Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bon Weekend

Your weekend cadeau: A potpourri of quotes upon which to reflect.  Of which I seem to be doing waaaaay too much these days. . .

"Le doute n'est pas une condition agréable, mais la certitude est absurde."  Voltaire

"The purpose of psychology is to give us a completely different idea of the things we know best." Valéry

"Like everyone who is not in love, he imagined one chose the person whom one loved after endless deliberations on the strength of various qualities and advantages."  Proust

Four conditions for happiness: "Life in the open air. The love of another being. Freedom from ambition. Creation." Camus

"To understand everything makes one tolerant."  Madame de Staël

"Conversation. . .is the art of never appearing a bore; of knowing how to say everything interestingly; to entertain with no matter what; to be charming with nothing at all." Maupassant

"Charm:  The quality in others that makes us more satisfied with ourselves." Amiel

"Take a perfect circle, caress it and you'll have a vicious circle."

(*Long ago I interviewed Ionesco in his Paris apartment.  Everywhere one looked there were hippopotamuses in every imaginable size, shape, construction and material.  Tres amusante.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Reciprocal Trade Agreements

After one lives in France as long as I have -- my American, Canadian, Australian and English friends attest to this -- when I go "home" friends and family on the "other side" give me an importation wish list of quintessentially French things they love.  

Sometimes when I ask them what they would like from here, they'll say: "Surprise me."  That's my favorite request.  (Next week I'll tell you some of the things I've found over the years.) 

Despite the ease of Internet shopping, I have friends who are not at all at ease with the Internet. Others like the idea of a petit cadeau or perhaps a twist on a familiar product like cheesecloth sachets of ready-made bouquet garni to drop into soups and stews; a big, fat chunk of savon de Marseille; a vintage nightshirt from a flea market (the one pictured here, called the "Marie-Antoinette nightshirt" is not old, but similar to ones I've unearthed in the past).

My import/export expeditions work both ways.  I have a handful of French friends who give me their shopping lists for delivery upon my return from New York and Chicago.  I'll tell you what they order as well next week.

For today, my exportation also includes:  effervescent aspirin with vitamin C and bars of dark cooking chocolate to nibble on after dinner.  Apparently this every day and very good staple is impossible to find in the States.  (So I've been told.)  It makes a to die-for mousse au chocolat.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

With A Little Help From Their "Friends"

By the time a French woman has reached a certain age she has assembled a loyal army of enablers, each one employed to keep her looking and feeling elegant and en forme from head to toe.

From her seamstress and her jeweler to her pharmacist and her dermatologist she has, over the years, built-up long-standing relationships with her trusted band of helpers.

She does not drop-off her alterations at the corner dry cleaner, nor does she leave her shoes at some chain of repair shops -- yes they exist in France. She drives miles to her favorite shoe man who can save her precious favorites; give new life to shabby standbys and dye a pair of stained yellow ballerinas a bright, shiny fuchsia -- and then re-color them navy or black when the trend tide wanes.

Her pharmacist is her best friend for counsel on health,  bien-etre and secret treatment products for her skin.  

Her dermatologist is another ami who not only checks her body for anomalies, but also gives her two to four facials each year.  Those who have the means may add a few Fraxel laser sweeps, Botox and the latest filler to the up-keep menu.  (Except for a couple of actresses, less is always more for a French woman when it comes to intervention.)

To have a talented seamstress in one's retinue these days is the equivalent of having money in the bank.  I'm talking not about someone who nimbly takes in and lets out a jacket or let's down or takes up a hem; I'm talking about a woman who can copy one's favorite outfit in another fabric; sweep her eyes over magazine photos of the latest ready-to-wear collections and turn a designer confection into a made-to-order clone for her client.  A good seamstress has become so rare of late that many women won't tell close friends their names.

Every woman I know has a jeweler who remakes old family jewels into new, modern pieces or works with her and a fist-full of semi-precious stones or pearls to create a unique object of beauty.  One woman had her jeweler make a fat, 18 karat gold "wire" that hooks at the back from which she hangs a cluster of charms the size of an American quarter she has collected over the years.  Several of her French and American friends have copied the idea. All have realized an added bonus: It's an amazing source of incentive for gift giving from family, lovers and friends. 

Most women the world over have their favorite, trusted hair-stylist and colorist so it's no surprise French women do as well.  Reputed to be highly demanding, which I think is fair to say is absolutely true, this is the last place a French woman will compromise. Two of the most remarkable characteristics I've always found are the precision cuts and natural color of their hair.  It's never too, too.  Never "fixed," always slightly tousled -- very sexy.

Another member of the army is her stalwart foot soldier.  Without exception, among the women I know, all have medical pedicurists in their little black books. Apart from a few tres chic and tres cher salons in Paris and other big cities, one schedules regular appointments for a medical pedicure like a rendezvous for the dermatologist or hair colorist. This being France for a pittance more, the pedicurist will come to the house.  They do not apply polish, but your feet are so immaculate and the nails clean and gleaming that it's almost a shame to cover the work with lacquer -- at least for a day or two.  

(My pedicurist once worked at the salon in the Hotel Ritz and sometimes I can convince him to paint my toenails. Sometimes, not often.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Beating the Blahs: French Women Tell All

How could T. S. Eliot have said: "April is the cruelest month"? Surely it's February.  

But look at it this way: It's only 28 days, it's almost over, the days are getting longer -- four more minutes of sunshine today alone -- baby buds are popping out all over, the first robins of spring are decorating their nests in preparation for their beautiful azure eggs. . . 

OK, that's not doing it for you.  I get it. The world's a mess, the media are in overdrive hammering home the horrible news and except for the people -- whoever they are -- bidding at the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé auction at Christie's, most everyone is feeling morose either for themselves or others.  (Note Matisse painting below:  Its high estimate by Christie's at the sale was $22,998,242; it sold to an unknown buyer for $45,264,579.)

What I'd like to offer here are every day, scaled down remedies that do not involve a winning lottery ticket, a doctor or a pharmacist for those mornings when you don't feel like getting out of bed.  Here follows part two of my informal, non-scientific sampling of what women from 40 to 80 do to pick themselves up, brush themselves off and start all over again and again and again.   

Juliette:  "I call a friend or friends, ask them to get all dressed up and off we go to the Hemingway Bar at the Hotel Ritz for one cocktail.  It only takes one -- they're very expensive -- when you are at the Ritz."

Giselle:  "I sit quietly and breathe deeply for as long as it takes. . ."

Anne-Françoise:  "I call my son-in-law and ask him to write a prescription for me."  (I intercede, re-explaining to my best French friend why this is NOT the answer we're looking for here.)  "OK," she says, "In that case I'll make a pot of tea, call you and tell you to come over immediately so we can gossip and say terrible things about everyone we know." (There you go, that's perfect.)  "Then when you leave I'll call Daniel for the prescription."

Patricia:  "I find a funny film playing some place get in my car -- all by myself, that's essential -- and when I get to the theater I order a huge bucket of popcorn and laugh and cry in the dark while I eat every last piece of popcorn.  So far it has always worked."

Claudie:  "I dig holes in my garden.  It gets out my anger, my misery, it's hard work and then I go out and buy little trees or plants and put them in the holes.  I know it's strange to dig the holes when I don't know exactly what will go into them, but I always find just the right thing and my garden is beautiful."

Anne-Charlotte:  "I sit on the floor with my two huge dogs.  One lies down against my leg and the other one throws herself over my lap. As I pet them they seem to sap the depression out of me; then as a reward for their therapy, I take them for a walk."

Alexandra:  "I walk deep into the forrest and without making a sound, watch families of deer eating and strolling through the trees.  I have to be totally concentrated because they can hear the slightest movement."

Frances:  "I go to an exposition.  When I see over and over what beauty humans are capable of creating it gives me a certain sense of peace in my turmoil."

Chantal:  "On a really bad day I combine two techniques.  I get up early and ride my horse for two or three hours.  I come home, take a shower; get quite dressed up; take special care with my hair and makeup; and drive into Paris for dinner with friends. Then I stay the night at my sister's apartment. The next day when I go back to the country I've forgotten my problems."

Marie-Laure: "I bake.  And I bake, and I bake and I bake, particularly apple tarts. It takes a
little bit of concentration, the kitchen smells wonderful and my family appreciates the result."

Elise: "I buy myself a huge bouquet of coral tulips.  At night I put them in the cellar and bring them back up every morning.  They usually last for two weeks.  That's a lot of pleasure from one ephemeral purchase."

Letitia (c'est moi -- that's what all my French friends call me): "I keep notebooks.  In one I have words I love, lists of books to read; in another ideas for articles, my blogs, etc. and in a separate cahier I keep lists and lists of things I want to do; things I want to accomplish; tiny positive actions to take when I'm feeling down.  I force myself to choose something from one column.  These are not life-changing goals or bucket lists.  My recommendations to self can be as simple as:  go swimming; unpack the suitcase that's been sitting there for months; pull a bunch of clothes and accessories out of the closet and re-invent new outfits."  

You get the idea, nothing earth shaking, but it gets my mind moving in another direction.

(I love these little notebooks from Quovadis, just add a box of colored pencils and they are the perfect gift for a child or an adult.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In The Navy

The marinière, official blue and white T-shirt of the La Marine Française, was "born" March 27, 1858. 

It was re-born in 1930 when Coco Chanel decided this simple, fresh cotton pullover corresponded perfectly to her idea of ease, elegance and at that epoch, daring. 

Once again it's all the rage in its latest resusitation.

From newborns to nonagenarians the French navy's T-shirt in its various permutations over the years -- sequined or feathered from Jean-Paul Gaultier (pictured here); stretched into a dress from Sonia Rykiel, re-constructed by Dolce & Gabbana and budget-friendly knock-offs at H&M -- has been a classic, year 'round staple in every French woman's wardrobe.

Back in full fashion throttle this year, the Musée National de la Marine is featuring an exposition entitled "Les Marins Font La Mode":  "The Navy Makes Fashion" intertwining the uniform and the style it has inspired.  

A word of warning on the fashion front:  If you're un petit peu rond, as one says here, horizontal stripes can be unforgiving.  Consider wearing your marinière under a blazer and never wear it with high-waisted sailor pants. (P.S.: If you're "a little round" never wear high-waisted pants under any circumstances.) Another trick: Decorate your neck with a red bandana, masses of beads, several strands of red coral.  You're staying on the bleu, blanc, rouge theme while moving attention exactly where you want it:  Up, up and away. . .

If you don't want to go all the way.  A nautical scarf is a charming compromise and serves the same eye attracting purpose as things around your neck while completely avoiding a series of horizontal stripes marching down your torso. (If you want navy, you can have navy from Amor Lux as is the T-shirt above.)

(Ed. Note:  The French say if you tweak the red pom-pom on a sailor's beret it will bring good luck and happiness.  Pourquoi pas?)

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Joke's On Whom?

If the recession has forced you to sell your Lady Dior to your favorite vintage shop, do not despair.  Look at this little purse from Matao, it slides with the greatest of ease inside any old plastic sack from the grocery store and can hold all sorts of things other than money on the outside chance Bernard Madoff stole most of yours. 

When the sun goes down it can stand-in for an evening bag and even better it doubles as a show-and-tell conversation ice-breaker.  Maybe it will become the new "It" bag for our new economy.  The first sentence of a cautionary tale? A metaphor for avarice.  A collector's item?

The mini sac says:  "Madoff took everything from me."  (Perhaps the idea is clever, but when one considers the individual misery he caused, the joke stops there.) 

True story: Sometimes I feel compelled to say this, you'll see why. Good friends of ours were dining recently with a group of their friends in Geneva when the conversation turned to the state of the world's economy.  One man at table remarked he found it "very annoying" that he will never see the 200 million Swiss francs he invested with Madoff.  "Annoying"(!?!?)  

This begs the question:  Is this a new form of snobbery? As in can you top this?  I lost -- fill-in-the-blank.  How much did you lose?  What's true; what isn't?

Back on subject. . .  A little something to put inside the empty purse:  Helena Rubinstein's three-in-one eyebrow groomer. A threefer(!)  How about that in these trying times?  You have -- all in one sleek, petit pencil: tweezers, brush, and crayon.  Who could ask for anything more?

Yes, I know.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pretty Pastels for You

All of these lovely pastels are from a woman whom I met at an exposition years ago.  Ever since Gilse and I have stayed in contact and my kitchen is filled with her fruits and vegetables and several Americans have her work hanging in their homes.  (FYI, I'll be back to you with her web address; she's changing her site.)

I added that touchingly beautiful cow, not only because I think she is so sweet, but also because I want you to see how versatile Gilse is in her work.

Et voila, your cadeaux for the weekend.  See you on Monday.  (This time I really am going to bop over and update my Ultimate Guide for the Mother-of-the-Bride blog.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

La Police Françaises: A True Story

A couple of days ago -- while driving well within the speed limit -- I was waved over to the side of the street by a crowd of Parisian police officers -- four men, one woman. 

Here follows a re-enactment of that encounter:

"Bonjour, Madame," says the leader of the group with a little salute.

"Bonjour, Monsieur." (I almost say "officer, sir" -- in English. I get nervous in situations like these.  My husband is convinced I have a nefarious past, but I think it's uniforms. Some women are attracted to them; I get twitchy.")

"Turn off your engine."  I turn off my engine.

"May I please have your license, your car registration certificate and the copy of your proof of insurance."

"Oui, bien sûr."  Mind you I still don't know why they've pulled me over. And I'm afraid to ask.

At this point the entire herd is peering into the car as I turn to reach onto the back seat to retrieve my purse and hand over all the requested documents.

This is where the situation gets complicated and once again confirms my primal fear of authority figures in uniforms.  As my throat closes up and my heart rate is topping out at 150, I'm beginning to realize I forgot to put the pertinent papers in my bag. 

I know this for certain now because I've turned into a raving, raging banshee and I'm shaking the contents of my Chanel 2.55 and my sequined Vanessa Bruno tote all over the car.

At this precise moment, my husband turns to me and says with an appalling calm:  "It doesn't really matter any more why they stopped you; you've already got three tickets and they might make you leave the car right here."

Instead of hitting him with one of the bags I look up at my official audience, take a deep breath and launch into an explanation of the situation. . .

"Yesterday I was wearing my French blue pea coat [YSL, but I didn't elaborate on labels] and with it my Lancel 'bucket bag' which is a lovely mauvy blue and the perfect pop of color for the jacket," I say trying on a sincere smile.

My husband is starting to get agitated.  I ignore him.

"Today, as you can see I'm wearing my red pea coat [also YSL, but once again I didn't go there] and obviously my blue Lancel bucket bag doesn't go with it so I changed to my black sac (Chanel) and in the transition I forgot to make a complete content transfer."

My husband, wild-eyed, says to me -- in English: "Now you're going to have five tickets, they're going to think you're mocking them." I ignore him.

Then I look up at the police and say: "I swear this is true." Which it was.

And they let me go (!)

Moral of the story:  One can never over-emphasize the importance of proper accessorizing.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Paean To The Perfect Pullover

It always starts out simply enough. 

I decide to discuss a riveting subject, in this case the black cashmere sweater. Not too complicated, right?  But then I start to think:  Which one?  How many?  How would I rank them, style-by-style, for a wish list?  And on it goes.  And as anyone who owns as many black sweaters -- of all sorts -- as I do can tell you: It's possible to have an infinite number of different styles and nuances on this pure, simple little "basic".

Let's say for argument's sake, which is the way I pose this proposition to my interlocutors (and myself), you can have but one perfect black cashmere sweater.  What would it be?  More women lean toward the turtleneck. I personally opt for the crew neck and then throw in a 
black cashmere scarf and voila, I have a turtleneck and a cashmere tee.  (It's not for nothing I've spent my life orbiting around the fun-filled world of fashion.)

Moving right along.  In a collection of black cashmere sweaters, before one veers off into the hundreds of variations on the theme, my version of a perfect top five would be, in order, as follows: crew neck; turtleneck; scoop neck (wait until you hear why. . .); simple V-neck; and if your chest can handle it (you know, no spots, wrinkles, crinkles, etc.), a deep V-neck.  (I also think bateau necks can be adorable. . .)

Turtles and crews cohabit as comfortably with jeans as with a ball gown.  The crew with a black pencil skirt morphs instantly into a little-black-dress and in my opinion, even better than the turtle.  Now, here is something very special:  The scoop-neck with that same skirt gives you 
 a knock-out cocktail, chi-chi restaurant LBD.  A belt perhaps?

In all cases one must add the appropriate bright shiny objects, heels, hose and so on.  You know the drill.

The scoop can also function as a U, V-neck if you see what I mean. Just layer a shirt or T-shirt under it you've dressed it down.

That about wraps up this subject before I hop over to my "Ultimate Guide for The Mother-of-the-Bride" blog which I've been neglecting of late.  However I would be remiss if I didn't repeat something you already know, but I feel I can't leave with out repeating:  Always buy the best you can afford, buy less, it will last longer and once again do the math -- number of times worn divided into the price.  And if you already have all or part of above mentioned collection, I recommend: Just keep buying more.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Is Luxury? Take Two

Votre definition du luxe s'il vous plaît?

Ah, the meaning of luxury. . .  

In this, the second chapter of my completely unscientific sampling of 20 French women between the ages of 40 and 80 (please see Feb.6th for part one) on what for them signifies luxury two recurring themes prevailed:  Security and Time.

Let me hasten to add, the last preoccupation for the majority of these women is to worry about "security".  It seems to me their response is a reflection of the current state of the world -- and the daily hammering reminders on every evening newscast -- that makes even the most 
materially comfortable among us uncomfortable, perhaps even anxious for our and our children's futures.

As for the "time" factor (i.e., lack thereof) it varied, not surprisingly, depending upon each woman's age.

Once again the only constraint I put on the question, or the answers if you will, was to caution my subjects to please not wander off into billionaire fantasy land.  That's too easy for those who can travel over there and for the rest of us it's just plain annoying.  But if one's luxury is a dream, which you'll see below it sometimes is -- how wonderful is that?

Giséle:  "To bathe for an hour in the milk of a jennet."  For those of you, like moi, who didn't know what in the world she was talking about she longs, like Cleopatra, to soak in the milk of a female donkey (I looked this up and the word is either jenny or jennet) she said "female donkey".  I asked her if regular cow's milk would do the trick if she couldn't find the real thing, she said "no". (French women can be very stubborn when they have an idea in their heads.)

Anne-Françoise:  "To set my clock for 9 a.m. instead of 6 a.m."

Annie:  "I have a room in my house everyone in my family knows is 'my room' and in that room I have all my music and my piano.  For me, it is pure luxury to pass hours playing the piano.  Sometimes I just do my scales the way I did when I was a little girl.  Now I find it more difficult to play Chopin; instead I play music from films. But no matter what I play, I'm happy and transported into another world."

Juliette:  "I'm a descendant of an old French family and as a result I have beautiful silver and porcelain, but unfortunately no longer have the means to entertain in the way my parents and
grandparents once did.  However, my great luxury is to invite a few intimate friends for a simple dinner: salad, omelette, bread and wine
for example, served on all the precious family relics I still possess.  Candles make everything feel like we're dining in another epoch and we inevitably have an extraordinary evening."

Marie-Laure:  "I have always wanted to be an actress, but my life led me in other directions, and I'm very happy it did, but I have never forgotten that yearning.  Recently I started taking acting classes and from time to time I have minor parts in minor productions. My most extraordinary experiences have been when I 'play' the role of an extra in a film.  I have no words and perhaps one sees me for a second -- or not at all, but I melt into the story of the film.  It's particularly exciting when I'm in costume from another century and I become someone else completely.  I believe for those moments."

Claudie:  "Ever since I was a child I wanted to be an artist, but my father told me I didn't have talent and that it was essential I learn a metier.  I did everything he told me to do because he made me believe I could never realize my dream.  Three years ago I decided to take painting lessons and from the instant I picked up a brush my life changed.  I don't know whether I have talent, but I do know it's my great luxury and my grand bonheur (happiness)."

Anne-Charlotte:  "There's nothing I love more than wandering around my garden -- winter, fall, spring and summer -- cutting flowers, berries and leaves to make bouquets which I place all over the house.  Even in the winter I have bushes with red berries and tiny white flowers. Occasionally I'll buy a few blossoms from the florist to mix in with what I find chez moi.  I love my house filled with flowers.  I collect vases from flea markets, boutiques, wherever I travel so so my arrangements are never the same, that's what makes it so much fun for me. And I always have a tiny bouquet next to my bed in a vase my daughter made for me."

Odile:  "At this very moment I'm living my dream, or if you will, my ultimate luxury.  Nine months ago I took a sabbatical from my job as the principal of a school, left for England and submerged myself into English language courses. I lived in an apartment with 'students' from
from all over the world who wanted to learn or improve their English, everyone was much younger than I, but I don't think I have ever felt more alive or fulfilled in my life.  Now that I'm back in France I think perhaps I'll see if I can become an au pair in an American or English family to improve my accent and maybe later teach English to pre-schoolers.  Why not?  All I know is I'm happy."

Ava:  "One day, just one day, I would like to be pampered in a thalasso theraphy spa. Of course I'd like a week, but I don't want to be greedy."  (Just click on thalasso theraphy and you'll understand. . .)

Marie-Louise:  "I would like a complete makeover:  new haircut, a makeup lesson, manicure, pedicure.  And since I'm already in an 'institute de beaute' for my new look, why not a massage?"

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Here A Tweak, There A Tweak

Through the decades with a little snip here, a wisp of fringe there, these women have stayed true to their cut, color and most of all their signature style.

I find it fascinating they got it right, right from the start.  Another one of those quintessentially French phenomena I so dearly love and admire.  Without being specific I do believe one (maybe two?) of these femmes should re-think her decision, ever so slightly.  When "locked-in-time" does not translate into  "timeless" -- or at least charming -- an immutable image can at times be mercilessly cruel.  

If only some of us owned the wicked witch's fairest of them all talking mirror. . .

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