The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses

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It could have been a little warmer but the dazzling sunshine peeking over the rooftops as I set off on my journey at 6:30 am made me optimistic as I shivered in a summer dress and thin cardigan. I have a special fondness for Wales despite not knowing it very well and being unable to read the names written in its beautiful language. But my paternal grandmother was Welsh and my father often rode his motorbike from the family home in Liverpool to North Wales, especially Conwy. Bodnant Garden is justly famous for its stunning laburnum arch which is even more remarkable in real life. But what captured my heart were the roses. Endless rows of them in white, various shades of pink, crimson, peach turning to purple, bright yellow, all of them exquisite and with different scents ranging from intoxicating to delicate. No other place has quite captivated me this much.

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IMG_6518Of course, around every corner there is a feast for the senses – tall blue Himalayan poppies, white wisteria,  water-lilies on the pond, blue and brown bearded irises, extraordinary hostas in every shade of green, with the sound of a local Welsh choir singing gospel music from below the terrace as we explored all the different avenues. I wished that we could have stayed all day to wander through the meadows and woodland beyond.

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We stopped on the way home at Conwy, climbing up to the ramparts of its remarkable castle, looking down at the beautiful bay below and the suspension bridge which my parents knew so well from all their earlier holidays. It felt sad to leave the sea and mountains but my mother had kindly bought me an exquisite old rose named after Gertrude Jekyll to plant in the garden so that a little of Bodnant could return with us. Its heady perfume accompanied us throughout the long journey home and I look forward to seeing it bloom each year and being transported back to that heavenly garden of roses.

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Summer things

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Big Sur, 1946, by Ansel Adams

I never long for my school days and would hate to be 17 again, but I look back with more than a touch of nostalgia at the school holidays. Six whole weeks, free from from any worries or obligations.  There were family holidays abroad in Spain, France and Switzerland, lazy days in the garden and hours of television – trashy MTV, and plenty of American shows like Saved by the Bell, My So-Called Life and Beverly Hills 90210. While summer generally doesn’t live up to expectations – British ones are generally a wash-out, Roger Federer doesn’t win Wimbledon, people ask my constantly why I’m so white and mosquitoes drain the blood from my arms and legs whenever I go abroad – I still feel excited around this time of year thinking about it. Long evenings, dinner in the garden while listening to birdsong, the chance to wear summer dresses and go out without a jacket, picnics and cool drinks. So I thought I’d put together some of my favoute summer things for inspiration. I’d love to hear what your essentials are.

Aperol Spritz

My favourite summer drink along with Bellini which reminds me of being in Venice last year, sitting on the terrace watching the sunset. Although I must admit to also enjoying a large glass of Pimm’s whenever Wimbledon is on.

The perfect summer dresses

This one, with a pattern inspired by the Royal Porcelain collection, is for me the essence of the perfect English summer and ideal for tea in the garden.

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Royal Worcester Jacquard dress, £78, Oasis

And I can’t resist polka dots

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Navy spotted ruffle sundress, £22, Dorothy Perkins

 

Red shoes to brighten up any outfit

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Lily suede flats, £198, J.Crew

 

The best facial sunscreen to wear under makeup

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Murad Luminous Shield, SPF 50, £55

A perfect orange red lipstick

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Nars Audacious Lipstick in Lana, £25

A straw shopper for that Jane Birkin feelinghmprodStraw shopper, £17.99, H&M

A cute hat for protection from the sun

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Marl Scarf Summer Hat, £17.50, Marks and Spencer

The perfect tea

This delicious blend can be served hot or cold as according to the Fortnum and Mason website, it’s also excellent for iced tea.

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Afternoon blend tea, from £5.25, Fortnum and Mason

The most delicious summer scent, as worn by Cary Grant, David Niven, Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn

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Acqua di Parma, from £66

And of course, books for summer

It goes without saying that I’ll be reading the blog written by my friend Jan over the summer.

As for books, this year, I’ve got my eye on The Riviera Set about all the glamourous people who spent time at the Château de l’Horizon near Cannes, from Coco Chanel to Rita Hayworth. There’s also Dolce Vita Confidential about 1950s Rome and I’m dying to read The Unfinished Palazzo which tells the story of the three women who lived in the Palazzo Venier in Venice – Luisa Casati, Doris Castlerosse and Peggy Guggenheim.

Or if you prefer fiction, can I recommend something by Patricia Highsmith or Ross Macdonald (I love gripping books in summer), some John Cheever short stories, My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell about his eccentric childhood in Greece or The Great Gatsby which is the perfect choice at any time of year.

Lost in the bluebell woods

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Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the bluebell woods. I have no idea exactly how my parents found them but I’ve been returning every year since I was a child. The route is still the same. Taking the narrow path just above the little car park which reaches a steep incline by some trees behind which there is already a patch of blue. Then continuing through a field where as a child, my best friend Rachel and I gathered huge bunches of dandelion clocks and blew on them, watching their seeds scatter to the wind. But nothing prepares you for the mass of blue in the woods, that particularly sublime shade and the most heavenly scent which is more beautiful than any perfume could ever be. I linger in favourite spots with nothing but birdsong to accompany my steps, except the buzzing of insects or the occasional whoosh from the trainline down below.

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But no matter how slowly I go, I’m soon at the edge of the wood and push open a little gate to continue along the path by the trainline. There was a heady smell of May blossom in the sunshine and wild flowers growing by the wall. Dappled light and the fresh green foliage made me think of a painting by Sisley which features on the cover of Alain Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ and I imagine it would have been the perfect spot for him to walk with Yvonne de Galais.

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Retracing my steps to the top of the woods again, I take one last glance, always a little sad to leave but also inspired by the magic of this place which still has so many secrets to discover.

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Finn Family Moomintroll

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Reading my friend Jan’s wonderful article about Snoopy this morning brought back memories of my own love for the Peanuts Gang and other childhood favourites, including the Moomins so I felt inspired to write about them.

Here are some things you should know about the Moomins. Firstly, they were created by Tove Jansson, a Finnish author and artist who wrote in Swedish. Secondly, don’t ever call them hippos – only a complete ignoramus would do that because they’re trolls, obviously. Thirdly, I’m obsessed with them. It all started in the ’80s when the animated stories were shown on children’s TV in what I later realised was an awful dubbed version. Still, to my untrained ears, they were perfect. Stories about the most extraordinary range of characters, each with their own distinctive personalities, going on adventures. I still know all the words to the theme song too. But then I discovered the books and how much richer and better they were. My mother and I read them together at first and then I returned to them time and again myself. Most of all, they reminded me of my own family. They lived in a strange house far away from everyone else like we did. As an only child, I identified strongly with Moomintroll and my reclusiveness and taste for solitude was just like Snufkin’s. My mother is Audrey Hepburnesque and doesn’t look at all like Moominmamma but she frequently wore aprons for baking, always carries her handbag with her and is able to rescue me in self-inflicted chaos. My father with his eccentricities and taste for adventure could only be Moominpappa.

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As I grew up, I somehow lost sight of them until the day I visited a small Moomin exhibition on Mehringdamm in Berlin. As the only adult in a sea of children with colouring books and Moomin toys, an amused guide kindly took me to a small exhibition of photos about Tove Jansson and her life. I learned about her artistic parents, her own journey as an artist, that she had written so many other amazing books, how she and her female companion spent whole summers on a wonderful island on their own every year until the end of their lives. As luck would have it, The Summer and Winter Books along with many of her other novels were published to great acclaim and I devoured them all. At the Iittala store on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin, I discovered Moomin items, even getting the last Moomin limited edition winter mug in stock. Since then, I have been collecting various items with them on – not just china but also bed linen, handbags, T-shirts and toys. My addiction even continued in the UK with the opening of a wonderful Moomin shop on Covent Garden a few years ago. Returning to the Moomin books themselves, I came to realise that these are stories for all ages, full of adventures, good humour but also plenty of dark moments, loneliness and disappointments, rather like life itself. The final Moomin book, Moominvalley in November, is almost unbearably sad and doesn’t feature them at all in fact, only others waiting at their home for them to return some day.

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I use the Moomin china every day but have a special place in my heart for this plate on the left showing Moomintroll eating at the table with his parents. I remember it was called something like ‘Together’ and that I bought it from the Arabia store in Helsinki shortly after my father had died. It reminded me of something that I loved the most – meals with my parents and that nothing would be the same again. Today I still cannot look at it without feeling some sadness but the Moomins also inspire me with their independence, good humour and rebelliousness. I’m already looking forward to the next adventure.

London pride

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I’m always critical of the UK for being poor at certain things other countries do well, such as providing affordable and reliable public transport and producing decent bread. But then again, the tea is superb and the museums not only have amazing collections but are a real pleasure to visit. Never have I been told off for eating a sweet, not carrying my handbag on my arm instead of my shoulder, getting too close to paintings or even just having a camera. There is simply a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy the art.

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The courtyard of the Royal Academy where I called on my way to the NPG.

I’ve been going to the National Portrait Gallery for many years and have lost track of the number of wonderful exhibitions I’ve seen there: Henri Cartier-Bresson, John Singer Sargent, Russian portraits, Man Ray, Giacometti, Audrey Hepburn portraits etc. But I have fewer opportunities to visit the permanent collection which is really a shame because whenever I return there, I realise just how magnificent it is and see how much I still need to discover. There are familiar paintings and photos to visit again, almost like old friends. Perhaps a portrait of a favourite writer or someone I admire, or others where the subject is less important compared to the extraordinary face or the beauty of the fabric. And then you see something new and find it impossible to tear yourself away from that particular room. Needless to say, however much time you spend there, it will never be enough to see everything you want to and there is always a little sadness and frustration upon leaving this wonderful place.

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No visit to London would be complete without refreshments though and I knew I had to return to Maison Bertaux in Soho which I discovered thanks to my friend Jan. This was my second time there and I enjoyed it even more than the last. The staff are lovely – finding you the best table, waiting patiently while you agonise over which cake to choose because there are so many and everything looks amazing. In the end, we chose a wonderful chocolate one as well as some cheesecake and devoured the enormous slices, accompanied by a huge pot of delicious tea. They really were some of the best cakes I’ve ever tasted. My only regret was not having lunch there because the range of quiches was truly mouthwatering.

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At the end of each visit to London, there is a little sadness and regret at not living closer but also the promise I make to return very soon to discover more. And you really can’t ask for anything better than that.

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Some impressions from my walk around Mayfair.

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Dreaming of my future scarf and handbag at Hermès.

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The Burlington Arcade.

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Some Manolo Blahniks.

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At Maison Assouline on Piccadilly.

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Shoes in films

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I have a love hate relationship with shoes. I dream of having a huge collection of ballerina flats, boots of varying heights, heels and sneakers and am conscious that beautiful shoes make all the difference to any outfit. But buying them has always been a nightmare as my own feet are extremely narrow and generally between sizes meaning blisters and wounds are frequent occurrences and the reason why a packet of plasters is my handbag essential most of the year.

Believing that investing in better quality would solve the problem, I once blew a large part of my salary on two pairs of designer shoes from boutiques on Savignyplatz in Berlin. The first were sandal wedges for summer whose straps broke in a very short time and the other pair inflicted such terrible injuries that I was relieved to sell them to someone with slightly smaller feet for a fraction of the price. I don’t recall limping for more than a week after wearing them. Still, I continue to admire beautiful footwear and dream of the perfect shoe. In the meantime, here are some iconic ones from the big screen to discover and revisit. Let me know what your favourites are or if I’ve missed anything important.

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Along with The Wizard of Oz, the most famous shoes in cinematic history are surely those worn by Moira Shearer in the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece, ‘The Red Shoes’. They have a life of their own in the stunning ballet within the film and take on an unbearable poignancy at the end. Jack Cardiff’s magnificent colour photography is probably the greatest of all time.

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Dorothy with her legendary magical red shoes in The Wizard of Oz, one of my childhood favourites.

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Monsieur Hulot with his trademark raincoat and umbrella who leaves footprints everywhere, here leading to an unfortunate misunderstanding in the brilliant ‘Mon Oncle’.

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Marty McFly with his iconic Nikes in ‘Back to the Future II’. Things haven’t developed as the film predicted but these sneakers are still the stuff of dreams.

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Jennifer Grey was my teen idol after I saw her in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and, of course, ‘Dirty Dancing’. I love her white sneakers and envy her dance moves.

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I can’t say too much about the significance of shoes in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ without spoilers, only that you need to watch it if you haven’t done so already and that it teaches us the importance of looking at a man’s shoes.

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Not only does Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly have Givenchy alligator shoes lying around her bedroom, she also has milk and another pair in the fridge.

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Carrie Bradshaw with her Manolo Blahniks. I don’t much care for the Sex and the City films but have a soft spot for the series as it reminds me of good times in the ’90s and watching it secretly in my bedroom late at night.

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In ‘Bringing Up Baby’, one of the greatest comedies of all time, Katharine Hepburn loses her heel and is forced to walk lopsided during yet another calamity which she inflicts on poor hapless Cary Grant. 

Spring past and present

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One of the things I miss the most about living in the city, especially one as green as Berlin, is that element of surprise. My favourite thing has always been to get up very early at the weekend and go out to walk and take pictures. Riding in the S-Bahn, I would often look out of the window and spot a group of trees in blossom, or some lilacs, or particularly beautiful light on a favourite building that would make me rush off at the next station, even if it was nowhere near my planned destination. The light changes by the minute, the sunny morning can turn to rain and dash the blossom so you’re forever chasing shadows and fleeting beauty. Catch joy while it flies. And then there are the markets. I was lucky enough to live close to an amazing one in Charlottenburg on Karl-August-Platz that took over the whole square twice a week. Saturdays were always something special and I would return laden with bags packed with magnificent seasonal fruit and vegetables, bunches of flowers, French cheeses, apple croissant and huge eggs which often had double yolks.

The setting has changed of course, but my habits remain the same, never sleeping for more than 6 hours so I can get up and catch a glimpse of the sunrise which is more and more elusive. Each day, I walk in the garden to make a note of the smallest changes which I’m sure I’ll remember but never do. But I still dream of returning to my favourite cherry trees in the Buergerpark in Pankow and lingering to talk with them for a little while, just like Proust’s narrotor does with the hawthorn blossom.

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Schloss Schoenhausen in Pankow

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At the market on Karl-August-Platz in Charlottenburg

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My place (almost)

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Spring unfolding in the park outside my old building in Pankow

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