Gifts: Good things in small packages

 The first of a three-Tuesday series on gifts.

I have become a mini-gift aficionado, since moving to a much smaller home. I'm not alone: young people in tiny apartments, simple-living devotees and friends who have de-cluttered are among those who no longer wish a bulky gift.

I can of course treat someone to a restaurant dinner or event, but sometimes I want to give a tangible gift that lingers a little longer.

Here are ideas for presents that don't take up much houseroom, but, when they match the recipient's taste and needs, provide outsized pleasure.

Glowing goodness
Honeybells (or other specialty fruits), Cushman's
Price, $30 for 18-24 luscious tangelos.

Hot stuff!

Insulated food flask, Fishpond Telluride
Price, $39
The flask sits in a sleeve and keeps the contents warm all day. A gift that that Ms. Lunch-at-Desk is unlikely to buy for herself. (Recommended by my birder friend Peggy, who carries one on her outings.)

Sweet sheets
Drawer liners, Crabtree & Evelyn
Price, $24 for box of six sheets; various scents
Sheets smell musty when enclosed by a drawer. Liners or sachets freshen them, and are a welcoming treat when you make up the bed.
Shoe rescue
Woodlore cedar shoe trees, Zappos
Price, $24  
One day your friend will be caught in a downpour. Any shoe will thank her for drying out in a pair of these. Available in models for men or women.
Polished iPad
Handmade leather iPad case, by Aligata 
Price, $63
Most of us make our electronics go commando. If you want to spoil someone, give his baby a sweet surround. No iPad? Choose an e-reader or bus pass case.

Zazzle dazzle

For vegans or anyone who likes the quirky graphics, see Zazzle's whimsical selection. Price for case shown, $63.

Edwardian emeralds

Antique fly stick pin, N. Green & Sons @ First Dibs
Price, $1,695
Someone might have occasion to give a special gift. The ca. 1910 cushion-cut emerald, old mine diamond and ruby fly alights on a sweater and winks discreetly. Well, not that discreetly, but that's the point.

These items are also easy to ship. If you are mailing something very small, though, put it in a gift box at least the size of your hand and then in a padded mailer, so it is not lost in delivery.

Alert: Pearl Lovers, A Peach (or Lavender, or White) of a Sale!

A quick alert for you pearl-appreciating women (or those who love them), amaaaazing buys at Pearl Paradise today, from freshwaters to South Seas and Tahitians!

Vacation apartment rentals: Lessons learned

Le Duc and I typically rent an apartment when we visit Paris, now that longtime local friends have downsized from family homes or retired to other cities.

An apartment makes sense for us. We need two bedrooms (serious snoring on his part, despite surgeries and therapies). He works part of the time on the trip, sometimes in the middle of the night. We like to receive friends; we also enjoy the break from eating every meal in a restaurant. A washer/dryer makes traveling light easy.

For nearly a decade, we've used the same agency, Paris Address, and received excellent service. But, distracted by other matters, we were not as vigilant in our selection this time. We ended up in a clean but charmless flat. The place lacked any grace notes, let alone stoppers for sinks. 

The kitchen was insufficiently and cheaply stocked: one dishtowel, two old napkins. Some of the furniture in the photos below had been swapped for pieces in rundown condition; the thin, stained livingroom carpet, not evident in the photo, created such a bleak ambience that we would not have anyone visit. The curtains were now dreary beige and the tiebacks shown had gone on vacation.

Apt. #1 looked pleasant enough...
and had large, comfortable beds, but...

On the plus side, the beds were fine, there was a tiny but newly-installed bathroom, and one bedroom window opened to a pretty courtyard. In short, habitable but not gracious. That is, habitable until a major construction project began upstairs, canceling any chance at relaxation.

After I broke into sleep-deprived weeping, Le Duc called Paris Address and in less than an hour we were relocated to a gorgeous apartment in a nearby neighbourhood. 

Apt. #2 was so appealing and well-equipped that we were on a different planet. The price for the time period we stayed was €1,195/week (US$1,660), a bit less than Apt. #1. That's about US$230 a day and just try to find two hotel rooms with these amenities in the 5th or 6th arr. for less.

Bon matin!
This is one cool pad, from decor to the well-stocked kitchen. The front window provides a bird's-eye view straight down chic Rue Mabillon, framed by the arcades of Marché St. Germain. We saw Paris awaken each morning from this exact view.

Apt. #2: Dining area in LR
Livingroom: View toward window
Livingroom: Désirez-vous un apéritif?
Here are the lessons learned; I hope you can use them for any location.

1. The camera does not lie, but it can fib. Photos on the site may not be recent. In Apt. #1, furniture had been moved to make rooms look larger and the best view was obscured by the 'real' arrangement. Some furniture was exchanged for inferior pieces, and a camera can't show a rickety table.

2. If you're disappointed, state your issues politely and ask to be relocated as soon as possible.

- Take the phone number and name of a manager at the agency with you. (Paris Address told us that Apt. #1 was inventory from another agency and said that they had not inspected the place personally "yet". Whatever; they moved us.)

- Be reasonable and flexible. The agency cannot know if neighbours have plans for major renos. They are technically are not responsible for peace and quiet, any more than a hotel can be responsible for that drunken soccer fan party under your window. But the agency wants satisfied return customers, and a cooperative attitude gets the best results.

3. Price more often reflects square foot of apartment than "niceness". Apt. #1 was in fact slightly more expensive than #2, because of a slight size difference. The increase in space was in a useless hall.

4. If you have a certain ideal image, be clear about it and talk to the agency before booking. If you long for an antique-filled garret, or plan to cook for a crowd, or need absolute quiet, say so. Read the customer reviews, paying attention to date of post. We wish we had, because one man had flagged the deficiencies in Apt. #1 with acerbic accuracy.

We can't wait to return to Apt. #2. But we're won't count on a "one and only", because these places come and go from the market.

Once relocated, we felt that we were living, as the Italian saying goes, "like God in France".  We learned how to choose more carefully and recover when we make an error.

If you have any further tips about making wise vacation rentals, I would appreciate hearing them.

Jewelry: Santa, baby

Today, some tempting pieces, perhaps as gift or to treat yourself. The timing suggests Christmas, but whether you celebrate it or not, here are contemporary pieces for various budgets, free of logos.

Asymmetrically-set Australian opal ring, Alexandria Rossoff. Price, $1,195. A flashing opal set in 18k gold, modern and refined.

Christophe Lemaire brass cuff, from Bird, who deem it "like a Richard Serra sculpture". Price, $140. 

Stacked keshis are among my favourite varieties, and when you add handmade black diamond rondelles and clasp, you have unusual pearls that can be worn everywhere. From Kojima Company; price $430.

A fun, hip etched NYC map-print wide cuff in nickel from Etsy seller HannahRuthDesigns; other cities available. Price, $60.

Anne Sportun's smart Eclipse ring has a 20mm 18k yellow gold textured center surrounded by pavé-set black diamonds (.34cts tw). An unusual anniversary gift or a right-hand ring, left-hand ring–who cares, it's gorgeous. Price, $2,980 (Canadian dollars.)

Does someone mean "the world" to you? Fisher and Kinmark World Map necklace of stainless steel continents linked by chain, from MOMA Store. Price, $60.

The splurge: Luscious, big ruby and pink tourmaline earrings by Nak Armstrong at Twist. Price, $2,700. Notice anything new, dear?

My parents played and played Eartha singing her holiday classic. I was too young to get the double entendre, but eventually her purr became evident.
Come and trim my Christmas tree
With some decorations bought at Tiffany's
I really do believe in you
Let's see if you believe in me

Boo doo bee doo!

Roiphe defends risqué

Katie Roiphe
If only we were all sitting over coffee, after we'd read Katie Roiphe's OpEd piece, "In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks" in the New York Times (Sunday November 13. 2011.) 

I'd love to hear your stories, share mine.

Let's let Roiphe go first:

"In our effort to create an unhostile work environment, have we simply created an environment that is hostile in a different way? Is it preferable or more productive, is it fostering a more creative or vivid office culture, for everyone to vanish into Facebook and otherwise dabble online? Maybe it's better to live or work with colorful or inappropriate comments, with irreverence, wildness, incorrectness, ease."

She says, "The majority of women in the workplace are not tender creatures and are largely adept at dealing with all varieties of uncomfortable or hostile situations."

I've never been sexually harassed in the workplace; I know women who have experienced the range, from a lone comment to stalking. And by sexual harassment, I mean unwanted attention, usually verbal and sometimes physical.

We can't take sexuality out of the workplace. We can create and enforce policies that say certain behaviours will not be tolerated. Harassment depends on the harasser thinking no one will stop him or her

We need to deal with the bullies and idiots who think they can intimidate someone into unwanted activity. (And even if wanted, work is not the place to make your desire known.) I've worked in organizations where a person (usually a man, once, a woman) has lost his or her job for such behaviour.

But recently I heard a man compliment a colleague on her sweater, saying, "That blue matches your eyes perfectly", then follow, sincerely and immediately with, "Oh, I hope that was not inappropriate."

I recall the hundreds of risqué jokes I've been told at work. Humour reveals what confounds and disturbs, what we love, what we hate. There are jokes so funny they crack me up two decades later and others so blatantly full of hate and meanness that I had to say, in the moment, "That's not funny to me."
Riophe assumes that, in 2011, women at work need no support in this area. I disagree. At the same time, let's be clear about what harassment is, define the line we don't want crossed and not get bent out of shape about jokes or comments  that acknowledge we know about sex– and think about it fairly often, even during work hours.

RIP, Larry. Larry was an HR Vice President with whom I worked 30 years ago. His advice was, "Think first, 'Would I tell this joke to my mother'?" Apparently Larry's Mom was quite open-minded, because he told me some of the funnest racy jokes I've ever heard.

What's your story, your perspective, your take on Roiphe's thesis?

Crew's news and online reviews

Mickey Drexler, CEO of J. Crew, was interviewed recently in The Globe and Mail.

Interviewer: Apple creates demand for things people didn’t even know they wanted. How does that apply to J.Crew?

Drexler: "That was Steve’s favourite line—that customers don’t know what they want unless you show it to them... If you market it and you show it and they don’t want it, you lose. End of argument. You can’t argue too much with the customer."

Not computer science
Do designers really "have to show it to us"? Drexler reaches a little far for the genius designation that Jobs handily earned; this is not technology, it's clothes. I could not have dreamed up the iPod, but can imagine a violet peacoat or navy silk shirt I can wash myself. 

Manufacturers do listen to customers, or claim they do. I've read plenty of Lands' End copy that says "You asked us to bring this back, so we did", or "The cut will please those of you who asked for a longer jacket". Are they making this up?

I suspect the market Drexler tries to shape is a youthful one, with plenty of disposable income. I challenge J. Crew to cut for mature bodies even if they have to create a second line, and to use the same juicy fabrics.

They are already extremely quietly selling a handful of semi-formal and wedding dresses, like the silk-taffeta Blakely in up to size 20, but I'd also like to see short dresses with skirts longer than 18 inches. And why not pants and skirts in this range?

J. Crew expanded size dress
Come on, Drexler! Someone has to capture the 50+ market by offering more wit and sass  than the stalwart Bean, dependable Lands' End or utilitarian Eddie Bauer.

What these more conventional companies are doing is publishing customer's online reviews and product ratings.

LL Bean Rating Snapshot
Lands' End Views and Reviews

How useful are these to you? 

I'm still surprised that some companies print these. If you think you want those LL Bean boots or that cute Boden skirt, the reviews can easily change your mind.

I can sink into a near role-playing world, in which I try to figure out if a narrow-footed retired dog-walker in Vermont would have good judgment about a pair of winter boots. Reviews keep a company on its toes, because they'll be stuck with inventory if customers condemn a specific item with a one or two-star rating.

J. Crew don't play. Bloggers may post scathing remarks about shreddy cashmere, but Drexler keeps it under wraps, and provides no customer feedback system.

The economy's still slow, retail limps along. Seems to me that an online retailer who does not provide product feedback is taking an expensive stance, especially when free shipping is only offered as an occasional promotion.

Keeping a weight loss lost

Edina: I mean what you two don't seem to realise is that inside of me, inside of me, there is a thin person just screaming to get out.

Mother: Just the one, dear?

- Absolutely Fabulous Episode 1.2, "Fat"

For us Eddies of the world, nutritionist Leslie Beck's article "How to Keep Off the Pounds You've Shed" is a good news/bad news report. (The Globe and Mail, in its inscrutable Canadian way, will at some point paywall access.)

I don't aspire to be thin, just within a healthy weight range, where I reside at the top. (If you are wondering if you're in the healthy range, as defined either by body-fat percentage or waist-to-hip ratio, the site provides great tools.) Some achieve this by genetic good fortune, others by effort.

Many women deal with what's called "suitcase weight", the ten or twenty pounds they gain and lose, gain and lose.

The fall-on-a-cake-knife bad news about weight loss from Beck:

- Failure to maintain weight loss is due to alterations in hormone levels which happen for at least a year after losing weight.
- These hormones slow metabolism and increase hunger, so post-loss, you will be hungrier and prone to gaining back what you lost, or even more. 

The good news:

- The study was conducted on subjects who were on a very low calorie diet; the results may not be as marked for those undertaking more modest calorie restrictions. (I wonder how they recruited subjects, who only got 500-550 calories a day via Optifast.)
- Another study suggests you may be better off on a diet that combines protein and low-glycemic index (GI) carbs.

As Beck says, it's healthier and less painful to keep pounds from piling on than to lose them and keep them lost.

As for the role of exercise in weight loss, it doesn't help much, as the article "Phys Ed: Why Doesn't Exercise Lead to Weight Loss?" by Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times explains. But there is good news within this bitter pill, too.  

First, there are all the other significant benefits of exercise, the same ones naturally thin people get.

Second, she quotes Dan Carey, Ph.D., a professor of exercise physiology:“'If you work out at an easy intensity, you will burn a higher percentage of fat calories' than if you work out a higher intensity, so you should draw down some of the padding you’ve accumulated on the hips or elsewhere—if you don’t replace all of the calories afterward."

That's the tough part. It's so easy to make an immediate withdrawal from the caloric bank account (After all, I earned it!) and then also float myself a little loan on the Exercise Equity Line of Credit. 

My Dad used to tell his patients, "The best exercise you can do is push your plate away after you've eaten a reasonable portion.". As usual, Dad was right.

For an observation about women and their weight through a cultural lens, see "New York Skinny vs Paris Skinny" by Garance Doré, who has gained weight after moving from France to New York, but also is feeling oppressed by the American standard of thinness (at least among her copines.)

Does this outfit make me look like a teacher?

I was at the nail salon the other day and the manicurist asked me if I was a teacher. "Why?" I asked her. "You look like a teacher", she said, "and you talk like one."

Well! I was rather upset. 

I imagined that the manicurist meant a wash n' wear, offend-no-one aura of kindly neatness. A look that is not unfeminine but never interesting. And they speak in complete sentences, with attention to grammar. Is it I to whom you refer?

I have no reason to hold this stereotype.

My teacher friends are unabashed beauties, graceful goddesses, lovely family members. My teacher friend Cathy had (till retirement) the ability to undo from one to three buttons of her Thomas Pink shirts in a split second, as the occasion dictated–and anytime after 4 pm., it was three-button time. And you have met the bombshell Christine aka, the teacher Christine.

Oh god, I thought, I'm slipping into the 60ish semi-retired bog of obdurate sensibility I always dreaded. Is this like the notion that we marry our fathers, or live our parents unlived lives, or some other what-you-want-is-not-what-you-think-you-want theory?

The gateway purchase?
But I am changing. For the first time in my life, in October I read an LL Bean catalog all the way through, not just for the snow boots and adorable dog beds. I looked at the women's clothes and ordered... slippers. But can corduroy big shirt be far behind?

Flee from salon. Paw into closet, risk wreck of mani, pick funkiest pants, leather jacket for dinner at sushi bar with Le Duc. Apply sake to shaky self-image. Decide to buy red lipstick. 

Get providentially-timed e-mail from Christine, who comments that my new oxfords in black might have a "grand-maternal vibe". She may be right, but perhaps grandmother offers more scope than teacher? Have nothing against grandmothers either, but start thinking about what to wear with the oxfords.

C. reports just bought Costume National pony skin flats. Graciously responds to plea for photos, showing how she's wearing them:

Hip with red pants

Insouciant with grey tights

Tell her that in the tights, she looks like an elf on absinthe.

I substitute Christine for the teacher in my mistaken mind. Hah! Formulate plan to march her into salon on next visit and introduce my teacher friend.

A flash of annoyance

I try not to be a 63 year old curmudgeon. I read a few waspish elder's blogs just to make myself feel magnanimous. (No, they are not in my blogroll.) Man, some of them can get their crank on!

One writer griped because she went to Chico's and "the size 0 is nothing like the 0 I know." Chico's do use a sizing system that differs from the 0-16 convention, but  the store and website provide a chart explaining it.
Chico's job aid for sizing

I've noticed that as we get older, we tend to complain about what we don't understand.

" 'I don't understand it' is the greatest screen for incompetence", says an old friend, a tech inventor pushing 70. The antidote is simple: stay curious, keep learning. Ask a younger friend to tutor, take a free Apple Store class.

It's natural to gripe, to try to fit the world to our habitual patterns.  And when we adopt new behaviours, especially those that involve technology, we might think about the unanticipated results.  

Example: people photographing their meals in a restaurant. Not dangerous, like driving while using a cell phone, but intrusive and unpleasant.
You are sitting there, gazing into your companion's eyes or maybe just figuring out what movie to see, and suddenly someone has her butt shoved into your table, photographing her faijitas. Next course, same thing, but now it's dark and she's using her flash. And using it. 

Dessert: does not one chocolate mousse look pretty much like another? She takes at least six shots.

If a diner wishes to document a meal, I wish she would so only when tables are well apart, she does not need a flash, and her behind isn't grazing my bread plate. (Is my dining ruining your perspective?)

Is it odd that I don't mind taking a photo for someone nearby? On our last trip, a couple at the next table ordered a classic seafood tower, three magnificent, briny tiers of shellfish. They asked us to take their photo with their treat; I was happy to oblige.

Same with birthdays, friends who want a memory or the serving of something so unusual that you never want to forget what can be done with spun sugar. The spirit of celebration overrides any inconvenience; I want them to have that photo.

While I find the habit of texting at a table even more obnoxious, it is the business of the parties dining together, and does not intrude on my experience. Photos do.

Paris window shopping, Part Two

Finished your espresso? Let's press on.

If you have sticker shock from clothing prices, accessories are a marvelous way to bring a bit of French style into your life. Sometimes the accessories are very expensive too... but I still have the glacé kid belt bought thirty-two years ago, while the clothes are but a memory.

Exotic bands for your watch
In the window of Atelier Rousseau, watchbands in leather or exotic skins, ready-to-wear or made to measure. Enchanting colours, so much fun to wear. They also make bracelets in snap-band or bangle styles, and meltingly gorgeous belts, wallets or portfolios. (Let's stop in, I'll replace my Hermès croc band, for half the price.)

Necklace, Arthur Aquino's atelier, rue St.-Simon

I can't pass a jeweler's without examining the window. Paris is a overflowing jewel box, but a good deal of the costume stuff is overpriced. For mid-range finds, we have to be patient and look. This necklace of brass with glass 'gems' is in the window of a designer, Arthur Aquino, whose shop in the tiny Rue St.-Simon is a such a piece, at €220.

We will find our treasures by wandering, avoiding the big commercial boulevards and the brand boutiques.

Cadolle's luxurious lingerie
Sigh, the lingerie. Again, the mid-priced is pleasing, but the highest expression reveals (pun intended) just what is possible. Dita Von Teese shops at Cadolle, and we pause at the window to see why.

Sabbia Rosa's silks
And Sabbia Rosa! The window is a kiss of pink silk bra, caress of rose-printed chemise, the most exquisite delights. A silk cami is a good choice; seen on an evening, peeking from your jacket, by more than les intimes. We resolve to at least always match our bras and panties, even if only Wonderbra.

Shaving in style
Which brings us to men (or me, anyway.) Maybe we'll buy a little gift to tuck in our suitcases? Drugstores carry an astonishing assortment of beautiful shaving accessories; here's an array of badger brushes and other manly gear. Or maybe your love would consider your Sabbia Rosa chemise a kind of gift?

LBD in lace
Oh look, a black dress...we have seen many, but this one is lace. And the lace is wool. Arms sheer, body lined. The ruff around the neck is a separate scarf, long wool ringlets in palest grey.

But look, Parisiennes wear colour too; do you prefer the pink velvet jacket or pants? And see the zebra bag at the bottom of the window, with a cyclamen pashmina nestled inside?

How does such a beauty-attuned culture evolve? You start them young. Have you noticed the children we've passed, laughing, hiding behind planters, only to leap out with a "Cou-cou!" when their friends catch up? See the four-year-old girl in a teal sheepskin coat with a fur-trimmed hood, pink and blue striped tights and little pink t-straps?
Tiny, pink, leopard

Mothers buy outfits like this, and kids actually wear them. In certain arondissements, you will notice more sumptuous and lavishly embellished attire on people lower than your waist than on those at eye level.

And so... she grows up to wear this–and not necessarily with a suit, but also with her chunky sweater and jeans:

Hat, Marie Mercié

We are a little footsore, non? And I'd like a rest before dinner. But we've had such a good time together! We must do it again.

Paris window shopping, Part One

Tie on your walking shoes, and let's do a little window shopping, to absorb some ideas, amble and people-watch.

Price list in window

Paris windows are remarkable not only for the tempting treats, but for the information, too. Le Duc says retail shops are required by law to list prices of goods displayed in windows, and while I saw the occasional transgressor, nearly all windows display cards or little stands, or visible price tags. This is a most welcome feature, and why do hardly any North American shops do it?

Fabulous, but wearable?
The most jaw-dropping designs in a window are at Galliano; say what you will about his behaviour, he has a sense of theatricality few have ever matched... but do you have somewhere to wear this? I don't.

If I had to nominate one company who make clothes that flatter gown women, it would be Episode. This red dress, glimpsed through the door of the flagship store, looks like a classic shift, but it's the softest, supplest red leather, baby!

Wafting from the shop, we hear Nina Simone singing her signature song, "My Baby Just Cares for Me".

Episode fur jacket
Fur is huge, and worked in innovative ways. 

This eyelash-effect jacket, thrown casually over a pencil skirt, is actually fox, in pale beige tinged with sky blue. Fur as the lightest fabric, fur that moves with you; also from Episode.

We all know "it's the accessories", but what accessories await us on our walk! A reminder to choose the unusual or pleasing note, especially if you like basics yet want to avoid the predictable.

Look at these brightest blue gloves, with perforated detail on the ruffle, again, Episode.

Beau gants!

Victoire present a richly detailed BoBo look, but also carry immaculate suits and jackets for business wear. The windows are always a symphony of chic; a sporty doudoune (padded jacket) over a floral skirt of fairly heavyweight fabric, accented with a kelly green belt, reminds us to mix more freely.

Victoire ensemble
Victoire shoes

At the bottom of this window are the most beautiful wearable shoes, for me, in Paris: multicolored wedge heels, with pieced velvet uppers, combining red, pink, moss green. (Plenty of six-inch stiletto stunners all over, but these I could see wearing to a holiday party without needing surgery the next day.)

Time for lunch; let's stop for a tartine and glass of Samur, an espresso– and maybe we cannot resist a salted caramel éclair.

Part Two appears on Thursday.