Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Great 20th Century British Aesthetes

Stephen Tennant. Noel Coward. Dirk Bogarde. Osbert Sitwell. Cecil Beaton. Harold Acton (if anyone can ever find me a copy of "Memoirs of an Aesthete", I'll be indebted to them forever). Beverley Nichols. E.F. Benson. Ronald Firbank. Saki.

The next time you're in a good used bookstore, run to the shelves and hunt for some of their brilliant (and often brilliantly funny) works.

Then open a page and instantly elevate your afternoon.

Thinking of India

...of the beautiful mothers with their liquid brown eyes......of the slum children who raced alongside our van through the small villages......of the holy sadhu who sat by the side of the road crocheting bags for tourists...
...of the school children who practiced their English on us and asked if they could be in our photographs...
...of the train porter who insisted on carrying my 100-pound suitcase on his head...
...of the serene little boy who sat by the steps of the Ganges and prayed...
...of the barefoot toddler who wandered the streets of Rishikesh by herself, uncowed and unafraid...
...if I could take a jet plane back there tomorrow, I would.  

(Credits:  All photos taken by me with my Nikon D40, the digital camera that changed my life.)

Consoling Thoughts

So I was flipping through the new Pottery Barn catalog (yes, I admit it) and the Rhys console table caught my eye.  (Oh, the names!  Who is the "Rhys" for?  Jean Rhys, the 1920's novelist who wrote so unflinchingly about alcoholism and female desire? Rhys Ifans, Sienna Miller's old flame? Matthew Rhys, her flame before Ifans?  Somehow, I think not.)
Anyhow, I was deliberating whether I could use it as a bar/buffet in my dining room.  Here's what I like about it.  It reminds me of an old card catalog (before libraries went digital, remember?) and at just 16 inches wide, it won't stick out too far.  I'd use it to hold dishes and glasses in the cabinets, my Belgian napkins in the two drawers and some kind of textural container-like objects underneath.  Plus, it would fit in nicely with the bookcase wallpaper that flanks one wall of the room.

Best of all, it's practically recession-proof at only $699.

A Sacrificial Meal

The Divine Italian made me breakfast this morning.  It was in accordance with the yearly honor of the day when I made my first squalling appearance upon this planet.  Let's just say I haven't quite reached the age of that celebrity who adopted a baby from Malawi, but am definitely older than that other celebrity who adopted babies from Cambodia, Vietnam and Ethiopia.  

Next to it was a birthday card from my six year old, who is currently gripped with the "Bone" graphic novels by Jeff Smith.  

For breakfast, I was presented with a delicious egg omelet, folded onto a heap of smoked salmon, topped with caviar and creme fraiche, all on a toasted seed bagel, with a steaming latte on the side (the way I like it, foamy and with one sugar).  

But what made it REALLY special is that he is currently on Day Five of the Master Cleanse, something he does for one week annually, starting the day after Thanksgiving.  So there he was, cooking away, having only ingested lemonade with maple syrup and cayenne pepper for over 96 hours, while all those fragrant smells wafted up past his nose and threatened to reawaken his dormant appetite.  If that's not a sacrificial gesture, I don't know what is.

And can I just say that the Italian is soo much nicer when he's fasting?  He becomes like a Zen master or something.  Calm, serene, and peaceful -- probably because he's weak, tired and has no energy to argue.  Whatever.  I like it.  I asked him today if he could go without food for another week.  I thought I caught a glimpse of Bobby Sands in his eyes, so I backed off.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

More is more

Words come up short when trying to describe the Gold Rush Steakhouse at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo.
It's just one of the craziest, most psychedelic, most audaciously designed restaurants in America, and high on my list of favorite places ever.  We dine there tonight on steaks and martinis, old-school style.  And then we sleep here:

...in the Old Mill room.  The description is as follows: "For the benefit of old and young alike, a genuine waterwheel propels life-like figurines in and out of a miniature mill structure."  If you've never stayed in one of the 109 unique rooms, book now.  The tackiness is transcendent. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dinner at home

We had the French contingent of the Patch over for dinner last week.  The divine Piero whipped up a glorious beef bourgignon a la "Normandaise" in honor of our vacation there in July.  There is nothing like the smell of something delicious cooking in the kitchen to make a house really feel alive and lift my spirits instantly.
Only problem is that Piero always gives me so many little "taste tests" that I forget to leave room for the actual meal and have to change outfits at the last minute, replacing my slim-cut jeans for something more forgiving, like a vintage Moroccan djellaba.

For our dinner parties, Piero takes care of all the savories, and I am in charge of decor and dessert.  For this occasion, I baked a rustic fig tart with marzipan filling.  It was my first one ever and was incredibly simple (I found the recipe in the October issue of "Everyday Food".) Unlike Piero who can turn on some jazz music and improvise his way through a five course meal, I require explicit directions when I cook.  I don't have the chef gene, I have the sous-chef gene.  I need the recipe firmly propped up in front of me and my measuring cups and spoons within reach.  But I love those "Everyday Food" recipes because they are for beginner cooks like me and pretty much fool-proof.  I added some bougainvillea flowers from the back garden for a bit of styling color, slid it onto my mother's vintage Sascha Brastoff "Roman Coin" platter and voila.

The dining room is coming together, despite the lack of curtains and my (so far) fruitless hunt for new dining chairs.  But the new "Genuine Fake Bookcase" wallpaper from Deb Bowness added so much warmth to the room.  And I am still loving my upholstered "Gosford Park" kitchen door (it looks like leather, but it's actually faux, in deference to our sticky-fingered six-year old and his equally sticky-fingered friends).  Thanks again to Doug, my wallpaper guy extraordinaire, who padded the door with batting fabric and then pounded in about 800 gold nailheads around the edges of the fabric.  As he said to me, "It's not going anywhere now."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Chateau de Servigny

After the success of our Patch vacation to Scotland last year, we decided to expand our horizons.  So we did some online sleuthing and booked a house in Normandy for a week.  It was more than we could have hoped for.
It came with extensive grounds and outbuildings, including a chapel, a small forest, a manor house built on the scale of children and a temple to Neptune.  

As if that wasn't enough, the house itself had genuine bona fide history.  It was the site of several bloody WWII skirmishes.  And on June 26, 1944 the Treaty of Servigny (detailing the ceasefire agreement between France and Germany), also known as the Surrender of Cherbourg, was signed within its walls. 

We went to Omaha Beach, Mont St. Michel and Bayeux, but honestly, we pretty much spent every day like this.  Can you blame us?

(Photo credits:  All taken July 2007 at the Chateau de Servigny in Yvetot-Bocage, Normandy, France)

My big fat French obsessions

There it is in all its glory.  The coolest gum in France.  When we were in Normandy this summer with our great gaggle of friends and their children (from here on to be referred to as "The Patch"), we always had this on hand.  However...having a wad of gum in your mouth when you're in Europe is one of those crass American behaviors you're best off avoiding,  so we kept our chewing confined to the perimeter of the house.  But I love the design.  The pop art colors, the big round container, the comic book-like font.

We had another guilty pleasure (see below).  Our nightly aperitif -- adults only, of course.  And before you pooh-pooh it, may I just say that the salty crunch of the oh-so-sophisticated Chipster mingled with the icy sweetness of a chilly B on ice is not to be sniffed at.  

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Looking for Hobbits

I'm so envious of the joyous abandon that children have when they run.  They race for the pure thrill of it and for no other reason than because they can.  Me?  I can barely muster up the energy to go out for a jog anymore.  When I do, I move at a turtle's pace, anticipating every ache and twinge, my face a grim mask of determination.  I'm so NOT in the moment.  Maybe if I stopped counting the minutes and the calories and just chased my son to the nearest tree, I'd discover it's not too late to enjoy a simple pleasure.  (Then again, maybe not.)

Mental reminder after looking at these pictures:  Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but griminess is definitely the next best thing to heaven.

(Photo credits:  Gargunnock, Scotland, August 2007)

Under the hedge

(Photo credit:  W. Eugene White, "The Walk to Paradise Garden", 1946)

(Photo info:  Gargunnock House gardens, Scotland, 2007)

(Photo info:  Gargunnock House, Scotland, 2007)

The first photo you've seen before.  In college, didn't at least one friend of yours have that poster plastered over their beds?  It was either that or Monet's "Water Lilies at Giverny," right?  Anyway, I've carried that image of those two children in my head ever since.  When we rented a house in Scotland last year, my son Luca and his friend Avery were playing in the kitchen garden and found a gap in the hedge.  It was a bit strange because they'd played there before and not one of us had noticed it until then.  I snapped the two shots above as they entered.  On the other side, completely hidden from adult view, was a Lilliputian greenhouse, complete with a tiny table, chairs and a stack of antique gardening pamphlets.  It immediately became their de facto clubhouse for the duration of our stay.  Of course it was there the whole time...or was it?  Would we have found it without them?  Does childhood get any more magical?

A room of my own

When I lived in New York City at the turn of the last century, I loved to walk home after work  through the West Village, the one neighborhood in Manhattan that has still managed to preserve its bohemian charms.  In that magical hour after sunset as legions of people made their nightly journey back downtown, I loved to watch the gorgeous old brownstones slowly return to life after a dormant day.  Gazing up at the enormous lit windows, I would try to guess what each home was like from the clues I could make out as I walked by:  a piece of artwork on a wall, floor-to-ceiling shelves stuffed with bibelots and books, carved ceiling moldings, even the fabric on a chair.  As much as I longed to go inside, there was something magical about being on the outside looking in.  It was an enchanted domain, and the fact that I would never be invited in made my fantasies all the more potent.  I'd climb the stairs to my studio apartment (decorated in techno-chic, don't ask), settle in on my futon couch and order takeout Chinese, still awash in visions of pre-war splendor.

Even today, the allure still holds.  Just the other night, after we had neighbors over for a glass (or three) of champagne, I grabbed my camera and took this shot of our kitchen from the backyard.  The golden interior light, the remnants of dinner on the table and the blurry outlines of my husband (tidying up) and my son (angling for another Trader Joe's macaroon cookie) gave me the same frisson of longing that I remembered from my NYC days.  The only difference was that this time I could go inside and join the party.  

Do any of you have the same fascination?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Order + Disorder = Charm

My husband just returned from a business trip to London and took this photo of his hotel room at the Kensington Gore.  I love it.  The rumpled cushions, the golden afternoon light, the detritus on the table, it perfectly illustrates my new theory of "order plus disorder equals charm."

Too perfect is beyond boring.  You know how a certain glossy interiors magazine features endless spreads of million dollar rooms, usually bloomless and overlit, where you could swear no bawdy joke has ever reverberated, no mud has ever been tracked across the threshold and (perish the thought) no meal has ever been cooked?  I'm SO over it. Perfection is the most overrated quality in existence.  It's soulless.  Personality comes from quirks.  Houses with charm have scuff marks on the floor, rumpled cushions, unironed napkins and flowers that are just a bit wilty.  They're charming not in spite of their disorder, but because of it.  There's nothing as off-putting as a spotless house to make a guest feel ill at ease.  "Where do I put the drink?  Do I need a coaster?  Where can I sit?" he or she wonders.  Who wants to make someone feel like that?  They'd be much more comfortable scooching a pillow to the side and plopping down on your couch while you trundle off to open a bottle of Prosecco.

Please come in...

Welcome to my blog.  First things first.  Why "A Bloomsbury Life"? 

1.  Because I have an enduring love affair with the Bloomsbury Group, those chic artistic souls who resided at Charleston House in the south of England in the 1920's.  Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf), Clive Bell (Vanessa's husband), and Duncan Grant (Vanessa's lover).  All broke away from the uptight, judgmental mores of Victorian London and strove fill their lives with art, beauty, wit and the emancipated hedonism of rural living.

2.  Because in these uncertain and stress-inducing times, maybe it's time to refocus ourselves on the simpler things in life.  Overspending is as out as the "in" bag.  And while I've admittedly bought my share of designer purses and suffered pangs of jealousy over Rachel Zoe's archival wardrobe, I'm honestly trying to renumber my priorities.  Old habits are hard to break, but slowly and surely, I am beginning to take as much delight in watching the climbing roses grow up and around my balcony as I used to take in being first in line at the warehouse sale at Barneys.  

3.  Because although I live in citified Hollywood, California, I firmly believe that countryside living is a state of mind.  I may not have acres of green grass in my backyard, but my bare feet are just as happy treading on the early morning dew as they would be if I had boundless acreage.  Life is made up of a series of delicious moments strung together.  The more of those I can accumulate, the better.  

4.  Because the Bloomsbury Group were fearless explorers of life.  Like them, my curiosity is  fervent and deep.  I want to learn to paint.  I want to speak French unflinchingly.  I want to learn to compost.  I want to cook with confidence.  I want to know the Latin names of my favorite plants and flowers.  I want to return to India, Cambodia and Tibet.  I want to take a welly walk on a rainy August day in Scotland.  I want to read all of Cecil Beaton's diaries.  I want to do more yoga.  I want to be a better wife and mother.  I want to make my house a beautiful home.  I want to be more grateful.  We have just the merest blip of time on this planet and I want to maximize the journey.  Join me.

(Photo credits, top and bottom:  Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, England, taken by me in August 2007)


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