Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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Dresses I Have Loved

I am a feminist and I love dresses. I also enjoy wearing trousers, but I don’t seek them out with same passion as I find myself trawling clothes-rails actual and virtal in search of the dream dress. Germany’s Top Husband, who recently shrunk a dress of mine in the wash and saw his ratings tumble, can attest that my cupboard is full of dresses, some gorgeous, some everyday, some that don’t live up to their online imagery, but all worn. I believe that the search for the dream dress will never end, even if I find the nearly perfect dress (which I did last week, but more of that later). It is an ongoing search, much like the hunt for the perfect book, or the hunt for the supermarket in Germany that keeps a permanent supply of coriander – a neverending search that provides entertainment in and of itself, a meta-search.

I plan a couple of posts on some of my favourite current dresses, but before I do, it is essential that I first mourn the dresses that have past. You know. For closure. For without attaining closure on the past, how can we move forward to more and better dresses?

So I give you, not so much a meme as a memorial, to Dresses I Have Loved:

1. The nude lace vintage dress

I did vintage long before it had a cool moniker. This little beauty I found in a secondhand stall in Greenmarket Square in Cape Town in February 1987 on a hot Saturday morning. It was a nude lace sheath, beautifully lined with nude satin. It had a v-neck and back, sleeves to the elbow and just covered my knees (my nickname was once Knee Puffs – knee coverage is a good thing). The lace was slightly torn near the waist, a fact that I ignored because I loved it so. I wore the dress to my first university ball, with a black choker, long nude satin gloves and a long thin black cigarette holder. I wore some vintage flat winkle-pickers purchased in my home town before heading to university that pinched and made my feet bleed. This fact I ignored because they were the perfect match to the dress. During the ball, the lace ripped. I kept the dress for another five years, but never had the money to have it repaired. At some point, during one of my many moves, I must have thrown or given it away. This is the dress that I mourn the most, the ur-dress. All dresses are held up to its glorious lacy beauty and are found wanting.

2. The lime green belted dress

Originally my mother’s dress, the lime green belted dress was a standard favourite for weddings and parties in my third year of university. It had a v-neck, short cap sleeves and a matching belt. It came to just below the knees (theme alert!) and skimmed the body. I loved it. I have it no more. I mourn its passing. It kicked off my lifelong passion for lime green.

3. Dani’s black designer dress

Dani’s father bought her this dress in one of the first achingly cool hipster boutiques in Cape Town. Little did he know that this garment – black viscose, square neck, elbow length sleeves, slighty high waist and flowing to the mid-calf – would become beloved not only of Dani but of all her friends. On big nights out, the first negotiation would be who would wear the dress. Once we discovered how gorgeous it looked with a denim jacket, negotiations grew more heated. It was a floaty dream of a dress that suited everyone who wore it and I miss it now, more than 20 years later.

4. Black Bo-Peep dress 

This was another of my vintage finds, but I can’t remember which of my secondhand haunts provided this little lovely. It could have been Cape Town, but it could just as easily have been Johannesburg or PMB. It was black cotton with a tiny white spring, small cap sleeves that were loosely elasticised and a tiny white Peter Pan collar. I lived in this dress for about a year. I usually wore it with white pantaloons (cotton leggings with three layers of broderie anglaise at the ends – hence the Bo-Peep) that I sewed myself, but I also wore it without them. It was loose and flowing, and very very easy to wear. Our school uniform was a sprig with a Peter Pan collar, so I should have hated the dress, but I think wearing it was a kind of up-yours to the school establishment. I still love a sprig and a Peter Pan collar to this day.

5. Purple maxi-dress

I wore this dress with purple and white sneakers, Lily Allen-style but a long time before the young lady herself even dreamed of doing so, and a big smile every weekend in 1994 – the year that Germany’s Top Husband and I got engaged. The love affair was deep and meaningful, while the dress was Empire-line with spaghetti straps and a tiny white polka dot. It was cool and flowing, the perfect summer dress. I wore it the day we collected my engagement ring and wore a diamond for the first time. There’s a photo of me somewhere looking purple and very happy.

Do you have dresses whose loss you mourn?

(Image courtesy of Lainey’s Repertoire, Flickr Creative Commons)


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Dresses and Sunshine

Yesterday, I went shopping in Heidelberg, looking for the ultimate summer dress. Then I got cross and went home. What is going on with fashion? Dresses are either ground-length maxis that are tentlike at best, shrouds at worst, or ridiculous little miniscule shifts in which one can neither ride a bike nor stride along a street without revealing to the world one’s position on women and hairiness. Being short, the maxi style makes me look like a traffic cone, and being curvy with thighs, the mini ain’t an option. And don’t even say “leggings” to me. I’m with the Fug girls on leggings: hate them on anyone over 20, unless they are dancers or Kate Moss.

As well as the Sixties maxi/mini mindset, there’s this ridiculous love-affair with Eighties fashion going on. I’ve done bib-fronted, frilled Victoriana already, I did the sweater dress look at 12, I’ve seen the racer-back come and go once before and I’ve worn jumpsuits. I did baggy pinafore dresses to death in my teens and I don’t ever want to wear one again. I want to wear a dress that emphasises my shape, not one that disguises it. I’m also hating the smocks – I both look and feel pregnant in them – the big clunky beads sewn onto everything and the ugly neon colours.

My other moan of the day is that German high street fashion is so generic. Not only do the three main high street brands – Esprit, Mexx and S.Oliver – all look identical to each other, they seldom move from their formulae. This year’s Esprit summer look (sporty pants, T-shirts, and stripy shirts) looks pretty much like last year’s Esprit summer look. Boring. At least in H&M, you find some healthy Scandanavian madness, but yesterday it had come over all Eighties neons so I flounced out as quickly as you could spin me right round, baby.

So my search for the ultimate summer dress, the dress that would be neither too long nor too short, that wold flatter the good bits and hide the imperfections, the dress that I could wear out at night or to the pool with my kids? Came to naught. I was tempted to buy two things: a black maxi skirt (until I realised I have one already) and a silver-grey wrap dress printed with white butterflies from H&M (until I realised that I have two wrap dresses and a third, while it might be pretty, would not in any way be Ultimate). Instead I picked up some new bistro-style glasses, a couple of photo frames and stopped off at the nursery on the way home and bought potting plants for the terrace. Who needs clothes?

Today was Mother’s Day, the day I would have liked to worn my ultimate summer dress, given that it was an exquisite day and we cycled to a restaurant in the next village for real, Italian, crispy-based pizza. I wore a dress that is two years old. While it is black and as my husband kindly pointed out, smacks slightly of Sicilian nonna, it was just the right length for cycling, clung in just the right places and floated in other places. Thanks to my darling family, who woke me with home-made presents and spoilt me with their love all day long, I felt fabulous. Like a really fabulous Italian grandmother. New dresses are clearly not essential to my happiness, but my four darlings certainly are.

And a little bit of sunshine helps.


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Tales From the Web

Number 2, October 2007

Welcome to Tales From the Web. This is the second edition of my magazine, where I select my favourite posts from the around this lovely Web that interlaces us all. I have no editorial policy except that I select things that amuse and delight me, and I presume that, since we are friends, they will delight you too. If they don’t, then go away and read I Can Has Cheezburger – which I love – or Perez Hilton – who I love too. This is a place to celebrate writing; funny, beautiful, insightful, clever, uplifting writing. No cats in hats or celebrities’ nethers here.

One of the things I’ve learnt since I started blogging is that good bloggers support each other, sometimes by commenting, sometimes by just turning up and sometimes by pointing out what a good job someone has done. I tend to have my favourites, but I’m always looking for new writers who inspire. If you come across a talent, please tell me! If you have a talent, please tell me! I’m chasing the delicious tidbits and I want to snare them in my web.

Of as today, my magazine has a name: Tales from the Web. The name was donated by Helen (of A Was Alarmed fame) and for her trouble she wins a box of Belgian chocolates. Unlike this magazine, the chocolates will not be virtual.

So here’s this month’s round-up, in no particular order of preference. If you like a post, go and tell the author. It’s call blog love and it’s good. Enjoy!

Eve, of The Third Eve, is a writer I’ve recently discovered. I’m fascinated by many of the topics she tackles, but recently she has been posting about the challenge of raising boys in a society that no longer tolerates the unique boy energy and wants to medicate it into oblivion. Here’s a snippet:

I’m no expert on boys but I do know that many boys do not fit in. Some manage their oddness by becoming leaders; others manage it by being kicked out of school; others are medicated into oblivion. I have friends whose brilliant son reacted to stressors in their family life (stressors created and denied by the parents, but obvious to nearly everyone else) by developing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). So many times, bright, sensitive boys develop symptoms in response to the environment–a sort of personal early warning system that functions to tell grownups to slow down. Their symptoms are labeled and ignored in the name of Education. Or Medicine. Or Science.

Read more of Eve’s post here: Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Watcha Gonna Do?

Please read Courtney’s beautiful post on growing more like her mother – When did this happen? – which celebrates her surprise discovery, but questions why families tend to pigeonhole their members.

Amity, who blogs at Noble Savage, is another writer I’m just getting to know. I feel we have something in common – we are both expats, stay-at-home mothers with a fiendish writing habit, and married to British men. Her latest post contains not only complete surprise that, despite having just moved into a new house which she is busy redecorating, she appears to be hosting two parties this weekend, but also a seriously dirty coffee mug. Take a look here. Believe me, it’s worth it.

How is it possible for a ballerina to become an engineer? Lia tells us how, in her post Naivete and Tenaciousness. I know Lia, and it never ceases to fascinate me that she has had these two disparate careers. I believe that she’s training for a third career now, but I’ll let her reveal what it is in her own good time.

Not on Facebook yet? Here are Ian in Hamburg’s tips for trying to persuade/beg/stalk people to become your Facebook friends: How To Get Back in Touch.

Ms Healing Magic Hands went into her labyrinth to do a healing and peace meditation and came out angry. She’s very angry at George Bush, not only because she has a son in service, but because she believes he understands “neither liberty, patriotism, nor humanity”. Read her post here.

I’m a bit of a fangirl when it comes to poet and essayist Kyran Pittman’s blog Notes to Self. Every post is a jewel. She says she strives for quality over quantity, which is a great goal, one which the IntraWeb could adopt to good effect. First, make yourself a cup or tea or coffee, then pick a post (any post) and enter her world. You’ll be so glad you did.

Amy Winehouse might not be going to rehab (no, no, no) but YogaMum and I are. Read her brilliant post Rehab for Busy Moms and see if you wouldn’t want come along.

Befriend a new blogger! My friend K (who I can now officially out as Kerry, seeing she’s done so herself) bravely offered herself up a victim to come on Charlotte’s Very Busy Tour of Berlin. She’s back from Berlin and blogging, about having twins, what it means to be married to the step-parent of one’s own children and a very inspiring photography course. Visit K at Kerry’s Khaos.

Now for the fashion pages of my magazine. Do you have a geek in your life? Or perhaps you are one? My dearly beloved has started a new blog focusing on that oxymoron Geek Chic. Take a look and see what well-dressed geeks are, or should be, wearing today: Dedicated Follower of Fashion.


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The Fashion Commandments

I am not a fashion victim or slave. Since I was bashed with the blogging mallet, I have almost completely given up my fashion magazine habit – unless I receive them as a gift, in which case, I hyperventilate with excitement. I now tend to get my fashion advice from two online newspapers – The Guardian/Observer and The Times – and those brilliant stylistas at Go Fug Yourself. With forty looming like an overly mascaraed false eyelash, I occasionally give some thought to my own style. Am I showing too much flesh, like a rosemary-scented Easter lamb, or is there a hint of tough-skinned old mutton about me? I recently read the following tips from The Times, which I thought would be important to share with those of you who care. Those of you who couldn’t give a lamb damn, then flick away fast to something less superficial.

Ten commandments, apparently, for mothers with daughters (and all women over 40):

1. Thou shalt resist Abercrombie & Fitch. It’s soft, it’s comfortable. It’s designed for teenagers.

Luckily this is not a problem for me. No A&F in my ‘hood. However there are large sections of H&M I have to avoid.

2. Thou shalt be seen only at the most casual events in hoodies.

Early morning walk? Talking the kids to kindergarten? Apres-ski? Methinks these are all suitable hoody occasions. Otherwise I leave the hood well alone. Of course, the hood on my green boiled wool winter coat doesn’t count here.

3. Thou shalt wear high-tech trainers only in the gym.

Well, what’s a high-tech trainer when it’s home. One that flashes? Or calculates your BMI? I do wear trainers – see above for when.

4. Thou shalt not show thy political awareness by wearing slogan T-shirts. Thou hast the vote. Use it.

I have voted, and I do forswear slogan T-shirts, but I wouldn’t mind a T-shirt that said “Mother. Blogger. Goddess”. That would be good.

5. Thou shalt wear jeans, but not the identical cut and brands as thy teenage daughter.

I do avoid teenage jeans, usually because I can’t get them over my knees. While my jeans do rest slightly below my navel, they also rest quite far above my coccyx, so that I keep my antler tattoo hidden from public view. Some things just have to be kept private.

6. Thou shalt not wear sparkly body powder even in jest. It settles in the wrinkles.

Sparkly body powder, no. Sparkly Dream Mousse Shimmer Porcelain Face Illuminator for special occasions, yes. I am a natural born princess.

7. Thou shalt not wear leggings. Period.

I have lived through two leggings fashion eras. This is not mine. I leave the leggings to the twiglets. Chicken drumstick legs are only for boot-cut pants. Period.

8. Thou shalt not suddenly decide to be edgy, although if one has always been an eccentric dresser, carry on as normal.

Disagree! While I am not edgy, I am cutting-edge for my town (I wear lipstick! and mascara! to kindergarten! with jewellery!) I refuse to stop entertaining the crowds.

9. Thou shalt never do mixy-matchy or themed outfits with one’s daughters.

Absolutely. Too, too tacky.

10. Thou shalt treat thyself to expensive classics. And lock them away.

I’m not good at tailored. Tailored, expensive classics make me feel like an over-upholstered sofa, all puffed-up and full of self-importance. However I have made two investment purchases this year – a beautiful pair of brown leather boots and my Party Dress. Worn together, they are very slightly edgy.

Do any of these rules speak to you? Or do I drop The Times of London as my fashion bible and head elsewhere for tips?


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Walking Tall

My status has improved. I am feeling rather elevated. I am walking around with my nose a few inches higher in the air than usual.

Here’s why:

 

 

Beautiful, aren’t they?

Here’s a picture of one in sepia, just to underscore its iconicity:

 

Let it be said that as a girl who prefers trainers or flip-flops, and who has never knowingly worn peep-toes before, I am getting a kick out of my new status. There’s a swing in my step. There’s a swoosh to my stride. I am towering over animals and small children and the odd crouching grown-up. I am enjoying the rarefied air of the tall.

Feels good up here. Wish you could join me.

*totters off to prepare lunch*


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Charlotte’s Best of 2006

As a stay-at-home English-speaking mother-of-three who lives in Germany, I don’t go to cocktail parties, screenings, openings, launches. I very seldom go to concerts, exhibitions or movies. The books I read are found objects; from my book club, happy accidents in German bookshops, presents my husband buys me in the airport. I don’t know are what the latest hip happening restaurants, clubs or bars are. I’ve almost completely stopped buying fashion magazines, so my fashion sense is honed by what I occasionally see in H&M or Zara.

I am in no way qualified to offer a round-up of the zeitgeist 2006. Instead, I give you Charlotte’s Best of 2006:

Best Taste Sensation (Outside the Home)

Lavender ice-cream at Norfolk Lavender. It looked … lavender, and tasted … lavender. A heavenly experience.

Best Taste Sensation (Inside the Home)

Yesterday’s pomegranate pavlova. And the champagne cocktails we made in summer, with elderflower syrup, strawberries and mint.

Best (and Most Fruitful) Shopping Trip

A trip to the factory shops at Stoke-on-Trent with my friend T. I bought an exquisite blue and white cake stand from Portmerion, decorated with flowers and butterflies. I found beautiful blue and white dinner plates at Spode. And at Burleigh’s wonderful red-brick Victorian warehouse, I found smaller plates and bowls in various designs. I now eat off a wildly mixed and matched variety of blue and white crockery. It makes me happy, every single day.

Best Album With Adult Content

Without a doubt, Lily Allen’s Alright, Still. Her lyrics are darkly bitter while the sound is sweet, upbeat, with hints of reggae. It’s British pop at its very best. I’ve only seen her videos on YouTube, webwaif that I am, but I like her style too – she wears ballgowns with trainers and big chavvy earrings. It’s very Charlotte circa 1991 – I was into dresses, with trainers, and tacky jewellery. Her lyrics are explicit, so I can’t listen to it in front of the children. Instead, I like to play it loudly when I’m alone in the car (that in itself is a good feeling) and sing along and pretend I’m 21 again.

Best Album for Singing With Children

Surfer dude Jack Johnson’s soundtrack to the Curious George movie. It’s buzzy and fun, and filled with good messages – share, be kind, recycle. It has a lovely lullaby. We like it a lot. My daughter says he has a “kind voice”.

Best Album for Dancing With Children

Putumayo Kids’ African Playground for its great African rhythms. We put it on when we’re feeling a little crabby or we’re not getting what we want or someone is making us cry (and that would just be me), and it’s an immediate mood enhancer. The children are developing some great “moves” – sometimes accusing each other of “stealing my moves” – and Ollie’s got some real African knee-action going to this one.

Best Re-Read That Turned Out To Be a First Read

Apparently, in my third year of English Literature at the University of Cape Town, we studied Middlemarch. I remember attending some of the lectures, and may possibly have answered an exam question on it. I decided to reread it this year – completely delightful and to my surprise, accessible – but I couldn’t remember a word from supposedly having read it in 1989.

Best Surprise English Find in a German Bookshop

Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness. Reviewed here.

Best Novel Written by a Poet

Finuala Dowling’s What Poets Need. Reviewed here.

Best Film

Die Fetten Jahren Sind Vorbei (in English, The Edukators). This was released in 2004, but I saw it, thanks to Amazon.de’s DVD hire service, this year. It’s a great story: Jan and Peter, two young Berlin anarchists, break into rich people’s houses at night, rearrange their furniture (often to great effect), steal nothing but leave behind messages designed to disconcert the home owners. One night they botch a break-in and end up kidnapping someone. They find themselves on the run, with their abductee and Jan’s girlfriend Jule, with whom Peter is falling in love. As they hide out in a cottage in the mountains, they begin to feel compassion for their victim, the millionaire Hardenberg, and the debate begins – between the idealistic three who long for the passion and anarchy of 1968 and Hardenberg who has become staid and conservative since gathering his millions. It’s a thriller that isn’t, which is often my favourite kind, because it takes you right to the edge where you expect scary stuff to happen, and then it surprises you by doing an about-turn. There’s a bit of wobbly hand-held camera action to lend authenticity and some great acting, especially from Daniel Bruehl (star of Goodbye, Lenin) and Julia Jentsch (of Sophie Scholl fame).

Best Dieting Tip

Thanks to BlogLily, I discovered the Shangri-La Method, which has kept me trim since July. See my post here. I now need to reapply the method in order to recover from birthday and Christmas excess.

Best Style Purchase

A black wrap dress with white polka dots from H&M. It cost all of €15, and I have worn it once a week all year – in summer with flipflops, in winter with a long-sleeve T-shirt underneath and knee-high boots. In honour of Christmas, I glammed it up further with fake pearls. It’s very forgiving when one is carrying a little winterspeck and also very flattering over trousers. Wrap dresses rule.

Best Beauty Mantra

Yesterday’s mascara is today’s eyeliner.

Best Life Mantra

If you speak and act with integrity, you need not take responsibility for the reactions of others. The best decisions are the intuitive ones. Make time to be quiet and go within. Oh, and don’t forget to get up and feed the children.


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Stylin’

Now that I am a mere red-talon’s flick away from forty, my thoughts turn now and again to fashion. (Serious readers avert your eyes here: extreme frivolity lies ahead.)

I am by no means a high-maintenance Frau: any manicure, pedicure and waxing activities take place in the safety and security of my own bathroom; I only require a bi-yearly visit to the hairdresser for highlights and a trim, and I make no investment purchases whatsoever. I don’t see the point of spending money on a handbag, boots or a coat that cost more than a good holiday. Now that there are three children to consider and one and one-twelfth of a salary, I can’t justify any designer purchases.

This aside, I do like to look good, taking my height (short) and my shape (hourglass with wobbly bits) into consideration. I really don’t want to let go and not care and slump around in tracky bots, but neither do I want to be challenging the local teenagers in wearing ten trends all at once. I want to refer to trends but not drip them. Whatever cocktail I do actually achieve, I need to credit any wisdom I have to two gurus who have taught me the tips and tricks that I apply on a daily basis.

The first is my friend the lovely G. When I lived in London she would phone me and say, “Get thee to a Gap this minute. There’s a black broderie anglaise skirt that is screaming your name.” I would obey, and guess what, four summers later the skirt is still in service. The other guru is a duo, England’s equally maligned and admired Trinny and Susannah. To me, they are goddesses of style, who are on earth to help us mortals look just a tiny little bit better, if only we listened to their advice.

So what follows here – in no particular order – is an amalgam of G and T and S and me:

  • Combine fun or junk jewellery with real. What happens when we gals turn 30 is that we think we must now be grown-ups and wear only our “good” jewellery. So we do the pearl necklace and pearl earring thing, or wear only gold. This is terribly aging and frumpish. By all means, wear a pearl necklace but combine it with some cheap as chips chandelier earrings. Or wear your diamond studs, but put them with strands of beads.
  • Tapering trousers are your hips’ worst enemy. Cigarette pants and skinny jeans are only for skinny bums. If you are the proud owner of a bottom, and indeed some hips, straight-legged trousers or slightly flared boot-cuts are the only way to go. Also, if you have thighs, ignore the high-waisted pants that are haunting us this autumn – they are just not flattering especially if they get pulled up too high and emphasise, ahem, the family jewels. (I was just too shy there to mention what all good fashion magazines this autumn are calling the camel’s foot.)
  • A denim jacket combined with a pair of jeans is known as the Shakin’ Stevens and is an absolute no-no. Shades of the aging rocker, what? Wear your denim jacket with cords or chinos or linen pants of any hue, but nevaire, my dears, with your denim trews. A denim skirt with a denim jacket is just as bad. Just add some rhinestones and start baah-ing quietly.
  • Black is good with white, with brown, with khaki, with pastels, bizarrely (although I was taught the opposite back home in Pietermaritzburg) with navy, but is shockingly, terribly bad with hot pink or bright yellow. The hot pink/black combo is is a fashion crime I committed often until I came across T and S and they mentioned Olivia Newton in Grease. While both are fine colours, the combination looks apparently – and sadly for me – cheap.
  • If you are short and can wear ’em, then heels are the way to lengthen legs. I keep trying with high heels but find them impossible. I have just bought a new pair in England (purple suede with stacked heels and five quid on the Asda sale, they look like something Dorothy Parker would wear) and I love them them so much I want to put them on a pedestal, but I just can’t walk in them. In my life, I need practical shoes that I can run in to prevent toddlers from wandering into a river, or abseiling down the stairs. However, at night, when I don’t have to walk very far (a party or a dinner, say) then out come the trusty heels.
  • Every girl’s BEST FRIEND – and I mean this sincerely – is the wrap dress. I own two, one black with white polka dots and one purple. They are the only two items I have ever tried on in a shop OVER MY OUTDOOR CLOTHES and said, Good God, I look fabulous. They are totally forgiving of any extra Speck that might be lingering around the middle, and over trousers, and with heels, they look a million dollars.
  • Trousers should err on the long side. Cut too short, they only make short legs look shorter.
  • Avoid too much matchy-matchiness. This is lesson I’ve had to learn only recently, so well-schooled was I in matching my shoes to my belt to my bag. I’ve just realised that too matchy is frumpy: clash a little, combine colours that you normally wouldn’t for an altogether less neat and tidy look. This season’s trendiest colour combination is grey and brown – not a marriage that would have gone down well in Pietermaritzburg, but a funky look in the autumnal northern hemisphere.

The thing about fashion is to have fun. I did mention frivolity, and that’s all it is really. I regret dressing so seriously in my twenties (too much bloody navy) and not having more fun when my body was still in its pre-baby heyday. I don’t want to look back when I’m in my sixties and think “I was so YOUNG! Why did I have to dress like an old lady/frump/rhinestone cowgirl.” That would be almost as sad as my wearing skinny jeans.


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Fleamarket Chic and Fluffy Bunny #37

This weekend we went to a flea market in a lovely green meadow on the banks of the River Neckar. A German version of the English car boot sale, it was made up of parents selling on their children’s clothes and toys. We had a great wander, and bought each child a pair of shoes (one slightly worn, one barely worn and one brand-new) for a total of €8.50, one dress for €5, a book for €1 and a plastic fairy for 10 cents. Today, the shoes and dress were worn, the book was read and the fairy taken for her first bike ride. So everyone was happy.

One of the great things about living in Germany is the attitude to recycling. Kids, in particular, generate so much stuff by growing all the time. Here, there are regular Flohmarkten where you can sell off your old kids’ clothes or find some great bargains of your own. Germans aren’t remotely bothered about their kids wearing secondhand clothes, which I find refreshing. There’s a kind of antifashion thriftiness that I like about it.

Thriftiness aside though, there is the problem of Having Too Much Stuff. Over at The White Elephant, there’s a great post on how to cut out The Stuff and live more simply. She advocates never selling unused Stuff, and always giving it away. My mother, a wise woman of wisdom, always says if you give something away, it leaves a space for the universe to fill. I have recently put away the kids’ summer clothes and got out the winter ones, all the while noting what the gaps were: Lily needs new vests, some jeans and some gym wear; Daisy needs new welly boots. I also packaged up a big pile of their things that were too small for a friend with a little girl. Then lo and behold my husband returns from another friend’s house with bags of children’s clothes. Lily now has jeans and gym wear; Ollie has a lot of clothes for when he is four; thanks to the flea market, Daisy has wellies. The gaps were made and the universe (in the form of a kind friend) provided.

Another great thing about Germany is that there are severe restrictions on marketing to children. Our lot watch a TV channel that has no ads whatsoever, so we are not under pressure to buy the latest cereal or Power Ranger. My children don’t even know what Power Rangers are. However, they still seem to have an ungodly amount of toys, maybe because I haven’t had the heart to throw away the likes of Fluffy Bunny #37 because it was a present from Great-Aunt Ada who is 88 and posted it from England.

There’s a recent post at penguinunearthed about affluence and how to avoid swamping kids with toys, which I found really interesting. She asks how we reconcile our little moments of retail therapy with wanting to raise kids who are not materialistic. Many of the comments described not being able to say no to requests for books, but being fairly strict about toys. I think this describes us (though not Great-Aunt Ada and her cohorts). To us, books are groceries, and we would like it to be the same for our children. However, we don’t want to encourage Toys R Us rampages, as well as the concomitant build-up of plastic in our home.

So I have a catch-all for phrase for when someone says to me “Mummy, I want a toy horse/princess doll/new Cars DVD”, and that is: “How lovely, darling, we’ll put it on your birthday list”. They know they don’t receive everything on their birthday list, but they feel as if they have been listened to and there is chance that the overwhelming need – if it hasn’t faded away by the time the birthday arrives – may just be met.


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Age May Be An Illusion

With forty on the horizon, I’m having to deal with the arrival of a more than generous sprinkling of platinum hair, physical droop in places and mental deterioration (see Headless Chicken Reincarnates). However, thanks to today’s Observer, I’ve just discovered that I’m only 15. Check this out:

Britons’ annual spend on anti-ageing products is approaching £1bn. But cosmetic scientist Gisele Mir has put a spanner in the works by claiming that ‘many anti-ageing creams accelerate ageing rather than prevent it.’ If this proves to be the case, maybe consumers could demand pro-ageing creams, in the hope that they’ll do the opposite of what’s claimed. Meanwhile, the word on the anti-ageing scene is that pouting is a no-no, food should be strictly all-mauve, and that, when averaging out the regenerative cycle speeds of all parts of the body, a person in their late-thirties currently has a body that’s only 15-and-a-half years old.

Though I have been known to pout, I do eat aubergines and would adore to eat purple sprouting brocoli if it were only available in the Ladenburg metropolis. I also do not use any anti-ageing products, so I’m probably only 14. Which is great given that I have three children and a mortgage – I still have a chance to raise them, pay off the mortgage AND get to Ibiza, wear miniskirts and go clubbing for nine days solid.

Magazines exploit our obsession with the youth cult, by promoting products to make our skin younger, clothes to make our bodies hipper and objects we need to own in order to feel like the teenager that lurks inside. I am slowly relinquishing my magazine habit in protest. There are a couple I still read: the German magazine myself and when I can get it, the BBC’s Eve. Both are grown-up publications, with interesting articles about people who have actually achieved something, not too much celebrity worship and fashion for adults. However, they are packed with ads for creams to make you younger, articles on how to stay young and fit, info on spas and beauty treatments. Let’s face it: youth sells.

When I was on holiday in France a couple of years ago at a yoga retreat I met a guy who was in advertising in London. He was in his mid-forties and had travelled to the Lot on his motorbike (speaks volumes, non?). He had just started a new agency staffed only by people under 25. The reason he gave was that people in their 30s and 40s, while experienced, are unable to sell to youth because they don’t understand them. At the time I thought it was really funky and interesting, but now, in retrospect, I think it’s sad. We want to look like, if not even be, under 25 but we don’t know how to talk to them.

My little rebellion against this cultural tide is to embrace my greyness (of hair, not personality) – okay, so I may still get highlights but I won’t dye. When it’s hot, I’m going to wear spaghetti-string vests even if my bingo wings flap. I’m going to love the wrinkles as they arrive and while I’m going to dress as I choose, I’m going to try really really hard not to emulate teenagers. While dignity does not have to mean pleated skirts with pearls, it does mean no pelmets, no visible belly while not at the pool and no more G-strings. I think we all have a right to act as young as we feel, but perhaps it’s best not to dress that way. My body may have a mental age of 14, but in a few years’ time I’m going to have to step into the wings and let my kids get on with being the disgraceful teens.


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Birkenstocks: A Question of Style

One of the German habits I’ve had to get used to is shoe removal. When you get inside, you take your outdoor shoes off and replace them with slippers known as hausschuhe. This is of course inherently practical – it means you don’t drag mess into the house and you’re wearing something comfortable. The slipper of choice is usually the Birkenstock.

I have to confess that while forcing my children to remove their shoes as they come into our home, I keep my shoes on. My premise is that they are more likely than me to have stomped in a puddle or dallied in mud, and also that they will be going to play at other people’s houses so they need to know what the expected behaviour for children is. Children coming to our house on winter play dates will bring along their own hausschuhe so that they and my lot can have a happy little hauschuhfest of an afternoon.

Luckily for me the rules don’t always extend to adults, so I can still visit people’s houses shod. However, those who are eager to protect their floors keep spare adult pairs, which, out of politeness, I will don. It’s not as if I hate my feet. It’s just that (1) my shoes usually accessorise what I’m wearing, (2) my socks may have holes in, and (3) I like to walk not shuffle.

But the main reason I just can’t get into the hausschuh thing is because I find Birkenstocks and their ilk plain ugly. I’m just not a slipper kinda gal. Back home in South Africa, the Afrikaans word for slipper is “pantoffel”, which to me evokes Eau de Trailer Trash, indicating something large, fluffy and covered in cigarette ash. Also, as a child, I was forced to wear stokies, towelling affairs in shades of sludge and pond scum that were the nadir of slipperdom. I think I was damaged, and let it here be known that I always try to purchase attractive hausschuhe for my children.

Some of my non-German friends have gone native, and swear by the extreme comfort and practicality of their Birkies. What is really dangerous is when someone gets so attached to their Birkies that they start wearing them out of the house. This should be the preserve of dental hygienists and software developers only (the latter of whom will have summer Birkies – to be worn au naturel – and winter ones – to be worn with socks). Yes, they will wear their Birkies in the snow.

In other lands, more distant from here, Birkenstocks have an air of cool – Californians may wear them, Capetonians too – but in Germany, where the Birkenstock was born, they are orthopaedic shoes to be worn by people whose jobs require them to stand a lot or at home where no-one can see you. If you step outside in your othopaedic slippers your street cred is nul.