La Dolce Vita: Florence

After Rome, I journeyed to Florence. It's a very pretty city surrounded by the beautiful Tuscan countryside.

I love renaissance art and was really looking forward to seeing the Uffizi, which did not disappoint. There was a time in my life when I was semi-obsessed with the goings on of the Medici family and they have amassed an amazing collection. Sadly, we had a terrible tour guide in Florence who tried to discourage us from seeing the museum so most of the people we met in Florence missed out. They seemed more interested in buying leather jackets instead. As far as I'm concerned, the day people choose cheap leather over Botticelli marks the beginning of the end of the world as we know it.

It's not that I have anything against leather, of course. One of the few planned purchases on this austerity trip was a pair of gloves from Madova, one of few leather crafters left that focus solely on gloves. They make the gloves for a number of high end fashion houses and they also sell their house brand gloves for a very good price.

I walked in, put my elbow on the little cushion made for fittings and was quickly outfitted with a pair of cashmere lined red leather gloves I had to get.

There is lots of leather for sale in Florence and most of it is awful. Madova was wonderful, however and well worth a stop if you are visiting.

Food in Florence was nice. Lots of outdoor patios. I grabbed a quick lunch at the Gucci Museum and was very impressed with their placemats.

A trip to Florence would not be complete without a trip to the many paper shops. I got some writing paper and monogrammed correspondence cards for me and some pencils and bookmarks as gifts. I love paper and Florence has a gorgeous selection.

Florence is lovely and I did not spend nearly enough time there. I'd love to have spent another day or two exploring. But it was time to leave for Venice...

Jetlag, Blue Jasmine and Anne Graham Lotz

I'm still jetlagged. I take forever to get over it. I did not even realize it was Friday: hence, no Bliss Notes. I'm giving myself the gift of an easy few days to recover.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of hearing Anne Graham Lotz speak at Crossroads. Lotz, who is Billy Graham's daughter and runs AnGel Ministries, has written a new book, Wounded by God's People, about those who have been hurt by the church and fellow Christians. I had my own experience with this and am glad that someone with such an impressive pedigree is taking on this topic. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of the book and I cannot wait to dive in.

While I was at the lunch, I heard some good news on the Full Circle front. They are back on the air in re-runs on CTS. There is no other talk show in Canada for Christian women and I wish they'd bring this show back. Hopefully the reruns will be popular and they will resume taping. This show was a real lifeline for me at a dark point in my life and I'm privileged to have had an opportunity over the past year to get to know the hosts. God's work is not always done on the mission field and this show tackled issues from which most other Christian shows would shy away (as well as episodes that were just a lot of fun.) They are also hosting a live event on October 26 in Burlington, Ontario. I hope you can come. (People often ask if I work there, but I don't. I pay for my ticket like everyone else.)

I also went to see Blue Jasmine. After watching five movies (Populaire, Safe Haven, Admissions, The September Issue, and Les Miserables) on my flight home from Rome you'd think I'd be all movied out but no. When I first saw the trailer for Blue Jasmine, I absolutely wanted to see it (the clothes!) but then when I read the reviews, I decided it was something to avoid. The idea of watching Cate Blanchett clinging onto her old Chanel wardrobe, Veranda magazines, and last remnants of sanity after suffering a major reversal of fortune cut a little close to the bone (she's even thinking of becoming a decorator...) But I loved Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and after Rome I was craving more beautiful things to see. So I went and, while I could not be as unsympathetic to Jasmine as I think I was supposed to be, I enjoyed it. Blanchett is amazing, playing a modern day Blanche Dubois. And don't get me started on her Vivier shoes. (For the record, Populaire is also a wonderfully pretty film and has a much frothier theme.)

I'll be back next week with my reports on Florence and Venice (Cipriani, Fortuny and Gritti, oh my!) I hope you have a happy long weekend!

La Dolce Vita: Rome

I had a very strong desire to get off the continent for the latter part of August. I have a pretty good understanding of the difference between needs and wants, but for me this trip was a necessity. So I asked the travel agent where I could go with not a lot of advanced booking time and she told me Italy. Italy in August is reputed to be hot and half closed as that it when Italians like to close up shop and go to the sea. But still, it was off the continent. And so I booked.

Well, what a treat. The weather was perfect (25-30 degrees celsius and glorious sunshine) and the cities I visited were less crowded (which, to be fair, are still very busy.) The first stop was Rome and everything I wanted to see was open including Saddlers Union. There were a number of smaller businesses and a few restaurants that were closed, but it did not prove to be a problem.

I took a number of Classics courses in undergrad and after a couple of thwarted attempts to visit Rome, it was amazing to see everything I'd studied. I visited the Coliseum and threw a coin in Trevi Fountain. I also toured The Vatican, which is amazing.

While the major attractions were amazing to see, I always love exploring the road less travelled and was eager to get away from all of the tour groups. (Must people travel wearing sneakers and fanny packs? This is not the Grand Canyon, people. It's ROME!) A highlight was the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj which had the added benefit of being open on Mondays when most other museums are closed. The place was almost empty, which was a surprise because it's amazing. Imagine a gorgeous, still-lived-in palace filled with amazing art by Caravaggio, Titian, and Raphael. It was Downton Abbey, Italian-style. I'm not sure why it's such a secret.

My favourite painting there was Putti Fighting by Guido Renni. One explanation given was that it is meant to depict the battle between elevated love (the winged putti) and lust (the more diabolical looking tots) If you look closely, lust appears to be winning.

Another fun find was Babington's Tea Shop, a cafe that has operated in the Spanish Steps area of Rome since 1893. I try to have tea and scones in every city I visit. Tè freddo seemed appropriate for August. And the toasted current scones? Molto bene!

 Right beside the tea shop, on the other side of the Spanish Steps is Keats-Shelley House, a museum dedicated to the English Romantic poets who lived in Rome. The house is where John Keats lived and died and has a large collection of archives including a sonnet about Keats handwritten by Oscar Wilde.

It might seem odd to spend part of one's Roman holiday in an English literature museum and having tea, but worry not: I ate my weight in gelato as well.

We were staying in the heart of the shopping district, with Prada, Tod's, Bvlgari and Max Mara just around the corner. It was very hard to stick to my austerity plan, but I did so in spite of the fact that I'm still lusting after the jaguar t-strap Beverly pumps from Gucci. The only thing I bought in Rome itself was a little garnet cross at the Vatican. I deserve some sort of medal.

Some of the best shopping in Rome was at Fiumicino airport. Terminal 3 had duty-free Gucci, Ferragamo, Valentino, Bottega Veneta, and Prada. The little angel and devil that perch on my shoulder had their own little version of Putti Fighting as the Gucci shoes continued to call my name.  In the end, austerity won and I limited my duty free shopping to one Rockstud hair clip from Valentino, the new YSL Glossy Stain in Grenat Acrylique, and some modena vinegar.

After Rome, I moved onto Florence where I revelled in art. I will share the highlights in my next post.

Bliss Notes: A Passion for Fashion

Fashion is not frivolous. It is a part of being alive today. - Mary Quant

I adore clothes. While I am not quite as zealous as Oscar Wilde (who claimed "Looking good and dressing well is a necessity. Having a purpose in life is not") or Imelda Marcos (who was eager to point out, "I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes. I had one thousand and sixty,") there is little that makes me happier than spending an afternoon flipping through the fall fashion magazines, thinking of all of the possibilities.

In the movie, The Devil Wears Prada (which I love), Stanley Tucci's Nigel compares fashion to art: "Don't you know that you are working at [Vogue,] the place that published some of the greatest artists of the century? Halston, Lagerfeld, de la Renta. And what they did, what they created was greater than art because you live your life in it." Like DWP's protagonist Andy Sachs, I do not personally live my life in couture (something about the size zero cut and five figure cost keeps me away), but I enjoy the pieces without owning them just as I enjoy the Mona Lisa or a Monet. Simply knowing that Valentino's rockstud sandals exist in the world makes me feel happy. In spite of CNN's insistence that life is nasty, brutish, and short, the shoes are proof positive that beauty abounds.

Even though I am not exactly in the market for $3000 bags this year, not all of my enjoyment of fashion is done vicariously. As Coco Chanel said, "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." Chanel found beauty in the details of her clothes: a beautiful button, a chain at the hem to make a jacket hang well, a silk camellia flower pinned to a lapel. As Coco understood, adornment is "a reflection of the heart." We can all bring this sensibility into our lives by adding a beautiful pin to a coat, putting flowers on the breakfast table, or tying a ribbon on a gift for a friend.

While I do not need to look runway-ready to do the morning drop off at the school, it is hard to feel great if, as in the words of Jonathan Swift, I wear my clothes, "as if they were thrown on with a pitchfork."  As the V&A's former costume historian James Laver pointed out, "Clothes are never a frivolity: They always mean something." Paying attention to the clothes we wear can shed some light on our inner state. A need to wear the latest and greatest might show a desire to feel special that is otherwise going unmet. A comfort with wearing old, ratty sweatpants might show that we are not treating ourselves with care. Of course, sometimes we can't read into our choices too deeply; perhaps, like Gilda Radner did, we are simply basing our "fashion sense on what doesn't itch."

Clothes can provide a wonderful opportunity for us to engage our senses. We can note how different colour combinations make us feel. Does an all black ensemble make us feel chic or like a mime? Does a yellow patterned sundress make us feel cheerful or like a children's television character? We can also note a garment's texture: the dusty feel of a silk scarf, the baby-soft feel of good cashmere, or the roughness of a Donegal tweed jacket. Some clothes have associated sounds. I love the satisfying thud of a terrycloth robe dropping onto the bathroom tiles, the rustle of a silk taffeta evening gown, and the swishing sound wool turtlenecks make when pulling them on. Clothes can pick up scents and I will forever associate the faint smell of Chanel No. 5 and cigarette smoke with the fur coats worn by stylish aunties to keep them warm during harsh prairie winters.

So this season, rather than fixating on the fact that I do not look like Keira or Jessica or Marianne or even Jennifer Lawrence (galling though that is!), I'll be focusing on the zen of fashion. I'll view the fall collections as art, view my current wardrobes as a reflection of our inner world, and see shopping (mainly in my own closet) as an opportunity to experience the material world in all its splendour.

Florence's Madova Glove Shop: A Little Slice of Heaven

Bliss Notes: Kiss and Makeup

Joy is the best makeup. Joy, and good lighting. If you ask me, a little lipstick is a close runner up. - Anne Lamott

I love makeup. Nothing makes me happier than buying a new pink gloss to mark the beginning of summer or a deep russet shade to usher in fall. At one point, I owned 62 shades of pinky-brown lipsticks that were slight variations of M.A.C.'s Twig. I own the book Read My Lips: A Cultural History of Lipstick. On my upcoming austerity trip to Italy, the only planned purchase is a new Chanel lipstick at Duty Free. I'm a big fan.

Now that the blog is becoming more about how to overcome hardship than how to arrange pillows, I was not sure makeup was a weighty enough topic. But Anne Lamott, a  left-wing, deeply devout, dreadlock-sporting mama writer, blesses this seemingly frivolous idea in her beautiful book, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith:

I know women from every place on the lipstick continuum: some who wear none; some who wear a lot, who spackle it on, who could play Shakespeare in the park as soon as they drop the kids off. . . . It's only when you think you need to be concealed, because you're unacceptable, that makeup causes harm. 

Just because I believe that we are souls having a physical experience on earth doesn't mean I can't also want to rock the planet with a great outer shell. I know that on days when I rush out the door with no makeup, messy hair, and visible sunspots, I feel like I've had a run in with the ugly stick. Days when I take a moment to cover up the worst of it and throw some lip crayon (Nars is the best) I feel like I can take on the world. If you are going to survive a reversal of fortune, lip crayon, mineral foundation and very big sunglasses are essentials. (Just ask Little Edie Beale who would not allow the Housing and Sanitation Department into Grey Gardens until she'd applied a coat of lipstick.)

The odd thing is I've seen myself in TV studio applied slap and with no makeup at all and, well, I kind of look the same. The confidence given by makeup is really more about how we feel than how we look. We feel good when we value ourselves enough to take the five or ten minutes to do a little primping.

But let's face it, the very best thing about cosmetics -- particularly lipsticks -- are the names. Designed to evoke a feeling or a mood, the names that appeal to us at a given point in time can reveal more about our inner state than a year's worth of psychoanalysis.  Are we lusting after Grace or Vamp? Tender or Crazed? (When I started to wear products with names like Poison, Lip Venom, and Urban Decay to work, it was time to change careers.)
So, while we all know that developing our inner beauty is most important, I believe there is nothing wrong with an afternoon spent at Sephora every now and then. Makeup allows us to indulge in a little fantasy (I am a Park Avenue matron in my blow out and beige gloss, I am Dorothy Parker with a bold red pout, I am a chic Parisian with smudged black eyeliner). It allows us to feel a little better about ourselves. And as long as we abide by Seinfeld's cardinal rule of lipstick application and "accept God's final word on where [our] lips end" (you hear that Jerseylicious?) we are going to indulge our lipstick lust guilt free.

Wednesday Want

I'm spending my money wisely these days. Investing heavily in, um, gelato futures. Yes, we'll go with that.

So I am not interested in this Woodland Charm bracelet from Asprey London.

Nope. Not at all.

Bliss Notes Friday: What we learned at summer camp

When you throw a bunch of people together in the forest, they become something more than just a bunch of people together in the forest.  - From the movie Happy Campers

To borrow from Anne Taintor, I love not camping. I am not fond of bugs or snakes. I like to have a place to recharge my iPhone. I am not big on having to do the flip-flop march to the communal showers (or the lake) to get clean (truth be told, I cannot stand flip-flops, period.) Truly, an hour or two in a good shoe store proves far more restorative than a week inside a tent where the combination of my forty-some year-old back on an air mattress and trying to listen for The Blair Witch disturbs a sleep that not even a silk eye mask brought from home can salvage. Even well-appointed cottages can seem a little rustic (what, no high speed?)

But spending some time in nature is so important for the spirit. Even die-hard urbanistas should swap their Louboutins for a pair of Kodiaks every once in a while. There is something about being outside that seems to put everyday stresses in perspective. No matter how slow the traffic, how rude the waiter, or how jerky the boss, the sun still rises and sets, the river still flows, and the moon waxes and wanes. When we find ourselves overreacting to life's irritations, sometimes it's best to get quiet and go for a walk through the woods, or sit by a stream. Wallace Stevens understood how being in the natural world can give us a fresh perspective when he wrote, "Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake."  

Being outdoors can help us learn the art of acceptance. In the city, it's easy to feel we are in control of things. If it rains, we go to a museum. If it's cold, we turn up the heat. If we want coffee, we pop into a cafe and can kvetch if the barista screws up our decaf tall no-fat latte. When things happen that are beyond our control, it can feel overwhelming as our acceptance muscles are weak. But outdoors, we must simply accept the rain and the cold and the fact that brewing a pot of Sanka first means building a fire. It's harder to be silly and shallow in the woods; there are no Real Housewives of Algonquin Park. 

It is easier to calm one's mind in nature and tune into the natural rhythms of lapping waves or the wind in the trees. Some people can use banging garbage trucks and police sirens and a passing car's thumping rap music as part of their meditative practice, but I'm not that enlightened. I need cottage country's equivalent of whale music to relax and always look forward to hearing the tremolo call of the loons. As Margaret Laurence writes my favourite short story, The Loons: "No one can ever describe that ululating sound, the crying of the loons, and no one who has heard it can ever forget it. Plaintive, and yet with a quality of chilling mockery, those voices belonged to a world separated by aeons from our neat world of summer cottages and the lighted lamps of home." It's that separateness that helps us detach from the everyday and clear our minds. 

My favourite part of the camping experience is the campfire. I am not sure if it is because fire is a primal element or because I just really like s'mores but there is something quite lovely about sitting around a crackling fire. As Charles Dudley Warner put it, "To poke a wood fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world." (As a 19th century puritan, however, Mr. Warner was probably not privy to the solid enjoyment of finding an in-season Bvlgari handbag at 70% off.) 

Most importantly, being outdoors makes us feel grateful for simple things. If we are warm, if we are dry, if we are fed, then life is good.  

We should always feel this way.

Facelift Reveal

No, not me. But my blog. Isn't she lovely? I wanted something classic that looked like really nice writing paper. I'm pretty happy with it.

I thought that it was fitting to have a whole new look during August since this month I'm celebrating shedding the old. Being a fan of scorched earth, I'd like to have a great big bonfire as a healing ritual, but I'm guessing that's frowned upon in old Oakville. So instead I'll simply treat myself with kindness (I'd also like to treat myself with this Etro coat, but given that my tuition refund won't be through until after Italy, I'm thinking that kindness will have to suffice. Being mature is such a drag sometimes.)

Happily, my garden is looking good.

Tonight we are having a wee party. Nominally, it's a birthday celebration but those who know me well know that I'm raising a glass to all sorts of small victories.

I'm going to the Canadian Gift and Table Association Trade show this weekend and will hopefully find some pretty things for the Shop section of the blog at some point.

Praise above. I'm getting tired of just sitting there, holding her copy of Strunk and White. 

I'm also seeing the tennis semi-finals and Sampras play McEnroe.

And getting ready for a little of this:

But in the meantime, there are still a few more days of this:

Gosh do I ever hate editing my own work. Editing other people is fine but with my own stuff I'm a bit "I thought it was decent before so why would I change it?" As I said before, maturity is highly overrated. 

Thought for Wednesday

Sometimes an English garden supper is exactly what you need. 
(That gorgeous white bouquet is a cake.) 

Bliss Notes Friday: Scheduling Bliss

A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.  - Annie Dillard

As soon I flip the calendar to the month of August, my thoughts turn to fall. At the drugstore, the Seasonal aisle has been cleared of sunscreen and beach toys, and shiny new school supplies line the shelves. (Why am I drawn to the teen value pack every year at Shoppers Drug Mart? I always resist buying one but, clearly, I need help.)  Gone are the fashion magazines promising Frizz-Free Hair! and Bikini-Ready Body! In their place are telephone-book sized tomes guiding me through the fall collections (I've heard my namesake is gracing the cover of Vogue this year. Oh, let her be in Dior!)  After weeks of taking it easy, my mind is starting to crave structure and routine.

Time to update the calendar.

Since I am a bone fide paper lover (Florence will be heaven), I use a paper-based system with only minimal information in my iPhone's calendar as a back-up. After years of being a Filofax gal, I recently switched to the Whitney English Day Designer, supplemented by Lara Casey's Powersheets (I know I talk about them a lot, but they are great if you are serious about achieving your goals this year.)

My problem is I can get so caught up in the art of organizing that I don't actually get anything done. As Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote, "The trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they're organized for." At some point, I need to push past the fancy paper and the colour-coded markers and focus on the content within.

When it comes to my writing work, there is nobody telling me what to do and, without a schedule linked directly to my goals, I could waste my days on Facebook and reality TV. Annie Dillard observes, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." I want to publish a book that gets read, I want healthy and happy kids, I want deep relationships with my loved ones and God. And so my days need to reflect those desires.

Brian Tracy writes, "There is never enough time to do everything, but there is always enough time to do the most important thing." It's true. The trick, of course, is figuring out what's important. August is a wonderful month to figure out what matters to you most and schedule activities to support your goals in September.

And if every week you want to reserve four hours for watching cats do stuff on YouTube, three hours for fighting with your family, and nine hours for watching old episodes of Degrassi Junior High, then, hey, who am I to judge? I'm just saying it's a bit of a shame if you what you really wanted to do was connect with your kids, read War and Peace, and learn how to paddle board.

Christmas Traditions: The Nutcracker Ballet

Every year, I take my daughter to see the Nutcracker. (I took my youngest son once, but he loudly complained that there was too much dancing...