Thursday, May 26, 2011

House & Home (Ireland) May 2011

French women are known to have a certain style. The whole French way of life has an illusion of being wonderfully finished; from the tiniest gateau in a box tied up with pretty coloured ribbons, the magnificent chandeliers and sumptuous table settings of a Chateau, the produce display at the weekly market or a classic Chanel black quilted handbag, it’s there, that indefinable a ‘je ne sais quoi’ about things, that defines all aspects of French living.

Add the style and flair of an Irish woman, who with her impeccable taste and high standards transformed an old Provencal village dwelling into a little nugget of luxury.

Rosemary Roberts is a hands-on perfectionist who embraces old and new, then adds her own personal style and her stamp of high quality and in Provence, where she spends part of each year, she has, in the village of Aups, nestled among the olives trees and the lavender fields of the Var, created a superb, sophisticated, comfortable house. Small it may be, but the place is top notch French living.
As I round the bend and the vine covered terrace comes into view, I marvel again at what happens when style, exquisite taste and rigorous standards meets old-fashioned French craftsmanship.

Under the vine leaves is an enchanting outdoor eating area. Alfresco dining, the large table is always smartly dressed, even for breakfast. Stylish doors lead into the living space, elegant but with an immensely cosy feeling.

It’s a comfort zone with a big squashy sofa to sink into; a place to read, watch TV or listen to music. The beautifully lit, tiled kitchen area is within a hand’s reach and with background colours muted, provides a great backdrop for paintings, plus of course, the essential Nespresso coffee maker.

On the other side of the room, where the dazzling light of Provence pours in – shaded by antique lace on the windows – stands a magnificent specimen of that classic French item, a massive wooden Armoire. It is chock full of magnificent glassware and tableware and holds a vast selection of wine.

Rosemary’s furniture ‘finds’ and her expertise at turning them into treasures is obvious, especially upstairs in the master bedroom. She has restored the antique chests of drawers entirely by hand and has had authentic period chairs re-covered in specially sourced fabric appropriate to their age. She then had the audacity to mix in sleek modern lamps, window shutters and ironwork painted gleaming white and added dazzling white blinds.

This feeling of cool, even in the scorching heat of a Provence summer is unexpected, wonderful.
Downstairs, guests are pampered in their own small suite. The huge, comfortable, well dressed bed is flanked by tables with books and flowers. Lighting is soft and soothing and here again there is that glorious, almost daring mix of old and new styles, textures and colours.

Everything blends perfectly, and while it may effortless it has all been carefully planned, down to the tiniest detail, by an expert. The placement of every item has been carried out with precision, from the exact positioning of the smallest lamp to the coloured buttons on scatter cushions, the sumptuous tie backs on curtains.

Rosemary, possessing that superb combination of a keen eye, a real love of luxury and a fastidious attention to detail, never ventures into the world the French call ‘ordinaire’. This marks the distinction, the clear difference between someone who simply lives in a comfortable space and someone who takes that space and transforms it into a haven of beauty, elegance and style. Her cool, glamorous, comfortable surroundings seduce us, makes the visitor want to stay; one longs to go back there again and again.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Remembering Someone Special...

On my way to a rugby match in Toulouse last year, I got a text message from a friend in Dublin, telling me the saddest news; Gerry Ryan, a larger than life Irishman, general good egg and astonishingly talented broadcaster had died suddenly that morning.

I, lving in the hills of Southern France spent most of the following week listening to Irish radio; it was fantastic to hear so many people reminding us of what Gerry meant to them and just how much he contributed to Irish daily life.

I loved the music they played. A lot of it brought me back to a long time ago; I hadn’t heard many of the songs in years. Apart from U2 and the other biggies, it was fabulous to hear songs like Lilac Wine – one that surely sums up so many of those lost, wild but wonderful nights as we grew up?

Gerry and I were only two years apart in age and we both grew up on the north side of Dublin. While I never said more than hello, having come across him in a club or two over the years, I felt like I knew him really well. We probably both went to The Groovy Grove, but would have been in different groups, due to the age gap. Cool behaviour.

The reason I felt I knew Gerry was a really good old fashioned Dublin one - both our mothers, before they were married, worked together in Burke’s, the then famous Theatrical Costumiers in Dame Street. My mother often regaled me with mad stories, hooting with laughter as she described herself and Maureen prancing around the store, trying on the outfits, sticking their heads out from the rows of taffeta and velvet, mimicking some unfortunate large lady in the shop hiring a Valkyrie helmet and plaits.

Their ‘working’ days seemed to be full of happiness, shrieks of mirth, and very little stress. They appeared to go shopping and have their hair done quite a bit. Who says the fifties were grim? Obviously for two young ‘gals’ in the Dublin Theatre World those years were the greatest fun.

I never met Maureen, but I feel that Gerry and I were lucky, having warm people, as it seems the two of them were; mothers who saw the funnier side of life, women who laughed at the crazy bits and were clearly modern girls, while being old fashioned, cosy, keen on things like table manners at the same time.

Along with Gerry’s gloriously eccentric, oddball way of seeing the world, he possessed boundless energy, never spared himself, never needed to conserve his energies like the rest of us.

He had a capacity to draw in hundreds of thousands of people into his world and fully engage with them for three hours, five days each week and he did it for years without seeming to draw breath.

The range of stuff Gerry could cover is mind boggling for most of us. To do this every day, under public scrutiny, is something only truly remarkable people can manage. He possessed, along with a fine intellect (a quality he carried lightly) a thoroughly sound knowledge of how the world works and a keen interest in a vast range of subjects.

Then there was - possibly what made him such an attractive personality - his uncanny and deep understanding of people. He became, over the years, an expert on that most basic subject, one that affects all of us; how families work, how we live and interact with each other on a daily basis.

Couples coping with the inevitable changes occurring between them over the years, facing into the storm as children go from adorable babies to teens; Gerry’s programme covered the swings and roundabouts of life for a whole generation.

His world was one where every day seemed to be 48 hours long. He knew everyone, was invited and went everywhere, wined and dined all over the world. And all the time he never stopping talking, laughing, absorbing knowledge like a sponge and most of all, something echoed in all the tributes, making other people laugh.

Edge from U2 summed him up wonderfully in his dignified tribute, with the words: “You shone bright and you made people laugh.”

So, even though we never formally met, I say thanks to Gerry for a particular period in my life when things seemed so bad they couldn’t get any worse, and I found myself working in a small place where someone liked having a radio on all day. Listening to his programme on RTE 2 in the mornings made life seem less awful, less serious during that time. It seemed almost as if, given time and keeping my chin up, all the fun would return.

And it did, big time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Quitting Smoking - Evening Herald March 2010

As a long time smoker, I assumed Heaven was waiting when an opportunity arose to go and live in France. After years of searching out Dublin pubs and restaurants that accommodated smokers, usually on a cold, draughty ‘terrace’, I thought of all those old ‘French film’ bars and caf├ęs, full of happy smokers, waiting for me.

How wrong I was; those days were over. Here in the foothills of the Pyrenees, I was once again on the outside looking in. I only frequented places with outside terraces, summer and winter. Then, one November night, I stopped smoking, forever.

So, here we are in spring and maybe you're still battling, trying to stop? Believe me, it can be done. The mistake we make and why, in my view, we fail, is in planning to start a whole new life, minus cigarettes, every January 1st.

Then, year in, year out, usually sometime in the late afternoon of the first day, we make another coffee and think, "Oh well, there's really no point now, since I was still smoking at the party at 4am. I'll cut down though, definitely."

I stopped and so can you, without hypnotherapy, alternative medicines, counselling advice, self-help books, CDs, patches or fake cigarettes. Smoking is only another habit, and it's one that can be broken. For anyone serious about quitting, I put forward the radical notion that it can be done anytime. You can stop now.

Tattooed in your brain should be the sound knowledge that every cigarette leads to the next. So forget cutting down, it won't work.

There must be no question of trying to stop either. What's the point in trying? The cigarettes will win that battle. They must be faced squarely, the habit acknowledged for what it is, and then stopped. 

Overnight, smoking becomes part of your old life. No "cold turkey" follows if you have made a positive decision. You feel only freedom.

Should any sceptics think I only smoked the occasional cigarette and so it's easy for me, I began in my teens, way back in the 1970s. Initially, I smoked about two each day, but the time came when I could not go anywhere without two packs. Being without them was not an option.

Back then, we lit up whenever we wanted to, were free to do so almost everywhere, including, bizarrely, on flights and even in hospitals. We gaily smoked our way through endless lunches, dinners, all-day weddings, all-night parties. 

The weirdo in the office, daft as it sounds in these more enlightened times, was the poor guy who didn't smoke, who by the end of the day could barely be seen through the haze. Things began to change though and even before the total ban, offices were sending smokers to separate rooms for coffee breaks. Homes of friends and family became smoke-free zones. At outdoor parties, we heard, "oh, an ashtray? I'm sure there's one somewhere, we gave up back in the 1980s . . .”

I moved to live in France thinking smoking was still fashionable, to find that vast numbers of French women, for health and appearance sake, had long ago quit. They raved about feeling better each morning, shuddered at the horrors of smokers’ sagging skin, lines around lips and eyes, discoloration of teeth, smoke scented hair and clothes. But I continued to light up, as if it wasn't relevant to me. Then, three things happened that made me look at myself. Really look, I mean.

I hosted a ladies' lunch; all non-smoking, interesting women and yet I found myself longing for evening. I barely got through a dinner the following night in the home of more non-smokers and two days later, I drove across France to stay with friends on the Riviera. Glamorous friends and fabulous places, but all of which were now, unfortunately for me, smoke free. 

With such a life here in southern France, was I over the moon? No. I was bad-tempered, irritated, wound up and thoroughly fed up with everything and everyone. They were all out of step except me; what was wrong with people?

I began to feel like large chunks of time had become a chore, occasions to be got through, before coming home; almost the one place I could smoke in peace.

I was walking in the hills, the mighty snow-capped Pyrenees as a backdrop, when the truth finally hit me. It was as if a dazzling light shone in my mind, the scales fell away and all became clear. The awful, mind-numbing, grisly realisation of how bad things were, sunk in.

The appalling reality was that my world was dominated by a small, square pack of chemicals. I was well on the way to living a restricted, narrow, sad little life, my existence governed by my smoking habit, and showing signs of wanting to avoid humans who didn't share it. Who would have thought that anything could gain such a hold over me?  

Only after I had truthfully acknowledged the stranglehold of cigarettes, when I had foolishly thought I was in charge of them, did it become clear that this relationship must end; it was time to go our separate ways. I smoked my last that same night and that was it. I have never lit up another.  

It's still, a few years later, a truly priceless feeling, being back in charge. If I can walk away from this habit, anyone who really wants to can do the same.