Thursday, March 5, 2015

Your mother's clothes

Photo: New York Times

Have you seen the wonderful photo essay, "Mom Genes", published last year in the New York Times? Sheila Heti asked various women to show and describe clothes or accessories once owned by their mothers, and now worn by them.

Detail, Mom's suit blouse
Such rich resonance for me! Given my age, my stash of Mom's clothes have worn out or been lost: a sheared-beaver stroller, a leather and knit shooting jacket, a hooded evening coat in dark-green velvet that shimmered, nearly black. 

I have posted here on her silk blouse, which she wore with a suit at her 1931 wedding, and which hangs in my closet.

What endures most is the memory of the quality: a heathered tweed jacket with leather-piped buttonholes and bellows pockets, a bias-cut charmeuse nightgown.

Do you remember when Anne Klein made good clothes? When decent jackets came with extra buttons, and hems were finished with bias tape? Covered snaps, anyone? No wonder the younger generation wanted these hand-me-downs.

Where do you find the things your daughters or young friends may someday beg from you? 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A visit to Québec: Northern highlights and hijinks

Since several readers plan a visit to Québec*, I'll summarize the three-day getaway spent there last week: touristy, tasty and terribly cold.

One of the oldest cities in North America (founded in 1608), with its historic lanes and walls carefully preserved, Québec is also the capital of the province. A Lonely Planet entry summarizes its allure.

Le Duc chose the location; the city is indeed a romantic sure thing, like San Francisco or Barcelona. A suite in a luxury hotel rarely disappoints, especially when your view is this:

The 122-year-old Chateau Frontenac, flashing a $75-million reno completed last year, wears its age as a badge of honour, and shows not a flicker of the wistful desuetude I recalled from our last stay, 28 years ago:

Our living room included a turret, just visible to the left of the (ornamental) fireplace:

 Original fittings like the working mail chute are meticulously maintained:

The lobby feels as if the Dowager Countess of Grantham might be in the next chair:

The grand old landmark glows again, like burnished leather. (Those looking for a B and B might consider the gracious old home where we've also stayed, La Marquise de Bassano.)

Le Duc chose the site for his birthday dinner, Le Pied Bleu, a bountiful and boisterous intersection of deeply local dining and happy anarchy, in the spirit of a Lyonnaise bouchon. We were seated in a butcher shop doubling as a top-notch bistro, run by rambunctious crew who see no reason for propriety, from either side.

I sampled five salads, brought to the table to serve mysef, à volonté—followed by stewed rabbit; Le Duc had a charcuterie platter (everything made on site, we ate in the shop), and boudin noir.

House-made desserts, shown above, were served with the same "come up and try this!" generosity. (For a closeup of those desserts, see this review, which named the resto one of the ten best in Canada in 2013.)

Here's the birthday boy; he isn't drinking all those digestifs, but the shot shows how they are served: a hamper dropped at your table with a couple of glasses.

The cheque totaled... um, can't remember, except I thought it was fine. It's not in prime tourista stretch, though only a 10-minute cab from the hotel. 

The city's amusements extend from museums to music to macarons, but we were there to be together. Le Duc bought a pair of shoes. I have never seen so much good-looking, functional deep-winter wear offered anywhere; this must be the Serious Boot capital of the world. 

In Québec, I was reminded that Montréalers do not exactly own the cred for being people of the farthest North. In a restaurant, a table of three Inuit men conversed intently in Inuktitut (the term for the many variants of Canadian Inuit dialects). My ear was tantalized by a language that existed here even before Samuel Champlain founded New France.

Frigid, crystalline air, the sparkling river, the palpable pride of the hotel's staff, the exuberant local cuisine: celebration, nostalgia, romance. The icing on the cake for Le Duc was the unimpeded sighting of a fisher in a snowy field, viewed from the train window.

And we agree we would travel there just to dine again at Le Pied Bleu!

*In Canada, the proper name of the city is, in both French and English, Québec, and in informal  English, Quebec City (without the accent). Like New York/New York City, the short form is more common. Québec is pronounced "kay-bec" with the stress on the second syllable.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Winter break

The Passage is closed, while we enjoy a celebratory getaway.  

I asked Le Duc, "Where in the world would you like to be when you turn 60?" I was mentally shopping for a new swimsuit, and then he said...

"I want to stay here...

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City
 and eat this:"
Charcuterie at Le Bouchon Le Pied Bleu
(If you'd like to read (in French) about what makes a bouchon, their manifesto is here.)

The Passage will reopen next week. Cheers! even in our -31C/-24F windchill.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Uneven aging

ValSparkle left a stimulating comment on my post about the eighth decade of life:

"The thing I fear is that my husband and I will age very differently. It happened with my parents, but I don't think I have as much patience as my mother. I know I need to prepare to cope with an old man! Of course, it could go the other way..."

I think about what I call uneven aging, too. Though older (by 6 1/2 years) than Le Duc, I am—at the moment—somewhat fitter. What was once a vast, calm sea of middle age is now subject to storms. He had a heart attack a year  after our move, and though now recovered, must manage his life differently.

Our friends in their 50s to 70s are beginning to notice that they are aging at different rates. Either an age difference long unnoticed is now now apparent, or health issues have affected one partner, while the other ticks along.

You don't have to be a couple to see the effects. Sue told me about a girls' getaway to a Mexican resort. There, it became clear that a friend now in her early 70s was having noticeable cognitive loss, something she could hide at home, but not there.

Altering living space

If one partner's health suffers, suddenly your home must work differently. While Le Duc recovered, I was grateful that we now live on one floor. I thought of the advantage when we bought, but thought I'd need the ease first.

Hanging on to a house that requires onerous upkeep for the sake of eventual grandkids' visits is a rationale I hear often, but there are other options. Neither of our parents kept those houses, and we visited no less frequently than if staying there. (We used B & Bs, bunked with siblings, rented short-stay apartments and booked the guest suite at my parents' condo.)

Charlotte built a house with a second floor that closes when unneeded, with a master bedroom and bath on the first floor. Though in her 40s when it was built, she had aging in place in mind.

Over the years, we amassed a collection of oriental rugs that my mother parted with as she faced increasing hazards to mobility. The other day I tripped on one. Is it my turn to pass them down?

Staying close to friends

One friend's partner's condition makes getting out for long impossible. Technology gives us another way to connect. While Skype lacks the richness of face-to-face, it lifts some of the isolation.

Some women, out of respect for their partner's privacy, restrict visitors. How much the infirm partner can tolerate varies, but if you have friends in this situation, ask if they'd mind if you dropped by for a quick coffee. Twenty minutes can really brighten a day, and who cares what the house looks like?

("You know what improves a patient's mood like nothing else?" a nurse told me when I worked in a hospital, "Fifteen minutes of good gossip." The same is true for caregivers.)
Harvesting love

When Anne's father, Don, was in his last months, she asked her mother, Nora, what was the best time of her long marriage "Right now!", Nora exclaimed. "We have the most wonderful talks." 

Nora would listen to Don reminisce about each of his sled dogs, beloved companions during his childhood in the Yukon. "They would each have a glass of scotch in their hands—barely touched—for hours", Anne said, "but that was their ritual, and they stuck with it."

Nora's long, close marriage still inspires and reminds me that you can only cherish the last stretch if you built such love in the preceding years. 

The diminished partner can feel crushing guilt. Lynn's father, Stew, told her at 88 that he was ashamed he could no longer keep up with Mim, his 67-year-old second wife. Mim, in turn, became short-tempered with him as a result of exhaustion.

Lynn and her sister persuaded them to move to a retirement home in their city, a thousand-mile relocation. Until their father died at 92, they gave constant support. (I, in turn, provided many glasses of white wine to Lynn.) Their care saved that marriage. 

I've been thinking about uneven aging for awhile, having seen its various effects with my parents and their friends. Now, I'm seeing the first vestiges myself. We are beginning to talk to our family about our wishes, and have recently updated all legal documents pertaining to end-of-life care and intervention.

But those are the tangibles; there is so much that is subtler. One of the most delicate is being open with partners and friends about the changes, both physical and psychological, and the accommodations required.

I will appreciate your advice, and hope we can help one another navigate this unpredictable transition.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Just what is wrong with fake pearls?"

I received an e-mail with a rather perfunctory heading ("Why not?"), no salutation, that question and the signature "cz". As Countess Cora Crowley said, during a tiff with the Earl, "I shall not address the tone of your remark", but I shall deal with the substance.

The pearl oyster and freshwater pearl mussel produce and deposit nacre on the shell (called 'mother of pearl') and on the pearl. (For a more detailed definition of nacre, see here.) The successive, overlapping layers of nacre give pearls their lustre. Lustre refers to both brilliance (how the surface reflects light) and glow (how the layers of nacre refract and diffract light). Thick nacre doesn't guarantee high lustre; lustre depends on the pattern of nacre, but thick nacre is far more desirable than thin.

The best pearls also display orient, defined by Professor Barbara W. Smigel as "a delicate, shifting, iridescent color layer that is distinct from the basic body color of the pearl or from its lustre... Although most pearls have that characteristic 'pearly luster', only fine quality pearls have orient."

Imitation pearls are made from a shell or glass bead coated with a solution containing fish scales or other iridescent material. They will never have a fine pearl's lustre and depth, and their iridescence (should they have any), is like poly satin compared to silk charmeuse. Fakes are usually "too-too": too perfectly matched, too round, too sharply lustrous. The overall effect is like being hit by high-beam lights, and about as soulful. 

Expect to pay more for genuine pearls, but thanks to advances in pearl farming, there is not as wide a gap as you'd think.

A pair of good quality fakes, Majorica 8mm round white pearl studs; price, $55 at Sak's.

A pair of 8-9mm round white freshwater pearl studs from Pearl Paradise; price, $115. You can see the difference, no?

Once you decide to wear genuine pearls, read, look and follow your taste. For me, orient trumps roundness, and perfectly smooth surfaces are not my first criterion. 

I avoid pearls dyed any colour not found in nature, and am wary of that enhancement even if the dyed pearl is "pearl coloured", because dyes can eventually mottle a pearl or fade. If it's not terribly pricey and you love that dyed colour, go ahead. Jewelers will swear the dye is stable, but it's done at the farm, not by them, so how do they know what will happen in 10 years?

Fakes range in quality, from the intended-to-fool-no-one $25 gumballs at H&M to the $250 "South Sea" strand, below by Magnificent Costume Jewels—and up, once a designer name is attached.

I could choose a superb South Sea strand for comparison, and you'd faint at the price and there goes my case. But I, living a casual (and financially disciplined) life, would be thrilled in the freshwater strand of large assorted drop pearls (price, $846) from Kojima Company:

A pendant of one spectacular pearl is far more charismatic than a necklace of fakes, or the bleached, banal whites I see at department store counters and even brand jewelers.

A golden South Sea Pearl pendant (chain not included); set in rhodium plate (over silver) price, $153, from Kojima Company:

Warmed by your skin, lighting your face, genuine pearls simply have no equal. Fakes have a place, but if you can try on the real thing, "cz", I'm betting you'll see the difference.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Valentine from fripe fabrique

My favourite tiny boutique, an enchanting blend of vintage and indie Montreal design, fripe fabrique, has the best Valentine's window:

"The one true language of the world is a kiss."

Flanking the sentiment, mannequins pose in hint-of-spring sweaters, topped by fuchsia lips:

Inside, there is much to tempt the Valentine, such as sweetly sexy lingerie in lover's red:

A vintage moto to fit either a smaller man or a woman:

An ever-changing bin of scarves, from crisp foulards to Florida travel souvenirs—your choice for $12:

Mexican-influenced pressed-tin earrings, $15:

I wish I could bring you in appreciate the refinement of a fur capelet, which transforms the simplest sweater or top into a statement of personal style. My photo doesn't do justice to the lining, a plush bronze velvet. (Price, $195.) 

Montréal designers are masterful users of recycled-fur pieces that keep us warm through polar winter and chilly spring. This piece is on sale, a tender ruff of white-chocolate with caramel contrast. (Sale price about $68.)

For spring, a tailored navy and ecru vintage bag with a handsome, heavy clasp; price, $30:

fripe fabrique also offer DIY sewing workshops; the line of retro gleaming Singers awaits those interested in repairing garments or designing the perfect skirt:

ff's lovely owner Michelle says it's her vision to not just sell clothes, but to create a community of DIY, the city's best new designers, and clients. I can't resist dropping by every few weeks to hear her plans for collaborations and new projects.

Longing for a closer look? Come to Montréal, or check out ff's Etsy shop when it's back in swing after a brief break.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Fine jewelry: Wear or worry?

Janice of The Vivienne Files posted a luscious wardrobe sparked by 'real' jewelry, with the observation, "Make absolutely sure that your goodies are insured. Ask a lot of questions about deductibles, conditions of when and where you were when the item might vanish, etc...."

When you purr over your new bracelet, the word "insurance" sounds dull as a vegan potluck, but anyone who has fine jewelry should scrutinize her policy, clause by clause.

Santa Barbara, California jeweler Calla Gold posted a detailed article, "Insuring Your Jewelry", here, with links to some of the best-known insurers and other info you may never need, until a jerk takes an axe to your back door (My story.)

Some friends' best baubles spend 97% of their lives in safety-deposit boxes. My bank is within shouting distance of my apartment, about the only way to actually wear items stored in a vault, unless you have a personal assistant to ferry your jewels across town.

Some women say security issues are why they don't own fine jewelry. Though I see the logic, there are ways to decrease risk and have your pleasure, too.

1. Wear oddball gems

The average lowlife's taste is pretty standard. A flashy diamond solitaire is an obvious attractor and high-karat yellow gold is honey to bad bees. If such jewels are your passion, security will be top of mind. Pieces set in white metal or other materials are less likely to scream "Grab me!"

Hemmerle's aquamarine earrings framed by oxidized copper: supreme luxury under the radar. Though the master jewel thief of movies exists (and knows this renowned house), most thieves are looking at, and for, the big bling.

Your "oddball" may be an antique imperial topaz brooch, a strand of dove-grey baroque pearls, an Italian micro-mosaic ring, or opal earrings. (Shown, Brooke Gregson boulder opal post earrings; price, $2,340.)

That's my favourite strategy, because many stones and pearls are both beautiful and much better value than a flashy rock.

2. Wear real like fake

A friend's friend owns a staggering pair of diamond drop earrings, a gift from her father. She wears them with jeans and a tee. "No one thinks they're real", she says. 

I would do that with Mallary Marks' Amazing Chandelier earrings, about $24,000 worth of cool.

Or you can adopt the reverse ploy, swapping real for a copy, which you'd wear sometimes. Nearly all designs can be reproduced (some specialty jewelers' businesses are devoted to the faithful reproduction of complicated designs), for a price. Some clients who commission costly custom-made pieces have two made at the same time, the precious original and a copy.

3. Roz' Trick: Pinned to protect

At work, Roz, a museum administrator, wears an important diamond ring she inherited from her grandmother. 

The heirloom is insured— but before she commutes home on the subway, Roz safety-pins her ring onto her skirt or trouser waistband. (Note: Not in her bag; talk about a double loss!) Never depend on swiveling the ring on your finger to disguise what you're wearing.

Shown, an Art Deco 2ct diamond set in platinum; price, $26,000, from Beladora. 

4. Use creative storage

If you're away for days or longer and a crew combs over your home with a metal detector or loads everything into a moving van, you're SOL. But the average snatch n' grabber wants to be in and out in minutes. This illustrated article shows concealment options, and not in the master bedroom. Of course bad guys are on to the tricks, but if your 'houseman' is in a hurry, such tactics work. 

An acquaintance uses a two-safe system. One, in the master bedroom, is stocked with some minor items (unwanted jewelry, an old camera) and cash. A second safe, far more concealed, contains the real valuables.

If you plan to be away, your insurance may require secure offsite storage. Even if they do not, it's a good idea to store your sentimental baubles elsewhere.

5. Wear what you can live with
I know women who have pined for fine jewelry and then that day comes, and they feel like a target. 

If you have the chance to add something significant to your jewelry wardrobe, choose a magical piece that isn't so grand it intimidates you, by which I mean you "save it" or warehouse it; for someone, that might be Arik Kastan's deco lapis kite ring. (From Twist; price, $1,298.) 

Another woman will feel perfectly at ease in her antique French emerald (from Romanov Russia on First Dibs; price, $8,900).

As Janice said, if you couldn't bear to lose it, maybe it shouldn't be in your life. At the same time, why restrict ourselves to branded jewelry that has been reissued annually since Dot One? Yes, it is replaceable, but most of it is not that appealing anyway. 

If you receive something so grand or formal you would never wear it, have it restyled. My jeweler recently showed me a client's project: ten thin white gold bangles sprinkled with diamonds, once set in a fussy, dated necklace she had inherited.

6. Imitations still draw eyes

A woman stayed calm while she handed her synthetic diamond solitaire and big "gold" necklace and watch to a mugger, but the police officer told her, "Lady, you were asking for that." 

Synthetic diamonds set in gold, like those sold by Carat and Ti Sento, will attract attention; if you want the showiest pieces, apply the prudence when awearing that you'd use if they were real. (Shown, Carat Baguette Princess 2ct solitaire, about £314.)

If you own treasured (not necessarily valuable) goods, you will eventually lose something through theft, an accident or mysterious disappearance. My approach is to not be cowed by irrational fear, but at the same time, take precautions. At various times, I've insured to the max, and at other times cut back. 

I will not refuse precious jewelry any more than live without art; insurance and attention to your surroundings mitigates most worry. (Do not place your ring and watch beside your yoga mat and then walk off after class, like I did!)

As for the asteroid-hits-earth scenario, I am sorry that all those lady dinosaurs lost their pearls!