The white t-shirt for the 40ish woman

white t-shirt

My latest purchase. Transparent or what?

Ah, summer. If you live in the UK like I do, summer is not something for which you hold your breath. Compared to a very large part of the world, summer is a blink-and-you-might-miss-it moment. Despite the fickle nature of the weather in these climes, I persist with dressing for summer, shivers and all. Call me a masochist.

Hence, my quest for the perfect white t-shirt. This shouldn’t be difficult, you might say. T-shirts abound. You can probably buy a pack of them from American brand Fruit of the Loom for less than $10.

But the thing about a fashionable white t-shirt is that it has to be exactly the right cut to be flattering. It has to sit just so – a length that would look good left loose or tucked in. It has to serve multiple purposes, you see, and numerous occasions. The perfect white t-shirt could be dressed up or down, worn for cocktails or for lounging by the pool.

Perhaps you are now starting to see my predicament. Now let me add a little something else to the equation: my age. Somewhere north of 35, women have to start regarding the appropriateness of clothes. It’s a minefield.

Not only do you have to buy things that fit your changing shape, you also have to start thinking about whether this item of clothing makes you look like a desperate middle-aged person trying to reclaim lost youth. ‘Hey, look at me,’ some outfits scream, ‘I am down with the kids.’ It’s the old mutton-dressed-as-lamb syndrome.

So what I have realized in my quest for this t-shirt is that the whole entire fashion world is conspiring against women of a certain age. Do they think we are past the age of caring?

For the life of me, I cannot seem to find a white t-shirt that isn’t as transparent as a politician trying to wriggle out of difficult questions. They are so universally thin and wispy, a breath of wind would plaster them to your skin. And on certain days, just walking down the street in London is like being in a wind tunnel with lashing rain.

The result is that these t-shirts are not flattering at all, especially for women who no longer have stomachs like Rihanna. I am not particularly squishy around the middle, but I don’t think I can pull off this see-through look any more, not even on the hottest day of the year.

So what is a woman to do? I honestly despair. I finally broke down and bought one of these willowy shirts hoping for the best. But when I put it on in front of the mirror at home, I thought it made me look weird. It was as unforgiving as the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages.

Another joy of being 40. I’ll add it to the growing list of things. Can’t buy white t-shirts. Check!

I wonder what else awaits me around the corner, because what I have slowly realized – and forgive me if you know this already – is that the world is constructed around the needs and wants of the young. The younger, in fact, the better.

PS if you know where I can get a basic white t-shirt that isn’t frumpy or see-through, do tell.

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We’re all short of time, survey finds

 

Larry David on DVD

A great way to spend your precious spare time

Time. When you are a working parent or even just a parent to small children, time is taken up with so much stuff that it’s hard to understand just where it all goes. Much of it seems to be spent doing things of no consequence.

When I find myself with 20 minutes to spare in the evenings – perhaps while the overtired kids are slapping themselves in the bath – I feel fidgety. I don’t know whether I should be sitting down and staring out the window or doing some minor chore that is undoubtedly lurking somewhere.

There are always clothes to be put away, clothes to be sorted, dishes to be washed, dishes to be put away and half a dozen other things to boring to mention.

So it comes as very little surprise that a survey of British families has found that, on average, they only spend three hours of quality time together in a working week. Nearly a quarter of the families surveyed said they get less than one hour of ‘us time’ together between Monday to Friday.

Before we start moaning about how our modern lives are destroying the fabric of family life, let’s just say that I regard this survey as less than scientific or impartial.

The research – based on an online survey of 2,005 British parents in May 2014 – was commissioned by HouseTrip, a company that is conveniently using the findings to urge people to take a holiday together.

But there is probably some truth in it. I have no idea what ‘us time’ is during the week, frankly. I’m usually so exhausted by the time I get home, that the only thing I really want to do is crawl onto the sofa, eat dinner and stare at the television. Sometimes I’m not even sure what the people on the TV are saying, but watching the flashing images is of some comfort.

Which, it seems, is how the majority of people feel too. According to the same survey, 65% of couples (who are parents) spend their precious ‘spare time’ watching television over talking (33%) or having sex (31%).

That clears that up, then. I always knew I was average.

This lack of time also explains why the blog has been neglected for so long. It has been sitting in a corner of my mind, occupying my thoughts nearly every day. But I have not felt inspired to sit down and get anything written in the evenings because I am too damn tired after a day spent running around.

If one of the few things you can rouse yourself to do in the evenings is watch TV like a zombie, I can highly recommend season three of Curb Your Enthusiasm over any conversations you might be tempted to have with your partner or children.

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American supermarket food comes to London

jar of peanut butter

At least we’ll always have peanut butter

It’s not always easy being an expat in city like London but it has got easier. I went through a phase when I felt totally out of place. It was like looking at a work of art hung crookedly on a wall. Everything felt slightly tilted on its axis. I got dizzy.

I’ve lived here for so long now that I don’t even think of myself as an expat anymore. I seem to have a vague cultural identity these days. I’m neither this nor that. I try to come to terms with it.

According to the last census, in 2011, there are about 180,000 Americans living in London; these are people who were born in the United States. It’s not, for instance, people born in the UK to an American parent.

Perhaps because I believed my stay here was temporary and bound to end some day, I’ve never sought out places where I’m likely to encounter Americans en masse. Where would that be anyway? I don’t have a clue because everything here labelled ‘American’ seems to be massively stereotypical. It’ll be a sports bar or a place serving ribs, burgers and hot dogs.

If you want to find places with an American identity in London, your best bet is to hit the high street. There are Gap stores and Starbucks aplenty, more than I have in my hometown of San Diego, for instance. If you want a grande caramel mocha frappaccino with whip cream, you won’t go without.

Then there are things that remind me of home – like the sudden proliferation of Mexican food chains selling everything from burritos to enchiladas. There are no Taco Bells here, but you are likely to stumble across a margarita at some point. None of it is truly authentic, but that’s beside the point. What these places are selling is the Mexican experience for Brits. In other words, the food is barely one step above Tex-Mex most of the time.

The trend for Americana has invaded supermarkets too, even in my little enclave of north London, which is not particularly touristy. I recently visited my local Tesco and discovered a small section dedicated to American (junk) food. In fact, it’s the worst representation of American food you could assemble – and there is quite a lot of bad food to choose from.

Box of Twinkies

If you want American junk food, you’ll have to pay

Should I despair that some buyer in Tesco seems to think that pink marshmallow spread qualifies as a product worth exporting to the UK? It makes pretzels look sophisticated. You can get Lucky Charms cereal, new varieties of M&Ms and Twinkies for a price. A box of the yellow sponge cakes will set you back $13 here. If you’re lucky you can find Aunt Jemima pancake mix and the syrup, also at inflated prices.

I wonder if other nationalities here feel the same. Do the Spanish cringe every time a new tapas restaurant opens on the corner with patatas bravas on the menu? Are the Italians sick to death of pizza and pasta restaurants claiming to offer an authentic experience? Do Indians get sick to death of serving creamy kormas to spice-averse Brits?

At least their food choices are vaguely palatable. It’s not easy to make a meal out of the ingredients you’d find in the American section of supermarkets here unless you’re happy to overdose on sugar.

I did give a large Tootsie Roll to my two hybrid kids after coming across it at Tesco. They weren’t complaining. And that’s pretty much in a nutshell. American food here seems to cater only to children.

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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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A working mom’s day

Raging Bull

The Raging Bull at four and a half

I once read this tip from a working mother: dress your kids in their clothes for the next day the night before. That way you don’t have to worry about what they are going to wear in the morning.

It might sound more extreme than throwing yourself down a mountain on a board, but the advice comes from some high-flying chief executive. On bad mornings, though, I do wish the kids would wake up miraculously ready, like robots that just need to be switched on and marched out the door.

So I am facing another working week. On one particular evening recently I had just picked up the kids from the childminder after yet another stress-inducing commute on the tube. Knowing that there is nothing to eat in the house, I drag the kids into a local supermarket that mostly sells pre-packaged food. I tend to fall back on the packaged food at 6pm on a weeknight.

I stare at the aisles, my eyes hoping to alight on some inspiration. I end up buying fries – they call them ‘frites’ here to make them sound posh – that you just pop in the oven. The other part of the meal, I figure, will come to me like a blot of lightning. It doesn’t.

I get home at 6.15 with a small selection of random groceries, the Raging Bull’s artwork, two water bottles, one child’s backpack and a change of clothes stuffed into a plastic bag. Since becoming a mother I’ve developed some sympathy for mules.

All I could think about was sitting on the sofa and watching House of Cards on Netflix while drinking a glass of wine. But instead I knew that one of my chores would be putting out an array of black socks on a drying rack after they’ve come out of the washing machine. (I don’t have one of those fancy things called ‘tumble dryers’.)

There was no English Husband at home, so I’d be lucky if I sat down by 9pm.

I must have hinted at all these chores or given the impression of exhaustion when the four-year-old Raging Bull asks me earnestly: ‘Are you fed up, Mommy? Do you think you’re fed up?’

The Raging Bull, now four and a half, has reached the climax of her cute phase. I fear that this is the cutest she will ever be and then, like the fragile spring blossom on a tree, it will be gone.

I laugh, knowing that one day I will wish for this moment to happen again. No matter that I nearly lose my sanity every week, that I run around from one place to the next, often barely catching my breath. Or that I never quite know what homework is meant to be turned in on which day, or when the ‘reading day’ is meant to be or the PE day.

Never mind that family dinners are fraught affairs in which I don’t even have time to sit down with the kids. I just go from kitchen to table, ferrying food, fruit and water, hoping to get it all done by 7pm so that they can have their bath.

But one day in the distant future I will wish for this all over again, just to hear a four-year-old tell me that she loves me.

 

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