I’M A HUGE FAN of Angie Castellano’s laugh-out-loud makeup videos, but her style is, well, not mine. Smoky eye? Gold eye shadow? Nothing wrong with that. But not for me. Then Own Your Wonder, a makeup service in Georgetown, contacted LittleBird Janet to introduce itself, and I jumped at the assignment.
See, I love makeup. I don’t wear much, but nothing beats that optimistic feeling you get amidst the cosmetic counters at Bloomingdale’s or Saks. The right blush, eye shadow combination or new lipstick keeps hope alive. Plus I can’t bear facing the world with a naked face. And I was eager to learn how the pros at Own Your Wonder would approach a face that, let’s just say, wasn’t dewy with youth.
As their website points out, Own Your Wonder is a full-service makeup bar that makes professional makeup accessible and affordable. Whether you’re going for a no-makeup makeup, on-trend look or total glam for every day or special occasion. Offering monthly membership or à la carte services, there’s no retail, no pressure to buy products. Wonder welcomes all skin tones, styles and gender identities.
Six experienced makeup artists offer services that can be as specific as a 15-minute eye touch-up or as encompassing as a 60-minute chin to bangs makeover. Wonder offers makeup lessons too. The pros will point out what they believe is your best feature and teach you tricks of enhancement along with advice on how to conceal those not-so-desirable features.
The artists use a variety of cosmetics and even will use your brought-from-home favorites. They also can provide tips on making the most of all those products cluttering your bathroom counter. But don’t be surprised at being asked to reveal the contents of your makeup bag. And really don’t be surprised by a command to throw away that 10-year-old lint-covered lipstick you’ve been dragging around. You know you should have done it years ago even if it did cost $35, The pros recommend tossing any product older than a year, particularly lipsticks and eye products.
It’s easy enough to watch a makeup video with a model who looks nothing like you, but much better when you’re the model and a professional is tailoring the makeup just for you. Own Your Wonder allows you to walk away with a new appreciation of what works for you and, equally important, what doesn’t.
Prices range from $20 for a 15-minute eye touch up to $70 for the 60-minute total makeover. Bring a friend and get two 30-minute makeovers for $50. Makeup lessons cost between $60 for a 30-minute mini lesson and $350 for a 60-minute group session. Like I said, bring a friend (or friends). It’s fun.
I persuaded my friend JoEllen to be my test case. JoEllen, an amazingly talented pastel and oil artist (check out her work ) is a real girl’s girl who likes to glam up for gallery openings and receptions and always seems to have a wedding on her calendar. The plan was twofold—a minimalist daytime look that with just an added touch or two could segue into a more dramatic nighttime face.
Makeup artist Alexandria Washington, who with her waist-length blond braids and sweeping eyelashes is no stranger to drama herself, began with JoEllen’s light eyebrows, which Alex filled in with a soft brown pencil then carefully arched by applying concealer under the brow. Concealer evened out the darkness below the eye as well. Using concealer for shaping was news to me.
Alex applied a bare champagne-colored shadow to JoEllen’s lids and created depth by working a light plum shadow into the crease. That was it for eye shadow for this light, fresh daytime look. But it was perfect. It didn’t scream makeup. Just a touch of daytime drama came next. With eyeliner Alex drew the thinnest of lines at the upper lash line. The effect was illuminating. The subtle line defined JoEllen’s eyes, making her eyes the focus and not the eyeliner. A brush of brown mascara (not black!) and JoEllen’s eyes were softly transformed. A light liquid foundation and sweep of pale blush finished the face. I was surprised Alex finished with foundation rather than applying it first. Her reason? Applying it first allows for the possibility of eye shadow fall-out messing up the foundation. And, as she says, it’s almost impossible to clean it off without ruining the foundation you’ve just applied.
Alex’s philosophy is that you should always stress your strongest feature, assuming of course, you’re aware which feature is your strongest. Alex singled out JoEllen’s lips and for daytime chose a light plum lip color. She used a lip liner for definition and extended the liner color over most of JoEllen’s lips to keep the lipstick from feathering at the edges and to prolong its wear. It was easy then to up the nighttime ante simply by switching the lip color to a deep, darker berry. No need to redo the entire face.
Were my concerns about makeup on older skin valid? You bet. Hydration is key. Don’t skimp on moisturizer. Foundation and powder can accentuate wrinkles so it’s wise to be sparing with both. However, Alex believes older customers shouldn’t necessarily shy away from shimmer since, she says, it can make the skin look fresher. She recommends applying it lightly and in both directions for good coverage.
Have questions? Don’t be shy. Ask the artists. They want you to be engaged in the process. If you’re not happy with the outcome, let them know. Don’t walk out the door feeling you need to go directly home and wash your face. This is an opportunity to experiment. And have a good time in the process.
Own Your Wonder, 1659 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC, 202 298-8000, ownyourwonder.com. Open weekdays from 8am to 7pm, weekends from 9am to 7pm, but often accommodates appointments both earlier and later in the day, particularly for membership holders. Book online or call ahead for same-day appointments.
YES, IT’S upon us. Halloween, which leads quite quickly to Thanksgiving and beyond . . . to 2019. But to stay in the moment, we LittleBirds poked around our neighborhoods to see what creepy-crawly stuff might be afoot. Just about every front yard in suburbia seems to have turned into a graveyard, with all those plastic headstones and, sometimes, skeletal arms reaching up to grab innocent passersby.
There are instances of genuine originality and one big delightful occasion of too-muchness. The latter is The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze, a splendid event benefiting Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, in Upstate New York. Some 7,000 pumpkins, hand-carved or painted, fashioned into a bridge, a windmill, a tunnel, plus (below) a merry-go-round where even the horses are skeletons—in short making a carnival of the holiday.
The Blaze also features some friendly faces (below).
And some decidedly masterful carving (below).
In the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC, LittleBird Kathy stumbled upon the cleverest display we’ve seen in a while. Goodness knows how long these designer duds (below) will be safe from marauders, but at least we got a picture.
And be sure to take a good look at the designer pumpkins. There’s no logo on the blue pumpkin, but robin’s-egg blue and that nice white satin ribbon . . . how many more clues do we need? (Don’t miss the Burberry doggie coat.)
P Street held some other treats, including the witch head-down in the ground and (presumably) trying to get out. Then there is the scaredy cat (but who’s scaring whom is hard to tell).
Elsewhere in Washington, Nationals fans have gathered their favorite players, in skeletal form. Not sure if there’s a message there (below).
Finally, from Washington’s P Street NW and the leafy Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh come tasteful displays. The checkerboard effect of the pumpkins scattered around the front lawn gives the festivities a grace they rarely get. And the window box isn’t so much Halloween as autumn. And that’s just fine by us.
MEXICO, VERO SUGGESTED. Specifically, Cancún and Yucatán. Hmm, not really places I’d given much thought, owing to a lifelong avoidance of sun and beaches, but Vero and husband Jon have traveled the world, and their travel-wise knowledge is worth exploiting. They already were making plans and proposed that Joe and I come along. Vero was doing the research, choosing dates, booking rooms. All we had to do was pack bathing suits and get on a plane.
Words that send chills down my spine. But I’ll get to that.
What Vero proposed was two weeks of luxury. Week 1 at a Cancún resort followed by a second week staying two nights each at three restored haciendas in Yucatán. Should Vero decide someday to come out of retirement, she definitely should consider a second career as a travel agent. The woman is a genius.
Cancún is a blast. Especially staying at a beautiful resort like the Westin Lagunamar. I know I sound like an advertisement, but I can’t help it. Hotel rooms are important to me. Thread count, well, counts. I want towels abundant and fluffy, showers spacious, and sitting rooms (or, at least, sitting spaces) included. A view never hurts, and in Cancún our high balcony overlooked one of the resort’s sparkling pools and the turquoise waves of the Caribbean.
Across the street are restaurants, an aquarium and all the high-end shopping you could want—Prada, Gucci, Vuitton, Chanel. I went native, however, after veering into shops that sold locally made clothing and crafts. The light, gauzy cotton tops and pants were so cool and comfortable in the tropical heat. Added bonus, they cost almost nothing!
Then, there was the issue of the bathing suit.
It had been at least 30 years and a few pounds since I last had one on my body, and until Day 2 of this vacation had no intention of interrupting that record. Plus, almost two years of daily prednisone accounts for an extra 20 pounds I would prefer not to share with the world.
Vero just scoffed. Her words (spoken with her French accent) basically boiled down to, “Don’t be stupid. You’re here in this beautiful place. The water is cool. The sun is warm. There is a wonderful breeze. Don’t you want to feel the air on your skin? Why would you deny yourself that pleasure? Life is too short. Stop worrying. You’re the only one who cares how you look. Just enjoy.”
So I bought a suit, squeezed into it, walked the beach, lolled by the pool. Of course Vero was right. The sun, the water, the air all felt marvelous. And no one gave me a second glance. I wouldn’t say I wore the suit with abandon, but for the rest of the vacation it served me well while I enjoyed piña coladas by and/or in the hotel pools.
Cancún can keep you busy (given its beaches, Museo Maya and proximity to the ruins of Tulum, the Isla Mujeres and the fun of Playa del Carmen’s pedestrian center). Most people have at least heard of Cancún, but far fewer have knowledge of the beautifully restored haciendas a few hours away by car in Yucatán state. We visited three and I would return to all three in a heartbeat.
A bit of history: Haciendas in Mexico are similar to our Southern plantations. Like plantations, we were told, haciendas enforced a social system of castes, based on race, with the haciendados, or landowners, as masters and the indigenous Maya as workers. Cattle, corn and sisal were among the cash crops. The glory days of the haciendas were from the early to mid-1900s, when sisal production was at its peak. The introduction of synthetic fibers (and the Mexican Revolution) put an end to the era of “green gold.” With the collapse of the sisal market most haciendas also collapsed and were abandoned. Landowners simply walked away. The buildings were looted and left to decay in the jungle.
They lay in ruins until the 1990s when hotel owners began to show interest. The Starwood Hotel group bought five haciendas across Yucatán and Campeche states, restored and converted them into luxurious boutique hotels and include them in their aptly dubbed Luxury Collection. We stayed at Hacienda Santa Rosa, Hacienda Temozón Sur and Hacienda San José (thehaciendas.com). The three are similar in furnishings and amenities, yet each has its own distinct personality with a surprise or two thrown in.
What was no surprise was the warmth of the welcome at each hacienda. From the moment we arrived in Mexico we were struck by the kindness and generosity of the locals. The Maya are lovely, lovely people, hard-working, friendly and approachable, proud and eager to share their time, culture and history. This was even more true of the hacienda staffs who were so sweet and attentive and extremely efficient.
Hacienda Santa Rosa is a four-hour drive from Cancún, but it would be wrong not to stop along the way to experience the wonder of Chichén Itzá, the most well-known of the Mayan ruins. Having done so means you will arrive at the hacienda as we did, hot, wilted and dusty. You’ll bump along a cobblestone drive, but the cobbled drive is the only discomfort you’ll experience here. The staff, smiling and looking cool and fresh in impeccably white garb, walk out on the long veranda to greet you with fragrant, cold wash cloths and refreshing chilled drinks flavored with hibiscus and lime.
Our rooms were side-by-side, spacious and spare, with enormous iron beds and bathrooms the size of most suburban living rooms (which turned out to be the case with each hacienda). We had deep verandas outfitted with sisal hammocks and, just beyond, our own (well, almost our own since we were four of only six guests there) swimming pool. That evening we had dinner on the veranda lit only by candlelight and a small bonfire burning below.
Hacienda Santa Rosa is said to be the feminine hacienda. The reason? Before restoration, the hacienda had been thoroughly looted with only one original item left behind, we were told, the portrait of a woman. Her identity is a mystery, but her visage holds a place of honor in the lobby. It seems fitting she should keep watch over this intimate hotel of only 11 guest rooms.
Hacienda Temozón Sur is another matter. Its 28 guest rooms mean you probably won’t have the pool all to yourself. However, at your request the staff will gladly fill your own private plunge pool and surround it with candles. The plunge pool is just outside the bathroom door that opens onto your personal terrace, a terrace surrounded by lush vegetation and singing birds.
Temozón also has its own private cenote, and Tobacco the donkey will take you to it. Cenotes are sinkholes that form when the limestone bedrock that makes up most of the Yucatán collapses and exposes the groundwater below. They are common throughout the area. Vero took Tobacco up on his offer and appreciated that he waited patiently while she swam in water so clear it was almost invisible.
Hacienda San José, as well as Temozón, is not far from Uxmal, the ancient Mayan city that, in my opinion, is even more impressive than the better-known Chichén Itzá. Larger than Santa Rosa, smaller than Temozón, Hacienda San José is a beautiful juxtaposition of aged imperfections and modern amenities. The grounds are a luxuriant tropical jungle and the rooms impeccable. Though I feel I must warn you.
If you think you might not want to share your room with a tree, you should let the staff know. I love trees but was surprised to find I did not love having one in my bathroom. It was a large tree, extremely large, there long before the hacienda was restored. And it was a Ceiba, the sacred tree of the Mayas. Ceibas are not to be cut down. Hence, the bathroom was built around this one. I felt it would be disrespectful to voice my discomfort and kept quiet my concern about things that might crawl out of the ground around the base of a tree. The bathroom floor, what there was of it, was basically a wooden boardwalk that also provided myriad entries for things that crawl or slither.
Admittedly the Ceiba is an impressive tree that can grow to 200 feet or more. It has a spreading canopy and buttress-like roots that can be taller than a person. The ancient Maya believed the Ceiba connected the underworld, the earth and the sky. I’m good with that. I just didn’t want it in my bathroom.
Here are things all three haciendas have in common: beauty, history, excellent food, comfort, luxurious rooms, spas, dazzling pools, lush grounds and attentive staff. I will always fondly remember the sweet waiter who served our dinner that last night at San José. Though he didn’t work a night shift, at 4 the next morning he was at our door with coffee and tea to see us off as we left to catch our flight home. He led us by flashlight over the graveled paths to our car and held both my hands as we said goodbye. I think I fell a little bit in love with him.
Vero had hit a home run. Her planning, her choices, her suggestions were perfection. Thanks to her, I experienced a part of the world I might otherwise have ignored.
And I might never have put on a bathing suit.
And I might never put one on again. Old habits die hard. I sent the suit home with Vero.
Prices for the Westin Lagunamar and the haciendas will vary according to season and type of room. For our trip, which came at the end of the dry season, when rates were a bit lower, the Westin averaged $350 a night. The haciendas were around $250 per night. We flew in and out of Cancún, but you may want to fly into Mérida if you prefer to be closer to the haciendas.
LittleBird Kathy is art director of MyLittleBird and, when we can persuade her, a terrific storyteller. (And she probably looks just fine in that bathing suit.)
THE MANICURED SLOPES beneath the balcony on which I stand stretch languidly toward the Blue Ridge far off in the dreamy distance. Behind me loom the limestone walls of George Vanderbilt III’s massive masterpiece burned honey gold by the setting sun. I am at Biltmore, the pride of Asheville, N.C., and I am at home here. It feels right. Proper. And as I gaze in thoughtful reverie at the still waters of the estate’s lagoon I contemplate my next words carefully. Finally, I speak.
“Okay, you people! Stop with the stupid selfies. What’s with the grungy T-shirts? You couldn’t put on something decent? And can’t you do SOMETHING about those screaming children?”
All right, I didn’t really say that. That would have been rude, and there is something about Biltmore that just doesn’t tolerate rudeness. People were meant to behave properly here. Manners were observed. Civility was practiced. Most of my fellow tourists got the idea, but then there always is that measured few who flout propriety. I expect Mr. Vanderbilt would not have invited them for a second visit.
As for me, he would quickly have tired of my presence for I would move in permanently if allowed, the guest who never left. Chatelaine or scullery maid, it wouldn’t matter. Just as long as I could freely move from room to room, upstairs and down, taking in every detail of Biltmore’s stunning architecture, art, antiques and furnishings.
By all accounts that was Vanderbilt’s intention. Biltmore was his crowning achievement, a palace built in the French Renaissance style for the pleasure and relaxation of his family and friends. His immediate family numbered only three, himself, his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia. But his guests were legion, and showing them Biltmore was his pleasure. Yet there was much more to the estate than simply showing it off. There was substance.
A LITTLE HISTORY
George Washington Vanderbilt was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made his first fortune with steamships and a second one with railroads. George Vanderbilt first visited North Carolina in 1888 on trips there with his mother, who was seeking the health benefits of the mild climate and mineral springs. He was enchanted by the mountainous beauty of the area and thought it perfect for a new home. In the book “Biltmore, An American Masterpiece,” George Vanderbilt’s great-grandson, Bill Cecil Jr., writes of his great-grandfather’s vision for Biltmore as “one of a self-sufficient estate, where a home equipped with cutting-edge technology would stand at the center of a carefully designed working farm, beautiful park and woods.”
Vanderbilt enlisted architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to help him achieve his dream. He then began buying parcels of land and amassed 125,000 acres. Construction of Biltmore House began in 1889, and over the next six years an army of craftsmen and laborers constructed the 250-room chateau that to this day remains the largest private residence in the country.
A FEW FACTS AND FIGURES
The floor space of the house is the equivalent of four acres.
Among the 250 rooms are 34 family and guest bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens, a bowling alley and a heated 70,000-gallon indoor swimming pool.
Biltmore House was the “smart house” of its era, boasting the latest technology of the 19th century. It had central heating, electricity, central plumbing, mechanical refrigeration, fire alarms and an elevator. The original elevator, with its original motor, is still in service and continues to be maintained by its maker, the Otis Elevator Company.
The library contains 10,000 volumes, which is slightly less than half of Vanderbilt’s 23,000-volume collection.
George Vanderbilt died in 1914 at the age of 51. He had barely 20 years of living at Biltmore. Edith Vanderbilt, overwhelmed by the responsibility of managing such a large estate, sold approximately 87,000 acres to the United States Forest Service for less than $5 an acre. That parcel became the nucleus of Pisgah National Forest.
In 1930 Biltmore House, then under the supervision of George and Edith’s daughter, Cornelia, and her husband, John Cecil, opened to the public as a way to help finance the estate and bring tourism dollars to Depression-poor Asheville. Admission was $2.
Today the estate, still owned by the family, includes 8,000 acres and remains the successful, self-sufficient working farm George Vanderbilt envisioned more than 100 years ago.
IN GOOD ORDER
There is much to take in and enjoy at Biltmore. Biltmore House, naturally, is the crown jewel, but there also are the restaurants, the winery, shops, extensive gardens and trails, the ponds, carriage rides and much, much more. The Inn on Biltmore Estate offers lovely and comfortable accommodations with a friendly, attentive staff that takes its hospitality assignment seriously, just as Mr. Vanderbilt would have expected.
Everything at Biltmore is about making guests comfortable and welcomed. This is just as it was when the house hosted its first guests all those years ago. Visitors would arrive by train in Asheville where they were met by carriage to begin the miles-long meandering ride through carefully cultivated parkland to the house. The ride gave them a chance to relax and de-stress while taking in the genius of Olmsted’s handiwork. Their trunks and servants would take a shorter route so that by the time the honored guest got her first jaw-dropping glimpse of Vanderbilt’s soaring chateau everything in her rooms would be unpacked and seamlessly in order.
Personally, I crave order. Many may find it boring and unimaginative, but for me order is exactly what allows me the freedom to imagine. When everything is in its proper place and protocol is being observed then the mind can wander unfettered to new ideas.
I would have relished drifting from room to room with Vanderbilt’s distinguished guests listening to their conversations, marveling at their dress, absorbing their opinions on the topics of the day. I would have followed them from the library, to the winter garden, to the billiards room, the smoking room, the tapestry gallery, the oak sitting room or either of the living halls just to hear the likes of Edith Wharton and her set dish about the Gilded Age. At bedtime I would have retired to an elegant bedroom to reflect upon the highlights of the day just passed and wonder at what the following day might hold.
Yes, I know. I’m a fuddy-duddy. But say what you will, I did notice this: All those unruly visitors who began the tour with me, one by one began to settle down and assume a bit of decorum as we progressed from room to room. Their better selves began to emerge. See, order will do that to you.
Now, if I can just get my hands on a trunk.
Kathy Legg is Art Director of My LittleBird.
More on Kathy Legg.
Where to stay: The Inn at Biltmore boasts four-star luxury accommodations. The Village Hotel on Biltmore Estate is newly opened and a bit more casual than the Inn. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom English-style Cottage on Biltmore Estate promises luxurious privacy. The city of Asheville also offers numerous hotel accommodations.
Biltmore’s admission price of $50 includes entry to Biltmore House and access to the gardens, the shops and restaurants of Antler Hill Village and a guided tour and complimentary tasting at the winery. The 90-minute audio guided tour of Biltmore House is $10.98 per person. The guide-led tour of Biltmore House, the guided rooftop tour and the behind-the-scenes upstairs/downstairs tour all require advance reservations and cost $17 per person. The Legacy of the Land tour, advance reservations recommended, costs $19 per person. The premium Biltmore House tour is a two-hour private tour with your own guide. The cost is $150 per adult.
IT’S A SILLY FANTASY, but one that recurs from time to time. I become nostalgic thinking about favorite outfits I once wore. The nostalgia most likely has more to do with yearning for my younger, slimmer days, but the fun of the fantasy would be in seeing all the clothes I’ve ever worn laid out in an amusing timeline of how my tastes and style (if one could call it that) have evolved. I expect the reaction would be a mix of laughter, pleasure and horror at being reminded of the clothes I once put on my body.
This is but one of the hundred ways in which I am not like heiress, businesswoman and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post, the doyenne of Hillwood Estate, whose exquisite gowns and dresses very much deserve to be on display. Luckily, some of them are.
The exhibit “Ingenue to Icon: 70 Years of Fashion From the Collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post” opened in June. Until last week visitors could view selections from Post’s warm-weather wardrobe. Now those dresses have been gently returned to storage, where they’ll remain for at least four years before being seen again, to make way for a winter grouping of her amazing gowns. Twelve dresses are on display in the mansion, positioned in rooms (or closets) thought most fitting as a backdrop. Another 20 gowns and dresses fill the gallery-like Adirondack building. Hats, shoes, gloves and other accessories, as well as archival images, accompany many of the ensembles. The exhibit runs through December.
Post was an important woman who lived during a period in which women’s fashion underwent seismic changes. Fortunately for us, she had the foresight to save the most important examples of the apparel and accessories she acquired over the years. Born in 1887 and heir to the Postum Cereal Company, which eventually became General Foods Corporation, her range of style reaches from the Victorian Age to the Space Age. She died in 1973.
“Throughout her life, Marjorie treated her clothing in much the same manner as her art collection,” explained Hillwood’s associate curator of textiles and curator of the exhibition, Howard Vincent Kurtz. “She knew that her clothing represented not just her own style, but a record of women’s fashion.”
Kurtz is keenly respectful of the garments entrusted to his care. During a behind-the-scenes visit as the previous exhibit was being taken down and the current exhibit was being put in place, he shared some of the tricks he uses to make certain the gowns not only look their best but are oh-so-carefully protected as well. Included in his bag of props are pieces of foam that can be inserted into a sleeve to ensure that it falls perfectly rather than hangs limply; “pita pockets,” actually half moons of airy batting, that can smooth out a bust line or plump up a pleat; and a ready supply of newly purchased petticoats (the originals are too fragile to use) that he can hem at will.
It takes two pairs of hands to dress a mannequin, Kurtz says, in order to minimize the amount of stress placed on the garment. Yet no one wears gloves. “That’s right,” he says. “Gloves can leave lint. We just make sure we have very, very clean hands.” Those handling the clothes aren’t allowed to wear makeup or perfume either, lest a smell or a smudge get transferred to the delicate materials. It can easily take up to two and a half hours, sometimes more, to dress one mannequin.
“Marjorie always had the best,” Kurtz says of the woman whose clothes he so often handles and whose legacy he admires. “During her life she went from a size 2 to a size 10. She had broad shoulders, a tiny waist and not much of a derriere. Her shoe size was 6½. She kept very fit—walking, golfing, she was always on the go.” Kurtz has the privilege of seeing up close the impeccable tailoring and exquisite fabrics that make up Post’s wardrobe. Her exacting eye as a collector of decorative objects also extended to her appreciation for rich fabrics and elegant design.
The collection will delight not only those who take great pleasure in fashion, but those who also enjoy stepping back in history. Post experienced great change throughout her lifetime and her wardrobe is a beautifully illustrative reflection of the historical eras through which she lived. How sad that the highlight of my lifetime’s fashion history was the mini skirt.
Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, 4155 Linnean Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. Open Tuesday through Sunday 10am to 5pm, through December 31, 2015. Suggested entrance donation $18; $15 for seniors, $10 students.
WE HAD TWO MORE summers together.
At the end of the summer of 2007, Andrew had a load of cooking jobs for visitors who had rented holiday houses, all with swimming pools and views of the beautiful French countryside. I didn’t have anything to do while he was working. I had finished writing this book (yes, this book) and had sent it to literary agents in the U.S. Months later, I began to get piles of nothing but rejections. I began to feel useless. I was losing my business skills and my creativity. I was running out of money. And now our relationship was cracking.
I came up with the idea of taking myself on a pilgrimage. My plan was to leave Provence and drive northwest toward the Atlantic Ocean—an area where I had never been. Every region of France has a different face, personality and cuisine. I would come back via a southern route, passing through towns I knew and others I’d heard about. Andrew suggested I take the tent and camp along the route. I could handle that … cheaper than B&Bs and I had heard that camping in France is quiet, clean and friendly.
I decided to follow the river Loire (we were a few hours from the source) to where it flows into the Atlantic. I would make a plan for the return route later. For me, this adventure was a little like Outward Bound for the mature writer. Not Jack Kerouac, more like Thoreau and his Walden Pond, or Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey—just as silly and almost as capable a load-bearer as our eight-year-old Renault Kangoo.
On July 9, I packed the car with a tent, a sleeping bag, a propane stove, a cooler, some clothes, my Nikon and my laptop. There was still enough space for Beau, our greyhound. I kissed Andrew, hopped into the car and off we went.
It was a wonderful month. There’s nothing like paring everything down to just you and the great outdoors to bring you back to what counts: finding food and water and a dry place to spend the night, time for reflection, a glimpse of beauty and satisfaction in mastering basic survival skills.
Beau and I traveled north, through Lyon, the capital of gastronomy in France and the world, through Dijon and Burgundy, full of wine I couldn’t drink but loved the area anyway. Westward to the chateau region in the Loire Valley, dreams of nobility. Up to Rennes, the university town. The coast of Normandy. Brittany, legends of King Arthur, an ephemeral Arthurian atmosphere in the silver and green land. Down along the Atlantic coast to Carnac, the prehistoric megaliths. The little town of La Trinité-Sur-Mer. Then Bordeaux! Sounds romantic but it’s an ugly city and the traffic is hell.
The last leg of my trip was eastward again, to the Dordogne, land of the “Clan of the Cave Bear” and the region’s namesake, the prettiest French river so far. Cuisine—nuts, cheeses, salads, foie gras and mouth-watering comfort foods featuring duck and potatoes. And while you’re wiping your mouth there are the famous grottoes and caverns that are geological marvels to see. Lascaux is one of the best. There, or at least in the replica that’s open to the public, you can see the reverence with which ancient man regarded the creatures that gave him food and clothing.
Our last stop was Carennac, a tiny storybook village (370 inhabitants) on the Dordogne River, with an impressive 11th-century Cluniac priory, village houses with half-timber overhanging balconies, and a grassy shoreline walk along the little canal that was fed by the river. It’s only a few kilometers from the amazing Gouffre de Padirac, a dramatic cavern with a cathedral-like chamber and an underground lake—and Rocamadour, built on a soaring rock, which became a major pilgrimage site in 1162 when a perfectly preserved corpse, believed to be Saint Amadour, was unearthed at the entrance of the village’s first chapel.
But what brought me here was a book I read 10 years ago and re-read regularly: “At Home in France,” by Ann Barry, a New York Times travel writer. She was a single woman who fell in love with Carennac, and bought a house on a crest above the village, even though she could only carve out a few weeks a year to be there. She kept such meticulous track of her intense short-term experiences that she turned them into a book.
She died of cancer before it was published.
The tourist office is in the courtyard of the 16th-century chateau and the 11th-century church and priory of St. Pierre. I asked one of the women at the desk if they had any information about the américaine who had lived part-time among them for 10 years. She said she could direct me to Ann’s house, Pech Farguet, and she drew me a map.
I followed her directions in the car and found the house on a winding road in the hills high over the village. It was just as I imagined from her descriptions in the book—obviously occupied by someone else now, with new construction going on practically next door, but homey and well-cared for just the same.
That evening, Beau and I went down to the dining room of the inn where we were staying and were seated at a table in the back corner where he could sit on the floor between me and the window. (Yes, France allows dogs into dining rooms.) This was Beau’s second restaurant experience. It took a while for him to get the idea of what he was supposed to do—lie down and be unobtrusive—but he finally found a way to be comfortable and munch bread while he worked the roomful of admirers.
I had a puréed vegetable soup, a confit de canard—duck leg cooked to a golden brown in its own fat, a local specialty—accompanied by sliced potatoes browned in the same fat, and garnished with fresh green vegetables. My friendly waiter, who had met Beau in the stairway that afternoon, was proudly telling other diners about him as he served, arranging appointments for people to pet Beau after we finished. “Madame over there would like to pet him, and the table next to you would like you to bring him over,” he said as he showed me the cheese selection and cut for me a big slice of a firm Cantal, a mild Bleu de Quercy and a Rocamadour, the region’s famous goat cheese, the consistency of a chewy honey inside a tender skin.
For dessert, I settled on vanilla ice cream. “Wouldn’t you at least like it mixed with, say, chocolate or coffee,” asked my waiter, worried that I had passed up some of the house’s more spectacular desserts. But no, I was happy.
It was the right way to end that trip.
On the road to home Beau and I were quiet. We both had learned a lot about this old world and those who had lived and died and left us a lot to think about.
After all, you’ve never been the age you are today. You have to take stock periodically. In my 50s, I found my motto in a sports tagline: Now there is one less thing I cannot do.
This decade of my life requires a new tagline: Now there is one more thing I still can do.
Back in Saignon there was much we had to do. We worked all through the fall and winter so we could have more good summers. We finally had managed to claim the whole building. Pastis (whose name was really Patrice) had moved out and J-C sold the ground floor to our friend, Juli, a Canadian who had visited us several times. One summer when she was with us waiting for her husband to join her, he sent an email telling her he wanted a divorce. It was an awful week, but she turned her thoughts to Saignon and maybe living there at least several months a year. Over the next couple of years she managed to buy more of the apartments. J-C had found a new girlfriend and decided to move with her to the center of France where she had property.
J-C was back in the money.
Juli and I were now sole owners of the entire building. We named it “La Maison des Arts et Lettres.”
At the end of that summer, while Andrew was working on the ground floor, I embarked on another camping trip. After a few days he called me to come back. Andrew had decided he wanted to break up and move back to the U.S. If I was to go on by myself I would need another year to build new classes and find another artist to teach. He would give it a few more months. But Andrew had decided to move on. He needed to.
We all want a happy end to a story like this, but this is life. As Andrew said recently, “I remember us laughing about how we lasted longer than everyone ever thought we would.” The offbeat love between us lasted for 13 years, and the friendship is hanging on.
Another year and Andrew was gone, back to California, where some of his siblings lived. With Andrew gone I couldn’t continue with the art and cooking classes on my own. Juli thought she wasn’t ready to step into Andrew’s shoes (although she paints and cooks very well). But I wanted to stay in France, so I decided to move to Aix-en-Provence, just an hour from Saignon. I sold my last apartments to Juli and left Saignon with Beau and our alley cats, Sylvie and Raoul. Several friends lived near there. My friend Georges lived nearby on the Mediterranean. And then there were the theaters showing American movies and some good restaurants, gyms, terrific shopping. Everything I didn’t have in the village.
But my happy time in Aix-en-Provence was just a year and a few months.
I had rented a nice house with a fenced-in courtyard full of tall old trees, just for the animals. There was a garage for the Kangoo, now an old girl trying to keep up. I had to drive 20 minutes to meet up with my friends. They were up for any kind of party. Their apartments were charming, the food was yummy and gorgeous, along with good wines. Of course I didn’t drink with the others, but it was fun to watch them get plastered.
When summer came we went to the beach every weekend. We were free, dropping tops and bronzing, having lunch in a petit café overlooking the Mediterranean…where life was born.
But back in my house I felt alone and sad. I was living in a nice neighborhood, but it was full of families. I didn’t fit in. I would never have friends in that neighborhood. I missed Saignon. I missed getting ready for the summer people coming to paint. I actually missed working.
And another thing, a legacy from my dead parents, was becoming apparent. It seemed my brain wasn’t working well for me now. I found myself saying something my mother would have said when she had Alzheimer’s and doing the same silly things she had done. Chills slipped down my spine when I opened my mouth and heard a floating word that had no sense. A word that belonged to another conversation.
I talked with my friends, Juli and the Aix girls. Why not go to the doctor, they said. I went to my doctor, who sent me to an neurologist. My friends, often Paulette, came with me to every appointment and helped with the translation. I went through some tests. My friend Georges took me to the hospital for brain scans.
My doctor said I had Alzheimer’s. My neurologist was diffident. My friends were hopeful. I took the scan pictures to my landlady, a nurse. She looked them over and just raised her eyebrows. I didn’t want to go through more tests here in France even though the costs are lower than in the U.S.
After everything had been done and said, I started thinking of going home. It was time to call Ben.
Ben started looking for apartments for me–and for doctors and a neurologist in Los Angeles. I told my landlady I’d be moving back to the U.S. My girlfriends gave me a going-away party…and it was a real party. No tears.
Paulette came with me to L.A., as my mind was not clear enough to fly on my own. Pictures of my dad and mom, sitting in silence in nursing homes, went around in my head. I left all the talking to Paulette. She spoke for me.
Now I’m writing the end. It’s not sad.
In the summer of 2014 Ben took me to several great doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Yes, I have Alzheimer’s, although no one will really say the word. But I have medicine that helps me handle my brain and find my words.
As a writer, words are my life.
It is 2015 and I live in a little apartment in a great complex with pools and a gym and a little café. Ben and his wife, Michelle, started furnishing my apartment before I moved in and I finished it. I brought my cats from France—Sylvie and Raoul—with me to Los Angeles. Before I moved in, Sylvie died. Raoul is still with me and now I have a rescue dog too, a 3-year-old, half-poodle named Zoe. The friend who took me to the rescue shelter will take Zoe when I can’t handle her anymore.
I hope it will be years before I have to give my animals away.
In the meantime, I have a covered patio looking out on the green courtyard with tall old trees. I have nice young neighbors who know about my situation but take me in anyway. I can walk to shops and stores, to restaurants and movies, to a famous farmers market. I can swim every day. I can walk to the gym whenever I want and meet up with my trainer who will give me a good hard workout weekly. Ben and Michelle are nearby.
And I write. I use a book called Roget’s Thesaurus of Words for Writers. A lot of writer’s use a thesaurus, but I call mine the Alzheimer’s Thesaurus.
I hope you will always read and write and learn. I hope you won’t ever have Alzheimer’s, but if you do, or someone dear to you has this terrible disease, remember (yes, remember) that you can still use words if you try. They need not be the luscious vocabulary of the days, years, I spent in the South of France, the language of cafés and foie gras and fields of lavender. No regrets there! And even when I forget to remember, those words of love, of adventure, of belonging, will lurk in the back of my mind, where I hope they will continue to comfort me.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell
DETAILS. DETAILS. DETAILS. Designers are famous for their focus on the small stuff, and for those who appreciate the work of the detail-oriented, there is no better place to soak it all in than the 2015 DC Design House, which opens Sunday, April 12.
An elegantly rambling old-style American farmhouse is this year’s pick for the event. The handsome home of stone and brick is the product of Harrison Design and Artisan Builders and is located in McLean on land once owned, around 1800, by one Henry Mackall. Christened Mackall Farms in 2013, it’s a choice spot in this sought-after Virginia enclave.
Twenty-four design firms have put their collective mark on the home’s 8,869 square feet and created a comfortably coherent whole. Ultra-modern touches play nicely with the home’s refined rustic demeanor while splashes of color don’t in the least detract from the serenity of more subtle hues. From floor to ceiling these designers have considered every detail and produced rooms not only lovely but also livable.
Proceeds from the Design House go to Children’s National Health System; more than $1 million has been raised since the event’s inception in 2008.
The house, open to the public through Sunday, May 10, is at 956 Mackall Farms Lane, McLean, Va. It is closed on Mondays. Tickets are $30. For driving directions and more information, go to DC Design House.
“WHY WOULD YOU want to travel all by yourself?” asked the guy at reception. That ‘‘all by yourself” hit me as his blonde wife looked up from the desk with a grimace. I’d just seen the spot where I would put up my tent, then was told there was no wi-fi connection. So I was wondering the same thing. Why would I drive for hours just to sleep here?
In a tent?
Good questions. But then, that’s the sort of brave thing my friend, Marcia Mitchell, would do—go gallivanting around France “all by herself” and sleep in a tent.
It wasn’t the first time she had done something like that. A few years before, between husbands, she surprised me when she revealed plans to go camping that Fourth of July weekend near the spa in Berkeley Springs (West Virginia).
For several nights.
Again with the tent.
“But isn’t that dangerous? Won’t it be weird to be by yourself? Aren’t you afraid?” I sputtered.
“Oh, Kathy,” she said by way of exasperated reassurance. “I’ll never be more than 50 yards from a manicure.” Not only is Marcia brave, she knows how to prioritize.
Among her priorities was the desire to live in France. And so she did. In her 50s she discarded life in the U.S. and resettled in Provence. She embraced all things French and la belle France reciprocated. Even in a campground without wi-fi.
What she had learned from previous trips was that France took care of a woman on her own. Women “of a certain age” aren’t ignored or made to feel invisible. So what better place for a woman to travel solo?
Now Marcia’s ready to teach what she’s learned as a woman traveling solo. She and fellow instructor, Minnesota ex-pat Delana Nelsen, are set to whip into shape all of us smart, independent, competent women, who, in spite of our accomplishments, are still too timid to take off on our own. It’s time to man up ladies, pack the suitcase, grab the passport and enlist in Travel Solo Boot Camp. Thankfully no tents are involved.
Boot camp in Provence: an idea that suggests 4-inch heels and form-fitting fatigues accessorized with an Hermes scarf. But the camp’s base in Aix en Provence really does serve a practical purpose. Things move a bit more slowly in Aix than, say, Paris, and for a woman on her own for the first time that can be a comfort.
As Marcia and Delana discovered for themselves, “No other country loves women more than France. Femininity rules here. It’s in the cuisine, the wine, fashion and, of course, romance. France will lead you to her best baguettes, her friendliest cafes, her most captivating museums, and she will show you how to take your time, how to sit for hours in a cafe with an espresso watching beautiful people speaking luscious words.”
Okay. Great. How exactly does one become comfortable doing that? All on one’s own? Marcia and Delana aim to arm recruits with advice and attitude gained through a series of exercises. Such as these described on their website:
Begin each day with “C-rations (coffee, croissants and conversation)” to talk about solo traveling and the day’s assignment.
Gather in the afternoon to cover things as basic as how to eat lunch alone. And enjoy it! Or to introduce insights and tactics in areas such as shopping—how sizes differ, local shopping etiquette, with whom you can and can’t bargain. Then a shopping assignment; perhaps you’ll be ordered to buy some French lingerie, a slightly shorter or slimmer skirt than you’re accustomed to, or perhaps a new scarf (no Frenchwoman is without one).
On another day recruits might concentrate on the ins and outs of using public transportation, finishing with a homework assignment involving taking public transport to an outlying village to explore.
Recruits will meet evenings throughout the week for a “working apero,” which might involve sipping wine and sampling local olives while receiving a French lesson from a local. Or a soirée with a French woman who can deconstruct that special something French women seem to have. There will be dinner with a local guest who will explain French manners and what is expected at a dinner party or perhaps even on a date. Date? Not a required maneuver, though if so inclined—you’ll be prepared.
Recruits will bunk in separate apartments. Marcia and Delana have lined up a group of chic and comfortable apartments in the center of Aix, close to cafes and shops. But no bunking with roommates allowed. They stress this is your time to have your own experience.
There is one fall session scheduled, October 18-25, 2014, and two spring/summer sessions, May 9-16 and June 6-13, 2015. Sessions are limited to eight people.
Tuition per boot camp $2,000.
• Pre-boot camp preparation
• Marseille airport to Aix transportation
• Local cell phone
• Group breakfast and training class each day
• Daily training maneuvers
• 1 daylong class with a local artisan (painting, cooking, mosaic, etc)
• 2 group evening meals
DOES NOT INCLUDE:
• Airfare to Marseille
• Apartment rental
• Solo lunches
• Solo dinners
• Local transportation
The belief of these two well-traveled veterans is that a well-prepared woman traveling alone is really never alone. And their motto, “We won’t hold your hand, but we’ve got your back.”
I wonder if Dior has ever designed a tent.
Contact Delana at firstname.lastname@example.org to enlist and start your pre-boot camp preparation.
I FULLY BELIEVE Dorothy Draper, the grande dame of décor, would turn in her undoubtedly well-appointed grave to hear me refer to one of her greatest decorating achievements as gaudy. But that’s exactly what the Greenbrier is: gloriously gaudy, riotously colorful, explosively floral and decadently, deliciously enjoyable.
It’s why I love this resort so much. The overdone opulence feels of another time. Its ageless comfort is a bit like a favorite aunt who was just a teensy bit plump, lived in a cloud of Caleche and honed her wry sense of humor over a late-afternoon cocktail. She was always beautifully dressed and perfectly coiffed and indulged her love of fine things. She indulged you, too, with witty lessons in decorum, the do’s and don’ts of acting a lady and, if no one was looking, with a sip of her Manhattan. Perfect schooling to prepare you for the Greenbrier.
I don’t know if Dorothy Draper was fond of Manhattans, but clearly she was fond of other forms of indulgence when in 1946 she was contracted by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway to redecorate the venerable hotel. She took a building that had most recently served as a military hospital and brought it back to colorful life with 30 miles of carpeting, 40,000 gallons of paint, 45,000 yards of fabric and 15,000 rolls of wallpaper all blooming with rhododendrons, roses and all the colors of the garden. She overlooked nothing and in a mere 18 months Draper and her staff redesigned 600 guest rooms, all the public lobbies, sports facilities, offices, even the employees’ uniforms, according to Greenbrier historian Robert S. Conte.
Personally, I would never decorate the way Draper did. My surroundings are far more subdued. What surprises me most about her style is how all these fabrics, wallpapers and paints that couldn’t possibly go together somehow do. And I’m surprised even more that I so enjoy staying in her cacophony of color. It’s a girly pleasure to spend a night in a Draper-designed bedroom where roses climb the walls and cover the duvet. Ruffles and tassels are everywhere. And it’s not uncommon to find a few stripes thrown in as well. In the midst of such femininity my husband goes to sleep in fear he will wake to find he’s grown bosoms.
I wake with two things in mind—shopping and the spa. The Greenbrier’s history begins in the late 1700s when people first began visiting the mineral springs there. Guests today can still take the waters but in a far more luxurious setting. Reaching the spa requires a stroll past the bowling alley, the aerobics studio and the romantically canopied indoor pool. The tropical heat of the pool area gives way to the fragrant, cool quiet of the spa. Even before disrobing I begin to relax. The full-body deep-tissue Swedish massage is heaven. And the hour-long pedicure leaves my feet soft and lovely.
It’s a shame to walk on such pampered feet, but the diversity of shops at the Greenbrier provides inviting possibilities—designer apparel, home furnishings, art, jewelry. On this most recent visit I bought a jacket, two necklaces and gifts for three friends. Draper-inspired wallpaper is available for purchase as well.
The variety of activities offered at the resort goes on and on—skeet shooting, tennis, golf, hiking, falconry, biking, riding, croquet, swimming, bowling, dancing, the casino; the list seems endless. The countryside is beautiful, the grounds and gardens superb. Yet, even though the rocking chairs on the terraces may have beckoned, I didn’t even bother going outside for two days, choosing instead to stay indoors and take advantage of the interior tour, the Bunker tour (secretly commissioned to house Congress in case of a nuclear holocaust but never used for any emergency), afternoon tea, the shops, the spa, restaurants and aimless wandering through the halls and lobbies taking in Mrs. Draper’s handiwork.
I never tire of the Greenbrier, this elegant resort that holds court in West Virginia’s rustic mountains. I’ll go back again and again. The Greenbrier makes it easy. While a visit there can be an expensive proposition—rates can range from a few hundred a night to thousands—the resort offers a variety of packages and special rates. Go to the Greenbrier’s website and register to receive notifications of special offers. My most recent visit was a spur-of-the-moment decision to take advantage of an unheard rate of $64 per night, an offer that played off the winning score of the just-played Greenbrier Classic golf tournament. In contrast, I’m going back in October and staying in a Windsor Club room where I’ll pay a cool $600 a night.
Draper had her way with the Virginia Wing as well. Located in this wing is the Windsor Club, so named after the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who visited the Greenbrier together and separately. Ask nicely and the staff will show you through the wing, which requires a special guest key. I admit to feeling a bit of a tingle when I was admitted into the bedroom the duchess would occupy on their visits. I’ve always admired her jewelry, you know. The rooms used by the pair are part of the presidential suite, which consists of seven bedrooms, sitting rooms, dining room and kitchen all outfitted a la Draper.
Dorothy Draper died in 1969 leaving her legacy at the Greenbrier in the capably colorful hands of her protégé and successor, interior designer Carleton Varney, president/owner of Dorothy Draper & Co. Inc. It is Varney who continued in the Draper tradition when he refreshed the hotel some years ago and decorated the new casino addition, which opened in 2010. You can gamble the night away or stroll with a drink in hand while paying homage to Draper’s optimistic spirit and Varney’s opulent continuation of her work.
I can’t wait to go back.
The Greenbrier, 300 West Main Street, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; 855-453-4858; www.greenbrier.com