As part of her Global Conversations series, Melissa Biggs Bradley spoke with Italian writer and garden designer Umberto Pasti and French couturier Stephan Janson, who have been based in their townhouse in Tangier, Morocco throughout lockdown. The lively conversation ranged from how they began their careers and how they met (well, sort of) to their discovery of Tangier—and the magical field of irises overlooking a shining sea, outside the city, that would later be transformed into a 25-acre botanical paradise, no small feat.
Pasti, the author of Eden Revisited, has a knack for taming nature and collecting things: his book documents the extraordinary evolution of Rohuna, his glorious garden full of fig and acacia trees, narcissus and irises and 300 endemic species, an incredible array of indigenous plants created with the help of members from the local village. Janson, for his part, is back and forth between Milan, where he runs his own atelier (a favorite stop on our Insider Journey to Milan), and is currently collaborating on a forthcoming book about Yves Saint Laurent (and the designer’s favorite words from A to Z); he is also on the steering committee for the fashion house’s 60th anniversary celebration. Together, they talked about the foundation they are launching to support the garden, the importance of sustainability and preservation in design, what travel might look like in the aftermath of COVID-19—for better or worse—and their love affair with Tangier, a destination that is now on our future travel wish list. Here are a few highlights from the conversation.
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Melissa Biggs Bradley: How did you decide to come to Tangier and to build Rohuna?
Umberto: Tangier is all about atmosphere. It’s very fragile and it’s changing, because it built far too much. And unfortunately this is getting lost, but there’s still a mixture of Moorish, Spanish, international, Anglo Saxon, whitewashed and two seas. It’s a really stunning place….
Stephan: Tangier, when we arrived, was a best-kept secret. A forgotten town with a literary past and the two painters had been there. It was forgotten by tourism. A pure dream—I mean, the best-kept secret around the Mediterranean, because it was paradise. But it was completely forgotten by all the lights of the big masses of tourism. Then in 1999, the change of King arrived and the new king wanted to put his mark on the city and started destroying everything around…Out of a dusty hill, Umberto created an amazing garden that’s not only beautiful, but it’s also a huge host for many plants that wouldn’t be found anymore, if it wasn’t for him. So I’m very proud of that. It may sound esoteric, but this place was so isolated. It was like a seven-mile walk from the first road. They were very reluctant to have foreigners. Even to them, a foreigner is someone from another village. So you can imagine we have an Italian and a French guy….They look at us like unseen characters, say what you want….They did not have the idea that they live in such a beautiful place. They realized after that, they [do].
MBB: Umberto, in your book, you said the garden is as much about the people as it is about the plants, and that what you wanted to do was give the villagers a sense of the beauty of the place and what it could be and give them something to be proud of and preserve a way for them to be connected. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Umberto: We have known lots of people here since they were born… They grew up—the boys and the girls, and we love the old gentleman—and they’ve accepted us…And they belong to a civilization which is disappearing, I think that it’s so important it is all together. They can enjoy the garden. Things have improved, which improved their life. For instance, now we have visitors, visitors pay to see the plants we have rescued together. And with this money, we can send children to school. We do garden furniture. And with this garden furniture, we can clean the village. We can give cows and sheep for the poorest family. What they like about the garden is that it’s something alive…. And they see all that as a very harmonic itinerary, as a very nice road, a very nice walk. That is the most vital aspect of the garden and for preserving the botanical species that were endangered, which will disappear. But it’s also up to us to help the quality of life of people. And because it leaves you one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever seen. And they can go to school. They can buy warm clothes. They can have a doctor who visits the children. They can eat enough and they can have a better life.
MBB: Umberto, you are a collector. So what do you look for as a collector? How do you think differently about buying things when you’re collecting them?
Umberto: I do a few collections and let’s say at those—enough collections! So every time I go out, I find on the market or on the floor in the woods, or whatever, I find something I like a lot. And for me, I cannot resist folds, shapes, colors. So I take this thing, which can be a stone, a piece of fruit, that piece of wood….And then a few collections that have started—like fabrics, the carpets, that Moroccan painting, pottery, feathers….And it has been like this for forever—and then you feel like you’re like a father and you have to keep the family in good order. So you find it [something] very far away, because, you know, you say, ‘oh, yes, join us. Let’s take you now.’ She’s cold and uncomfortable in a scene. And you say, ‘oh, poor auntie, she has to come home with us.’ It’s a bit like this. Yeah, we have a huge family to manage….
MBB: If you had to say—what is the greatest gift travel has given you—what have you learned the most from travel?
Umberto: To me, traveling is about meeting people, at the end. As I told you, I like very much, objects. I like artistry. I adore architecture. I adore forests and landscapes and sun and flowers and skies and all that sort of stuff. But, I realized recently, it’s meeting people. I love meeting people.
Stephan: I meet too many new people all the time because of my job, so I love to… get lost. I mean, to me, the sensation of being lost and finding my way—so many things and situations that we’re not supposed to get past…. To me, that’s the best thing about traveling….I remember I was on some Caribbean island where one third of the island was very American big hotels—and boring. I had a fight with my girlfriend—and I jumped on a bus. The other third of the island was fabulous. I got back and she was cross. But tomorrow I said, I am taking you on a bus ride. After that, we spent the rest of vacation on the rest of the island that was abandoned. I always stick to that attitude.
MBB: Is there a charitable org you love or that you support from traveling or otherwise?
Stephan: A wonderful organization here in Tangier that takes care of street children, kids that have been abandoned by the family or that have escaped. It’s called Dharna...They help these kids, they have a school. And they invented a theater, which is one of the most moving experiences I ever had. I love to go to theaters, but every time I go to see one of their plays…I still have chills talking about it now. And so we try to help them as much as we can.
And then, of course, we will be our own charity, because we are now preparing a foundation called Friends of Rohuna. We were working with the lawyers for over a year now, and we were about to do it in March…. So we keep talking with a lawyer. And as soon as we go back to Italy, that’s the next thing we do.
MBB: What are you reading at the moment?
Stephan: Well, I needed something big and serious. It’s many books—Remembrance of Things Past….And I thought it was the perfect thing, because I read it 40 years ago, and so now I have to discover it, which is even better that I can appreciate things that maybe when I was younger I just went through. And so it’s quite wonderful.
MBB: And what about you, Umberto, are you watching anything?
Umberto: The garden….
Stephan: The garden. No, we don’t. We don’t have TV or anything like that. All our friends are surviving thanks to Netflix and things like that, but we don’t have time.
MBB: The garden is such a great show. [Laughter] I think this is an impossible question for both of you, but is there a favorite memento that you’ve brought back from a trip?
Stephan: Well, for me, no, because my only luxury in life is to travel with my hands in my pockets. I love to travel without luggage. And I love to spend my money in the place where I go. And usually, if it’s a poor country, I buy things and I love to leave everything before I leave. I give things away to people who really need it, because none of us need anything. I mean, this one [Umberto] could collect all his life. But if I can get rid of things, I’m very happy. So I started many years ago traveling very light, with really a book in my pocket and that’s it. And then buying on the spot and then leaving the stuff there to people who need it.
Umberto: I’m quite the opposite.
MBB: And what’s your favorite destination for relaxing?
Umberto: I was going to say Rohuna.
Stephan: You’re madly in love with it.
MBB: Is there a place that is on your travel wish list for either of you?
Stephan: I’m so embarrassed to answer Rohuna, because we’ve been stuck here for two months, and I can’t wait to go back to the States.
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MBB: I realize this is a bit of a guess, since neither of you have been back yet, but how do you think that Milan is going to have changed because of coronavirus? What do you think will happen there?
Stephan: It is still the hardest place to be. It’s so bad. The governor of the city of Milan is an ambulant disaster. So embarrassing. No one can reach your president but this is very close.
Umberto: I have been re-reading Gadda, an excellent Milanese writer from the early 20th century. And he wrote a wonderful book about Lombardy. And it’s about the deep civilization….All the culture of old people being washed away by this virus. I don’t know how it will be changed, but for sure the grand people have gone. I find this very difficult. Very sad. And this for sure will change the cultural structure of the town. Partly, this depends on the incompetence of the people in charge. And I find this very, very difficult to forgive.
MBB: And how do you think people are going to change in terms of their attitude towards travel and their approach to it?
Umberto: I hope that we will find a different way. I think it would be slower. I think it could be longer. I think it would be less.
Stephan: So we travel less often, but we do longer trips and we’d be more careful about what we look at, what we need, what we what from there. It would be less consumerist. I hope. And more into debt. This is what I hope.
Listen to our Global Conversations podcast for more discussions with Melissa Biggs Bradley and innovative entrepreneurs and activists, filmmakers and authors, tastemakers and conservationists from around the world.