art, often perceived as political, is permeated with hope. “Specifically, he writes poems which he depicts in paintings and installations, with light, flames, wood, watercolors. He believes that art has a place in the streets mainly and not in museums.” (quote from Vogue article).
On February 20, 2020, the Municipality of Perama and Sharing Perama, with the kind support of ΟΛΠ (Pireaus Port Authority S.A.), welcomed and lit the first public sculpture by Robert Montgomery, which is placed permanently at Terma Peramatos where the boats leave for and from Salamis (the busiest ferry terminal of Europe).
The exhibition is running now through 2022. For more information, please click here.
The below is extracted and translated from the interview with Robert Montgomery in the current issue of Vogue Greece, an issue dedicated to hope. This is not the entire interview and the order of the questions has been rearranged.
Tell me now about your new project in Greece.
It is called “We share Perama” (www.sharingperama.com), it started last February and will be active for the next two years With the support of the Greek Ministry of Culture and with the cooperation of the mayor of Perama we create visual, poetic, theatrical works based and inspiration the area. In December, the director Dimitris Babilis will stage at the Municipal Theater of Perama the first play by Dimitris Dimitriadis entitled The Price of Revolt in the Black Market, which I consider important. I am also collaborating with the artist Mario Fournaris – a native of Perama – on an art exhibition on ecology, which will be presented at the Museum of Perama, which is revived through the project. Also, filmmakers Christos Panagos and Charalambos Margaritis are preparing a film entitled Dreaming Perama. Finally, to say that it is a great honor for me that the award-winning Greek poet Krystalli Glyniadaki translates my poems into Greek, as part of the project. In general, there are remarkable Greek artists with whom I collaborate on this project and I am very happy about it.
How did you get involved in this?
The project was inspired by the very important Swiss curator Barbara Polla. The idea was to honor the clergyman George Demitriadis. Father George, from his post in the parish of Perama, took care of the refugees and the poor in the ’60s. He was executed by the fascists in 1967. He is a hero who has not been heard of or glorified. Barbara Polla in her adolescence was a volunteer in his work. Growing up and acquiring an artistic voice, she wanted to honor him, but also with her eyes fixed on the future, she also wanted to make a comment about kindness and hope. He invited me to visit the place and I responded immediately, as I grew up in Glasgow, which is a shipbuilding city, so Perama reminded me of my childhood, I felt a connection. Of course, Perama is more beautiful than Glasgow, because you have the blue sea and this light. It is also built amphitheatrically on the coastline of Attica. It inspired me from the first moment.
The first installation of the project, last February, was a phrase at the port gate: “The Beginning of Hope”. This issue of Vogue Greece is dedicated to hope and I would like to ask you what hope is for you. What thoughts and feelings do you have?
I would say that Perama is a good example of what hope is. It is a friendly neighborhood full of pride, created by a group of refugees. People who worked hard and proudly and built their lives from scratch. For me Perama is a truly beautiful place. Those first refugees who settled there give through their lives the very definition of hope, which has in it strength and momentum for new beginnings.
What are the main issues you are dealing with?
Nature, utopia, society, ecology, love, the pain caused by love, memories, light, color.
How would you describe the language you use?
I think it is romantic. It involves pain and hope.
How would you characterize the aesthetics of your works?
Poetry is captured through light and painting.
You have justified your art form by claiming that people would rather see poems on the streets than soft drink ads. I wonder if you feel alien to the modern world and if you really want to change it in your own way.
Now I feel happy in the world. I have a wonderful wife, my children, I feel blessed. To change or save the world? I do not think artists can do that. If we are to save the world from ecological disaster, for example, we can only do it all together. Recently people all over the world united to fight against the pandemic. Which showed us how we can deal with a crisis when we are all together and that money is not the most important good. We need to show the same unity to protect our planet.
You have said that you love words because they are imbued with a slowness. How is slowness a virtue?
I believe that poetry has a magical ability to slow down the rhythms of the mind and entice you to meditate.
Another phrase that impressed me was this: “The meaning of art is to touch the hearts of strangers, without getting into the trouble of meeting them.” Really, is it a hassle to know a person?
Yes. I’m pretty shy. Many shy people become artists or writers.
You have developed the theory that the people we love become ghosts within us and so we keep them alive. Tell me a little about it.
It is a view I expressed through a work dedicated to the death of artist Sean Watson. He was my best friend from university and is always in my heart.
What role does melancholy play in your work? Is it an important “ingredient”?
I believe that melancholy is a process of the heart. It is the creation of beauty through sadness.
I am a creature of routine and rituals, in everything including skin care. Earlier this summer, I shared with you my morning and evening skin care routines.
I do the same skin care steps every morning, and every evening. Except when I am in my happy place, Tinos, Greece. Here, the sun shines every day, and I spend more of my day outside than inside. The wind blows, and the sea is extra salty – all elements that have an impact on the look and feel of my skin.
While most of my routine remains, some things do change.
Most importantly, I stop using my Advanced retinol serum. I will use it year-round, including during the summer, but not when spending 80% of my waking day outside in the sun (and I don’t mean lying at the beach in the sun – just walking around and eating meals outdoors is enough).
And of course, eye care and a midweight moisturizer. I use my Tightening eye gel morning and evening: its cooling feel and light texture are the best for warmer weather. And my Kantic Calming cream in a daily evening ritual, to heal my skin post sun exposure.
Finally, twice weekly, a deep treatment with my Gentle refining scrub and Kantic Brightening moisture mask. Sun exposure makes my skin thicker, so regular exfoliation is absolutely key (and no, exfoliating will not make your tan go away faster – on the contrary!). And the mask is magical, year-round of course. This time of year, if feels cooling and refreshing, and the antioxidants work to prevent any sun damage that may have occurred despite my obsessive sunscreen use.
Sun care is my theme. La Roche Posay Anthelios XL 50+ oil is my go-to sunscreen. I love the slick feel and the sun protection is the most effective.
In the same oil family, Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse Or is such a treat. Body, hair, even sometimes face – it nourishes and the gold particles create a beautiful discreet glow. And the delicate aroma says summer like nothing else.
Post sun, my Soothing body lotion calms any redness and rehydrates my skin (remember water, chlorine, salt, are all drying ingredients to the skin).
And finally, because I spend my time exclusively in flip flops or (preferably!) barefoot, I apply my Dry skin balm to my feet religiously morning and evening.
How do you tweak your skin and body care rituals when spending time in sunnier, warmer climates?
I have spent the better part of the last four months thinking about the future of retail – and I am not alone. Is this pandemic the end of brick and mortal retail? Will consumers return to stores? Is online forever the path to purchase? Is Amazon really going to take over the world? These are just some of the questions swirling around in my head.
Yesterday, I lived these questions as a consumer, as a shopper. A few things about my shopping and buying patterns to put yesterday’s experience into context. I am not an avid shopper. I buy quality over quantity. I have never liked malls. I am highly loyal to a few stores I love. The last time that I was in a (non grocery) store was March 4th and I can’t remember the last time I went shopping with a girlfriend.
Yesterday, I went shopping with a girlfriend. She took me to her favorite store in Tinos, Karybu. I was so excited about this girlfriend shopping expedition that I dressed up and did my hair. We browsed, chatted with the owner (who happens to be from Basel Switzerland), compared our preferences in earrings, and I bought a (surprise) gift for my husband. We had the best time. Yes we were wearing masks. Yes we social distanced. Yes one of the sales associates was keeping track of the customer count in the boutique. And, it was amazing. It lifted my spirits. It was nothing I could have experienced online.
I had the same feeling as I did a couple of weeks ago, on July 23 rd , which was my first return to a brick and mortar non grocery store since March 4th (albeit by myself). I walked in to Apostrophe in Geneva, Switzerland, my absolutely favorite clothing store, where I have been shopping during each Geneva visit for 15+ years. I did not enter this store with a specific need in mind – it was more of a ritual, and the opportunity to speak with the lovely boutique manager about her pandemic experience. And, I bought a dress. A complete impulse buy. A dress completely opposite to every dress in my closet – patterned and colorful. A dress the manager (who knows me and my black wardrobe) picked for me, promising me that it looked better on than on the hanger and that it was made for me. I decided to trust her – and she was right. I wore it to my sister’s rehearsal dinner and received more compliments than I knew what to do with. It may
be my favorite dress I have ever owned. I never would have purchased this online.
Online shopping will never go away. Neither will brick and mortar shopping. The “in real life” experience matters. The discovery matters. The human connection matters.
I am writing this from Greece, more specifically from the Island of Tinos in the Cyclades. I realize how privileged this sentence is in this strange summer of 2020. As I write this, the United States is #1 in total COVID-19 cases and in COVID-19 deaths. My second home, Louisiana, has the highest of COVID-19 cases per capita in the US. Americans are not allowed in European countries – including Greece. And many remain without employment, including so many of my spa and salon friends who are still not allowed to return to their jobs.
Considering this bleakest of situations back home, it seems surreal to wake up to the blue Aegean, on an island where life seems unchanged since my first visit when I was a child.
It also seems like gloating. Travel envy is as prevalent these days as Zoom fatigue. I had thus decided not to post anything on social media about my current whereabouts. And then I changed my mind. My friend Kelly reminded me that “people follow you to see your life; it’s not bragging. … Also most of your followers know you vacay in Greece.”
So instead of pretending I’m not here, I am here. And I want to tell you about my trip.
My husband and I left the US for Switzerland on July 11. We changed this date twice, and the airline changed our itinerary three times. Finally booked on a flight that would actually happen, we flew from DC and New Orleans (respectively) to Dallas, then to London, then to Geneva. I can travel to Europe as I have a Swiss passport (so Switzerland has to let me in) and a US passport (so the US has to let me return). Edwin can travel with me, with his lone US passport, because we are legally married, and our marriage is properly registered in Switzerland. Having said that, as we were checking in to our international flight from two different cities, just getting his boarding pass printed in New Orleans was a challenge. The system would not let the check-in agent do anything with his US data, until he was able to show a letter from the Swiss Embassy proving our marriage, my record locator proving we were meeting in Dallas and doing the rest of the trip together, and a photo of my Swiss passport proving my double nationality.
Step 1, checking in. Done.
Step 2, boarding the DFW-Heathrow flight. We were called by the gate agent prior to boarding and had to show all of our paperwork again.
Step 3, actually being let in to the EU at Heathrow. At the automatic transit desk, where you usually scan your boarding pass and the light automatically turns green and the gate opens to let you through, we are surprised as instead, the light turns red and makes a loud unpleasant sound. We try again. Same thing. We sheepishly head to the stern-looking lady at the “in person desk.” We show her our boarding passes, including the one from London to Geneva. She types something in her computer. “Are you married?” she asks. Yes, we respond, as I show that prized piece of paper from the Swiss Embassy once again. She looks at it, picks up the phone, and starts explaining something to a superior. In the middle of the conversation, she asks us “You wouldn’t also happen to have a certified copy of your marriage certificate, would you?”. Well, as a matter of fact, yes of course we do (who doesn’t travel with their notarized marriage certificate?). We smile and hand it to her. More conversation with superior. And then, finally, she manually scans our boarding passes. The light turns green, and the gate opens. We are officially on EU soil.
(Side notes for those considering travel: We wore N95 masks on every plane, and surgical masks in every airport. We had shields with us but neither of us used them. We did not wear protective clothing or glasses.)
There is nothing further to report until we get to customs in Switzerland. Once again, our marital status is questioned. Once again, the magical Swiss Embassy letter comes in handy. I offer our marriage certificate, but the customs agent nicely says the embassy letter suffices. Before she clears us, she reminds us of the Swiss government mandated ten-day quarantine we are facing upon entry (implemented July 6), and that we must register ourselves with the proper authorities when we arrive at our place of quarantine. Here, my Swiss passport is of no help. I have come from the unfortunate United States of America – and so I too, not just my American husband, must quarantine.
Indeed, this is why we had to change our travel date to start with. The reason for this trip was first and foremost my sister’s wedding. To be “free” on the 24th, for the rehearsal dinner, we needed to have 10 days (+2 for “just in case”) of quarantine. And quarantine, in Switzerland, well, is very Swiss. We called to register with the Canton (the state of Geneva) as required. Throughout the ten days, we each received two “check in” calls, aka monitoring calls. Were we taking quarantine seriously? (Yes) Had we left our place of residence? (No) And did we have any symptoms? (No). Ten days without leaving the house was a first for me, as it was for Edwin. Luckily, we found the most beautiful AirBNB (with a terrace) to spend these ten days, Courtyard #1 at The Hamlet in the center of Old Town Geneva. Nothing to complain about, other than my inability to go for long runs along the lake as I like to do.
(Second side note: My father is a medical doctor, and offered to give us COVID-19 tests, with results coming in within 24 hours, at any time during our stay in Geneva. We declined, because we never had any symptoms, and also because we did not know what we would do with the information should this test come back positive.)
Similarly to our ability to travel to Switzerland, we were allowed to travel to Greece because of my Swiss (and Italian) passport and our married status. We had to fill out an online travel form (the Passenger Locator Form) 48 hours prior to boarding. This included questions such as permanent address, and where we had spent the last 14 days. Based on this questionnaire, upon arrival in Athens, we would be directed either to baggage claim, or to a COVID-19 testing area in the airport. Should the latter happen, we would have to quarantine for 24 hours until our test results came back. Luckily, we were directed to baggage claim (I do believe being able to say that we had spent the last 14 days in Switzerland had much to do with this).
And then, we were in Greece! Baggage claim, taxi to Rafina, slow ferry to Tinos (no fast ferries are running at this time due to decreased traveler demands). And then, we were in the village of Isternia, my happy place.
So here I am. A blend of working from home and vacationing in Europe. Life in Europe (specifically Geneva and Tinos), is surprisingly normal. Limited travel offerings (from short airport lines, a closed restaurant at the Zurich airport hotel, the lack of fast ferries) remind me that life is not quite normal. People wearing masks (mandated on public transportation and inside stores in Switzerland, and in the grocery store on Tinos) remind me that life is not quite normal. Yet mostly, people are going about their business. Children are at summer camp or at the beach. Adults are on vacation, on their honeymoons, or working their normal jobs. Is it because summers in Europe are spent outside versus in the air conditioned indoors? Is it because wearing a mask has not become a political statement?
I cannot help but return to thoughts of my friends at home, some who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, some who are suffering from the disease, many whose businesses are hemorrhaging. I worry about what will happen when school reopens (indeed the news from counties who have begun to reopen are dreadful). I worry about what will happen when unemployment goes up more. I worry about the fall and the holiday season. I do not know why things feel better, more “normal” here. But I do know that we, Americans, can do better.
I love love. And I love weddings. Last Saturday, my sister Rachel got married, and I was able to be there, in the beautiful vineyard Domaine du Daley, a place of UNESCO-protected vineyards (in Switzerland, after a government-mandated 10-day quarantine).
In true pandemic fashion, this was a small affair, everything took place outside, and personalized masks were the party favor.
In true Rachel and Bernard fashion, this was an emotional scene. My husband called it a “tear-jerker wedding.” The best man commented at the reception after a particularly moving speech “Well, it’s time for tears again – I haven’t cried in about 10 minutes.”
Maybe it’s because there has not been much to celebrate in the past few months. Maybe it’s because I hadn’t been home with my family in eight months (a first in my life, one I wish not to repeat). Maybe it’s because of how my brother-in-law Bernard looks at Rachel. Regardless of the why, this wedding touched my soul more deeply than anticipated.
It reminded me of the power of love, of everything that is shared between two soulmates that does not require words. A look. A kiss. A smile. A squeezing of the hand. The intimacy and team feel of a couple in love. It also reminded me that love is as essential to my well-being as the air I breathe.
It reminded me of the importance of family. Family defined as those whom you love and for whom you will always be there. Those whose welfare you put above your own. Rachel has a daughter Sasha (Bernard is not her father). Bernard has two daughters Clara and Margaux (Rachel is not their mother). These three beautiful, strong, young women are sisters. My parents are divorced, yet as their speech to the newlyweds indicated, they are family.
This weekend reminded me that family transcends law and biology. And that love does sometimes need to be celebrated in front of an audience.