Monthly Archives: April 2014

A vacation in Cornwall

Ocean view from Sands hotel

The ocean as seen from our hotel room

So it was off to Cornwall for a week-long Easter break. Forgive me, but I am barely catching up with myself. The vacation has left me in a lethargic frame of mind. Hence, the blog took a holiday too but has not come back with a suntan.

I’ve said this before – and I fear I am repeating myself – but holidaying in Britain is an experience akin to riding a rollercoaster in lashing rain. There are ups and downs and you are likely to get wet at some point. This is true of any time of year, including the summer.

As it turns out, there was no rain for our tour of south Cornwall, near Newquay. It was gorgeously sunny most days but a bit cold and extremely windy. The English Husband would tell me that this is dwelling on the negatives. I believe I am pointing out a few facts.

This is my third visit to Cornwall and it’s a beautiful place. There is something desolate about it – you have windswept views of cliffs kissing the sea. Waves lap at sandy beaches, and there are endless stretches of hills and green fields dotted by the bright, mustard yellow of rapeseed and some token sheep.

The view from our hotel room was breathtaking. I am used to staring out at my small patch of weeded grass from a cramped London flat, with the view of more apartments in the distance.

This was the world unfurled like a red carpet – where the sea meets the horizon. During sunset, there were violent purples, deep oranges and golds melting into the sea. It was the sky putting on its very best, jewelled gown every evening.

Mevagissey harbour boat

Mevagissey harbour

We had ice creams by the beach and visited a small and quaint fishing village with a long history called Mevagissey. We went at low tide, so all the small fishing boats were sunk in mud at the port. It’s surrounded by bright Cornish houses, looking down into its mouth.  

The Cornish are a proud lot, and Mevagissey has its own three-floor museum that goes through some of its historical highlights.

There are doll houses and old clothes, fascinating photographs, a timeline dating back to about 1085 and lots of fishing paraphernalia. There’s even a recipe for a Cornish stargazy pie.

The Raging Bull dug sandcastles at Perranporth beach with her shoes on and a coat, a peculiar English tradition. I stood on the beach with the girls for about 10 minutes before the whipping wind drove me to find shelter. We did not stare at the ocean from a car while eating our lunch, another English tradition.

Perranporth beach

Perranporth beach on a windy day

There were fish and chips and cream teas (scones with clotted cream and jam) – both of them musts if you holiday in Britain. But if you don’t eat meat, like me, you will find much of the food in Cornwall about as interesting as a traffic jam.

The children mostly behaved themselves. We took them to a place called Sands, an affordable family-friendly hotel. If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, I highly recommend it. The staff are very friendly and it caters well to people with kids.

There is baby listening in every room, so adults can dine each night (kid-free) if they so choose.

I had a few moments when I thought wistfully of a romantic European break, a warm whisper of a breeze, a balcony looking out onto a bustling piazza. No such thing here but there are other charms.

It’s no wonder author Daphne du Maurier (one of my favorite writers) set her gothic novels here. She ended up living in Fowey (a beautiful place) and found plenty to inspire her.

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My flimsy theory about the English

English Husband and I

The English husband and I at Windsor Castle in spring 1997. I am wearing Stinky.

Spring has sprung in England. This is what it means: it’s hot, it’s cold, it’s windy and wet, there’s sunshine and hail, all within minutes of each other. It’s more unpredictable than trying to make a living from gambling.

I’ll tell you what this means from a wardrobe point of view, it’s impossible to know what to wear. This causes a crisis for me every year – one that has me staring at my closet with an increasing level of despair, flinging clothes this way and that until I settle on something that is vaguely unsettling.

Growing up in the warmer, predictable climate of southern California, I had few wardrobe worries. I rarely wore socks (imagine the joy of that), didn’t own a single scarf and could pretty much get away without layers of any kind.

I could wear dresses without worrying about bare legs, almost all year long.

I was an innocent child when it came to dressing for a cold climate when I first arrived in London all those years ago. Which is why I wore an ugly coat from Macy’s that first bitter winter. I’d bought it in San Diego, a place where winter dressing is not high on people’s priority list.

Hence, there’s not a huge amount of choice.

I eventually migrated to a coat with the name of ‘Stinky’. I bought this brown sheepskin ‘beauty’ at Portobello Market in London. It got its nickname from its rather unfortunate musty smell, which seemed to permeate other clothes worn under it.

When I tried to get it dry cleaned, I learned that it would cost more than the coat was worth. So I forgot about it and tried to forget about the smell.

Years later I learned to love 60 denier black tights, a favourite of the English woman and worn by millions of them. They are so dark and thick it’s like trying to see through soupy fog, but they’re an essential for skirts and dresses and can even be worn under jeans on really cold days.

I wear them for about five months of the year, which leaves my legs looking like the colour of a jaundiced baby by spring. This is the colour my legs are now.

Come April, however, there is something rather wrong about walking around in bright sunshine with tights that are as dark as a December evening, even if the weather is hardly conducive to the beach look.

Fashion magazines here will tell you that springtime means putting the dark tights away until next autumn. But the fashion pack behind these column inches must literally freeze to death every April, facing the capricious month with an army of bare legs and – dare I say it – strappy sandals.

Some of these fashion-forward women have recgonised the plight they are in. The more practical among them have started advising wearing socks with sandals (I kid you not). This gives me recurring visions of Birkenstocks teamed with white socks. It makes me shudder more than the stiff breeze blowing from the northeast.

But you have to hand it to the English: they are creative when it comes to dressing for their unpredictable climate.

No wonder they are known for their fashion worldwide. They’ve had to get good at it. They’ve had to learn to reinvent fabrics, to layer their clothes like champions and to make tweed look chic.

Their weather has forced them to be good at tailoring and to become masters of the cutting edge.

It’s not like they can just wear a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops for most of the year, a look that requires about as much thought as boiling an egg.

So this is my flimsy theory: the nearly year-round cold and damp has led the English to be excellent tailors and inventive dressers.

I just wish some of the inventiveness would rub off on me when I’m frantically looking for something to wear in the mornings.  

 

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Mothers and daughters

Raging Bull and Chatterbox

In matching outfits on mother’s day

It was mother’s day recently in the UK. Here’s a recap: took the kids shopping for shoes; nearly lost it on the floor of Zara Kids after an afternoon of fruitless searching. Got one pair of shoes in the end, but felt psychologically scarred from the process of trying on an array of buckled sandals on a four-year-old, who had sticky feet. It made me conclude that, yes, I love shopping for shoes but only for me.

Now that I have got that out of the way, I can move on to the subject of mothers and daughters. I read something in a newspaper recently about how mothers are often critical of their daughters, more critical than any other person in their life would dare to be.

I have personal experience of this, both as a mother and a daughter. I come from a Mexican family, where criticism is doled out as often as chili is used for cooking. Mexican families seem to believe that they have a right to tell you where you erred in your life, even if you think everything is going well. What you think is really not the point; it’s all about what they think – they are judge and jury.

My mother, who probably inherited some of her parenting techniques from my stern grandmother, had a habit of telling me when she didn’t like something. It could have been my hair, my clothes, my makeup or any number of things.

Sometimes her advice to me was invaluable. When I unfortunately grew a moustache at the age of 16, she introduced me to my first pot of facial bleach. I use the same brand to this day.

When I needed a dress for the prom, she took me shopping and helped me pick out a tasteful black dress. I still look at that picture, taken on the day of that dreadful dance, and think it looks okay. This was 1991. I could have ended up with a frilly monstrosity that would make me want to hide the picture in a drawer forever.

But she has also been a critic, even recently. If she thinks my hair is getting too long, she is quick to point out that I really do need a haircut. ‘I don’t think you can get away with long hair at your age,’ she will say. If she doesn’t like how I have teamed a top with a belt, she will tell me. She still tells me I slouch. ‘How can you be a dancer with that posture?’ she will ask. I am 40.

I have mostly accepted this as being part of what mothers do. But should they interfere with their unwanted opinions, especially when the ‘child’ is an adult or nearly one?

With two daughters of my own, who are getting old enough to remember what I say to them, I am wondering what is constructive criticism and what isn’t.

red shoes

A battle has been waged over these shoes – I love, Raging Bull does not

For instance, I catch myself telling my seven-year-old that her hair is a mess. ‘Have you brushed it already?’ I will ask, in exasperated tones.

If she says she has, I will ask that she do it again, because ‘it’s still a bit of a mess’.

In what could be a refrain of my mother’s own words, I told the Raging Bull the other day: ‘You really need a haircut. It’s too long and very untidy.’ But so what if it’s untidy?

I assess their clothes and try to point out when the colours don’t match. I sometimes don’t approve of what they pick out and might tell them so. My battles with the Raging Bull over her entrenched ideas about clothes are totally infuriating.

‘You can’t wear that dress with those tights,’ I will judge. ‘None of it matches, honey,’ adding a term of endearment at the end to soften the blow.

But the Raging Bull often thinks she looks fine and will sometimes tell me so.

Where will this lead? Will I one day say they have gained more weight than they should, or instead that they’re too skinny? Is that being critical, telling the unpalatable truth or doing my motherly duty?

Will I point out that I don’t like a certain colour lipstick or that an eyeshadow is garish, even if they feel comfortable with it?

Will I tell them when an item of clothing is inappropriate because I deem it to be tacky instead of too revealing?

Women are already undermined daily, in a number of ways. Young women, we are told, lack confidence and perhaps that’s why there aren’t enough women in politics or in FTSE 100 board rooms.

If a mother is picking her daughter apart, however subtly and gently, will this affect what they think of themselves and how far they will go in life?

I know my Mexican mother had good intentions; she told me what other people wouldn’t. Maybe she crossed the line sometimes, but I have crossed the line with her. I now tell her when I don’t think something looks good, and I will suggest something else. It’s back and forth between us, and the dynamic has changed. Neither one has the upper hand.

As an adult you learn to hold your tongue sometimes, because you know that words can hurt other people’s feelings. I think I need to learn this lesson all over again as a mother.

 

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