Stepping Back in Time

 

Mark and Suzanne at Goose Dinner

A couple of years ago, my husband and one of his friends started began working with a local chef/restaurateur to hold various dinners as part of a “culinary quest” in which they hoped to broaden their palates, as well as the palates of anyone who wanted to join them. First, they held a steak-tasting dinner to answer every grass-fed versus grain-fed, dry-aged versus wet-aged, Wagyu-versus-domestic question they ever had about beef. Later, they embarked on a series of “exotics” in the categories of seafood, wild game, and game birds. After gaining quite a following, they came up with their biggest event yet: a traditional Christmas goose dinner, the likes of which one would find in a Charles Dickens novel. To make it as authentic as possible, they held it at an historic mansion, ordered period costumes for themselves, and engaged the members of the ballroom dance group to which they both belong to choreograph a waltz that would set the stage for an evening of dancing after the meal. (Our ballroom dance teacher was there to teach basic lessons in the waltz and to dj the event.) It took many months to plan but their hard work paid off.  While not everyone dressed in period costume, most people dressed up and the evening had a very nostalgic feel to it. As for me, it was an opportunity to stretch my abilities: though I feel like I have the proverbial “two left feet” when it comes to ballroom dancing, I managed to (mostly) step in time to the choreography of our waltz, while stepping back in time in my voluminous Victorian dress. A friend of ours managed to capture it on video (thanks, Marty!), below.

For more photos , see the Columbus Chapel & Boal Mansion facebook page.

A Video In Which I Cheer on My Rabbit In My Mommy Voice

2018020795111801

Boxer licking his lips after receiving a treat from his friend Rob

It’s been a long while since I posted anything rabbit-y on The Curious Rarebit, so I decided to make a video of Boxer’s morning routine. He is the kind of bunny who prefers petting to exercise. Although he can be quite speedy, and perhaps once a week will run lightning-fast loops through our upstairs bedrooms, most days he is lazy and requires encouragement. Thus, on a daily basis I set up a maze of hidey-boxes and jumps, cheering him on in my best mommy voice, about a half-octave higher than my normal voice. Then after an hour, he scampers off to eat hay and sleep most of the day away, and I pick up all the boxes and restore our bedroom to its normal state. Ah, the things we do for our fur babies!

 

Quite A Year for Coleuses

S7305768

My front stoop, end of summer.

S7305765

If the title of my post sounds familiar, it’s because it’s co-opted from Bailey White’s slyly humorous novel Quite A Year for Plums, a favorite of mine. Given the summer we’ve had of record-breaking rainfall, I thank my lucky stars I didn’t plant as many flowers as I have in the past, since only the coleuses and the ferns (and, surprisingly, the marigolds) flourished. Whenever it wasn’t raining it was time to mow the grass, which took on a sense of urgency. Mow now or miss your chance! One could say that, even more than coleuses, it’s been quite a year for lawns … and mushrooms (especially the kind you can’t eat, that pop up out of the grass the day after you mow it) … and biting insects. Still, this summer was a happy time in which I can easily recount its pleasures. At almost every point of it, I sported a really nice tan, which surprised me; apparently, long walks under cloudy skies have the same effect as long walks under sunny ones. I also got to dance a lot – first, in my favorite, flowy red dress and platform espadrilles at a wedding in Pittsburgh, where the young couple were members of a ballroom dance group that my husband and I belong to, and who held their event at an elegant old mansion situated on the vast lawn of Mellon Park. And again, a week later, at a beautiful rustic lodge near our home, where my niece married the boy she has loved since middle-school, and I celebrated in a cream-colored dress swirled with blue and green roses the color of seaglass. When you get to wear at least a couple breezy dresses and dance at weddings of people you love, then it’s been a good summer. That’s what I remind myself whenever I am wont to complain, because while the weather itself was dreary (and, sadly, in other parts of the East Coast it was more than dreary, it was devastating), the 36 consecutive days I spent in the hospital at the very beginning of this year are still fresh in my mind. Now, more than ever, I realize that a summer of which you can say you spent leisure time with friends and family, sported a tan, and ate fresh cantaloupe – even while waiting out downpours and swatting mosquitoes left and right – is still a pretty good summer.

Dancing the Hora 2

Me (left) dancing the Hora at the wedding of our friends (seated) in August.

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts at Mellon Park

The mansion housing the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, where the wedding was held.

Dancing the Hora at the Wedding

In addition to it being quite a year for coleuses, it was quite a year for beans. Black beans, white beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans – none of which I grew, but which became the focus of what I learned to cook as I made my transition to a whole-food, plant-based diet. Up until this year (up until my cancer bout), I’d always been a meat eater, and while I’d always invested well in purchasing high quality meats and making the time to cook most of our meals from scratch, I quickly learned that eating plants the whole-plant way – which is to say, in a way that largely eliminates refined foodstuffs like flours, sugars and oils – is far more of an investment in both money and time than my former diet was. For one thing, almost everything I buy now is organic, not just produce but things like spices, grains, nuts, seeds, coffee and tea, which makes it close to double the price of non-organic items in a lot of cases. Secondly, obtaining the same amount of calories I got from eating meat requires eating a whole lot more vegetables than I was ever prepared for. I’m constantly running to the store to replenish my salad greens and fresh produce – and making vegetable-based dishes requires lots of prep time: there’s the washing and drying of produce, followed by what seems like an endless amount of chopping for the kinds of recipes I’m learning to make. But ohhh, the food itself? It is yummy, complex, and multi-layered, with curlicues of spice that entwine around the exquisitely fresh taste of simmered and sauteed veggies, which in turn are married to layers of earthy beans, lentils, or grains that lend a satisfying depth to these dishes. There are sauces made with cashews blended to a creamy deliciousness I could have never imagined, as well as garnishes of other nuts and seeds that add a layer of salty crunch to a soup or casserole or curry. Yep, you could say it’s been quite a year for curries, moussakas, stews and other delicious fare at my house, and this is largely due to a vegan blog I found called Rebel Recipes. Niki Webster, whose blog it is, hails from the U.K. but her inspiration largely comes from the Middle East, an area of the world she has frequently visited in her travels. I’ve made so many dishes from her blog – a delicately sweet turnip soup garnished with toasted hazelnuts, a hearty peanut-sweet potato-cauliflower stew, a Levant-style moussaka with chickpeas (my favorite), and a cherry-tomato tart (see my photo below), just to name a few. Niki has an ingenious way with herbs, and though I very rarely make or eat dessert anymore, I did make her recipe for black-bean brownie bites on a night when we were having a friend to dinner and in doing so, reveled in her pairing of dark chocolate with fresh thyme, which she uses as a garnish for the brownies. Her site is so good that one need not be a vegan to appreciate it, and while I don’t know her personally – I’m just a fan – I urge anyone who has a love of soulful, vegetarian food to check Rebel Recipes out.

S7305745

The heirloom tomato tart I made from Rebel Recipes. Niki’s is prettier, go see it!

That’s how my summer went. How about yours? I hope it was good!

 

Even More Happy To Be Here

IMG_2549-001

Me and my niece at her baby shower, May 2018.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve written here – a long period of illness, which included a 36-day hospital stay, kept me from the page, and after that, a period of recovery and a host of fears extended that absence. The last time I wrote in these pages was in January, when I titled my post “So Happy To Be Here,” and explained that I had been diagnosed with gastroparesis (a condition in which one’s stomach is slow to empty), but just when I thought I was getting better, my condition worsened and I found out that my gastroparesis was actually a symptom of something much larger: Cancer. I went into the hospital at the end of January, vomiting to the point that I had to have an NG (nasogastric) tube placed in my stomach – a torture that I would have to endure for most of my month-long stay – and didn’t arrive home until the early part of March, at which point I was still on intravenous feeding. In between those two dates, I endured more things than I care to remember: a nine-day stretch without food of any kind (not even IV nutrition), a feeling of continuously being parched, three separate endoscopies, and a 4-hour surgery that, miraculously, culminated in the successful removal of a cancerous tumor from my small bowel.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Though my surgery couldn’t have gone better, my recovery time didn’t proceed quite as my doctors had anticipated. They had hoped to discharge me a week after surgery, and because I wanted with every fiber of my being to return home, too, I did everything they required of me, and more. I walked laps around the hospital like a champ; I took upwards of 90 deep breaths a day using my spirometer; and I tried to be as independent as possible in navigating myself up and out of bed. The latter required me to detach myself from certain pieces of equipment (a suction pump that evacuated the contents of my stomach into a canister) and to drag along others (an IV pole that rattled from the sheer number of things on it – a feeding pack, various IV bottles containing things like potassium, Tylenol and nausea meds – as well as an epidural pump with a delicate cable that went into my spine and allowed me to administer my own pain medicine for a week after surgery). In regard to being independent, I should note that I’m using that word in the most relative of terms. I did try to do as much as I could on my own, so as not to bother the nurses at every turn, but I was largely able to do so on account of the tremendous support of my family. My husband, mother, and sisters took turns bathing and dressing me each morning, and one of them – usually my husband – always stayed with me overnight, on a small cot in my cramped room. No small sacrifice, considering not only the discomfort of the cot but the number of times they were awakened by either myself or the nurses, who came in to check vitals and IV fluids throughout the course of each night.

In spite of all this – my determination to get well and the amazing support of my family and medical team – my stomach wasn’t ready to “wake up.” It had stopped working before I even went into the hospital, due to the blockage in my small bowel, and after my surgery, despite there no longer being an impediment to its emptying, it didn’t spring into action the way the doctors anticipated. Three days after surgery, my nasogastric tube was removed and I began taking in copious fluids by mouth, which were moving through my system fine. But here is where a small mistake was made: my doctors wanted to quickly advance my diet, and within two days, I went from clear liquids to a  regular diet, with my first meal consisting of a “sloppy joe” sandwich, orange slices, and a variety of other foodstuffs I have since forgotten. I stared at the sloppy joe in disbelief, and if I had followed my gut instincts (no pun intended), I would have refused it and asked them to bring me something easier to digest, like eggs. But I was totally unfamiliar with the hospital’s dietary protocol, and knowing that my doctors wanted me to advance, I did my best to eat it. Naturally, it didn’t digest and a couple days later, on the day they expected to discharge me, I began throwing up to the degree that I had to have the dreaded NG tube forced down my nose and into my stomach again.

Eventually, of course, I came home. There was a point in the hospital where my spirits started to really flag on account of the misery of being on the NG tube, so my medical team devised a new solution. They asked if I wanted to undergo another endoscopy, this time to get a “G-J” tube inserted that would allow me to manually vent my stomach and feed myself directly into my jejunum. I jumped at the chance, and while the procedure was only partially successful (the “J” portion of the tube could not be inserted due to swelling), I arrived home five days later with a G-tube that allowed me to drain my stomach whenever it felt full, and my IV feeding line still in place, now administered by my husband with the help of a home nursing agency. Within two weeks of being home, I made great progress. I went from having to vent my stomach every two to three hours to not having to vent it at all. My stomach started waking up and I was able to drink both clear and full liquids (full liquids are milks and milky kinds of things) and have them pass all the way through my system.

And now, five months later, I am doing well and at an entirely new stage of life. It’s a stage where I take one day at a time, where I have completely revamped my diet (the farthest thing from a soft-food diet for gastroparesis, I am now eating a whole-plant-based vegan diet, essentially the kind of “anti-cancer” diet that is recommended by most nutritionists), and where I have honed my faith. I’m not a church-going person, but I pray a lot these days, especially prayers of gratitude. Along the same lines, I remember how many people prayed for me, how many people cared for me (literally), and how many kept me in their thoughts – so I now do the same in return. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring (due to the nature of cancer, my hospital has me in “surveillance” mode, having me return for a CT scan every three months), but in this moment I am healthy, which means I can help someone else. A friend of mine just had a baby and is feeling a bit wrung out, so on Friday I will go to her house and lend a hand. My niece just had her baby, too, so I will also stop in this week to check on her. It feels good to have these particular things on my to-do list: to know that I will be holding new life in my arms. To be around to see it, when five months ago I wasn’t sure I would.

Me holding Megan's baby

Me with my niece’s baby, July 2018.

[This post is dedicated to my husband, my mother, my sisters and nieces. I owe you everything! Thank you.

And to my doctors and medical team, I owe you my life, and will always be grateful.

As well as to the many friends, relatives, neighbors, and people I didn’t even know who prayed for me. You can’t know how much it means. My love to you, all!]

 

Greetings 2018, So Happy To Be Here!

S7305647-001

Recently, a nurse who was treating me at an emergency clinic said “I hope 2018 is better than 2017 was for you.” Isn’t that the truth! I wanted to say — the last four months of 2017 were very difficult — and she only knew the (medical) half of it.

Last August, a freak windstorm upended a large oak tree in our front yard that glanced the front of our house before it came to its final rest on the top of our 2015 Honda Civic. The car was totaled. A month later our septic system backed up into the downstairs bathroom of our house. We caught it early but ended up having to pay a lot of money for a septic field rejuvenation at a time when we were dealing with the costliness of our tree catastrophe (our homeowners insurance was very good but didn’t cover everything). In between these two events, the electricity kept mysteriously going out in our upstairs bathroom, necessitating three visits from an electrician; Hurricane Irma loomed over Florida and I spent a weekend worrying over my sister and mother, whose homes were under the storm’s direct path and who refused to get out; and to top it all off, my stomach started feeling ill to the point that I wondered if I had an ulcer.

S7305533S7305540S7305567-001

The stomach pain actually began earlier in the summer, a low level gnawing sensation that partially responded to antacids, and when I consulted my doctor in early September she ordered blood panels, ultrasounds, and other tests that all came back normal. She diagnosed me as having gastritis but the proton-pump inhibitor she prescribed proved useless. Near the end of September I had what I’ll call my first “episode”: sick with nausea and a distended stomach, I lay flat on the couch and fasted for two days in order to be well enough to attend my niece’s wedding (I wasn’t going to miss that wedding for anything!).  Afterwards, when the nausea was gone and I was ravenous to the point that I attempted to eat a normal meal, the pain came raging back and I emailed my doctor to request another test. In the meantime, fearing I was having a gallbladder attack or pancreatitis, I also went out and bought digestive enzymes from the health store. Wow, instant relief!  A couple days later, I relayed the good news to my doctor that the enzymes had solved my problem. “Great!” she replied, and for weeks I thought so too, but a month later the pain returned worse than ever. In November, I spent four weekends in a row at the ER with nausea and vomiting.

Finally, in December, an endoscopy and a battery of other tests provided a definitive diagnosis — Gastroparesis — a disorder whereby the stomach is abnormally slow to empty, worsened by the fact that I also had a “bezoar,” a ball of undigested food in my gut. “It’s like carrying around a brick in your stomach,” said the gastroenterologist who is now treating me for this condition and who has had me on a no-fiber diet for more than a month. I don’t know how long I’ll have to be on it, because some people have gastroparesis forever and some people eventually recover from it, but for the time being I can’t eat any of the foods I used to eat so much of (vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and legumes). As unhealthy as this seems, it’s working. I miss eating salads and blueberry smoothies, but most days my body feels more normal than it has in ages.

Which brings up a good point: there were, in fact, silver linings to most of 2017’s dark clouds. When our car was totaled by the oak tree, we ended up getting the car I have wanted most of my adult life: a new Subaru Forester. (Shhh. Don’t tell me it’s not sexy! I love its boxy interior, its windows designed for great visibility, and its high SUV seating, not to mention its all-wheel drive.)

We also ended up with a better looking front yard, because the tree that fell once had a twin — an adjacent tree that once matched it in height, but which had shown signs of ailing years before and thus been chopped down to a stump — and they didn’t look right together, the tall tree beside the stump. Now there is just the stump by itself, surrounded by daylily plants that were salvaged from the mess by a landscaper (hired because our yard was a series of ruts and gaping holes from the fallen oak), and looking all the more natural for its loneness.

And, getting the house fixed required me to step up to the plate and be more assertive. Autumn was in full swing and three contractors had turned me down, so I solicited an Amish gentleman from the street, more or less. I didn’t know him from Adam when I spied him working at the Methodist church up the road from me and pulled my car into the parking lot to explain my predicament. Everyone else had said they were “full up for the season” and I surmised there would be a good chance he’d say the same, but to my delight he came right away to assess the damage and give me an estimate. Amish builders are known for having a great work ethic, and Crist (his name) proved this to be the case. He was one of the most polite, professional, and personable workers I have ever met. He and his helper re-shingled the front roof of our house the day before Halloween, in weather so cold and gusty most people wouldn’t leave the house to walk their dog in that air.

The rough patch my husband and I went through in 2017 wasn’t earth shattering, but its back-to-back calamities over a short period of time nevertheless left me with a “What’s going to happen next?” feeling of anxiety. Acknowledging the silver linings is my way of reminding myself that the nature of life is fluid: things we consider good and bad ebb and flow into our lives on a day-by-day basis, and a lot of good things (especially those that fall under the label of “help”) eased my life at this time. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I’ll admit that the most important one was in realizing just how much my husband and family care for me. When I was so very ill during those four weeks in November, my husband drove me to the hospital in the wee hours of the morning, groggy from sleep yet never complaining, and stayed long hours in the emergency room massaging my feet and legs while I received fluids and nausea medicine through an IV. My mom and sisters checked in with me daily to monitor how I was doing and to express their love. My two nieces, who both work in the medical field, called me with pep talks and advice and concern in their young voices. I’m not sure why all of this surprised me, but it did. In some ways, I think being sick opened a window that allowed me to realize how profoundly I am loved.

Do calamities play a role in helping us move forward? That’s a hard question to answer, especially when I think of people who have had to deal with the really tough stuff. But as for smaller calamities, even though I wouldn’t want a repeat of any of the ones I went through I do think they brought some clarity into my life. Help is always at hand; you can fix most things that are broken and might even wind up with something better than before; and love is deeper than you think. That’s what became clear to me at the end of 2017, even if it took awhile for me to see it.

And even when life has lots of clouds there are usually sunny breaks in between them. Amid my late-2017 calamities, there were periods of normalcy where I breathed easily and became enamored with new projects. The repair of our yard inspired me to improve the area in front of my picture window — an area that by the end of every summer looks like a shaggy mess of overrun bishop’s weed. In early October I spent three days digging up almost everything that grew in its compacted clay soil, laying down a heavy “rock-cloth” barrier that I covered with pea gravel to prevent plant growth, and installing three strips of recycled bricks in a herringbone pattern to make it look as if the remains of a masonry path are peeking through. After much consideration of how to fill in this now barren space over the winter, I added three garden spheres and a couple of carefully-potted boxwoods. Come spring, I’ll move the boxwoods to a sunnier locale and bring in big potted ferns and other shade-loving potted plants to bring greenery and fullness to this spot.S7305616

Even when I was sick, I continued to make stuff. Holiday meals for my family, a winter container for my front stoop, and a hand cream for me and my sister. Naturally, I’m looking forward to making more things in 2018, but one thing I won’t be making is New Year resolutions. I used to make them, but now I figure, who needs them? If 2017 taught me anything, it’s that in the thick of life there is always enough to do and more than a few things to figure out.

A Green-Floral Beauty with a Classic Soul: Puredistance WARSZAWA Perfume

enrico-carcasci-236917-001

In the mere ten years of its existence, Netherlands-based perfume company Puredistance has produced some knock-out perfumes. Over the years, I’ve purchased flacons of AntoniaWhite, and Sheiduna, and have often considered a purchase of their masculine-leaning scent, M. While my favorite perfume in their collection remains the green-floral scent Antonia (its herbal beauty reminds me of the original, ’70s version of Herbal Essences shampoo, and that is no trite comparison), the company’s latest offering, WARSZAWA (pronounced var-SHAV-uh) is another dazzling green-floral that is likely to win over many a jaded heart in the perfume community. Particularly those who lament the passing of a specific genre of vintage perfumes known as chypres. Before I go further, let me be clear: technically, Warszawa is not a chypre — there is no cistus labdanum or oak moss listed among its notes. However, neither is Chanel No. 19, which often gets labeled as a chypre by perfume lovers for the same reasons that Warszawa likely will, too. These similar-spirited beauties smell mossy, sophisticated and every bit as fine-boned and feline as they do rich. To my nose, there is a fabulous contradiction inherent in the makeup of chypre perfumes: they possess an assured richness which gives them great presence, yet their mossy nature imparts an airy sense of refinement and movement that dispels any sense of dense weight. Whereas the amber-oriental genre of perfumes offers up the cushiony “Baby got back” scents of the world, chypres are the fragrances with arresting bone structure. Speaking of which . . .

“If you care for classic feminine beauty, Puredistance WARSZAWA will unveil a dreamy world of old-time chic,” says the company in its promotional materials for this scent, and this is one of those rare times when I am in complete nodding agreement with every word. Jan Ewoud Vos, the owner of Puredistance and the person who creatively oversees the development of each perfume, worked with French perfumer Antoine Lie to create a fragrance that pays homage to the city of Warsaw, Poland, and to the fashionable and gracious women he encountered on his travels there. Vos was particularly inspired by the relationship he has developed in recent years with the Missala family of Perfumeria Quality Missala (they own boutiques in several cities in Poland and are the exclusive retailer of Puresdistance in that country), and in particular with the family’s matriarch, Stanislawa Missala, who invited him into their home to share lavish lunches she prepared during his business visits there. Her warmth, beauty and style reminded him of the elegance of pre-war Warsaw he had observed in old pictures, and this connection became the inspiration for Warszawa, a perfume with a distinctly vintage sensibility. Vos underscored his tribute by limiting the availability of Warszawa to the country of Poland for its entire first year of existence — a decision I find impressive. When you’re the owner of a small and relatively young company, intent on delivering a luxury experience to your customers and making the kind of studied choices that such a stance dictates, launching a new perfume is no small undertaking. Considering how swoon-worthy Warszawa is, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were moments when Vos might have been tempted to unwrap it, so to speak, to the rest of the world, but true to his promise he waited a full year before launching it globally, and only now is it available for sale at the Puredistance headquarters and web-store in the Netherlands.

Missala Family-001

The first day I tested Warszawa (it’s spelled in all capital letters, but I’m going to use upper and lower case), I got very excited because it reminds me of some truly classic and iconic perfumes: namely, the vintage versions of Hermes Caleche, Chanel No, 19, and Estee Lauder Private Collection; the long discontinued Coty Chypre and Deneuve (the fragrance that actor and perfume lover Catherine Deneuve created for Avon); and Frederic Malle’s Le Parfum de Therese, a more recent perfume that, nevertheless, was composed in the 50s by the late-great perfumer Edmond Roudnitska, and which recalls his classic fruity-chypre perfume Diorella (for French fashion house Christian Dior). Perfumes like these aren’t being made much today because, on one hand, popular tastes have changed and fragrance is generally targeted towards a younger demographic that seems to have a predilection for sweeter fragrances (from Thierry Mugler’s Angel, to Viktor & Rolf’s Flowerbomb, to Prada Candy, there’s been a bent towards confectionery fragrances in the mainstream sector, while in the niche sector, a 180-degree retort to these sweet perfumes has resulted in a preponderance of oud-based scents). On the other hand, even if chypre scents were still in vogue, they could not be composed the way they once were, given the sobering restrictions on perfume ingredients that have been imposed by the International Fragrance Association (the self-regulating body of the perfume industry). So, when one encounters a perfume like Warszawa, a fragrance that by some perfume magic manages to smell like an oakmossy chypre of yore, when no such note is present — a fragrance with a jasmine accord as luminous as the floral accord at the heart of Hermes Caleche, but also as fruited and seductive as the florals at the heart of a fragrance like Le Parfum de Therese — then one has come upon something very special indeed.

Warszawa’s list of ingredients include galbanum, grapefruit, violet leaf, jasmine absolute, broom absolute, orris butter, patchouli, vetiver and styrax. It goes on the skin smelling sveltely green and sparkling, thanks to the combination of its green and citrusy top notes that have an uplifting, aldehydic expression in the early stages of this perfume’s long wear time. There is also a delicate sweetness at this stage, such that Warszawa isn’t as herbal or as grassy green as its notes might lead one to believe, but a more chiffon-like “shade” of green. And then, fifteen minutes into its wear, the floral notes emerge and the effect can be likened to a ripening of the scent. The jasmine absolute at the heart of the fragrance is not sweet and lilting, but a rich, stone-fruited aroma that has shades of plum and peach about it. The assertion of the jasmine over the greens changes them, rendering them mossy, although this effect is likely also achieved by way of the broom absolute — an aromatic which reportedly smells like a combination of hay, honey, tea, white florals and leather. By whatever means it is achieved, the melding of the perfume’s green notes with its fruited-floral heart deepens the greens, and Warszawa overall becomes more velvety. One would not smell Warszawa at this stage and think of a spring lawn or something sprightly; one smells it and can’t help but have a more visceral reaction. Personified, this perfume is a young Lady Constance Chatterley (D.H. Lawrence’s famous heroine).  Sensual, sexual, yes — but also a lady, and a thinking one at that (“well-to-do intelligentsia” is how the novel describes her). I say this because, to my mind, Warszawa strikes a balance between intellect and sensuality; between cosmopolitan elegance and earthiness. Its smart green elements keep the composition reined in and composed, while its fruited-floral heart symbolizes all things feminine and womanly.  Each element keeps the other in check, such that the greens never become astringently cerebral, nor the florals flagrantly wanton.

There is a quote by the famous perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena about Hermes Caleche (a perfume not created by him, but one he obviously admired), in which he refers to it as “the essence of classicism. Seduction through the beauty of the soul.” I think this quote quite rightly describes chypre perfumes as a whole: they are perfumes that speak of intelligence married to a deep, corporal awareness. Regardless of whether it can be labeled a modern-day chypre or not, Warszawa fits that description, too. There’s a reason this green-floral beauty reminded me of an esteemed group of classic perfumes from the first moment I wore it, and it’s not because Warszawa smells identical to any one of these great perfumes, but because it mirrors the spirit, complexion and temperament of all of them.

Puredistance Warszawa 60 ml-001

Puredistance WARSZAWA has notes of galbanum, grapefruit, violet leaf, jasmine absolute, broom absolute, orris butter, patchouli, vetiver and styrax. It is a perfume extrait, with a 25% concentration of perfume oils, and is now available for purchase from the Puredistance website, where a 17.5 ml flask is priced at € 175.00 (price is in euros), with larger bottles also available (pictured above is the 60-ml bottle).


I’m assuming that it will join the line of Puredistance fragrances available in the United States at LuckyScent.com, but as of this writing it’s not available there yet)

My review is based on a small spray vial of Warszawa that I received from the company.

Puredistance Warszawa-001

Image credits: Photo of woman in white dress, top of page, is by Enrico Carcasci of Florence, Italy, and can be found at Unsplash.com. (“Beautiful, free photos. Gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers,” is how they describe their site, and justifiably so.)

Photo of the Missala family is by Jan Ewoud Vos, the owner of Puredistance, and the images of the Warszawa perfume bottle and promotional art work are from the Puredistance company.

Interested in reading more of my perfume reviews? Please visit my other site, Suzanne’s Perfume Journal, where I have reviewed close to 300 different perfumes.

A Little Art History: Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone

1161px-Starry_Night_Over_the_Rhone

Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent Van Gogh, completed in Arles, France, in September 1888. Oil on canvas. (From the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.)  Image of the painting is from Wikipedia.

If I had to name one, and only one, painting in the world that takes my breath away each time I see it, it would be Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone, the lesser known of his “starry night” paintings, painted in September 1888. Later, in June 1889, he would paint The Starry Night, the one he is famous for, similar in color but vastly different in tenor — a night sky painted shortly after the artist voluntarily committed himself to a mental institution in southern France and which, it has often been suggested, reflects the artist’s troubled mind with its brushstrokes that undulate, spiral, and seem to pulse with emotion. Whether that is a fair assessment, I’m not sure (who are we to say with any certainty whether the artist’s mindset was troubled or lucid in the moments when he was creating), but what is true in viewing The Starry Night is the feeling of an artist consumed by his subject — there is something almost manic in its expression — whereas when viewing his earlier canvas, Starry Night Over the Rhone, one is overcome by the very hush of this work: the exquisite sense of wonder and beguilement. Starry Night Over the Rhone is a romantic work, by which I mean that it speaks of Van Gogh’s romance with the town of Arles, in the French countryside, where he had arrived from Paris just seven months prior. In Arles, he fell in love with the land, its colors, and the quality of light that southern France is known for, and in the short time he lived there (a little over a year) he completed 200 paintings and more than 100 drawings and watercolors. His inclusion of a man and woman strolling in the foreground of Starry Night Over the Rhone underscores its romantic air, but that they appear so small against the night sky which both envelopes and eclipses them is even more telling of the kind of enchantment Van Gogh was under.

“I need a starry night with cypresses or maybe above a field of ripe wheat,” the artist wrote to his brother Theo in April 1888, and subsequent letters to others reveal that it was an occupying thought. Writing to the painter Emile Bernard in June, he mused, “But when shall I ever paint the Starry Sky, this painting that keeps haunting me?” — and in a letter to his sister sent in September, around the time he painted Starry Night Over the Rhone, he said, “Often it seems to me night is even more richly coloured than day,” This sentiment, articulated verbally and then given fullest expression in a painting of the most vivid blues imaginable — ultramarine, Prussian blue, cobalt — is the siren song that continually draws me to this work. It reminds me of the twilight blues in my own part of the world, so intimately felt in late summer and autumn when the atmosphere is less humid. Skies that are rich oceans unto themselves with their push-pull magnetism: first a suede-like expanse of dusky blue upon which the stars slowly, softly wink, so unhurried they make you wait and practically count them; then a period of absorption when the sky seems to fold into itself, deepening to indigo and finally to black, propelling the stars forward in quickening fashion until they are infinite and crisp in their brilliancy, appearing everywhere, all at once.

Van Gogh was facing the southwest when he painted this nighttime scene of Arles’ waterfront, yet he painted the Big Dipper (or the Great Bear, as he referred to it), a northern constellation, into this scene. Taking this kind of artistic license with his subject makes perfect sense to me: it accentuates the romantic mood of the work, as almost anyone who has ever looked at the night sky can identify the Big Dipper and most of us take joy in seeing it. It’s such a full constellation – the constellation that most imparts a feeling of grandeur; that it’s also universally recognizable makes me think Van Gogh understood that hanging these northern stars over the southern panorama would make the viewer feel included in the scene — part of the wide world and its mysterious cosmos — rather than someone standing separate and apart from it. I can think of a great many paintings and artworks which leave the viewer feeling like a bit of an outsider, often for valid and understandable reasons, such as works done as private commissions and those done as studies (neither of which were intended for a greater audience), as well as works intended as political statements, or enigmas, by artists who wanted to make us think a little harder. Some of them are masterpieces and some I have enjoyed quite a bit, but for the most part they aren’t works that move me. Starry Night Over the Rhone not only moves me, it sweeps me off my feet. An artist who can create something that feels so intimate and, at the same time, so universally understood is an artist who has achieved the sublime.

Van Gogh’s life, on the other hand, as everyone knows, was not sublime. He had wanted to start an artist colony in Arles – it was a place he wanted to share with others – and for a brief time he did share it with the renowned artist Paul Gauguin. Alas, the two men fought, indulged their vices at the local brothels, and in a final confrontation, the already emotionally troubled Van Gogh cut off a portion of his own ear with a razor (the entire outer ear or the lobe, depending on the source), scaring Gauguin back  to Paris. After voluntarily committing himself to a mental institution in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, he would eventually paint The Starry Night, the version that became his most famous canvas. In this version, the artist seems no longer separate from his subject, beholding it from afar in a romantic way, but frenziedly immersed in it — almost as if he has been become one with the night sky. A year after painting it, Van Gogh died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 37. According to his brother Theo, his last words were “The sadness will last forever.”

I would like to think that somewhere in the deep chemistry of the universe an awareness has reached him of the considerable beauty he created, that is undying and will last forever, too.

800px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, completed in Saint-Rémy, France, in June 1889. Oil on canvas. (From the permanent collection of the  Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA.)  Image of the painting is from Wikipedia.

 

 

The Best Part of Summer…

S7305426

… is planting flowers and watching them grow. I got a late start this year, but this is how my yard is shaping up so far.

Flowers July 3 2017S7305419S7305468S7305465-001Collages12S7305430

My yard is so shady that to get much color in it, I rely on annuals. Maybe I should rethink that, though, as the flowers that seem to do best are my perennial daylilies and rose campions, both of which bloom profusely and require little care. Plus they more or less reflect the wild, blowsy nature of my yard which, despite the fact that it isn’t as well-manicured as I’d like it to be, is still much loved. I’m in heaven when I’m outside lying on the lawn reading a book or just watching the birds. It’s the best part of summer for me — what is yours?

 

Boxer Gets His Portrait Drawn

Lia's Drawing of Boxer

My next door neighbor has enjoyed seeing Boxer recently in his outdoor playpen, and she came running over one day to present me with this picture she drew of him. The computer scan doesn’t quite do it justice. She did a beautiful job capturing the delicate pink inside of his ears, and I like that she portrayed him as he is — an adult rabbit, not a teensy little bunny.  Thank you, Lia!

S7304717

 

 

Outside My Window

S7305374-002

Our weather in central Pennsylvania has veered toward the gloomy in the last week of May, and under the canopy of the newly-leafed oak trees that tower over my yard and those of my neighbors, my house feels too cool and grey for my tastes. Everything inside feels too “close” to me, if that makes any sense. But outside my picture window, the blooms on my rhododendron have held me transfixed: for the second year in a row, the blooms are big and floaty in a way they never were before in the twenty-some years I’ve lived here. I attribute the change to a happy accident — an overzealous pruning I did back in August of 2015, when at the end of summer, everything in my yard struck me as too shaggy. I have no idea how to prune things properly — I find that when I’m in the mood to lop off excessive growth, I’m too impatient to research what rules one should follow. I just start hacking away. And that summer I knocked off numerous branches from pine trees before uprooting (or so I thought) every strand of bishop’s weed, hosta, and wild grapevine from the bed in front of my picture window before stopping short in front of the rhododendron. I had never felt any love for this gigantic bush: it wasn’t something I had planted — like every other plant in this unruly bed, it came with the house, and after so many years, it looked like it was intent on swallowing the house. I hated its shapeless, shaggy mass of leaves so I just started lopping and trimming the hell out of it, taking away most of its bottom branches, until it looked like a small tree. I liked the shape of it much better — it had a visible trunk (not like a normal tree has, but its two main branches twisted together to somewhat resemble a trunk) and a round, lollipop mound of leaves on top that looked quite attractive after they were liberated. I had no idea whether this rhododendron would ever bloom again, but at that point in time I didn’t care. The new silhouette was becoming and gave the bed a sense of definition.

By the following spring , I think every hosta, grapevine, and bishop’s weed came back double-fold to the bed I had so carefully razed and mulched and replanted in coral bells. But the rhododendron? For the first time in my life, this shrub that is so common to yards across the northeast United States became something new and beautiful to my eye. Its blooms were huge, buoyant, and, at the same time, graceful. Pruning them to the extreme that I did imparted airiness that allowed the blooms to look distinct rather than a wookie-like tangle of cotton-candy flowers and overgrown vegetation.  When this year’s flowers are finished blooming, I will prune it again (I didn’t touch it last year) as it is already starting to acquire a bushy amount of new growth.

As I mentioned before, this was a happy accident, and I don’t intend to sound like an expert, because I’m very obviously not.  However, I felt compelled to write about it as a reminder that it’s sometimes worthwhile to take a big risk in the garden. If this rhododendron had died, I would have been left with a big hole in that space that I would have had to replace, but the risk seemed worth taking since I had grown to resent this plant. And in this case, manicuring a shrub that most people (where I live) tend to leave in its wild state turned out to be a good move for me, giving me more control over my garden space and making me see the plant in a whole new light.

S7305392

Photos: my own.