Saturday, 26 September 2015

From Jakarta #2

Photo: Model: me

Now that I have been here in Jakarta for over a week the word expat  has been used quite a few times  with reference to me. Sure,  I am not a tourist  here  - Jakarta would be a strange tourist destination anyway, people pass through it but are usually keen to get out of here as quickly as possible. However, the area where I now live, Kemang, is full of expats, with shops that reflect this demographic, fancy supermarkets that sell pricey goods, including pork meat and Australian wine.
'Expatriate' denotes someone who does not live in his native country.  I have been an expatriate for decades, ever since I moved to London from my native Italy. But somehow the 'expat' label has never been used with reference to me in England. I guess in England expat is more generally understood  to mean someone not from the EU. People from  the latter are  known as  migrants if moving from one EU country to another, though in more recent times many people have begun to confuse migrants with refugees and refugees with migrants. But that's another story.
I am not new to Indonesia, this is the sixth or seventh time I have come here. Let me immediately clarify, in case you believe that my remarks about Jakarta apply to the country as a whole,  that Indonesia  is an incredibly beautiful country, with a rich and diverse culture and I have fond memories of Sumatra, Bali, Lombok and West and East Java, not to mention the beautiful Yogyakarta in Central Java. It is only Jakarta that is definitely not beautiful largely because  of the traffic and pollution and the incredible rate at which it grows.  I will say it upfront that have never liked Jakarta, always avoided it if I could help it, so coming back to Indonesia to stay here, of all places,  requires a lot of grinning and bearing. But Jakarta is the major fashion centre of the country, it is the capital of Indonesia and I had to be based here if I wanted to work on my project.

Jakarta traffic
People are very polite over here, but during rush hours tempers can be somewhat frayed. It can get tricky. I have experienced a surprising outburst from a taxi driver because I did not warn him in time that he had to take a particular turn and we went past the street I wanted and then we got stuck in a horrendous traffic jam that just did not move.  He could not turn back and eventually had to get into a maze of backstreets to take me to my destination.  He did not like it a bit and I know enough Indonesian to catch his swearing and his abruptness did not go amiss. Sure, it was my mistake, but when you think about it, it 's not that he was giving me a ride in his car out of the goodness of his heart, I was  paying for it, including waiting time. But as I said, things can get tricky during rush hours. I also tipped him enough to bring a smile on his face.
A good friend who now lives in Thailand and knows Jakarta rather well suggested  I should go and visit the old Jakarta port of Sunda Kelapa. For the record there are interesting things to see in this city, it's not just malls and busy roads. But the heat is quite overwhelming at the moment, for me anyway,  and the thought of braving the endless traffic jams does not appeal  at all.  I will, however, make an effort. I have been already here for several days  and have not even once used my  camera, only my iPhone camera, and that is so very unlike me.
 Yesterday I resolved to walk around my area, learning how to cross the main road when hundreds of motorbikes and cars seem to be coming at you  non-stop and  no traffic lights or zebra crossings can be spotted anywhere - it requires some confidence, basically you just start crossing very boldly signalling to everyone to let you go. It works, people do stop.
 I discovered two dance studios within walking distance from my new home, one of which teaches RAD ballet, so with some trepidation, fearing I would be the only adult surrounded by many cute little girls in pink tutus, I walked in and asked whether I could take a trial class.  The man at reception said  'bisa' meaning it was OK for me to join. So I did. I found myself in an intermediate ballet class with young women  preparing for some  Grade exam. They were learning steps from Raymonda - after the barre and stretches (splits etc). I nearly fainted, I am just an amateur and am still struggling with basic technique. Oh it was extremely tough to be among them, but it was truly, truly enjoyable. Afterwards I negotiated some private lessons with the teacher, to catch up on technique (my pirouettes are wobbly and pas de chats are, ahem, not light enough).
I am mentioning my ballet experience because, unbeknownst to most people, who only seem to be aware of ballet in China, Japan and Korea,  Jakarta has a very strong tradition of ballet learning  that goes back to the time of the Dutch. Standards are very, very high. I was later told that the Kemang Dance Center where I have enrolled is one of the very best in town. And it is so nice to be in a ballet class where regardless of the language, the steps are known by their French name, so a plié is a plié everywhere in the world.

Kemang Dance Center

Ok enough personal stuff. Let me tell you a little about what I am actually doing here, as it is clear by now I am not holidaying.
I am working, as mentioned, on a project about fashion. I have begun to contact all the people I need to interview. I plan to attend Jakarta Fashion Week which will take place next month and aim to interview a wide range of people involved in the fashion industry, before and after JFW, including bloggers.
Why so? For quite some time, ever since I began my involvement in fashion as a model but also as a writer and commentator,  I have been intrigued by how fashion impacts women of all ages globally and how, through media and advertising,  it is linked with issues of body image and issues of  representation. This impact  has been debated and contested widely, but  the discussion is only ever about the more affluent countries of the western world.
 Fashion in Asia is a major industry whose  influence is growing so perhaps it's time to discuss fashion and its related issues in relation to Asian women too, what it means to them and to note what they bring to the table.  I am also very interested in the challenges of ageing in Indonesia. It will help me to put in perspective the 'going gray' movement as we know it from affluent first world countries.
I decided to begin my research in Indonesia only because I know this country slightly  better than other Asian countries and this prior knowledge of the context is helpful, when  beginning  a project which I suspect will keep me busy for quite a time.
I guess I could have stayed home and feel comforted by the seeming openness of the fashion and beauty industry to older women, which I view with some scepticism, as to me it remains hugely tokenistic, despite everything,  as I discussed in my Guardian article about being a mature model. But I could not help myself wondering whether this is a fundamentally euro-centric discourse. So here I am.  I know I am going to be challenged over the next  three months but this is why I came. I like being challenged (and who knows, I might pick up a few steps from Raymonda in the process, since the teacher said I was most welcome to be in the Saturday morning class!)
Look out for my next post where I will begin to talk more in depth about the project.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

From Jakarta #1

First of all, congratulations to my fellow models at Grey Model Agency, Annabel  and  Frances who have walked for London based Chinese designer Youija Jin at LWF 2015. This is a great achievement for mature models and a real change in the representation and perception of older women. I applaud Youija for her foresight.
I am also absolutely delighted to share with Frances the honour of being in Hunger issue 9, in a Prada spread, 'with a host of golden age models'. The magazine was out on 17th September.

Behind the scenes @ Hunger. Model: me
I am in Jakarta now working on a fashion project as a fashion commentator, leaving to one side, for the time being, my model persona (I do mind this a lot, I doubt it I will have any opportunity to model here) and am really keen to meet people and discuss issues related to fashion design and body image.
I have only been here four days and the first two were taken up with tedious luggage searches and a long wait for my suitcase. I have got my luggage all right, sorted out various practicalities, got myself a smartphone and SIM card for my local calls, so now I can focus on the purpose of my visit.
On Friday evening I went to the annual party of for whom I had previously written. It was great to meet these very interesting women who are trying to challenge preconceived notions of femininity and are doing an amazing job on a shoestring budget.
I am still acclimatising. Not only is it hot - it has not rained for five months - but Jakarta is quite polluted and the traffic is unbelievable. It takes forever to get anywhere. I use taxis (like everyone else) and even Uber.  A simple trip to the nearest shopping centre can turn into a long wait in a traffic jam. This is not a city where you can walk, in many areas pavements are almost non existent and public transport not too good. I would find it hard to get into one of the very crowded busses.
The shopping malls are pretty incredible, there's so many of them, it seems that the best way to pass the time for people in Jakarta is to go shopping, window shopping or actual shopping. The malls are filled with the usual western brands, some of them are high end labels but also high street names like New Look, Top Shop and Debenhams, with prices that are pretty much the same as in the UK (and goods that are probably made in Indonesia, where labour is cheaper, but labelled New Look etc. etc.). I don't normally shop at New Look but one of my problems is that my feet are size 7. I saw some lovely shoes in a few shops stocking  local brands but Indonesian women tend to be petite, with feet to match. Only New Look seems to have shoes size 7 so I had to get a pair from there - I did not bring enough shoes from London and I needed some heels.
I went to the well known annual pop up market Brightspot market in the  Senayan City complex and  the work of a couple of designers caught my eye. Brightspot market is where emerging independent labels can be found, selling directly to the public.
As I walked around (when I could walk) I seemed to be the only woman with grey hair.  I went to a party at the Dutch Embassy and all the European ladies had coloured hair. Indonesian women of about my age who do not cover their head with a hijab, definitely colour their hair, which I believe tends to be less prone to greying than the hair of Caucasian women but it is so difficult to tell the age of the women I meet. I often look at men to compare because by and large they do not colour their hair (well I believe they do not) and I see that many middle aged men do not have grey hair at all, not noticeably so, thus it must be a genetic thing.
As a result I really do look very weird, sticking out like a sore thumb. I often get stared at especially since I have the habit of leaving my hair fully down - I like drying it naturally and I wash it everyday. Some people think it is a kind of white/blonde colour, a dye in other words. How bizarre!

Textile Museum , Jakarta
Yesterday I was at the textile museum with a former student of mine who told me that they recently had a fashion show in connection with the exhibition - a show  I missed, bad timing indeed. The textiles were magnificent, the display not so good - very few labels and at times I really did not know what I was looking at.
I will keep on updating this blog with news from my Indonesian 'adventure'. As soon as I get my passport back - now with the Immigration office for stamping - I will try to travel to Thailand and Vietnam. Might as well.  Jakarta is not so far from mainland Southeast Asia, I have visited Indonesia before but not the Southeast Asian mainland and am very curious to see it, especially Vietnam which I do not know at all.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Packing rituals and lost luggage

Etihad crew. Uniforms designed by Ettore Bilotta

Perhaps because  I will be away for some weeks, spending most of the autumn in Jakarta as a Research Fellow at the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient, Jakarta Office, then travelling a bit within the Southeast Asian region ( if I can manage it) - more about it in future posts -  I spent the weekend catching up with some TV. Well, I was also busy packing, so having the TV on in catch up mode gave me the necessary background noise which aids my concentration for the extremely difficult job that is packing.
We all have packing rituals and mine are as complex as anyone else's.  Depending on the length of my trip, packing is staggered over the night before departure (short trips, obviously) or a week, sometimes even a fortnight, for trips longer than eight weeks, and consists of throwing everything that comes to mind into the chosen suitcase, which I always place in the hallway fully open so that it cannot be ignored (and people can suitably trip over it en route to the bathroom and begin their not-so-silent swearing), and then a day before departure taking everything out and ruthlessly putting to one side what I believe I can buy locally or  do not need  at all. It works.You just have to be quick and throw an item into the suitcase or bag as soon as it comes to mind - or it will be forgotten. I have been known to suddenly get out of bed at 4 am because I have remembered something that has to be packed.
As I will be  based in Jakarta for the next 10 weeks or so, so my packing was a long drawn affair, putting everything in there which I will need straightaway. I am here to acquaint myself with the world of fashion in Southeast Asia, so my packing was very careful indeed.
But of course there is nothing more annoying than landing after a long haul flight and discovering that your suitcase has been left behind at the last airport where you transited. Which is exactly what happened to me.
I flew Etihad and everything seemed to be smooth, I was early, boarded my flight on time and things started going wrong because we were not allowed to take off, had to wait for nearly an hour, the runway was not available. We got to Abu Dhabi and I had forty minutes to get to the gate, the electronic board showed my flight to Jakarta with a flashing light, last boarding call. I got through security again, begging everyone to let me go first and I got there just before the gate closed. But my luggage did not make it.
Soekarno Hatta Airport, Jakarta
So there I was at Jakarta airport, with just my laptop and a few bits and pieces in my hand luggage but my carefully packed suitcase was nowhere to be found. Finally I got it traced and while waiting for the paperwork to be completed, a fellow traveller  next to me  told me his incredible story of suitcases swapped and three weeks spent in Indonesia basically chasing his luggage. Three weeks! I nearly fainted. The woman that was dealing with me went out of her way to reassure me that the luggage had been found in Abu Dhabi, it would get to Jakarta with the 11.30 pm flight - it was 4 pm. Really,  all I could do was get a taxi to where I am staying, hoping and praying the suitcase would be delivered. I left at 4.30 pm, and at 7 pm I was 'home'. Nothing like Jakarta to make you realise that rush hour traffic in London is absolutely nothing, compared to the congestion and pollution that is the norm here and the long, long waits.
However,  the saga has not ended. It is over 24 hours since I landed and my suitcase has not yet been delivered. It is now with a driver and I have been waiting since 7 am  - it's 8.00 pm now local time.
I suppose I just need to look at the bright side. There are some positives: 1) I can get compensation as it has been over 12 hours and my insurance will pay up, provided I put in a claim within the specified time 2)  the suitcase has not been irretrievably lost  (at least I hope) 3) I have managed to get a few bits and pieces at the local shopping mall (shopping malls, now that deserves a full post) to get me going.
And I guess it is a good introduction to local culture, where everything is always happening 'soon, in the next couple of hours' and no one is ever willing to say no to your face - has the driver left, I kept on asking, suggesting that if he had not I could get the suitcase myself. He has just left, head office would reply, and obviously the driver had not or had gone on another delivery (there is plenty of people waiting for missing luggage) but somehow me going to pick up the suitcase myself was not a desirable course of action. I had to wait for the van. I suppose I have to get used to this.
 I just hope I can get my suitcase before tomorrow, I badly need my clothes and my personal effects.
From tomorrow and for the whole of next week it will be a round of offices and red tape and I need to be formally dressed.  - I am not exactly looking forward to it.
Meanwhile, salamat malam.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Monuments the past and non-places

Palmyra. Temple of Bel. Photo: Reuters

A conversation with an acquaintance re the sad state of affairs in Syria  gave me food for thought. I was bemoaning the fact that the ancient city of Palmyra seems to have been destroyed and looted. He said that what really mattered were the people of Syria who needed immediate rescue, not the monuments. People first.
Of course, people first, there is no doubt about that. But monuments do matter. The whole incident made me reflect on the importance of realising, more generally,  that investing in the upkeep of historic monuments is not a waste of time and money.
There is nothing like the recent destruction of ancient sites perpetrated by ISIS in Syria and Iraq  to make one aware that their loss is a loss for the whole of humankind, not just the Syrians and the Iraqis.
Of course what ISIS is doing is not remotely new. They are destroying but also  looting to get money to fund their so-called revolution. Earlier it was the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in Cambodia the Khmer Rouges, who did exactly the same.

Grenada. Alhambra. Photo by me (I also take pictures!)

We can also think of many other instances in history when rival factions would destroy and appropriate. The Catholic Spanish did it to the Moors of Andalusia and went about systematically demolishing mosques and palaces, turning them into churches and, of course,  plundering treasures.
In saying this, I am not trying to justify ISIS in any way. What they are doing is so unpalatable, so disgusting, it seems unthinkable that in the 21st century people should go back to practices that everyone acknowledges as being so fundamentally wrong.
I certainly agree with my friend that as now in Syria so many people are dying, doing something to protect their lives and well being is a first priority, the monuments will have to wait for better and calmer times. People over things, for sure. Linked with this is the refugee crisis in Europe, a huge problem about which  something must be done, to help these wretched people fleeing the horrors of their countries, torn apart by civil war.
But my friend's dismissal of the 'monuments' was hard to take in. Am I an incurable romantic? Am I being callous and disrespectful to people whose lives are in danger when I feel sorry for the monuments' destruction?

The mezquita at Cordoba, half church , half mosque. Photo by me

Let's think for a moment about monuments in general, these relics from a distant past that are part of the cultural heritage of every country.
How many people really care for 'monuments'? How many people really take time to think about them and what they stand for, beyond rhetoric?
In the best of scenarios archaeological monuments are cared about, routinely restored, kept under surveillance as they are regarded primarily as a source of revenue linked with tourism. Monuments are protected, sure. But what do people really make of them?
The Romantic poets from Goethe to Shelley and Byron invoked contemplation of ruins as part of their aesthetic vision. Thus there is an affinity between what French anthropologist Marc Augé says about ruins (see below) and the Romantic sensibility, but there is also a fundamental difference. Augé does not propose a contemplation of the grandeur of the past in a 'place of memory' but a contemplation of a non-place. For Augé a non-place is a place of transience, the 'supermodern' place, exemplified by parking lots, hospitals, airports and so on. In his definition a non-place is not  “relational, or historical, or concerned with identity". Surely this is not applicable to monuments which seem to be historical and tied to identity?  No, actually these associations are also transient and do change with time. Paradoxically, monuments are non-places. 

Cordoba, the mezquita. Photo by me

 Augé wrote in his book Le Temps en ruines (Time in Ruins), 2003:
 “To contemplate ruins makes you fleetingly aware of the existence of a time which is not the time in history books, nor the time that restoration attempts to bring back to life. It is a sheer time, unlocatable, absent from our world of images, simulacra, and reconstitutions, from our violent world whose debris can no longer afford the time to become ruins. A lost time which only art can retrieve.”
And that, for me,  is their beauty and value. We need our monuments, we need those non-places of contemplation.