Autumn Style – injecting colour and texture to my outfits

Personally, I do enjoy the colourful aspect of dressing for the spring and summer seasons. Now, I know that French and Italian women tend to stick to black, white, camel and navy, perhaps using bags and shoes to add a dash of colour. I certainly take inspiration from their styles but prefer to wear more colours myself, especially in warmer weather. Some of my T-shirts and dresses have floral patterns, and are shades of pinks, blues, yellows etc. But when the weather starts to turn and I swap my summer for my winter wardrobe, it’s striking how plain and colourless my replacement garments look hanging in my wardrobe. In turn, I think this influences my mood and can make me feel less cheerful. Somehow, it’s impossible to look in the mirror wearing a red or pink top and feel glum, don’t you think?

So, I decided to make an effort to brighten up my winter wardrobe a little I bought a few brightly coloured long-sleeved tops to wear under my pinafore dresses. I admit I love pinafore dresses, at the moment I have several cord dresses (in black, camel and burgundy colours) and have been wearing a red or olive green top under the black dress. So far, I haven’t strayed from cream or black tops under the other coloured dresses because I can’t confidently think of a colour that won’t clash!

I have quite a few scarves in my collection, in varying colours and enjoy wearing these to inject colour into plainer coloured outfits. Somehow, just arranging a scarf around my neck makes me feel instantly more chic and presentable. I noticed a lot of Italian women worse fashion scarves when I lived there. I’m making a conscious effort to select more colourful ones if my clothes are already in duller colours.

I’m hopeless on the bag front at the moment, because in the last 6 years I’ve constantly had either a baby or a toddler (or both!) and practicality has won over style- I still have the same black and white printed change bag that gets taken everywhere. I dream of the day that I can choose a small handbag to take out, in the colour of my choosing, rather than the clunky old thing I’m stuck with for now…

At the moment, I’m quite interested in different textures too. My aforementioned dungaree dresses are made from corduroy fabric which I like. In a shop recently, I was looking in the tights section to buy a few new pairs. Automatically, I reached out to grab the usual smooth black, high denier ones. Then I stopped to glance around at the other tights for sale. There were some in different colours, but I was most attracted to some cable-knit tights with a thick cable knit pattern running down each leg in a soft-touch, textured material. I bought a couple of black pairs and have to say that I love them! They are so warm to wear and I love the pattern on them. Sometimes it’s good to stop and try something different.

Lastly, another way of injecting a little colour is by simply painting my fingernails. In Autumn I love shades of bright red and burgundy. Seeing a flash of newly painted colourful nails gives an instant boost.

Do you have anything that you do to brighten up your autumn/winter wardrobe? I would love to hear about it!

 

A weekend away, childfree!

As lovely as our little ones are, I can’t deny that they can be quite demanding, both physically and emotionally. My husband works mega hard and is away for bedtime most week nights so it can feel an uphill struggle getting all three kids ready for bed when they are often overtired and whiny. So, every few months or so we aim to spend a night or two away while the grandparents very kindly look after the kids, which makes it a mini holiday for them, too.

It’s good for our relationship, too. Due to Paul’s aforementioned long hours, we can end up feeling like the proverbial passing ships in the night at times, sometimes I am already asleep by the time he gets home if he has been driving a long way. When we make the effort to go away we speak properly and discuss things that really matter that there doesn’t seem to be time for day-to-day.

We stayed in a hotel in Hertfordshire on an all-inclusive package so had lunch soon after arriving and unpacking.  We were given a lovely, spacious executive room with a comfortable sofa and huge walk-in shower.

Then we drove to the small city of St Albans on the day we arrived. We had been there before and really like it. It is a historical city with lots of lovely old buildings, including a cathedral (see pic below). We enjoyed a drink at the traditional old pub pictured above. There are quite a lot of shops, a mixture of both chain stores to be found everywhere and one-off independent shops. We bought a few Christmas presents for people, including in one lovely gift shop called Raindrops on Roses which amazingly donates all its profits to a cancer charity. Whilst I was waiting to be served, an elderly lady was paying for her goods and I couldn’t help but overhear her conversation with the shopkeeper. She was saying how she was impressed by the charitable cause the shop supported and that she had bought several Christmas presents for her children, grand-children and great-grand-children, which she has quite a lot of because she was eighty-six! I noticed that she was impeccably well dressed, wore a string of pearls around her neck and her hair was neatly coiffed. I only hope I am like her at the same age, she was quite an inspiration.

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There seemed to be quite a lot of little alleyways with independent shops dotted around St Albans and we enjoyed exploring them, often ending up in a quaint little courtyard or park.

We parked the car at the top of a multi storey car park and enjoyed quite an impressive view of the cathedral and rest of the city from there.

That evening, back at the hotel, we enjoyed dinner as part of our all inclusive package. I went for a starter of mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, which always takes me back to my days of living in Italy as an au pair. Then for main I had wild mushroom risotto, mainly because I am a fan of mushrooms but Paul cannot stand them, so when we eat out is an ideal time for me to get my fix of them. We also imbibed in a few glasses of red wine as it was included in the deal and was a pleasantly drinkable one, too.

There were other tables with parents struggling to deal with tired, whiny children in the restaurant, which didn’t bother us at all, we were only thinking what a relief it was for us not to be in their shoes for a change! Of course, we spent a lot of the time talking about our own kids anyway, can’t seem to help it. It was so nice to have some time just the two of us, though.

Do you often go away for weekends, whether or not you have children? It often feels as though you have been away for more than just a night or two, I think.

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Review of a novel set in modern-day Paris: ‘These Dividing Walls’ by Fran Cooper

As well as being interested in social history as per this post and how women lived in the past, I am equally fascinated by how other women live in the the present day in other countries. When I heard about the debut novel ‘These Dividing Walls’ by Fran Cooper which tracks the lives of ordinary people living and working in modern-day  Paris, during one long, hot summer, I knew I had to read it.

It didn’t disappoint. The main downside was that there wasn’t an overly intricate plot, what it essentially was is a character study of a number of ‘ordinary’ people living in an apartment building on the corner of two streets in the 5th arrondissement. However, this was fine by me, as I’m not a huge fan of complicated plots anyway, I often prefer to be able to enjoy a book at a simpler level. It is a topical read, for France in particular but also for other Western societies.

The residents of the building are very different from one another and all have their struggles to face, from loneliness, depression, grief, unemployment to prejudice. The characters were mostly very believable and easy to empathise with, even if some were unpleasant and frustrating. There are quite a lot of characters and I found it a little bit challenging to follow them all (probably not helped that they obviously had unfamiliar French names) to begin with, but was glad that I stuck with it past the first couple of chapters.

The heatwave affecting Paris during the summer that the book is set in acts as a metaphor for the simmering political tensions that eventually reach breaking point.This may sound negative, and there is some tragedy within the story but there is also also healing and inspiration. It certainly wasn’t all about political issues either, as the personal issues affecting individual characters are explored and mostly resolved by the end.

I thought that the author had a real skill for descriptive prose, and for other Francophiles it is a treat to take in the detailed descriptions of the city of Paris and reminded me of many of the things I love about France. Admittedly it is different from the superficial impression that tourists may gain from short visits, but I found it all the more fascinating to be given a glimpse into the lives of inhabitants who make up the real Paris and to see what constitutes everyday life for them.

The (albeit English) author clearly had a good knowledge of the real Paris so I imagine she may have spent time living there, and I hope that she will write other novels set there too.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in reading about real life in (slightly gritty) modern-day Paris. Let me know what you think if you give it a read!

 

How to eat healthily in cold weather

How to eat healthily in cold weather

Recently I rejoined a slimming club in an effort to shift the weight I gained during my third (and definitely final!) pregnancy. My baby daughter turned one recently and I had hoped the weight would have all dropped off effortlessly by now, but no such luck. I’ve found it harder to motivate myself to lose it this time than with the other two, I think largely because the youngest one, though adorable, is not a great sleeper and insists on being fed at least twice during the night still. So I’m getting by on far less sleep than is ideal which makes me crave unhealthy food to combat the tiredness, but is a vicious circle really as the junk food only causes more energy slumps.

Fruit…frozen is cheaper

So…I’m trying to find things that I enjoy eating, that are healthy and take minimal effort to prepare. I was pleased to discover that Tesco stock a range of frozen fruit that as well as being cheaper than the fresh equivalent, save the hassle of preparing and reduce waste. There are all sorts of frozen fruit in the range: mango, watermelon, exotic fruit mix, all types of berries that you can think of. We get a weekly grocery delivery from Tesco (which I appreciate is such a luxury now that I have young children so don’t have to drag them around the supermarket).

The frozen pineapple chunks tasted lovely once defrosted, and I must admit that the prospect of tackling a whole fresh prickly pineapple tends to deter me so using frozen was a winner. I just ate them with some low fat yoghurt mixed in. I’ll definitely try the other fruits as well. Of course it involves remembering to take the frozen fruit out of the freezer to give it time to defrost (ice cold fruit is less than appealing on winter days!) so I try to get in the habit of doing this just before I go to bed at night.

In terms of lunches, I love soup in winter. I have a recipe from the Slimming World website that I’ve printed off to make Roasted Tomato and Basil soup. I haven’t had a chance to make it yet but it sounds divine. I’ve always found tomato and basil to be a perfect pairing and often enjoyed them with sliced mozzarella in a Caprese salad when I lived in Italy. Delicious. I’ll eat the soup with a slice of wholemeal bread.

In the winter, I find it hard to get excited about salads, unless I can make them to be ‘warm’ salads. Yesterday I made a salad with hot smoked salmon that I warmed up and it was delicious (see pic below). As well as the salmon, there were baby salad leaves, green peppers, tomatoes, sliced beetroot and pickled gherkins. I’d planned to add a dressing but in the end the vinegary liquid from the gherkins seemed enough so I didn’t bother. I’ll definitely make that salad again soon.

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How about you, do you have any favourite healthy yet tasty recipes to enjoy in the colder months? I would love to hear them.

Moving onto winter warming drinks…despite being English, one strange fact about me is that I’ve never enjoyed drinking tea (or even coffee). I’ve tried different types but couldn’t abide them. Recently though I discovered Twinings green teas infused with chocolate and coconut. The ingredients list suggests that the flavourings are mostly natural and green tea is supposedly healthier than black tea so I feel pleased that I’ve finally discovered a type of tea that I can enjoy, especially in colder weather.

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How to feel gratitude by pondering the lives of others

Pondering the Lives of Others and Finding a Sense of Gratitude

Curiosity about the lives of others

Due to my natural sense of curiosity about other people and the way they live, I often muse about who might live in the homes that I pass each day while walking my daughter to and from school. I pass varied types of dwelling, from the small, compact prefabs (hurriedly built just after WW2 in the 1940s that were only intended to provide temporary accommodation to the thousands of people displaced during the war years yet are still standing strong) to larger family homes.

I often pass more mature and elderly people tending to their gardens, many of whom seem keen to exchange a smile, sometimes a few words and they often like to coo over the baby. I sometimes wonder whether they live alone, perhaps they always have done or are widowed after decades of living happily with their soul mate? Perhaps they have grown-up children that they see regularly, or who have spread their wings far and emigrated abroad? I ponder over what they did to earn a living when they were younger. Of course I don’t know these people well enough to ask the questions, but I can’t help but wonder just the same.

Life wasn’t always this easy…

Social history has always fascinated me, particularly from WW1 onwards. I enjoy reading novels set in 1930s and 1940s England, mostly ones featuring ordinary life for working class or middle class families. When I’m finding things particularly challenging whilst caring for my three (albeit mostly delightful) children aged five and under, it sometimes helps to think how much tougher it must have been for women a few generations ago, without the conveniences we now take for granted. I can scarcely imagine daily life without a dishwasher, washing machine, microwave and all the other appliances which help make daily life run smoothly and efficiently.

VE Day Celebrations at the end of WW2- on my very own street!

A couple of years ago, I was fascinated to stumble across an article in our local newspaper about VE Day celebrations in our town of Ipswich. Our road was mentioned by name and there was a small black and white photo (see below) of a street party taking place on our road, from the looks of it right outside our house! The celebratory food on the tables is pretty humble fare, mostly sandwiches and simple cakes such as jam tarts, due to the fact that food was scarce and rationing still in force in the UK at that point. Somehow, though, I suspect that the sense of overwhelming relief and joy these ordinary people had that war was over more than made up for the basic food spread.

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Naturally, seeing that photo sent my mind into overdrive, trying to imagine who was living in our house during the war, imagining them having to dash out to an air raid shelter in the back garden in the middle of the night perhaps? Wondering where their nearest small grocery shop would have been, where they would have walked daily to shop for simple foods to be eaten the same day due to the absence of a fridge, let alone a freezer. Picturing them anxiously picking up letters from the same spot as our own doormat currently is, to see if they contained news about a loved one fighting overseas in the armed forces during WW2.

Although our home has been extended (it is a chalet bungalow extended both to the rear and with a bedroom and bathroom added into the loft space), it was originally a modest 2 bedroom detached bungalow. These days, bungalows are particularly popular with elderly people, but back in 1938 when our home was built, it was common for large families to squeeze into small homes so there could easily have been a family living here.

An increased sense appreciation for what I have

Taking a little time to think about the lives of others, especially those who face more obvious hardship, somehow makes me feel better about my own situation. This sounds a little mean and selfish, I know, but it isn’t as if I wished the hardship on anyone else and I use it to remind myself to stop getting dragged down by what are relatively insignificant things. When I find myself inwardly groaning at the prospect at loading the washing machine with yet another load of clothes, I can remind myself that at least we are privileged enough to own a washing machine and don’t have to wash all of our clothes by hand as our great-grandparents would have. Also, being a bit of an introvert who craves a bit of personal space, I am very glad indeed that I don’t have to live in a tiny home with 8 or more children (even, gasp, without an inside toilet) as was pretty standard a few generations ago.

So really, I end up with a deep sense of gratitude for all that I have and appreciation for everything present in my life that makes it easier. There’s a lot to be said for wanting and appreciating the life that we already have, rather than focusing on everything that we don’t have and desire.

Do you also have this sense of curiosity about other people and how they live? Perhaps a more apt name for it is plain and simple ‘nosiness’! I prefer to see it as taking a healthy interest in the world around me though 😉

 

 

Life in Italy and the Bella Figura concept

Living in Italy and an Introduction to the ‘bella figura’ Concept

A Gap Year in Italy

As an eighteen year old, I decided to take the opportunity during my gap year before starting university to spend time in Italy as an au-pair for seven months. Italy had long held an allure, based on what I had seen on travel programmes on TV, the sound of the language (not that I’d ever had a single Italian lesson, mind), not to mention that pizza, pasta and ice cream were amongst my very favourite foods.

It was an incredible experience to spend seven months in il bel paese and immerse myself into the lifestyle. It was certainly the experience that really opened my eyes to ways of living a more chic existence through incorporating a number of small yet significant changes into my daily life.

An Unusual Home

The family I stayed with didn’t have a typical set up from an au-pairing perspective; they owned a hotel on a promontory almost completely surrounded by the sea and took residence on the top floor. The family comprised three generations- the seven-year-old boy I had to look after and teach English, his parents and the paternal grandmother, great aunt and uncle. Although an au-pair typically lives with her host family, I was allocated a room in a small annexe on the hotel site. Alas, it was on the ground floor so was missing the incredible sea views that the family enjoyed, but I could hardly complain as the sea was virtually on my doorstep. The hotel was located on the edge of a large, historic town full of beautiful old buildings, quaint cobbled streets, a cathedral and a harbour- see the photo above. Yes, I felt sure  that I’d chosen a great placement the day that I arrived!

Gregarious, Welcoming Italians

It’s true that I’m a little introverted and tend to avoid large group situations and most very noisy places, but had to overcome these natural tendencies as I found the Italians in general to be very sociable people who love large gatherings with family or friends. Perhaps because of the groups often being large and needing to be heard, people often spoke quite loudly and gesticulated with their hands a lot. I found the gesticulating with hands to emphasis points quite endearing and found myself doing it too, after a while! Despite my natural preferences I was pretty grateful that the Italians are a sociable and welcoming bunch on the whole because it made it easier for me to pick up the language, make friends and build up a social life, without which my time there would have been pretty lonely.

Fare la Passeggiata– more than just a stroll

The same day that I arrived, after unpacking my belongings, I was invited to join the family to ‘fare la passeggiata‘ – this transpired to be a late afternoon/ early evening walk around the neighbourhood. It didn’t take long before I realised that everybody else seemed to be out doing the very same thing- this daily walk was a chance to socialise (as various friends and often extended family members would be encountered during the stroll) and everyone made an effort to present their best self. Even though the majority of people had probably been at work all day and they would just be heading back to their own homes for dinner after the passeggiata rather than to a restaurant, they all looked very smart, with women wearing either dresses, skirts or a nice blouse with trousers or jeans. Men invariably wore shirts or polo shirts with trousers or smart jeans, no shorts. A lot of women wore a noticeable amount of jewellery- not in an excessively flashy way, but enough to be noticed. The shoes that people wore were smart, mostly leather rather than trainers. Even though it was the end of the day everyone’s hair looked immaculate so they had probably re-done it specially before leaving for their walk.

The start of my education on La Bella Figura

I can’t deny that this experience of ‘fare la passeggiata’ was quite an eye-opener for me, who was still wearing a printed sundress more for daywear than evening wear (and not the sort of dress I spotted the Italian ladies wearing). I felt distinctly underdressed and wished I had made more of an effort with my hair (more than a little windswept from not having been brushed since that morning) and worn a bit of jewellery. Still, at least I knew for next time!

This evening passeggiata was my introduction to the Italian concept of creating ‘la bella figura‘, loosely translated as ‘looking one’s best’ or making a positive first impression and extends to putting one’s best face forward in any situation. Kristi Belle explains this concept and much more about living an Italian lifestyle in her wonderful book. I would highly recommend a read of it if it interests you.

There will be more posts about my experience of life in Italy and what I learned about how Italian women create la bella figura. Please add your email to the box on the right to follow my blog and be notified of future posts —>

 

Hair colouring and styling on a modest budget

Nothing beats that wonderful feeling of just having had your hair done and walking out of the salon knowing that your hair looks its best, does it?

Every now and again I decide that I am bored with my hair colour. I can’t claim to have ever changed to particularly exciting or wacky shades, and the pattern seems to be that in the summer I enjoy my hair being a dark brown shade when my skin darkens a little. Then when my skin pales in the autumn, I find that going a lighter, blonde shade is more flattering and I look less ‘washed out’ than I do with dark hair over the winter.

When I used to get a full head of highlights in a hair salon, I was usually pleased with the end result but found it a less pleasurable experience to pay a huge sum at the end. When your hair is classed as ‘long’, which generally includes anything below shoulder-length, you generally get charged more (I guess due to extra long lengths of foils being used and it taking a little longer to carry out). I found that £80-£100 was pretty standard to be charged, especially if I was having a trim as well.

Now, I appreciate that hairdressers often do a great job and have to earn a living, and when I was earning a full time salary I didn’t mind paying that price (too much). However, now that I am a stay-at-home-mum only working a few hours a week in private tuition, we have less money coming into the house and it makes sense to cut back on discretionary spending such as hair and beauty treatments.

In our town, there is a further education college that runs hairdressing courses. There are two levels of study: NVQ2 and NVQ3. The NVQ2 is the basic level of hairdressing qualification and towards the end of it, from April-June, the students have almost qualified so I am happy by then to book in for a hair colour treatment. Even better though, the NVQ3 students have already passed the NVQ2 level of study and many of them already work in salons as hairdressers – they may have their sights set on becoming a salon manager or acquiring additional skills in hairdressing to add to their bows. I must admit that for something as skilled as highlighting, especially as I have long hair and sometimes ask for two or even three colours to be woven in at once, I tend to ask for an NVQ3 student to carry it out. When you call your local college hairdressing department you can ask when the NVQ3 classes are to ensure you book for one of those if it’s your preference.

The main benefit of having your hair done by a student is obviously the low price. On my below shoulder length hair, even with 2 different colours woven in I don’t pay more than £25. If the student who does my hair does a good job and/or has a friendly, pleasant manner, I make a point of slipping them a tip too, mindful that they are students (or recently qualified hairdressers).

Understandably, lots of people are rather horrified at the prospect of a lesser qualified person setting to work on their precious tresses. There’s no need to be afraid, though. Overseeing every class is a tutor, who I have found without exception to be very exacting and sets high expectations of the students. She checks over the initial consultation and will voice any concerns she has before the colour etc is mixed. I have to say that on a few occasions the tutors (who are themselves highly experienced hairdressers) have made some thoughtful and valuable suggestions about my hair, that I hadn’t considered previously and led to a better end result.

So this is all sounding great, right? Getting your hair coloured at a snip of the salon price, are you wondering what the downsides to be mindful of are?

The main one is the additional time to allow for the treatment to take. The nature of the student needing to consult with their tutor at every stage, often having to wait while the tutor is occupied with other students, means there is extra waiting around. Plus of course, the fact that the student is less experienced means that certain procedures such as foils can take them longer to do. Personally though, I am quite happy to sit and read a book or magazine and see it as a treat to get some time to myself!

The second thing to factor in is that colleges only open during term time and have long summer holidays. So from mid June to mid September you probably won’t be able to get yourself booked in there and will need to either wait it out or make alternative hair treatment arrangements.

Still, for myself, the benefits outweigh the inconveniences, especially considering the money I save each time. I enjoy speaking to different students as well, most of whom express gratitude that clients such as myself make the effort to attend the college to get my hair done, as they can’t pass the course without carrying out a certain number of treatments on real people.

Simple trims and cuts I usually ask my mother to do, as well as for simple home dye kids when I apply a whole-hair colour. I should mention that my mother did actually train as a hairdresser many years ago before her current career, but wouldn’t feel comfortable attempting foil highlights as it isn’t a procedure she was ever taught.

Do you spend a lot of money on your hair? Perhaps you would consider giving your local hair college a try, too? If you are a non-UK reader, I imagine that there are similar setups with hairdressing colleges needing members of the public to come in and work on. Perhaps you have your own moneysaving hair tips to share- I would love to hear them.