Thursday, May 26, 2011

How others see us

Serving people over a glass counter as I do most days of the week, I notice small details. Not in a fact-finding way, just in passing, it seeps into my consciousness. It verifies someone’s image to me in an unthinking way.

There seem to be two types of women as far as I can see.

Picture if you will, a harassed and unkempt woman. She opens her handbag and searches for her wallet through the used tissues and receipts. Her hands are dry and nails perfunctory. She might be wearing wedding and engagement rings but they barely manage to bring beauty to her hands.

She curses as she opens her wallet and discovers her cash-card is missing. Panicking to herself what pocket she might have tucked it into she discovers it floating around in the bottom of her bag. I see this more often than you’d think. This type keeps every receipt from the past six months in her wallet. Some bags and wallets literally bulge with paper and coffee cards. And the offenders don’t necessarily have young children either (when I know you have to carry around everything under the sun).

Here is our other type of lady (the one I try to aspire to). I have served a couple of these in the last few days and their image stays with me in an altogether more pleasant and serene way.

A handbag that looks either new-ish or well looked after is placed on the counter. A pair of moisturised hands with manicured (polished or bare) nails reaches in and pulls out a tidy wallet. These women never seem harassed or rushed, even if they might be. The wallet is not cracked and it is not dirty. She opens it up and chooses her card.

While she is paying, I have time to notice that she has a lovely soft fragrance on, light makeup, hair styled. She is wearing becoming jewellery and colours that light up her face, often with a soft scarf draped around her neck. A couple of our customers that come to mind have lovely gentle speaking voices and smile often.

Have you ever noticed that some people seem to have a permanently annoyed look on their face, even when the situation is neutral or good? Not these lovely creatures. Their faces are soft and pleasant.

Think about how you give yourself away when next out shopping. As for me, I plan to clean out my bag and wallet. I do it on a semi-regular basis but it’s due for another. It is probably these feminine ladies at the counter who are the catalyst for a bag-clean at my place.

My favourite way to bag-clean is find a nice big space of carpet at home and tip everything out. Hold the bag upside down and shake it. It’s best done when you are due to vacuum, not after. Consider everything that goes back into the bag. Some things that I carry around ‘just in case’ only come out when I do this. Perhaps I will have to be more ruthless next time.

Amended to add: Please do not think I am being judgemental. Reading back through this post perhaps I come across that way. At times I have portrayed the first woman, and, to add insult to injury, I am rude to the person serving me because I am in a grump or have been charged the wrong price (again) at the supermarket.

When I post these observations it is not to make others feel bad (I really hope you don't take it that way), but to show how others inspire me to be a better version of myself.

As my sister wisely pointed out, most of us are a mix of these two women and usually would sit somewhere in the middle. We all have off days, and we also have things in our life that others do not know of, sometimes they can be major in the case of illness or unhappy life changes. And then picking someone to bits because their bag is messy seems rather pathetic.

And of course if you have a child or three in tow, my hat goes off to you just keeping it together. Not having children I don't know how difficult it is to get everything done in a day (and have time for hand-cream).

My blog is a place to be light-hearted and pretty and I hope you take my posts that way.

Image of Ines, who would surely have a very neat bag, from

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Having discipline

The French woman famously has ‘steely discipline’ when it comes to matters pertaining to everything. In her grooming, how she dresses, the way she carries herself in public, in not drinking too much, what she spends her money on and the amount of outside events she allows into her life.

I don’t know about steely discipline, but some discipline would be helpful. I may rebel against myself at first, but I am slowly coming to understand that when we limit ourselves, it’s a better thing overall. And the more you use it, the easier it seems to become.

Think about how you might be with none. Possibly this was you as a teenager or in your twenties. The thing is, you can get away with it then. You can stay out late and still look good the next day. If it’s done too often though, time catches up and you can see it on the faces of those who don’t take the time to look after themselves.

Imagine again the disciplined you. You wake at the same (early-ish) time each day. You go to bed (mostly) at roughly the same time. You have one or two glasses of wine only a few days per week and enjoy nutritious and delicious food in small amounts. You allow yourself plenty of time to get ready in the morning and attend to your wardrobe and home regularly, thus preventing meltdowns when something that is needed is in the wash, or people are coming over and the house is a tip.

Getting ahead of myself is the best way I find to keep on top of things and feel happy and contented. I plan ahead at least a few days at a time and make notes in my diary of things I want to do. I know that I am a lot nicer to be around on the days when I have put things away as I’ve used them, planned what I’m making for dinner, and have clothes that are clean for yoga.

Last week on my day at home I did a big pile of mending which I had been putting off. Sewing buttons on, mending thin patches in jeans, hemming pants that were slightly too long. The next day was such a thrill to get dressed for work as I had all these lovely, tailored-for-me clothes hanging up. Things like this take discipline but instead of seeing it as a bind, I can choose to see it as helping me be free.

Image of Audrey Tautou from Do you you think she looks like this by eating chips lying on the sofa?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Taking good care of your skin

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 29 November 2009

I have my Mother to thank for having a smooth complexion at 40. From about the age of 12 or 13, Mum bought me good, basic skincare to use twice a day. I think first it was Simple soap and Simple moisturiser, trying different brands along the way. I remember a Revlon foaming cleanser and moisturiser and after that the famous three step Clinique soap, toner and yellow moisturiser.

I progressed to Estee Lauder in my 20s and loved that. It kept me broke but I didn’t care. Then, I put expensive skincare as a priority above hair products and even clothing. After working for Parfums Christian Dior (skincare, makeup, fragrance) I got to try their wonderful and pricey products and for the first time used serums under my moisturiser, day and night.

Even though I spent a lot on skincare I always secretly wondered if serums were a have. I don’t have an answer for you even now sorry. I think if you can afford them they are lovely to use and do seem to sink in straight away, and your skin feels extra lovely after you put the night cream or daytime moisturiser over top.

The funny thing is, I always had problems with oiliness and also acne for a while when in my late teens and early 20s, so it’s quite novel for someone to come up to me and say ‘You have beautiful skin’ or my husband to remark on it looking nice. I heard a long time ago that if you have oily skin when younger it will age well, as opposed to people who have less oily, less troublesome skin as a teenager (are they drying out like an Autumn leaf as they get older?).

I realise now you don’t need to spend a fortune on skincare. Or perhaps there are just more and better budget options these days. I have heard that because L’oreal is owned by Lancome, the L’oreal products are much the same as Lancome products without a few of the more expensive ingredients.

I prefer to go down the more local route. There are wonderful New Zealand and Australian made skincare lines which just offer good, basic products without the many chemicals that big brands seem to list on their packaging.

No matter the brand, the main ingredients you want to avoid are petro-chemicals. Petrolatum and mineral oil (or ‘huile minerale’) are dreadful for your skin. I found that I had tiny bumps all over my skin which disappeared when I read labels and avoided anything with these ingredients.

I am currently enjoying Australian brand Natio products. The packaging is all white, with simple containers and tubes and plain yet chic labeling. The products are scented with essential oils so they smell pretty yet fresh. I love a nice light fragrance in my beauty products. 'Fragrance free' is not a selling point to me! Prices range from around $14-$30. Quite different to brands I have used in the past.

Another favourite is New Zealand brand Skinfood. I buy their cleanser and facial/body moisturisers from the supermarket and they are around $13. They do not have parabens or horrid ingredients and I love the refreshing scent from orange and lavender oils.

Here is my regime.

In the morning I wash my face in the shower. I use a tiny amount of foaming cleanser as my face can be quite shiny when I wake up. Then I mist or pat an alcohol-free toner over my face to moisten and apply my serum and SPF moisturizer. A light eye cream patted underneath my eyes rounds off my skincare routine for the morning.

I let this all soak in while I have my breakfast (a poached egg on Vogels original wholegrain toast, no butter – an egg a day must be making my skin happy too).
In the evening I put a white towelling headband on to hold my hair out of my eyes and apply a thick, creamy cleansing cream massaging it into my skin and removing with a large size facial tissue. Rubbing the cream gently around my eyes removes all mascara and eye makeup too (I don’t wear waterproof mascara though).

Then I apply my alcohol free toner to a flat cotton pad and refresh my face, making sure all makeup is gone from around my eyes. When my toner runs out I plan to try making my own toner. One simple recipe I read is to make a strong green tea brew and when cool decant into your toner bottle. I have purchased rose water and glycerin, and witch hazel from chemist shops before, but they seem to have not good ingredients listed on the label as well so haven’t used those again.

After toning I apply my serum, a rich and creamy night cream and richer eye cream than the morning.

Doing your cleanse, tone, moisturise, two times a day, every day for more than 25 years, that is how you keep your skin looking as nice as it can, for as long as you can. Genes play a part but environment is so important.

I read a terrible statistic about how aging going to bed with your makeup on is. I can’t remember the numbers but it made me vow never to do it. I can remember a handful of times in the past 10 years I have done this. It’s not good the next day. My poor skin felt like sandpaper crossed with a dried out piece of driftwood crossed with gravel.

That combined with a hangover, which, lets face it is the reason why we fall asleep with our makeup on, do not for a fresh complexion make. I don’t have any at the moment, but have found a pack of moist facial wipes and a thick night cream in my bedside drawer to be very useful for late nights. Definitely better than nothing.

And while I’m on skincare, remember your neck and décolletage. In the morning I apply an SPF30 sunblock to neck and chest, and in the evening before retiring (this is also in my bedside drawer) I apply a body butter or body cream to the same area. I live in fear of finding myself with a crepey and lined decolletage one day. My morning and night routine allays these fears somewhat.

Basically the top drawer in my bedside table is full of skincare for hands, elbows, décolletage, face and lips. And a notepad and pen to empty my head.

I can’t believe I almost forgot my favourite part of le regime. Twice a week when I’m in the groove, or twice a month when I’m not, a gentle exfoliation and then facial mask, both washed off with a face cloth and warm water. Lovely.

And to finish: my favourite skincare quotes:

Nature gives you the face you have at 20, it is up to you to merit the face you have at 50.’ – Coco Chanel

There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.’ – Helena Rubenstein

Beauty is an attitude. There's no secret. Why are all brides beautiful? Because on their wedding day they care about how they look. There are no ugly women – only women who don't care or who don't believe they're attractive.’ – Estee Lauder

Image of the fabulous spa at George V Four Seasons Hotel in Paris

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Gospel According To Coco Chanel

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 22 December 2009

I just received this book from the library and am so excited to have it to read when on holiday over Christmas. It looks like a good contender for my own personal library wish list. I was even more excited to discover a website of the book which has a great excerpt from the 'On Style' chapter (a small part of it below).

And if you haven't already found it, read about my Great Aunt who nursed Coco Chanel in the late 1960s whilst working at the American Hospital in Paris.

For nearly a hundred years, Coco Chanel has been synonymous with every piece of clothing we consider stylish — and with lots of stuff to which we never give a thought. Throw open your closet door and you will find the spirit of Chanel. If you have a collection of jackets for tossing on over a pair of jeans, the better to look as if you’ve actually dressed for the occasion — as opposed to simply parked the lawn mower, given your nails a once over with the nail brush, and walked out the door — that’s Chanel.

Any black dress is a direct descendent of Chanel’s 1926 short silk model. A knee-grazing pencil or A-line skirt? Chanel. Jersey anything? Chanel again. She gave us real pockets, bell-bottoms, twin sets, drop waists, belted cardigans, short dresses for evening, sportswear including riding breeches, and the need to accessorize madly at all times. Anything that’s got simple lines, skims the body, is easy to move in, and affords the loading on of a lot of jewelry is Chanel.

So too is anything in which prettiness trumps quirkiness. Chanel ran screaming from the latest fads. She considered them to be expressions of cheesy grandstanding, and, anyway, they rarely held to her standards of simple elegance. Thus ponchos, stirrup pants, or backless dresses cut in a manner that reveals your thong are definitely not Chanel.

If you own anything that has emy husbandets (and you are not in the armed forces), an unnecessary amount of fabric, ill-fitting arms, or Hulk-size shoulder pads, it is not Chanel. Anything related to the grunge revival, featuring ripped tights that look as if you’ve barely survived a mugging? Uh, no. Anything in which you cannot breathe, sit down, or get into a car without flashing your lady bits—well, I don’t even need to say it.

When Chanel observed that “not all women have the figure of Venus* yet nothing should be hidden,” this is not what she was talking about. (To clarify, she meant that the loose, long T-shirts we reserve for fat days do nothing but make us look fatter.) * Actually, a lot of us do; what we don’t have is the flat-chested, slim-hipped figure of Chanel.

The Chanel aesthetic is like the force in Star Wars, surrounding, penetrating, and binding together the universe of fashion, now and forever.

As I write this I’m wearing a pair of J. Crew boy jeans—even though they’re square through the hip with straight legs and a button fly, they are cunningly cut to prevent your looking like an appliance box—and a chocolate brown, long-sleeve cashmere T-shirt. Both pieces descend straight from Chanel’s once-shocking ideas that with a smidge of fancying up, menswear could be easily retooled for the ladies and soft, body-defining fabrics (some of which was normally used for underwear) could make the simplest garment seem luxe.

Excerpt from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel - Life Lessons From the World's Most Elegant Woman by Karen Karbo

Thursday, May 19, 2011


My friend Mary creates the most exquisite jewellery. It is often made from salvaged/reclaimed items, as with this necklace above. In a previous life, the main component was a silver-plated teaspoon. I love the way the bijoux charms nestle into the spoon bowl.

She has recently opened an Etsy store, and I thought you might like to know about her beautiful and sometimes unusual one-of-a-kind creations.

Mary is one of my chic mentors (she is very talented and has great taste), and also my aromatherapy masseuse. She lives in a tiny and gorgeously decorated inner-city cottage with her husband, and is European in so many ways. Mary walks most places, wears accessories with style and panache and puts together charity shop finds in her own chic way.

Click on the link below to see the rest of her current range at her Etsy store:

Mary Crosby Design

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

True Pleasures

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 25 November 2009

Below are two of my favourite quotes from True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women in Paris by Lucinda Holdforth. I read this book last year.

'The Paris of my imagination is a site of pleasure and history and beauty. It's a place to recharge myself as a woman. Each time I come back here it's like greeting an older woman friend, one who is rather grand and imperious - a great dame, in fact - who likes me to look my best, to have my wittiest conversation to hand and to be on my toes all the time.'

And another,

'The house is small and modest, a sign of her commitment to financial freedom and independence.'

The house we currently live in is rather small and modest, but rather than just exist in it and wait and wish for a bigger place, I am now embracing its size, decluttering and making the most of things (it's not that we need a bigger house, we just need less stuff).

We were very lucky in that it was thoroughly renovated immediately before we moved in, with everything whitewashed, brand new kitchen and brand new dark donkey-brown carpet. Every single light switch and light fitting was new, even hinges and handles on the doors (brushed silver). If we had to choose the decor, we would probably choose the one we ended up with.

I love the second quote as it reminds me we are being good stewards of our money by not wasting (whether rent or mortgage) our funds on a large abode. And if I find myself wishing for a bigger home, I remember the chic Parisiennes living stylish lives in their tiny apartments and all is well again.

Image from

Monday, May 16, 2011

Laws of (French Chic) Success

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 17 November 2009

I used to listen a lot to tapes of business dynamos like Tony Robbins and Brian Tracy hoping they would turn me into a corporate go-getter. Well that didn’t happen, but I did learn a lot of interesting and useful information.

One of the best was a Brian Tracy series: The Universal Laws of Success and Achievement. Here are some of my favourite ‘laws’ from the first session: The Laws of Success. I already know they apply to everything in life, but coming back to them after reading all the French Chic books I have, was surprised how much they apply to creating a more European lifestyle too.

Thoughts objectify themselves. You become what you think about.

To achieve success in any area, you must have a clear image of that success in your mind – a mental picture of your idea of success.

Your outer life will mirror your inner life. There is a direct correspondence between your experiences and your thoughts and attitudes.

Whatever you believe… deeply… becomes your reality.

What you truly value and believe in is reflected in your actions, even though your words may say otherwise.

Whatever you concentrate on and think about repeatedly, becomes more a part of your inner life, and consequently your outer life.

Virtually all we do is automatic, the result of habit. Habits that move us away from our goals must be changed.

You are a living magnet. You attract people, events and circumstances that harmonise with your dominant thoughts.

You are free to choose what you think about, and therefore free to choose all other parts of your life.

A positive mental attitude goes with success and happiness. Optimism makes you cheerful and pleasant, and more likely to succeed.


I especially like the last two. I think things do seem to go your way more when you are happy and I'm sure people definitely respond to the positivity of others. The 'living magnet' one too made me think of all the lovely bloggers I've 'met' and blogs I have read on the subjects of French chic, simple living, living well with less, downsizing and frugality.

Image from Hip Paris blog, with accompanying cool checklist on How to be a Parisienne

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Frugal Times

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 4 November 2009
I read an article in the New Zealand Herald last week because the headline caught my eye – ‘luxury’, ‘fashion’ and ‘frugal’ in the same sentence? It was in the business section which I read faithfully (and often first), in my defence. I am happily shallow, but also aware of the world out there.

As I read on, it occurred to me that the ‘news’ is what French, and European women in general have been doing all along.

‘Luxury labels suffer as fashion for frugality thrives.’

‘Women this year opted to ‘shop their closets’ and accessorise to update their wardrobes rather than buy new clothes. When they did buy new clothes, women tended not to snap up fancy pieces that could only be worn on certain occasions, but rather evergreens’. ‘ Frugality is fashionable, even for the wealthiest consumers.’

Interestingly, cosmetic and fragrance luxury brands have been hit too, with consumers trading down to supermarket and chemist names. I have heard the French luxury cosmetic company I used to work for is struggling for sales here in New Zealand. After leaving there, and my generous staff discount, not to mention staff product allocations (free), it was hard to pay retail afterwards, and I have been trialling simple, inexpensive and often local brands with good results.

Something good to come from the hard times we are experiencing currently is the wealth of new books out (which of course I reserve at the library, rather than purchase straight away) on the topic of stylish frugality. It's actually trendy to be frugal nowadays. Five years ago I was definitely out of vogue.

When I looked for these books even a few years ago, the only frugal titles featured nerdy looking families in bad clothing (no offense to the Economides, I love their book America’s Cheapest Family and I am in awe of how they live their life).

Nowadays chic young women write books like The Thrift Book: Live Well and Spend Less by India Knight and The Spend Less Handbook: 365 Tips For A Better Quality Of Life While Actually Spending Less by Rebecca Ash (the first one is better, but get both if they’re at the library) and many, many more as evidenced at Amazon.

Does anyone sense the irony at the rash of books out which want you to purchase them in order to be frugal? I even saw a book at a shop in town which professed to help you stop shopping. But you have to buy the book and then stop shopping apparently.

I also find it very interesting that being frugal almost automatically means you become greener as well. Reusing, recycling, repurposing, using less etc. It all knits together perfectly.

Two other books which I really enjoyed pertaining loosely to this subject are Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Lustre by Dana Thomas (very illuminating, I was glued to it and often would audibly gasp at the audacity of those nasty big luxury brand conglomerates!) and Affluenza by Oliver James (rather dry and wordy but interesting nonetheless).

Image of luxury home in France from I decided against purchasing this chateau in the spirit of frugality.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Simple and Pretty

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 14 November 2009

A magazine article I have torn out (from English Woman & Home) has great interviews with three modern day beauty gurus.

Firstly, Bobbi Brown. I have one of Bobbi’s makeup books (‘Beauty’), and whenever I see photos of her or read an article quoting her, I am always admiring. I love that she often looks very natural, but in a lovely, lightly made-up way (not the other kind of ‘real’ natural). She says ‘You should wear your make-up to look like a better version of yourself, not look like someone else’.

Her philosophy is ‘simple and pretty’ and believes anything that makes you look ‘hard’ is not a beauty enhancer. ‘There is nothing prettier on any skin tone than pale pink blush and a slick of pink lipstick. It’s so fresh and feminine.’ She believes eyeliner is even more important than mascara (although she recommends both) in making you look awake and drawing emphasis to your eyes. I often only wear mascara, so after reading this with breakfast this morning of course I put eyeliner on too!

Trish McEvoy, the second interviewee, says sunscreen worn daily is the best advice she has been given. ‘If you take two women in their fifties, or even in their thirties, you can tell which one has been wearing it and which one hasn’t’.

Even though I didn’t start wearing sunscreen regularly until my mid-late twenties, I was never a big sunbather (it just took too long with my fair skin!) so I am grateful for that. I love Trish’s ‘pet peeve’: ‘People who brag about how little sleep they need. If you don’t sleep enough, eat well and exercise, you’ll never look or feel your best.’ I really agree with this. I have read your body needs plenty of sleep in order to rejuvenate and ‘reset’. If you get too little sleep this can be a factor in being overweight. And you may have heard the old saying ‘an hour before midnight is worth two after’.

I often go to bed around 9.30-10pm at the latest, and some nights if we have eaten earlier I love to sneak off 8.30-9pm with a book and the cat. She has her routine too, and often perches herself near the bottom of the stairs eyeballing me while I brush my teeth and wash my face. Then, when I go up, she springs up too with such vigour that belies her 16 years and happily settles in at the foot of the bed. None of the beauty experts mention pets as keeping you young, but I believe they do. It has been proven they lower your blood pressure.

I love Trish's outfit in this photo too. The cool, wide belt and thin body do it for me!

Lastly, Laura Mercier is mentioned. Her cosmetic line launched promoting ‘classic colours rather than seasonal trends’. Well, she is French after all. She believes keeping yourself happy is the best beauty secret of all, which may mean allowing yourself to enjoy dessert once in a while and choosing an activity you enjoy rather than being a slave to the treadmill. Amen to that.

Now I have a confession to make, I don’t actually own a single product from any of these womens’ lines (yet, unless Bobbi’s book counts?). But I can still be inspired from them right?

Bobbi Brown image from
Trish McEvoy image from
Laura Mercier image from

Update: there is no longer a cat residing in this house - she departed for cat-heaven aged 17. But with the poodle to take her place on the bed I am content. He is a great blood-pressure-lowerer as well.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Style Experts

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 9 November 2009

I was lucky enough to watch a live show featuring Trinny and Susannah last month at my local mall. There were a lot of people there and it was standing only. Even so, with impatient legs stuck in one spot, the hour they were on stage flew by. These upper crust English girls earn their money. They were hilarious, motherly, helpful, compassionate and comedic all at once.

I don't remember exactly what Trinny wore, but I fell in love with Susannah's outfit. It was a knee-length light navy-blue dress, with a wide-ish belt in black. I remembered that I read French women wear navy and black or brown and black together. I could never get my head around navy and black, but now I can.

Women looked vastly different and for the most part better after a simple change of clothing and a ten minute hair and makeup. Their most emphatic message for the audience was to be fitted for a new bra, or at the very least shorten the straps of your existing one to give the girls a lift (I did this as soon as I got home!).

Another message for us was to not wear black all the time. I am the opposite to this though. I haven’t worn black for so long, save for a few black tops and a shirt. I don’t often wear them as I feel they drain the colour from my face and create black circles under my eyes. I am wanting to find out ways to reintroduce black into my wardrobe that is flattering for fair colouring as I think it is very chic if worn properly.

Scarves and necklaces are a good way of adding light around the face, as are earrings (pearl or diamond – my pearls are real, my diamonds are faux). Also being more careful with my makeup, adding more mascara, healthy natural pink toned blush and perhaps a sheer red lipstick to brighten up the complexion. These are some of the ways I am returning to a small amount of black.

Trinny and Susannah’s main rules for shopping are: Make a list of what you want to get before you go out shopping. Look in your wardrobe and make a list. Work out your budget. Work out how much money you have. Think ‘what is it I can never find in my wardrobe that I need’.

The last statement is the one that I think is the best. It’s easy to buy multiples of the pieces you already have, but to find out what it is you always miss having, that’s the hard question.

A favourite quote from Trinny and Susannah comes from one of their many books. I think it was the one about changing your life by changing your clothes.

‘Keep your hand out of the cookie jar. Resisting temptation may be the key to great personal style.’

And another:
‘The best beauty treatment is personal size reduction.’

This is what I am working on right now. It is often only a few (well, OK, five) kilos between feeling chic or not!

Image from

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Best. Soup. Ever.

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 24 October 2009

Bold statement I know. There are a number of reasons (and my sales pitch on) why this is the best soup ever.

Quick and easy to make
Lots of nutrition - brightly coloured vegetables and good amount of protein
Low in fat/calories

The recipe came from New Zealand House & Garden many, many years ago. Since then I have made it a lot (My mother is the soup queen and I think I have inherited this gene thankfully). It has an ingredient list that can be memorised easily, and I make different versions of it for variety of flavour, and to use up fading vegetables.

Here is the original version:

1 brown onion, chopped and sautéed in a little olive oil
1 400g-420g can of plain or flavoured chopped tomatoes and juice
1 cup red lentils (rinsed and picked over – take out the odd yucky looking one)
4 cups/1 litre chicken stock (or any other stock flavor you like). I use a mix of my homemade chicken stock and store-bought stock powder/cubes.

(In my head, the recipe is: one onion, 1 can tomatoes, 1 cup red lentils, 1 litre stock – easy to remember!). Also, all the basic recipe ingredients are 'store cupboard ingredients' - I always have them on hand.

Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes.

This soup has been my staple lunch at work for this past, and other winters. It reheats beautifully in the microwave. I have even been known to make it before work (when I really have no extra time). The really quick version involves throwing the onion into the other ingredients without sautéing and then cooking for 20 minutes. If you were really pressed for time you could use the stock, a can of flavoured tomatoes and the red lentils, no onion.

My current batch, which was extra tasty, involves a handful of fresh pumpkin cubes. These cook within the time frame and I just break up the pieces with a potato masher when done. It’s a nicer soup a little rustic than pureed smooth. I also added fresh oregano (just tore the leaves off the stem once washed) from my garden pot, dried sweet basil and six bay leaves (which are removed after cooking).

Other additions that are good:

As I said before, any tired vegetables can be chopped up small (since you’re not pureeing) and added
Fresh or dried herbs
A little tomato paste
Any cooked meats if you like, however the lentils provide good protein, so not needed for a balanced meal.
If you have any, a dollop of full fat plain unsweetened yoghurt added just before serving is divine, as is Parmesan. Yum
Different flavoured tomatoes or spices for a different type - Italian, Mexican, Indian

I also rarely make the single batch, even though it’s just me eating it. Doubling the quantities doesn’t take much more effort, and I often freeze the second container for an instant week’s worth of lunches. I either eat this by itself, or with bread, or cheese on toast.

I am a big fan of slow food and slow cooking, but this is my favourite 'fast food' recipe.

Update 9 November: I have just made another batch of this soup, including pumpkin as last time, but with Indian flavoured chopped tomatoes and an extra teaspoon of yellow curry powder. I also used dried soup mix rather than red lentils. Dried soup mix contains red lentils, barley, split peas etc. It needs to be cooked for an hour and a half rather than the 20 minutes for red lentils only. I think this Indian version is my favourite yet.

Bon appétit!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

European men are different

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 20 October 2009

(above, moi outside Paris Opera House. I did not know one does not belt the trench then, one ties it. I do now).

During my European trip, 2001 - first and hopefully not my last, I spent a few days each in Paris, and Rome. Firstly, I dressed up. Knowing we would be travelling through Paris (a female friend and I travelled together - both of us were single at the time) I packed a skirt and high heels even though travelling with a back pack.

My travel companion, on the other hand, wore track pants (gathered at the ankles), a sweat shirt and a bum bag (fanny pack). Such a shame. One of our days was spent seeing the sights and the other, shopping, window shopping, and soaking up the atmosphere. On the shopping day I suggested we split up for that day and meet back at our hotel later on. I feel a bit mean about this, but I wanted to enjoy the ambiance of Paris by myself, and in appropriate attire!

(above, outside Sacre Coeur, Montmatre). In Paris, a young man came up to me and asked if I would like to go out with him. 'I'm only in Paris tonight', I said. 'One night is all I need...' he replied. And not sleazy either! Rather, fun and flirty. I declined politely.

Next in Italy (above, viewing the ruins in Pompeii, so worth the bus trip). The same travelling companion and I walking along a footpath in Rome, admiring beautiful building after beautiful building, wondering at what family-run trattoria we should dine that evening.

Next thing, a suave and svelte Italian gentleman on his scooter (of course, they were everywhere in Rome - young women in pencil skirts and high heels with open-face helmets on, balancing a coffee on the handlebars and stylish young men in fine cut suits) rides close to where we are walking, making kissy faces to us. Again, fun and flirty.

These light hearted encounters just add to your day. No wonder French and Italian women like to dress up!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Go to bed earlier, get up earlier

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 15 March 2010

I read this advice on The English Organizer, about how to gain time. All the tips are fab, but the one that resonated with me most was about going to bed earlier and getting up earlier. For the past few months, I have been getting up an hour earlier, all so I can drink hot tea with milk and read – usually blogs, less often a book or magazine. I can have a lovely time catching up on all my favourite blogs and do my own writing. It’s now routine for me to get up earlier and I absolutely love this time.

In the height of summer when I started doing this it was lovely and light already, but now we creep towards Autumn it’s a little dark at first (I get up around 6-6.30am, not that early compared to a lot of folk. Our shop doesn’t open until 9.30am so we often leave for work around 9am) but I still enjoy this early time, even if the blinds are still down and the lights are on for the first part.

It’s guilt free time too. I know it’s not good to surf the net when at work – there are important things to do there, and being self employed I’m not doing myself any favours. And in the evenings I feel like a terrible wife glued to the laptop screen while my husband is sitting by himself on the sofa. So I get my fix first thing. And I’ve restarted my ‘book’, you know, the book we’re all writing. I feel like a bit of a fraud writing, I don’t know why. But I love reading so much and I have told myself – even if no one else reads it. Write a book you would like to read.

One I just finished and which I enjoyed immensely is A Spring Affair by Millly Johnson. I do love chick lit to relax and escape – there is so much uninspiring formulaic stuff out there though that it’s exciting to find a new author. Some I love are Sophie Kinsella (all of them), Emily Giffin (all of them) and Emily Barr (have only read Plan B but loved it – and it had a French angle).

I picked up A Spring Affair from the library new releases shelf and upon reading the back cover found it was, ta da, a new genre ‘decluttering chick lit’. Imagine! I had to borrow it of course and found it was such a lovely, funny, enjoyable book which actually had me in tears over my breakfast at the end. I love those books! And it had decluttering advice all the way through. A book tailor made for me I think. And maybe you too if you're a chick lit fan and as obsessed with decluttering as I am.

I went to the author’s website after I had finished and apart from a section on decluttering (yay), found tips for budding authors. If nothing else, she said, write 250 words per day, no matter what, and at the end of the year you will have a 91,000 word book. And don’t edit, just keep writing. Edit right at the end otherwise you will lose momentum. So that’s what I’m doing in the morning now. Before I start anything else, I write at least 250 words and then I am free to bring up Google Reader to read all those inspiring blog posts.

So I can heartily endorse The English Organizer’s advice on going to bed earlier and getting up earlier. After all she says, what do you do in the last hour of the evening anyway, lie there on the sofa thinking I’m too tired to get up and wash my face, watching tv that isn’t even any good, nothing actually productive. Sometimes I do that exact thing and go to bed at 11pm. That’s only 7 hours sleep – not nearly enough! I like to start getting ready for bed around 9 and be in bed reading by 9.30-10. I aim for 9 hours sleep like apparently French women get, but 8 is a good minimum.

Update: I still go to bed earlier (mostly) and get up earlier (more often) a year after reading this advice. I really, really love my early morning time with a cup of hot tea. And recently I borrowed the audio book of A Spring Affair from the library and listened to it in the car (12 cds!) over the course of a month. It was so enjoyable.

Image from

Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Style Philosophy

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi in two parts, 7 and 13 October 2009

I would often scoff at those lists of ‘10 pieces’ espoused by fashion (or rather ‘style’) experts. But thinking now, I have most of the items on them. Beige cotton trench coat. Check. White cotton fitted shirt/blouse. Check (times many). Little black dress. Check. Check. (a long and a short one). Classic watch (Cartier Tank Francaise in stainless steel and gold. I will die wearing this watch – hopefully not before my nineties). Dark jeans, aged jeans. Plain white Converse All Stars. Simple jewellery that I wear every day. Striped Breton tops. So I am in fact that list, walking around.

I used to think I needed to try harder to understand fashion and update my look each season. Then when I read European women (and French women particularly) buy good quality pieces they wear for many years, sometimes twenty, I was thrilled. I had found my style sisters.

I actually find Vogue magazines not as appealing as I used to (the fashion pages anyway, I enjoy reading the beauty and lifestyle articles) and can’t remember when I last bought one.

And I often feel my best in simple, classic but chic clothes, with fresh, light makeup and unfussy hair. I can think better. On days when I have made an effort to try a different style or go for the tousled hair look, well the sooner that day is over the better. I get nothing done and feel horrid and frumpy all day.

I found an article I had torn from Cleo magazine over twenty years ago. Entitled ‘50 must-have classics’ numbered 1-50 (I always love a list) with photos to match. Sure some are dated, but surprisingly few.

50 must-have classics, dated May 1988

1. Filofax
2. Kilt (as good as this list is, I just can’t fathom this one, even though my family has Scottish heritage. Just where would you wear it?)
3. White t-shirt. An enduring classic, only the shape will change as you purchase new ones over the years. Then they used to be literally square shaped with sleeves, now lovely and fitted perhaps with a v-neck and a hint of lycra (not too much though) in the cotton.
4. Chambray shirt. This really takes me back to the 80s, but I have seen chambray shirts in the shops recently. Yes really.
5. Levis 501s. I think these were perhaps the first of the ‘it’jeans. Mind you, before these were Calvin Kleins and I remember fondly my Skin jeans, which looked a lot like today’s True Religion ones in dark denim, straight legs and thick white stitching. I coveted, and then loved once I had a pair of, Skin jeans because of their white bulldog clip hanging from one of the front belt loops!
6. Raincoat. Specifically a Burberry type trenchcoat and the example shown is a beige/bone colour. Yum.
7. Argyle socks.
8. Brogues.
9. Hermes scarf.
10. Kelly bag.
11. Fair isle sweater.
12. Denim jacket.
13. Lacoste polo. I have just bought two Ralph Lauren polos for summer, in white and pale pink.
14. Brown loafers.
15. Bandanna
16. Akubra hat. The magazine is Australian!
17. Sailor top. The word Breton was mentioned. Of course.
18. Clutch bag.
19. Leather gloves
20. White shirt
21. Leather belt. Medium width, neutral colour.
22. The watch. Simple is the key – a clear face with a sturdy band.
23. Terry toweling robe. Presumably for wearing at home!
24. Ray Ban sunglasses – both Wayfarers and Aviators are shown. Funny how both are back in fashion, but maybe they never really went away?
25. Twin-set
26. Leather skirt
27. Rolex
28. Blazer/jacket
29. Cowboy boots
30. Lacy underwear
31. Black turtleneck
32. Pearls
33. Perfecto leather jacket – the classic biker style in black as worn by James Dean and Elvis Presley.
34. Riding boots
35. Speedo swimming costume.
36. White lace handkerchief.
37. Tuxedo
38. The Little Black Dress
39. Pumps
40. Charm bracelet
41. Evening bag
42. Scarf in lambswool or cashmere
43. Man-style pyjamas
44. Hoop earrings
45. Cameo
46. Lacy blouse
47. Russian wedding ring, first created by Cartier
48. Beret
49. Plimsolls – ones shown look to be white canvas Bensimon or similar
50. Evening gloves

I knew I had kept this article so long for a reason. I just couldn't bear to part with it.

And of course, the visuals to complement the list. Forgive the low-res-ness. You can click on the images to see them slightly bigger.

Feast your eyes on 1988 folks. When I was photographing the pages my husband looked over and said 'wow, those are some 1993 fashions'. When I encouraged him to guess again, he guessed correctly on only the second go! That's my boy. The Universe really did listen to me when I asked to meet a nice boy 'just like me, only male' even down to the same Libran birthday.

I hadn't planned to keep this article for (gulp) 21 years; I found it when going through some things of mine I didn't even know still existed at Dad's place a year or two back. I was so tickled that I liked the same kind of style then, I filed it in my 'personal style' clear file (everyone has one of those, right?). Even at 17-18 I was drawn towards the same kind of classic Euro style.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Savon, et Livres

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 6 April 2009

Two things I cannot do without (or rather cannot refrain from purchasing) are lovely soap, and books. Not when on a strict(ish) budget, and apparently not when travelling.

On my 3½ week European trip several years ago, where I took a backpack because I thought that’s what you do (imagine me checking into the Millenium Hotel in Kensington, London. The Concierge’s face was something else. So unchic). I bought stacks of delicious olive oil soap in Paris and books in London.

What was I thinking? Both purchases were near the beginning of my trip, and I really regretted their impulsive acquisition when trying to fit everything into my bag in Rome.

But when I arrived home, the half a dozen bars of soap, very old fashioned and very French looking, with a vaguely medicinal fragrance took me back to the little side street chemist in Paris I bought them from, every morning in the shower for months afterwards.

The books, not so much. I could have bought them at home, and eventually I sold them to a second hand shop. It hasn’t cured me though, and the bookshelves are constantly being rearranged to fit my new purchases.

I’m very particular these days though on what I spend my money and bookshelf space on. If it’s a novel I can read it from the library. Only keepers make their way home for good. Either favourite fiction, or non-fiction I think I will reference in the future.

Op shops and the Salvation Army are a great place to browse for books too. I have found so many that are on my wants list. Books that I wouldn’t have gone into Whitcoulls to buy, but when they are 50c or $1 I’ll give them a good home. And others that are out of print so aren't even available from new bookstores, even better.

And as for my soap addiction? My husband has banned me from buying any more until I use up my stock. Currently I am enjoying Crabtree & Evelyn lavender. Not just for old ladies! The scent of Provence in my own bathroom - a serene way to begin my day.

Image of edible (not really) French soap from

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

True Stories from Paris

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi in two parts, 27 January and 5 February 2009

My Great-Aunt has some amazing stories about her years of living and working overseas as a nurse. She was telling me the other day that she was a private nurse for Elizabeth Arden's sister in the late 1960s in Paris. This lady was the behind-the-scenes person for the beauty company. My Great-Aunt would stay with her overnight in her Paris apartment and her household staff would be there during the day.

Miss Arden had to go to hospital for some reason, and couldn't decide whether to book into the American Hospital in Paris, or be privately nursed in either her home in Chantilly just outside of Paris, or in a suite at the Hotel Ritz. She finally decided not to stay at the Ritz as her dog didn't like the food there. Yes, really.

My Great-Aunt said you would see people sitting in the hotel restaurant, dog on a chair next to them, eating from their own plate at the table. Incredible.

My Great-Aunt also told me that when she worked in the American Hospital in Paris in 1969, she nursed Coco Chanel (the real deal). One evening Mademoiselle Chanel did not feel like having a bath or a shower, so had my Great-Aunt empty bottles of Chanel No. 5 into a basin for a sponge bath. When she was finished, my Great Aunt was instructed to pour the fragrance down the sink.

During the same hospital stay, a very young Karl Lagerfeld came in to see Mme. Chanel, among other visitors. When I asked her if Coco spoke much, she said she never stopped talking, however it was in very fast French and my Great-Aunt was still learning to speak the language at that stage so didn't catch much at all. Such a shame! Imagine having a conversation with Coco Chanel and the questions you could ask her.

The image above is of the L’espadon restaurant at the Ritz Paris from Just dreamy.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Living a chic life

Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 3 October 2008

With my interest in all things chic, how could I pass up a book entitled 'Chic - life as it should be'. Stylish and authoritative. One reviewer said the author Colin Cowie made Martha Stewart look like a slob, and reading this book confirms that as a fact. Apart from writing books, he is a very highbrow events co-ordinator.

It is a very inspiring read, makes me get up and declutter a shelf after finishing a chapter. For example, rather than have a bedside table cluttered with everything you could ever want to reach for, Colin has the top drawer all but empty, with the essentials laid out on one of those lacy thin rubber mats cut to fit the drawer (to stop everything sliding around).

For me, body butter, hand cream, lip cream, lip balm, pen and paper, mini alarm clock and a few other bits and pieces (I'm too embarrassed to tell you about my bookmark collection so I always have a pretty one to use). And then you would have a few choice items on the top. He said his goal is to have his home look like a chic hotel.

This book also has many pictures of Colin's home in NYC. His style is a little masculine for me, however I can appreciate the stylish orderliness and I covet his labelled, stacked, grouped closets and cupboards.

An excerpt from the book:

The foundation of any well-run home is cleanliness and order. An orderly house will not only give you pleasure, it will also make everything in your life, from writing a thank-you note the day after a fabulous evening to opening your home to over-night guests, that much more effortless.

Living elegantly means creating a place you look forward to coming home to, a place where you can entertain happily, harmoniously, and generously.

If my home is in order, I feel as though my life is in order and I can take on anything. I love walking into an intelligently designed, immaculate kitchen. I love opening the freezer door and finding everything I need neatly stacked: frozen appetisers ready to be popped into the oven, decorator ice cubes available to enliven a chic cocktail, chicken stock waiting to form the base of a delicious home-made soup.

In the closet, I love finding my shirts arranged from light to dark, short-sleeve to long, beautifully starched, and hanging from matching hangers. I love clean, polished surfaces that are stripped of any unnecessary clutter. I love opening my desk drawers and immediately finding business cards, personal stationery, pens, and my cell phone charger. And at night, I love retiring to a bedroom so pulled together and luxuriously welcoming that I could easily mistake it for a five star hotel suite.

Keep the things that are precious to you close by and available so they can be used on a regular basis. Everything else should be stored in a safe place, not left out on display. Serving bowls should be on the tables only when they’re overflowing with food, and there’s nothing at all exciting about an empty vase perched on a windowsill (even if it’s Lalique!). Less is definitely more!

For example, a simple vase with one exotic flower on a central table can be more astonishing than that same vignette surrounded by fourteen framed pictures and half a dozen objets from your last European vacation.

Instead, keep a separate closet or cupboard where you can store your collection of decorative items. When you bring them out for entertaining, they’ll seem brand new again. Use your pieces to create varied and interesting vignettes and fresh atmospheres, then put them away for the next time the mood strikes.

Invest in drawer dividers, baskets, and closet organisers. Trays and decorative bowls can also be fantastic containers for odds and ends such as keys and loose change. Create areas for everything you use, which will allow you to find what you’re looking for when you’re looking for it.

Try to take twenty minutes each day to tidy up and put things back where they belong. When you’re having a few friends over for drinks or throwing a party, you shouldn’t have to do a major all-day cleaning. The longer you delay straightening up, the more burdensome it is to clean. It’s much better, and a lot less overwhelming, to maintain order and cleanliness as you move through your day.

Granted, most people work and have to scramble to keep up with household chores. But ideally, you’ll get to a point where with a bit of soap and water, a mop and a broom, some dimmer switches on the lights and a little music, your home should be ready to receive guests at practically a moment’s notice. A little at a time goes a long way.


I saw Colin and his partner on Oprah and he was so engaging and funny I couldn’t help but liking him. His partner said if he ever wants to upset Colin all he has to do is shake a drawer so everything gets mixed up. Colin may sound a little OCDish but he makes it seem so appealing. You can view that Oprah session here.

I think Colin's advice to take a small amount of time to tidy up each day is so wise. It really makes a huge difference to both the smooth running of my household, and my levels of serenity. I also changed my bedside table to reflect Colin's recommendations (above) two and a half years ago when I first read the book, and it is still like that today. It must be working.

Image of Colin's bedside table from

Sunday, May 1, 2011

How to look taller and slimmer

Once upon a time I had another blog called La Vie En Fifi. It started out as a place to keep my family up to date, and then somehow, somehow, my inner French girl started taking over. I decided to stop writing on that blog, and create a new one where she could reign supreme.

There were a few posts I thought would go quite nicely here, so I'm going to repost them over the next few weeks. If you used to read La Vie En Fifi you may remember some of them.


How to look taller and slimmer
Originally posted on La Vie En Fifi, 4 September 2009

I have been working on my posture lately. There seems to be nothing more instantly beautifying. From slumping in a chair to sitting up straight with my shoulders pulled back surely must be nicer for my husband to look at (and he has commented on my good posture in the past so men must notice such things).

Rather than telling myself 'sit up', it's far easier to imagine an invisible thread attached to the top of my head, pulling myself up. I think this is the best piece of advice I have ever read.

I imagine the invisible string when I am sitting at the computer, getting up from the sofa, out walking, standing at work. It works every time. Having better posture is much more effortless this way, and really, why should it be? The power of the mind is incredible.

Another thing I do which is semi-related: when getting up or sitting down - I don't use my hands. It strengthens better muscles than your arms (like your abs) and you look more elegant than hoisting yourself up to standing position, or schlumping down.

Image of the divinely postured Aerin Lauder from
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