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A grand day out

Well, not grand, but at least it got us out of the house.

My mate K and I have been feeling antsy lately. Something to do with the long winter, I think, and being so shuttered up. Everyone's so sick of it now, the endless lugging-in of wood, refilling paraffin stoves, exchanging gas bottles, donning thermals first thing, not being able to go out for the fog or the cold or the snow. 

We're now into the first week of April and the frost is still thick on the ground every morning, with daytime temperatures around 9 degrees. So K and I decided to take a quick shopping trip to Mayenne. Nothing spectacular, you understand, just the sort of thing that normal people, who don't live in the arse-end of nowhere, probably do every day. But here in the boonies, where even posting a letter means a 5km round trip, a trip to the discount store means a 50km journey and some logistical planning, especially the soothing of husbands who might have to - horrors - get their own lunch.

K dropped her car at our house to save me going out of my way, and off we set into a glacially cold but beautifully sunny day. The return of the sun made us feel more optimistic as we headed first for lunch at a routiers restaurant (all-you-can-eat buffet) and then for Noz, where consumer goods go to die.

Noz, which I assume from the name is a Breton company (it means 'night'), is a chain of gigantic warehouses filled to the brim with crap. My DH can't stand the smell of plastic and despair and usually sits in the car playing Angry Birds, while K's husband runs out of patience in about five minutes and starts plucking her sleeve, so it was nice for both of us for once to womble about at our own pace, picking up tablemats, ceramic gew-gaws, hairbands, end-of-line yarn and God knows what else like blackbirds searching under leaves for a tasty morsel.

Admittedly, especially in mid-winter, the clientele are of the poorer sort - people who can't afford things at full price, so wander around looking for out-of-date chocolates for Christmas presents, etc, all of which is pretty depressing. But most people are like us, just out to see what bargains they can pick out of the assorted tat.

I was really in search of the herbal extracts I'd found last time, which in France still come in those glass vials that you break at either end and add to water. But sadly they were all sold out. I did, however, load up on chocolates and caramel-au-beurre-salé biscuits to take to my monthly book club meeting, incense sticks, whisper-thin Indian silk scarves like the kind we all wore in the 70s, and things for the kitchen such as ginger juice (invaluable, this), pickled root ginger, dandelion tea and masses of tins of sardines, as I'm now trying to eat two a week against osteoporosis. 

I'm not sure what K got, but it definitely included herb teas and a washing-up bowl, along with the Nidra hydrating bath stuff I'd recommended on Cosmetopica. Oh, and a ladybird house made of bamboo, because everyone needs one of those...

You never know what you'll find at Noz: garden furniture, coffee makers, mirrors, shoes, tee-shirts, rag rugs and children's toys. Last time I picked up tinned cherry apples, which the DH thought were disgusting and I ended up putting out for the birds to eat. But I do pretty well with scarves, and even sometimes with clothes - my favourite cotton hoodies with double-lined hoods are from Noz, along with the dress I wear to go swimming in summer - heavy cotton jersey with spandex. 

Just a simple change of scenery, rather than staring at four walls, was most welcome. Only slightly marred by a lorry flicking a pebble onto my windscreen on the way home, which entailed a quick trip to the garage for a resin fill (60-odd euros, which made the trip a tad expensive). Still, the repair is near-enough invisible and it gave K and I a chance to go and have a coffee in a local caff, surrounded by cooing black-collared doves, before finishing up with the supermarket shop and then home to our loving spouses.  

Oh well, back to work... 


Back from the smoke

A recent trip to London had me reeling at the wealth, and wealth of choice, on show.

Just back from spending nearly a week in London - partly work (meeting an editor) and partly pleasure (meeting up with friends etc). But also, of course, it gave me the opportunity to do some shopping.

This Easter, the weather has been unseasonably warm to say the least - instead of the average seasonal high of 16 degrees, London was nominally at 26 degrees but actually in parts far hotter, due to the belching air conditioning, hot-food vendors and the sheer press of people. I lived in London for nearly 20 years, but it was the most crowded I had ever seen it, and I formed some immediate impressions - that white Britons are very fat compared with the French (here I exempt the Asian, Far Eastern and Middle Eastern minorities, most of whom looked fabulous, especially the young Muslim girls in their fantastic sparkly hijab), that young British women don't half wear a shedload of makeup and that the majority of people remain strikingly badly dressed, given how much good stuff there is in the shops.

Some women, it's true, had opted for that most gorgeous of all city wear - the maxi dress, worn with bra showing, and pair of flat sandals. In this rig, you can safely float your way through the dirt, dust and diesel fumes, looking as cool as a cucumber. That's a look for younger (and preferably taller) women, of course, who don't mind revealing quite a lot of skin, but many of us older types seemed to favour the white cotton smock-front tunic - a cool option, though sadly teamed in many cases with all-too-random a pair of trousers underneath. A Parisienne would team such a blouse with slim beige capris and ballet flats, and look very cool in the process.

The sudden heatwave had clearly taken everyone by surprise and many of the younger women were still in sweater dresses and thick tights. I too was slightly stuck, having packed long-sleeve tees - and popped out of the hotel to the next-door charity shop and got myself a little linen shirt to wear over my thin chinos.

After lunch with my editor, I trawled most of Regent Street, and had a poke round Liberty's - a ghost of its former self and really most disappointing, especially for a sewist, as the former fabric floor is now only one small section selling nothing but lawn. Gone are the days of Nuno woven steel fabrics and Solbiati linens shot through with gold. Most of the fashion floors was also fairly blah, other than Crea Concepts - lovely thin knits in pastel colours - and Eskandar, where I would have bought everything on the rack, from the heavy slubby linen coats (£540) downwards.

After Liberty I had a look in Jaeger, but the clothes were way too formal for my life - there is a noticeable edge of 1980s formality creeping into fashion these days, along with the zinging colours of that era. Then I turned on my heel and headed for H&M to load up on basics.

Five years ago, when I was last in London, I bought half a dozen tees from here, and I'm still wearing them, so I braved the throng and ploughed into the shop, to find a great white voile shirt (£7), long-sleeve, v-neck, cotton-elasthane tees in black, white and black-and-white stripes (£6.99), and fabulous little cotton cardis (£9.99 - I bought a grey one, as the most useful colour).

That done, I headed for BHS to get bootcut jeggings - my go-to jean these days, teamed with a longer tee and a cotton cardi. These BHS jobs come in severals cuts, of which bootcut and flare are the most useful styles for an over-40s babe, and are made of good quality denim - an absolute bargain at £16.

This year, the firm has also focused on printed cotton jersey tops in a variety of shapes - get them while they're good, ladies, as these, I reckon, will be among the most useful items in a general wardrobe. I plumped for a taupe smock-front shirt with pink roses, which was pretty, a comfortable cut and - most importantly - needs no ironing.

Zara, which I had heard about but never seen, was interesting but too expensive for what it was, and after realising that my eyes were glazing over in John Lewis, I headed back to the hotel, quite shopped out but pleased with my purchases.

But how, I wonder, with so many good-quality basics in seemingly every shop, do so many women still look so crap in the street? There are masses of very good, plain vests, tees and jeans in basic colours, along with fitted white shirts, black pants, black stretch pencil skirts and mini trenches. But the women that I passed still manage to look mostly badly co-ordinated, shabby, and crumpled, with clashing prints and unflattering cuts.

It's most bizarre. Some of the problem, I think, MUST stem from there being simply too much choice - personally, I found it unhelpful.

Here in rural France, we're not exactly spoilt for choice, so many women shop from catalogues, which means you have to decide what it is you want. But in London, there is EVERYTHING at EVERY price, EVERYWHERE, and it is overwhelming. How is one supposed to come to a decision when faced with 40 different types of body lotion, or 100 different styles of black pants?

My guess is that what women actually do is continue to shop at just a few favorite and familiar outlets, and thereby limit their own choices that way, otherwise we would all wear out a hell of a lot of shoe leather.


Success in the sales

It's sales time again - here's how not to go mad in the rush

Today is the first full day of the sales and the shops are supposedly full of irresistible opportunities to snap up a bargain.

Except, they're not, this year. It's all turned pear-shaped for many retailers, with a combination of awful weather and a continuing recession keeping people at home until the last minute before Christmas, and many people also choosing to shop online instead. 

My sales shopping this year will be boring in the extreme - replacing the dishwasher that broke down three years ago and which we could never afford to repair. I've indulged myself with plenty of clothes anyway lately, buying up vintage coats as soon as the weather turned bitter, back in November. 

Nevertheless, if you're heading out to face the ravening hoards, consider these approaches to the sales. 

1 Stock up on basics: jeans, underwear, cashmere sweaters, white cotton or cream silk blouses, tights, black shoes for work, black stretch side-zip trousers. Boring maybe, but they'll give you tons of mileage.

2 Look for clothes that plug the holes in your wardrobe. We all have these: the right trouser, the right shoe, the blouse with the exact right neckline. Make a list of items that would make your current clothing more usable and flexible, and search for those. 

3 If you're after something specific, such as a party frock, head only for those shops that will offer you the best chance of getting what you want - don't get distracted by everything else in the mall. Take any accessories you'll be wearing with you, so you can see how the whole look goes together. 

4 Try going to shops you'd love to shop at but normally can't afford. When I lived in London, I'd hit South Molton Street and New Bond Street before everywhere else.  

5 Dress for success. Wear comfortable slip-off shoes that you can walk in for long periods but which don't hamper you when trying on trousers and skirts; a button-down or zip-off cardi or top so that you don't have to pull things over your head; black or nude tights and a black or nude sleeveless vest that keeps you pretty well covered in the changing room (or even outside it, if push comes to shove) and also creates a neat silhouette over which you can try blouses, sweaters etc.

6 Time your day. For tops, accessories, coats or jackets, you can afford to shop in the morning. If you're looking for bottom halves (skirts or trousers), or dresses with a waistband, shop in the afternoon after a good lunch. That way you will get a better fit, as you'll have a full stomach and will be retaining some fluid. Shoes and boots are best bought at the end of the day when you've had time to walk around and your feet have spread somewhat. Plan some comfort breaks - lunch, mid-morning and mid-afternoon coffee, and if you can, take a small bottle of water and a snack in your bag so you don't slump from those dehydrated or low blood-sugar moments.

Lastly, set a budget. Whether it's £50 or £500, stick to it. Draw the cash out of the bank and take it with you in a secure bag. Leave your credit cards at home. We all know it's far too easy to get carried away otherwise.



Pigs on the table and pigs at the trough

The so-called 'recession' is really beginning to bite, and there's no clearer sign of it than my supermarket trolley

I did the second shop of the week yesterday, and frankly it was painful. Since we downshifted to France, money's always been tight - not allowing much leeway for clothes, or books or holidays etc, but at least we've always been able to eat well. Now, with work fast disappearing into the ether and the strong Euro making our UK earnings sink to a pittance, we're also being hit by the third whammy of food pricing.

A couple months ago, I could do the weekly shop pretty easily for 100 euros, doing the main shop at Lidl and the top-up at SuperU. I struggled to get it down to 75 if we were in a cashflow rut. But now, it's a struggle to get it below 120 euros and if I turn my back for a second, it's up to 130 or 140.

What the hell is happening to prices? Surely there's not less food in the world than there was in January. And there can't be THAT many more people than two months ago. I know the oil price is savage, but I can't help thinking that in this case, the supermarkets are also loading the price and taking advantage. And I buy mostly locally produced goods such as meat and vegetables - it's not as if they're having to come very far. We don't buy rice or anything exotic.

OK, I count my blessings here, because at least we live in the West, and there's a welfare state and with the worst will in the world, we're not about to starve to death like people in Haiti very well might. But I will admit that it is getting very tedious, constantly shopping for the cheapest cider, the cheapest orange juice, the cheapest cuts of meat, and trying to string together something reasonable out of it.

A caisse de porc, which is a big pack of mixed pork cuts, cost 2.30 euros a kilo three weeks ago, but yesterday it was 4.00. Instead I bought a pack of even cheaper cuts for 2.80 a kilo, which turned out to be massives lumps of pork shoulder. They looked like one of Christopher Moltisanti's victims, laid out in the kitchen, but thankfully Elizabeth David came to the rescue with cooking methods and we ate porc a la style provencale, with white wine and thyme (it was delicious, btw).

The thing is, how much pork can one family reasonably be expected to eat in a week? This is a meat I used to avoid altogether, but with most other meats coming in above 8 euros per kilo, and fish even worse, pork is suddenly looking a lot more attractive. And the DH is most definitely a meat-eater - middle-class vegetarianism is not an option.

Oh well, since there is nothing we can do about it, we must just get on with it. But I am alone in being pissed at John Paulson? And at George Soros - these people who push money around the world and actually contribute fuck all? We pay about 50 per cent tax on our earnings, while they pay about 15 per cent, and they earned nearly $2 billion between them last year. Wonder how much pork I could buy with that?


Bra savvy part four - shopping checklist

What to look for next time you buy a bra - a quick guide

Fundamentally, there are only half a dozen criteria for finding a great, supportive bra, so take this list with you the next time you go shopping:

Look for:

* Cups with 3-4 sections.

* Full cups that cover the top part of the breast.

* Tough fabric with little stretch.

* Wide shoulder straps.

* Underwires and/or side boning.

* A deep back band with three hooks.


* Balconnet styles.

* Bras that come in sizes bigger than your own.

In more detail:

blog imageSections. Count the number of sections in the cup to see how supportive the bra is going to be. You should be looking at a 3- or even 4-section cup for maximum support. The absolute best bra I've seen, but don't own, is this one by Freya. At $80, this would be a serious investment for me, but this bra has a three-section lower cup, plus a top section - at four sections, it should offer fantastic support. It also has an underwire, which I like.

blog imageFull cups. IE: a cup that covers the top part of the breast, as in this wireless bra by Miss Mary of Sweden. Cup shapes other than full cup leave you at risk of either falling out or packing yourself in too tight and flattening your breasts rather than uplifting them - sadly this means that mature women generally have to live without demi-cup styles or deep-plunge style bras. In particular, demi-cup bras do not have a large enough underwire to support larger breasts effectively.

Sturdy fabric. Many canny bra manufacturers make the top section and straps from lace, to give the design some visual lightness and make it less like 'corsetry', but the lower sections should be made from tough fabric with little stretch.

Wide shoulder straps. Although bra straps are only designed to carry 10 per cent of the weight of your breasts, they need to be firm and not too stretchy to do even that much. Look for straps half an inch wide or more and pass on any that you can stretch very far - bra elastic should be firm and resistant.

blog imageUnderwires. All designers will tell you that to be truly supportive, a bra needs an underwire, but I feel it is largely a matter of preference. Underwires do give a more rounded shape to the breast, as in the Jewels bra by Pour Moi (left) but if you find underwires uncomfortable, there are many well-designed bras that don't have them. The Doreen design by Triumph - the best-selling bra in the UK - does not have an underwire, and nor do some designs by Miss Mary of Sweden. If you buy a bra without an underwire, look out for side boning to give the bra some structure.

blog imageA deep bra band. The bra band should be about 2.5 inches deep between the breasts, have the cups set into it, and should have at least three hooks at the back. The bra band does the major support job of the bra, so this part of the bra is crucial. This Empreinte bra by Thalia disguises the sturdy bra band very effectively with lace.

Side boning. Especially important if the bra has no underwire, such as the Doreen bra by Triumph - vertical boning under the armpit prevents the side strap from rolling. Side boning, and quite deep sides of 2.5in or more will help prevent 'fat back'. If fat back is a real problem for you, consider a bra with deeper sides, or even a mid-line or long-line bra, which will give you a tiny midriff. In black or red, this kind of bra is really quite sexy.

blog imageSome deep-sided bras also come in front-fastening, which makes them a lot easier to put on, such as this front-loader from Glamorise. Front-fastening means you can undo the bra a notch or two if you wear a low-cut top, so it gives you some flexibility with necklines, but note that the straps on a front-fastener are not generally adjustable so you must be very careful to get the right size.

blog imageBalconnet styles. Balconnet styles suit most women and are especially useful for larger chests. They also enable you to wear a lowish, scooped neckline in place of a plunge top. Panache's balconnet bra gets rave reviews from buyers, while this pink 'Passion' balconnet bra by Ballet offers tremendous support without losing any femininity in the process.

Size. Look to see if the bra you fancy comes in sizes bigger than your size - if it's designed to support watermelons, it should deal with your honeydews with relative ease.


Thank God for La Redoute

La Redoute rides to the rescue once again...

Well, how nice to be flicking through the latest La Redoute catalogue and, suddenly becoming aware of how nice the spread was, and how attractive the model, to find it entitled: "J'ai 40 ans, et alors?" (I'm 40, so what?).