Making (It) Up as You Go Along

AN ALERT & AN APOLOGY: This is, primarily, for the ladies. The text, I hope, applies to everyone, but I’m afraid the videos don’t. Most of them are based on white skin; I wish had sources for everyone. I’m really sorry. If you know of some good sources, please let me know immediately and I will include in my next post! Thank you.

Getting older is the oddest experience. As human beings, we advance by sort of intuitively following the scientific method. We ask questions, we posit hypotheses, we create experiments, we observe what happens during said experiments and we adjust them and/or our hypotheses until we see that we’re hitting on some sort of serviceable truth. As you age, you yourself are often the object of the experiment, and you have no choice but sit back and observe what Nature has in store…

Ten years ago, I had the great privilege of creating a book with an amazing writer and friend named Janet Champ. Entitled Ripe*, it’s about menopause and aging in a youth-obsessed society. It grew out of a freelance project we’d taken, but it rapidly evolved into an independent project. Pondering day-in-day-out with Janet the realities of the Hill as she liked to call it, I convinced myself that I was probably perimenopausal myself. I did feel a bit odd, and my cycle seemed a wee bit “off.” Turned out I was pregnant. Oh well. Hormones are tricky that way. But the point is this: I didn’t really know what it would feel like to be menopausal. I was all for bringing it out in the open; I just lacked any personal experience of it.

Part of our research was a survey we circulated amongst friends. One of my dearest life-long galpals, Anna, who used to follow this blog but died November 26 after a tough, sad fight with ovarian cancer, wrote in response to our questions that, no, she didn’t want to seem vain or superficial, but she just could NOT get used to the appearance of her outer self not syncing up with how she felt and envisioned herself in her mind’s eye. I now know what she meant.

“Menopause Make-up: Tips for A Natural Day Look.”
This video is entertaining simply for the open chat that takes place
between the makeup artist and her subject.

I remember first noticing age in my face around 35 or 36. Leaning into the mirror I saw, with a slight shiver, something I’d never seen before. A line or shifting. I don’t remember now exactly what I saw, but I remember my reaction: that is indelible. But, for quite a few years these “surprises” still belonged to the category of “enhancements,” signs of maturation that makes you look seriously womanly. A force to be reckoned with, not to be trifled with. And I continued to not really care.

After both my children were born and bouncing gaily into the roundness of their pre-school and elementary years, the heavy stuff of life (a.k.a. the shit) began to happen—the death of a parent, serious and/or fatal illnesses in dear friends, mysterious diseases in my husband and child both of which turned out to be blessedly curable after long periods of uncertainty and fear. These events made their marks, leaving signs of age that really changed the way I looked. Changed my symmetry inside and out. Changed my general demeanor (though it has largely bounced back thanks to those twin human traits of resilience and forgetfulness). Most shockingly, I noticed that my eyes looked different. A bit sadder. A bit warier. A bit more prone to show fear. Tired.

“Puffiness & Bags Under the Eyes: Causes & Treatments.”
What’s that she says about drinking more water?

It’s not a fetching look. But it happens. So there we are. We bounce back on the inside, regaining at least some semblance of our youthful joie de vivre, but then, uh oh, wait, who’s that person in the mirror who seems to lack it? She didn’t bounce back! She didn’t boomerang? How dare she not?

My response to this shift in reality was to ignore it. I figured that beauty on the inside would acrue to beauty on the outside. Serenity, good health, a sense of humor, blah blah blah would make me radiant despite all that ugly stuff. And besides, I wouldn’t really care. If I felt good and healthy, who cared how my face looked?

“Glowing, Youthful Makeup for Mature Skin.”
This woman is loaded with wrinkles,
but look how gorgeous she is with and without makeup?

First of all, serenity, good health and a sense of humor don’t stop a clock. (It bears mentioning, too, that I’m not always as serene and good-humored as I’d like to think.) Second, I cared more than I thought I would care. Like my friend Anna, it began to bother me that the outside didn’t seem to belong to the inside. It began to bother me that what started out as a concerted effort to “rise above it” became an invisible slide into a sort of giving-up. And giving up doesn’t look very good. It looks about as good as a comfy old, grey, slouchy sweater. (And come to think of it, I own quite a few of those.)

Somewhere along the line I just didn’t care enough…I don’t know if it happened with the crazed multi-tasking life of the modern, working mother. But I want to care again. I don’t want to turn back the clock, or become the painted laughing stock of the neighborhood. I just want to care enough…about myself.

My skin, thanks to genetics, has fared pretty well. But I need to pay attention to it. I need to give it and all the other parts of me fresh veg and fruits. I need to exercise religiously to keep all parts of the engine in decent working order (mostly the mood). I need to hydrate hydrate hydrate. (And I don’t like to drink water!)

“Anti-Aging Tips: Eyes, Brows & Lips.”
The point here is to not let yourself become invisible
which is sometimes tempting, I find.

But I also want to look good. I want to look something like the way I feel. I want there to be “lightness” on the outside. A message that I care about myself. An accentuation of the positive.  I want my children to feel encouraged by the way I look, knowing that their Mum has as much energy as they do, and that their own female futures don’t necessarily spell  D-R-A-B. I want my husband to be greeted with a face that doesn’t look tired of it all. I don’t think I’m a candidate for plastic surgery. It is just not my thing. No surgery is. But I would like to at least have a vague idea about how to apply makeup to this face of mine. And to be honest, I’ve completely forgotten how. What used to work, doesn’t anymore. 

I have, however, finally found someone who—I think—has a real clue about it all. Her name is Lisa Eldridge. She’s a serious British make-up artist, and she offers instructive advice about how to deal with everything from teenage acne to “The Menopause,” as she calls it. (I love that British “the” tacked on. It makes it sound like the name of an ocean liner. “Lovely lady…she’s taken off for an extended journey on The SS Menopause.”)

“Ultimate Beautifying Makeup that Suits Just About Everyone.”
I’ll try this next time I have to go to a wedding.

So here she is, scattered throughout this post, demonstrating how to make-up all sorts of faces. She’s respectful of all phases of a woman’s life. She’s knowledgable and she’s thorough. She’s often a bit more heavy-handed than I would be,and I could never afford to use each and every product she recommends, but there are some principles in there that can be applied with products we can all afford in a way that feels right to us.

In the days when I supervised lots of TV and photoshoots, I used to love watching the makeup artists. Their craft isn’t about tastelessly slathering on pastes and goos. It’s about approaching the subject with a respectful love and bring out the beauty that is theirs naturally. They dab and massage, mix colors carefully, observe and transform. In their free time, they used to make us up, and I never walked away from those appreciative eyes and those tenderly dabbing fingers without feeling more beautiful.

I guess that’s what’s at the heart of this. Learning to look at ourselves with loving, caring appreciative eyes. So much easier said than done. I’d love to hear how all of you have faced your own aging processes. What your beauty regimens consist of. How you protect your skin. If you were makeup. And if you do, what? Any tips? Secrets? Please let us know. We are all in this together. And if you’re anything like me, you find it easier to appreciate other women’s beauty than your own. So being some of the “other women” in my life, I’d love to hear from you.

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*Isn’t that funny? You can get a used copy of RIPE from Amazon for 1 cent. (I guess that’s what they mean when they tell writers not to quit their day jobs.)  I also have many new copies at home that I’d be happy to give you if you’ll pay for the postage from Italy. Let me know.

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Look back. Go back.

The Fisherman always says—so I assume it’s an Italian saying although it might just be his—“Look back. Go back.” He means, if you practice the ritual of looking back as you’re leaving a place you love, you will be there again.

Raised on heavy doses of Greek Mythology, I can’t help but think of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and I wonder if maybe he hasn’t gotten his own much more rigorous classical training confused. (He’s a son of the ex-Roman empire for God’s sake. They take their classic literature and its antecedents very seriously.) Or maybe he’s just ignoring it.

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Orpheus and Eurydice, by George Frederick Watts

If you don’t remember the story of the lovers tragically separated on the day of their wedding, let me, well actually Wikipedia, refresh your memory (the underlining is mine):

In her efforts to escape [a] satyr, Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and suffered a fatal bite on her heel. Her body was discovered by Orpheus who, overcome with grief… travelled to the underworld and… softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone…who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.

It seems then, that at least in literary terms, looking back is a no-no. It prohibits you from moving successfully into your own future. Ditto in real life, I’d say. Unless you can look back with a non-longing remove, the past is likely to lure you out of the fullness of your own present tense. I have a hard time with this, personally. The past is so easy to embroider, simplify and quite frankly rewrite. You can remember events unwinding with a seductive perfection that didn’t actually exist at all. Looking back is dangerous enough; doing it with rose-colored glasses is calamitous and addictive.

But back to the Fisherman’s good-bye ritual. So strong is his conviction that no ill will befall us as a result of the over-the-shoulder glance, we all look back intently until what we’re leaving vanishes out of view—around a corner or beneath cloud cover, depending on our mode of transportation.

LOOK BACK

Saturday we said goodbye to France. I bid a heart-heavy “until next time” to every single object in the house that I love. Dark corners, emptied drawers, the bathroom mirror, the antlers with the mistletoe, the spider by the door. And then, outside, to the ramshackle potting bench I built two summers ago, the compost pile and the wintering plants. Personal goodbyes doled out silently, wordlessly along with those pregnant glances that beg each and every thing to “stay safe.”

We packed into the car, lugging our last items, and we looked—back. At the house. At the gate. At the rain falling. And then it was all of Burgundy diminishing into a rear-view mirror until next time and me hoping that my Fisherman was right. There is something powerful in believing—hoping—something so strongly that eventually you know it will happen as you foresee it.

Forty minutes down the road, we remembered that we’d forgotten to shut off the gas in the house. We turned around and went back—wish fulfilled in the way we least expected it.

It was a long day.

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A presto.

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Well Hung

Remember that scene in Mommy Dearest, when the Joan Crawford character is screaming at her daughter about wire coat hangers and how much she can’t stand them? Edited, it basically goes like this: “No… wire… hangers! … What’re wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you: no wire hangers EVER!? … Wire hangers, why? Why?”

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I confess: I too hate wire hangers. But I didn’t realize how much I hated them until I found about 20 old wooden ones in the barn before we restructured it. Beautiful. Simple. Perfect. Like the classic yellow number 2 pencil. Or the unbeatable wooden clothes pin. Functional. Built to last. Pleasing.

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They even tell stories in beautiful typography. Once upon a time…a dress in a Paris boutique hung here. Once upon a time…a shirt was laundered and pressed in the Netherlands. “Like new,” in two languages. A bilingual coat-hanger. If only they could really speak.

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The stories would be rich, murmured in French, Dutch and English. Tales of hard-trodden sidewalks and hours in the office. Night flights on PAN-AM tucked inside leather luggage alongside romance novels and fire engine red lipstick. Sequins spelling disaster on a rainy night. Shoulder pads in, shoulder pads out, the decades pressing on. And yet, what were they doing in a barn? Abandoned to a life of cobwebby country living, until rediscovered by a hectic family of four with a particularly appreciative mother. No…more…wire…hangers!

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Fisherman’s Wife (or, Why I can say “Pike” in Three Languages).

I am married to a fisherman. In some households that constitutes widowhood: a spouse abandoned, while the other stands next to a stream or river or sea. I’m most usually only a Sunday widow. But it’s OK in the extreme. When he’s happy, I’m happy. And fishing makes him deeply happy in a way that I can’t. Marriage comes to this: making space for those things that fulfill the other. No?

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I can’t say that I share his passion for fishing in the same hands-on way. I don’t. But I do love fishing from a philosophical distance. I admire and deeply respect it as a pass-time. Any activity that requires sustained stillness, patience, observation, instinct, and an abiding love of nature speaks to my heart. Any love that brings out the best in you, allows you to be no one but yourself, and seduces you away from the lures of modern, technological life and consumerism wins it.

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Have you heard of Paul Quinnett? He’s a psychologist and avid fisherman who writes books about both psychology and fishing. (Pavlov’s Trout: The Incompleat Psychology of Everyday Fishing, Darwin’s Bass: The Evolutionary Psychology of Fishing Man and Fishing Lessons). He is too quotable for me to limit him to a line or two here. But perhaps the line he’s chosen to introduce his book, is a more than adequate starter. You can imagine where it goes from here:

Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing
it is not fish they are after.     —Henry David Thoreau

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This is no doubt true. My husband is a catch-and-release fisherman only. He brings nothing home but a mysteriously nourished peace of mind. And that being the case, there’s no protest I can offer that really stands up. When I “nag” at him about fishing, what’s really bothering me is not his absence. It’s that I have nothing in my own life that gives me precisely that satisfaction, and for the same combination of reasons. When he fishes, he’s “gone.” Do you know what I mean? Gone. Away. On his own. In a meditative state of release.

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Our house is full of fishing books and magazines. Carved primitive fishes from barrier islands and third world countries. Fishing paintings and prints from God knows when or where. An antique German print I bought on Third Avenue in NYC. Fish my children painted him for his birthday before they could speak properly. Indonesian “secret message” fish. Sugar spoons shaped like fish. Bottle openers with scales and tales. Fish-adorned porcelain and plates collected at vide-greniers scattered around Burgundy. Mounted, antique pikes. Fishing rods. Reels. Bait, new and antique.

Don’t tell him I said this, but I rather love it.  The paraphernalia. The stuff. The years of collected knowledge. I feel at home with this other love of his, even if I envy her even-keeled temper and her steadily seductive ways. Maybe, as many women manage to do, I will actually become best friends with her. Maybe, I’ll pick up a rod one of these days and see what the love is really all about. Until then, I’ll watch and love fishing from afar.

fishing wife

 

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If We Are What We Eat

I confessed to a good friend of mine just yesterday that I felt stuck, lacking direction and waiting rather impatiently for my personal fog to clear. She gave me the best advice a girl could give: to enjoy the fog and find my inspiration in it, to “dwell on the fleeting, nonsensical things” that emerge. At a time of year when we are mad to locate definition, precision, a clear way forward, these words were pure liberation to me. So I share them with you now, in the event that you too are feeling in limbo. (Thanks from the bottom of my heart, DD.)

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So, into the fog we march. No world problems solved. No career leaps choreographed. No particularly clear sense of what lies ahead. But I do know what our last meal of 2014 will consist of, and two main elements are just light and fluffy enough to fill the gaps here in my last post of the year. In Proustian fashion, though, I have wonder if food, laden as it is with associations, memories, history and emotion, can ever really be that light and fluffy.

The two ethereal but not necessarily superficial foods in question are GOUGÈRES and MERINGUES. I’m sure you know about meringue. It’s been sitting on top of pies since forever. But here in France, they are the way my mother used to make them. Big, verging on monumental. Simple (why should they be more complicated). And perfect. You can team them up with fruit, chocolate or—most decadently, in my book—whipped cream, but being a meringue-lover-slash-fiend usually don’t bother. I just crack them apart and eat them shamelessly, crumbs falling where they may, while I lose myself in what I consider to be one of the culinary wonders of the world.

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I’m getting very ahead of myself: the meringues come after dinner. Before dinner, we will have champagne and gougères, lovely light…gee, what are they exactly? They’re not bread. They’re not cakes. They’re not muffins or custards or soufflés. Yes, here we go: they are puff pastries. Savory—as opposed to sweet—puff pastries that hide bits of gruyère cheese inside their lofty interiors. And what makes them lofty? Well, once again, I suppose it’s the eggs. We’re talking culinary transformation once again. Edible miracles.

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Which brings me to a point I didn’t realize I had. What better to eat on the last night of the year than foods which symbolize and embody transformation? So I’ll have faith in universal possibility—no, probability—of change, enjoy my New Year’s yummies, and wish for us all a New Year of new experiences, new understanding, and new versions of our selves. Deliciously, mysteriously and beautifully transformed.

If you’re interested in giving these treats a try, here are a couple easy to follow English-language recipes for GOUGÈRES (Alain Ducasse) and MERINGUES (Nigel Slater).

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Color Story #15: The Color of Cold

Blacks are black. Greys are infinite. The surprises are red and ochre and frosty sage. My toes lose feeling—it’s cold—but I’m distracted by a passing train and the beauty of ice hanging in the air over freshly turned clods of earth.

The walk concludes through what my children and I refer to as the secret passageway, a tiny alley lined by overwintering vegetable gardens, chicken enclosures and rusted gates. You emerge through two houses, an arm’s span apart, with a view of the seasonal sentiments strung out along a gate. Joyeuses Fêtes. Happy Holidays. Not a soul in sight. The air heavy with silence and the incense of burning logs.

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Posted in AROUND US, COLOR, FRANCE | 13 Comments

Musings of a Dish-washing Woman

Yes, the 25th of December was indeed Christmas. If there’d been any confusion about it, the stockings, gingerbread house, fly-away bits of wrapping, and abundant food would have clued you in. But I knew it was Christmas, really Christmas, when I stood over the sink of dirty dishes and pottered about my kitchen for literally hours cleaning it all up without one shred of resentment or boredom. In fact, all I was feeling was a peculiarly abiding sense of peace. I knew it was fleeting, but I recognized it from last year and I knew it would come again next. The unheralded ritual of cleaning up after the festivities is one that I hold dear.

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Without dragging sexual politics into it (thank God I don’t need to; my husband and I divide any and all chores the best we can), I simply felt the peace of being connected to generations of women who have stood elbow-deep in warm, soapy water, thinking the same thoughts. Listening to the children’s voices and the low, anti-climactic thrum of the post-gift-giving wind-down. Feeling my own tightly-wound clock let itself relax into a timeless contentment. Pondering the ups and downs of the past year and allowing the quiet thrill of having made it and-yet-again, one more year, without a user’s manual about How To Age or How To Parent or How To Be a Good Partner to sink in. Realizing, hands shriveling happily in warm water, that there are things we can just manage to manage if only we keep our hearts and heads open, our shoulders to the grindstone of life. If only we have some sort of faith that things will work out.

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Table cleared. Dishwasher loaded. Still, piles to clean by hand. The inherited porcelain too delicate for machine washing. The bone-handled knives. The champagne flutes and wine-glasses that don’t nestle comfortably despite the brilliant German engineering. The sheer numbers of pickle dishes and dessert plates and serving platters that don’t fit once the lion’s share of plain-old-plates has been loaded. The dishes that have to be rinsed and hand-dried before others will even fit into the sink. The left-over food that has to find a place, a nook, repackaged economically into the refrigerator. The cheeses that need to be individually wrapped. The crumbs that need clearing. The scraps that go to the dog, to the garbage or to the compost pile. Another pot of coffee please. I’ll have a bit more before the job is done.

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It goes slowly this job that I usually abhor. But I don’t mind. Not on Christmas Day. Each dish cleaned, rinsed off, toweled dry, is one more precious chance to reflect on the good fortune one has. To be in a warm home. To be surrounded by a life one has chosen. To rub against other lives and destinies that are intimately connected. To be alone with one’s thoughts even if they are wandering far away in time and space, covering the distances back and forth between now and what it took to get here. Step by step. Year by year. The creeping, invisible process we all go through from our own past to our own present. And these holidays are our breadcrumbs. Our way back. And our way forward.

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Christmases collapse into each other. A platter, held at a 45 degree angle because otherwise it won’t fit into the deep farmer’s sink, takes you back to the year it held poached salmon, or the Christmas it served rack of lamb, or the experiment 365 days ago with stuffed Capon. Meals telescope into meals, years into years, teenage children into wee ones peering into their first stockings and believing fervently in things you helped them to believe. They no longer believe, but somehow, fingertips pruning in the bottom of a sudsy stockpot, you do. Once again, you do.

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Finally, the dishes are cleaned. They are dried. They are put away. The heirlooms carefully stacked, breathing happily in their designated cupboard. The perishables back in the cool of the refrigerator or the box on the windowsill. After all, it is a refrigerator outside. Cold. Cold. The coffee stains have been wiped away from the hob. The counters have been wiped down. The bread crumbs have been given to the birds and the remaining loaves laid with respect in their basket.

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The job is complete. The kitchen is clean. The dining table is ready for the next spread of light leftovers (our appetites are exhausted). The year is almost over. I am happy to be the woman I am. I rub cream on my hands and head up the stairs where a good book awaits.

 

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Canine Prayers etc.

Part I: The Department of Prayers

I saw this posted inside the Duomo of Sant’Andrea (images posted below) in the beautiful mountain town of Carrara. It’s “The Dog’s Prayer” translated from Italian:

Oh Lord of all creatures, see that man, my owner,
is as faithful towards other men, as I am  faithful to him.
Make sure that he is affectionate to his family and his friends,
as I am affectionate with him.
See that he protects all that you have entrusted to him,
as honestly as I protect his home.
Give him, oh Lord, an easy and spontaneous smile,
as easy and spontaneous as my wagging.
Make him show gratitude as easily as I do.
Grant him the patience that I have,
when I wait for him without complaining.
Give him my courage, my readiness to sacrifice everything for him,
every comfort, even life itself.
Preserve in him my youthful heart and my playfulness.
Oh Lord of all creatures, as I am always truly canine,
see that he is always truly humane.

DOGS PRAYER 1
DOGS PRAYER 3

 

Part 2: The Department of Well-Being

I had heard rumblings that the city of Milan was now permitting dogs to attend church, but it was just today that I found the proof. Translated from “News Cattoliche,” September 17th Edition, 2014

The Milan City Hall continues its battle in favor of animals, who may soon be allowed to “go to church”–thanks to the new rule which outlines the obligation on the part of those who manage public places (such as churches) to grant them entrance. The Milanese Curate didn’t deny the right of animals to enter holy places in the city: “We have faith in the good sense and education of those who come into the parish.”

The rough draft for the guardianship and well-being of animals has been fine-tuned by Guarantor Valerio Pocar and the Department of Wellbeing for the City of Milan. The document, now under scrutiny by the city’s zones, could become active by Christmas of this year.

For the Mass on the 25th of December, therefore, “animals of small size who are not aggressive” maybe be allowed to enjoy their first official entrance into church, complete with communal blessing.

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DOGS PRAYER 4

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Postcard #33: Typical

[Sometimes the planets align, and you find yourself inhabiting a perfectly “typical” moment in a perfectly “typical” place. And so it was in this instance. Long September shadows. Cobblestone street. A chef outside his restaurant talking to a Mediterranean beauty. The red motorcycle. The balcony dripping with ivy. And me, snapping a picture as I typically do, tucked in a shadow out of view.]

POSTCARD FRONT TYPICAL

POSTCARD BACK TYPICALI couldn’t resist the beauty of the moment, and snapped another one for safe keeping. Also typical in Italy, the ochre color you see on the left (below), which keeps us warm when the weather fails.
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[If you enjoyed this post, and want to see more like it, all you have to do is click “Postcards & Kits”in the menu above. Have a good one!]

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