“They won’t let us inside till the very last minute and it must be at least ten below out here . . .”
We were all standing perfectly still, under the flurries of snow. Out in the open, holding on to our luggage in front of the airport building, staring at the only being moving in this frozen scene. Imo Glass, of course. Measuring the parking lot in long strides, eyes to the ground. Shouting into her cell.
“What did you say? . . .”
She laughed and threw her head back to reveal her throat, drawing her Pakistani wool shawl tighter around her shoulders.
“Oh. No, I haven’t got a clue. I guess it’s because of car bombs, kamikaze, you tell me.”
The Western passengers, stiffened by the cold despite their thick quilted jackets and woolen beanies, were staring at her, mesmerized, without much sympathy, at least it seemed to me. Perhaps they resented the way Imo was insisting on pacing back and forth in the snow shielded by only her thin shawl, jeans and a pair of flats despite the polar temperature. Or perhaps they were annoyed by the way she kept laughing at the jokes of the mysterious party on the other end, lacking entirely the same worried look as the rest of us.
The Afghan passengers—all men, and a minority among us—although covered just as lightly as she by their pattus were eyeing her with visible hostility as well. A woman yelling and laughing on the phone in front of everyone as if she were on a stage was not exactly their idea of modest behavior.
“The thing is, this morning I gave all my warmest clothes away . . . What? Can you hear me? . . . Yes, I gave them to the cleaning woman at the guesthouse and now I’m freezing to death. . . . Hello . . . can you hear me? CAN YOU HEAR ME?”
Hanif was eyeing her with concern. I looked at him as he did his little nod and smile thing; he did it in that automatic way of his, as if to reassure me that everything was okay, but I could tell he too was on edge.
“. . . She only had this thin thin sweater on and plastic babouches, so I gave her my coat, my boots and my woolen socks too . . . What? . . . Demian? I’m losing you now . . . Demian? Can you hear me? Yeah, now I can hear you. What did you say? . . . No, I figured I wouldn’t need them anymore, I had no clue they’d leave us standing in the freezing cold for three hours!”
The minute she was done with the call, Imo snapped her phone shut and her features at once reset into that serious, vaguely imperious expression she habitually wore. She joined me in the crowd of numb-with-cold passengers.
“Fuck, I’m freezing my ass. Where’s Hanif?”
I pointed out Hanif a short distance away, busy greeting a tall man in a mud-colored uniform with a moustache à la Stalin. She tugged at his sleeve.
“Sorry, Hanif, but isn’t there any way of getting us inside? I’m freezing without my coat.”
Hanif nodded. He consulted with the uniformed moustache man in Dari with his most obsequious expression. The moustache nodded vigorously and yelled something to the soldiers manning the barrier, the one barring the way to the passengers still waiting to enter the building. There was a further exchange of pleasantries, introductions and hearty handshakes all round. The bar was raised and Imo Glass, Hanif and I, under the now openly hostile gaze of the fifty passengers sculpted in the freezing wind, were wheeled across the parking lot with our luggage in tow and marched inside the building. At the door there were more guards, fully armed. After a brief consultation and due recognition of Hanif, they let us enter.
Inside, the departure hall looked like the empty lobby of a spectral Soviet structure: no check-in counters, no airline signs, no heating. Just dark marble and lights switched off in the glacial chill. It felt more like a prison, or a gigantic empty freezer where you could hear the sound of your own footsteps.
“Excellent,” said Imo, with a relieved smile. “Let’s go upstairs to the restaurant. I read somewhere they do the most delicious pilau.”
Only three weeks ago, it was the middle of November, I was in the studio in Milan shooting a soufflé di zucca for the cover of La Cucina Italiana. The dish was beginning to look deflated and sad. Nori couldn’t get it glossy enough, neither with sprayed-on olive oil nor with glycerin. Dario tried to move the lights around to get better highlights, but the thing was looking pretty dead, visibly losing volume by the second. It was almost eight and we all wanted to go home, but we had to wait for the kitchen to make another soufflé. By then we knew there was no way of reviving the one we had. Food comes undone quickly under the lights.
Nori and Dario went out for a smoke and I turned on my cell just to give myself something to do. The photography studio was on the outskirts of the city, in a drab industrial area where there wasn’t even a decent café to hang out in. There were three messages from Pierre Le Clerc in London. The first said: “I’m looking for you, call me.” Then: “Where are you? It’s urgent.” Third message: “Call me at home, I need to talk to you by tonight.”
Pierre is my agent; he’s a lanky, attractive man with a leonine head of prematurely white hair who still retains a slight French accent. He moved to London a few years back because he felt “Paris was slowly dying, culturally speaking.” His agency, Focus101, soon attracted the best young photographers from differ- ent parts of the world. He offered to represent me when my picture of a ten-year-old Thai prostitute won a World Press Photo award in the Contemporary Issues category three years ago. With his handsome, angular face and the holes in his thick, worn-out sweaters that he sports with such casualness, he is a man I could’ve developed a crush on if only I’d given myself permission. I once had this childish fantasy of the two of us in a house in the south of France sipping a Châteauneuf-du-Pape in front of the fireplace with a couple of Labradors sprawled at our feet.
My name’s Maria, I’m thirty-two years old. I’m a redhead with gray eyes, a pasty, freckled complexion that doesn’t easily tan. I got my colors from my Irish mother. I’m thin, but not in the way models are thin. Clothes simply hang on me in a funny way, so I stick to the same outfit every day: black jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, a thick turtleneck in the winter and desert boots. I hold my hair up with chopsticks I steal from restaurants. I’ve been playing with the idea of getting a tattoo on my forearm of a black panther ready to pounce. I haven’t had the guts to go ahead with this project yet, partly because a panther has very little to do with my personality, partly because I’m scared of the pain.
As a student photographer I wanted to do portraits. Arbus was my idol. But I lacked her perversity. I was too shy. I possessed neither the authority nor the ability to make my subjects feel at ease. So I started with reportage work, trying to capture things as they were happening without having to stage them. Ironically I think I chose photojournalism out of convenience. I was hoping I could move around my subjects like an invisible eye and that it would be easier to disguise my discomfort.
I did stories on Albanian immigrants, AIDS victims in Africa, transsexuals in India, angry factory workers on strike, but it was a string of sad stories that made me feel like a thief, intruding on people’s grief, waiting like a vulture for the right second to click the shutter. I could never sleep the night before an assignment, I’d be so wound up.
Then, in the last couple of years, I started suffering from recurrent panic attacks and severe claustrophobia. It had to do more with personal issues than with stress from the shoots. A relationship had ended and a deep depression followed.
One day in the middle of a shoot—I was doing a story on the homeless people who lived inside the Milan railway station— I felt my throat tighten till I couldn’t breathe anymore. My assistant ended up having to call an ambulance. That was my final exit: wheeled out on a stretcher, rushed through the congested streets with wailing sirens. After that I stopped working for four months.
Pierre was very supportive, he said it was just a matter of starting again, that I needed to work to get out of my own head, but eventually he realized this was no joke. I think he knew there was no way he could count on me for a big assignment. He was the one to suggest I start back with commercial photography. At first I recoiled, thinking of Arbus and Avedon and the ambitions they had inspired. But the minute I switched to studio work and shot my first food photo—an asparagus quiche for Sale e Pepe—I had a revelation. I felt comfortable and secure within a contained space. I could tell things were going to be under control again.
Now I’ve come to love food as an object of art. Its aesthetic speaks to me. Often I have intense food dreams. I dream of white porcelain tubs overflowing with cherries as red as bloodstains; candid cakes swathed in icing as smooth as freshly fallen snow, covered in violet mounds of petals. The other day I dreamt of a huge pyramid of shiny yellow potatoes that looked like they were made of pure gold. The images are so clear, the colors so stark, that they wake me up in the middle of the night.
Things are much better now: I stopped taking antidepressants and I’ve been working for the food sections of several magazines based in Milan and London. I recently did a book on a Neapolitan chef for an American publisher and may do his next one too. In Milan I have two young assistants who do the lighting, and a food stylist, Nori, who finds inventive ways to re- suscitate wilting food by brushing it with clear nail polish or glycerin and can make any culinary creation stand at attention with complex toothpick arrangements. We spend days on end in front of pork roasts, orecchiette with broccoli, panna cottas, and we discuss texture, color, shape, ways to make something look crunchier, softer, crispier, moister. These are the kinds of problems I have to face. To solve them we have our tricks, which we keep to ourselves, like magicians.
Now all I do is point my lens at a risotto. The food does not talk back to me and it does not cry or yell, either. If I don’t like the way it looks, I throw it out and get the kitchen to make me another.
After the shoot for La Cucina Italiana at the magazine’s studio, I came home, ran a citrus-scented bath, lit a couple of candles and put on the Bach cello suites. I’m not sure where I borrowed this prefabricated idea of comfort—probably from some magazine—but it has become my ritual whenever I come home from a long shoot. There’s a new list of rules I never would have dreamt of following before—like taking a cold shower in the morning, eating complex carbs and proteins for breakfast, sleeping in flannel sheets, just to name a few—that I religiously observe. It’s like a script. It keeps me busy and I like the discipline.
I moved into this apartment on Via Settembrini only a year and half ago, after Carlo and I split up. It’s in an old neighborhood behind the Stazione Centrale, which everyone says is on the brink of becoming fashionable. I fell in love with the turn-of-the-century building with a carpentry and a blacksmith workshop, where they bang and drill and saw all day in a beautiful inner courtyard covered in ivy.
The place where Carlo and I lived together for six years was in the center of the city. I could have carried on living there after he left but it held too many memories. I couldn’t handle living in the same apartment minus his books, clothes, desk, sofa, paintings. It would be like living in a place filled with holes, empty walls and ghosts everywhere.
Actually it was my father who insisted it was time I bought my own place. I guess, having grown up during the war—and given his vivid literary imagination—he has an innate fear that I could end up homeless out on the streets like a poor orphan girl in a Victor Hugo novel.
It’s only a one-bedroom with a large living room, but it has a terrace; minuscule, but it looks out onto the roofs of Milan. The apartment is furnished with a Scandinavian touch that comes from Leo, my younger brother, a dealer in Danish furniture from the sixties. He travels back and forth between Milan and Copenhagen, constantly loading and unloading blond tables and chairs from his van. He’s convinced that Danish style is here to stay and is a good investment. In fact he’s done very well so far—much better than me. My father always trusted that my brother had a talent for living a maximum quality life with minimum effort.
No, he’s never projected his Victor Hugoesque fantasies on Leo.