Monday, May 27, 2013

Out of the blue

It came out of the blue as these things always seem to, though perhaps a more accurate description would be out of the black, blue seems too cheerful a colour for the days that alter the landscape of life.  As dusk fell on Sydney yesterday, on Sunday afternoon, after a glorious, golden Autumn weekend I opened up an email headed ‘Bad News’ to discover one of our oldest friends had died.  A polite email written by her 15 year old daughter, who took the time to hope we were well, as she broke the devastating news of her mother’s completely unexpected death.

There are some friends who play pivotal roles in your life and who appear and reappear like a comet.  And she was indeed comet like, fizzing with life, ideas and excitement, there was never anything dull, bland or boring about her.   She began as my boss, hiring me in the giddy days of merchant banks in London in the 1980’s.  I was 24 at the time, and at the lunch she hosted to introduce me to the team, she ordered drinks for the male members of the team who true to form were late in arriving, and as this was indeed the heady and frankly often alcoholic days of the City, she declared with a characteristic wave of the hand, “Charlie will have water, Simon, a gin and tonic”.  I made a mental note that Simon sounded my kind of guy, and twenty-five years later, he still is, for ‘reader I married him’ and as matchmaker in chief as it were, she danced the unfamiliar Scottish reels with gusto at our wedding, twinkling at the kilted gentlemen who swung her round.

We all moved on from that initial team, but stayed friends.  Like us, she and her husband became fixtures on the expat circuit for a while.  Our lives mirrored those Scottish reels as we all met and separated in various locations around the world in a bizarre intricate form of the dance of life.  We lived in Hong Kong at the same time, and she was one of my first visitors when Drama Queen No. 1 was born 18 years ago.  She wrote me an email recently recalling ‘that partly misty, but beautiful day in HK – such nice memories … ‘.  We met up again in London, as her daughter was born, the same 15 year old who is so bravely coping with telling all the people who loved her mother, that she is dead.  

We celebrated a New Year’s Eve in Sydney together as they passed through in 2007, my girls and her daughter somersaulting in the pool as the adults sat at tables in the garden and we introduced her French husband to the delights of sparkling shiraz, that great Aussie invention for hot nights. 

In February this year, we all sat round a table at our local Italian restaurant and toasted ourselves and friendship and talked about possible moves to Sydney and smiled to see our daughters laughing together, the immediate empathy between them crossing cultures and countries.

And now she is dead.  Out of the blue.  I feel so lucky we had that evening in February, but sad about the email I almost sent last week.  The one I thought of, and rehearsed the initial chatty lines in my head, and just somehow never sent, just lost the thread and moved onto the mundane list of stupid to-dos, and now she is dead. 

So send those emails, pick up the phone, celebrate the friendships and the fizz and relish good friends bring, drink the sparkling shiraz, dance the reels and colour the night with fireworks as she did.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Are you sitting comfortably? I'm just loving the Armchair Collective

9 oC this morning in Sydney which officially qualifies as jolly nippy in my book, but the upside is glorious, blue sky days where the sun provides enough warmth during the day to instantly create a feeling of well being.

Like London, Sydney has very clear geographic divides, however unlike London where people will ask “Are you North or South of the River?”, the question here tends to go, “Are you Eastern Suburbs or North Shore?”  Then you can start adding in Inner West (trendy inner city suburbs), Western Suburbs (suburbs sprawling into each other all the way to the Blue Mountains with a bit of a Wild West feel thrown in), Upper North Shore, (leafy mansions complete with serious driveways in the suburbs all the way up the train line), Lower North Shore, (desirable harbour side housing) and the Northern Beaches (peninsula with beach after fabulous beach, going all the way up to the Palm Beach of Home and Away opening sequence fame).  South doesn’t seem to get much of a look in as an identifier in Sydney, the geographically Southern suburbs are almost ignored until you get to the Shire, which is less of a hobbit home and short for Sutherland Shire – almost a country to itself.

We live on the Lower North Shore and I love the mix of tree filled streets, harbour beach you can walk to and the city only 15 to 20 minutes away by bus or ferry.   However I do recognise that you very quickly get parochial about your particular patch whether it be Edinburgh, London, New York, Hong Kong or Sydney and it is definitely to get out at regular intervals and appreciate the joys of different areas.  Sydney’s Northern Beaches have a reputation for a laid back, surfing orientated lifestyle fuelled by good coffee.  I had to take one of the Drama Queens up there at the weekend and whilst I was only 40 minutes from home it felt like a different city, customers were spilling out of Woolworths as they do in every suburb in Australia on a Saturday morning, the difference here was a significant proportion weren’t wearing shoes.  Boys in wetsuits darted across the main road from the ocean beach, whilst teenagers on bicycles wobbled past, surfboards clamped precariously to their side. 

I had an hour to kill and went for a coffee at the totally fabulous Armchair Collective in Mona Vale.  I had heard about it and always wanted to go, and having built it up in my mind as dream destination, was somewhat disappointed to find a nondescript looking red brick building.  

However as soon as you step inside, the so so streetscape is replaced by an Arabian Night’s fantasy of colours and fabrics.  Armchairs, as you would expect from the name, dominate the space, with a variety of vintage frames upholstered in the types of material that brought an immediate smile to my face. 

I was overcome by the longing to buy at least four of them and dot them round my house to give rooms the zing that is created by a fabulous piece in a fabulous colour. 

The whole thing is a cross between a shop and a cafĂ© and what genius idea is that to combine the good things in life? Besides the armchairs taking on almost sculptural role and the tables filled with people having a leisurely breakfast and coffee, the space was filled with lamps, household goods, flowers and books.  With a coffee and vegemite on toast in front of me, Saturday paper in hand, the beach less than a minute’s walk away and an hour to myself, I was in heaven – perhaps it’s time for a move to the Northern Beaches?  Definitely time to kick off the shoes.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's the things you know - hand me that Williams and Sonoma tea towel

One of the issues of moving countries is that it has made me realise how reliant I am upon a small group of trusty shops in terms of clothes.  Being basically a fairly lazy and fundamentally disinterested shopper, I tend to have a number of shops where I know a) I like the style and colours, and for the record I am a colourful girl, if there’s a hot pink outfit, I’m the one squeezing into it, and b) that the house fit as it were roughly approximates to my shape – eg long arms and torso, short legs and with a waist to which ‘nipped in’ is a completely foreign concept.

When I first started working in the 1980s for a Japanese bank I spent some months working in the head office in Tokyo.  My stay got extended and as the weather became increasingly warmer it became fairly imperative to do some shopping for an acceptable Spring corporate outfit.  The term baffled doesn’t do justice to my initial response to the clothing crisis.  I did eventually by dint of trial and error find somewhere with the type of thing I needed and in a major effort of will power and holding my breath, got myself into a skirt.  I minced out of the changing room – remember I was still holding my breath, and asked for the skirt in a larger size.  Oh, the horror of the moment at which the sales assistant who was of course charming, but miniscule, said pityingly, “Sorry largest in the shop.” Crushed, I spent the rest of my time in the office sweating in my winter woollies rather than risk another such outing.

I have never bothered exploring the ‘Petite’ rails or sections within stores, being definitely in the middle section of everything – my mother had the ultimate comfort words for all size related queries, and used to say firmly “You’re just right” and as a result I head for the ‘Just right’ middle ground of UK 12 – which is definitely not, no matter which way you approach it, petite.

When we got to the US, it took me some time to get to grips with the stores.  There were a couple of very chi chi dress shops on the main street of town but as they specialised in the type of shift dress that makes Michelle Obama look like a Goddess but in contrast made me look like an urban gorilla caught in a floral moment, I had abandoned them as possible outfitters.  I had marched past a store called Talbots Petite in the local mall, a number of times with as much interest as I would have given to a menswear emporium, given my word associations with Petite – and then I noticed the ladies inside definitely didn’t fit the word Petite any more than I did,  the common linking factor seemed in fact to short not slight, and as the woman with possibly the shortest legs in the world I headed into the glorious world of petite and was in what I would have classified as hog heaven, if that didn’t conjure up images of me dressed like Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland in a nifty pair of trousers.  Basically I never found trousers that fitted as well as those from Talbot Petite, witness the fact that miracles of miracles didn’t require an immediate 2 inch turn up.

We’ve been in Sydney seven years and whilst I have of course managed to develop a relationship with a number of clothes shops I still don’t seem to dress like a native.  Although the Drama Queens live in thongs as Aussies call flip flops (even more bafflingly New Zealanders call them Jandals), somehow my feet just don’t look right in them.  Similarly kaftans go tent like rather than Elle Macpherson like, and don’t get me started on the bikinis that Aussie ladies of my age wear with such grace and panache.  However I do have a collection of stunning hats and just love the climate that positively encourages me to sport them all year round.

Such is the global world now that shopping internationally is almost easier than the click of a button, but there is nothing like the excitement of walking into a store that has been transported from one life to another and I speak as one who has just made a special trip over to Bondi Junction to visit the new Pottery Barn and Williams and Sonoma stores that have opened up in Sydney along with Pottery Barn Kids.  It was just like wandering back into life in Rye, the Drama Queens and I wandered round mouths open in rapture, spotting the familiar tea towels (I know we’re sad) and the trademark bits of furniture.  Walking round the Pottery Barn store felt as if we were on the set of ‘Modern Family’, just blissfully tasteful and recognisably American – just loved it and am already sucked in by the thought of “Girls Night Out” cookery demonstration evenings in the test kitchen.  Time to dig out the Talbot Petite trousers and waltz on down.

PS I do apologise for the attempt at sophistication with the tea towel - I really felt even I couldn't just post a picture of my slightly grubby dishcloth - and  my glamour straw hats wouldn't fit