Higher Learning

Two days before Thanksgiving, at the peak of English Autumn, I spent the day with a dear friend at her home near the University of Oxford. Nothing inspires a need and desire to acquire knowledge like an afternoon touring a school established over nine-hundred years ago, a place filled with tradition and endowed with more riches than money could ever buy. I gained further appreciation for time-worn, beautiful things during my day there.

The architecture at Oxford spans centuries; the oldest building I saw was built in the 1300’s, the newest in the 1960’s. Classic details abound:

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Students at Oxford belong to “Colleges,” of which there are over forty. Colleges are like small campuses within the larger whole where students study, live, worship, and dine. This is the Hall (or dining room, or cafeteria at the humble institution where I attended university) at Balliol College, one of Oxford’s oldest, founded in 1263.

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It was just before lunchtime when we visited the Hall; tables were set with china, silver cutlery, and linen napkins, and featured brass double lamps every few feet of their length. Walls were adorned with portraits of College founders, benefactors, and notable members, many of whom went on to become Prime Ministers of England. Selections from the day’s menu posted at the door were tomato soup, curried lamb, and a vegan pasta option.

There were many grassy quads in the Colleges, though my understanding is students are not allowed to lounge there, hence the pristine beauty.

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Each College also has its own Chapel, most associated with the Church of England. They were smaller than the Halls, no less-rich in ornament or detail. Each Chapel has a choir, and I saw several postings for Traditional Carol Sings to be held on Advent Sunday, this December 1.

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My friend said students pride themselves on being able to keep hold of a bicycle for a whole term. Some bikes I saw were locked to fences, such as these; others were standing freely with a U-lock fastened between the wheels. I suppose a stolen bike would be obvious, if someone was walking along with one sporting a lock, but unfortunately theft abounds.

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This is the Hall at Jesus College, founded in 1571 by Queen Elizabeth I, pictured above the center table. Originally it was for theological studies, but now students pursue a range of subjects.

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The craftsmanship at Oxford is stunning, as shown in the details of these carved pillars and doors:

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This picture shows the entrance to a Hall, and the Hall is attached to a “dormitory.” I don’t remember which College this is, but as a sidenote, Harry Potter was filmed at Oxford’s Christ Church College, continuing their “long association with children’s literature- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were inspired and written here by Lewis Carroll.”

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As impressive as was Oxford itself, the most jaw-dropping place we visited was just off campus: Blackwell’s Booksellers. Room after room, floor after floor of books, in which book lovers like me could become lost for days! Thankfully, there is a cafe on an upper floor for subsistence, in case it truly happened.

After a perfect afternoon touring Oxford, we returned to my friend’s perfect and sweet little brick row house, where a fire was laid ready to enjoy during a cup of tea and then a nap.

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I told my friend I believe William Morris had her in mind when he stated my favorite rule for home decor:

“Have nothing in your houses

that you do not know to be useful

or believe to be beautiful.”

Granted, she started with impressive acquisitions of furniture and art handed down through her family. But she also told me she spent years buying and selling at car boot sales and each time she sold goods of her own she brought nothing home. Whether this meant selling everything, donating to charity, or at times even leaving something on the side of the road, bringing nothing home fiercely edited her belongings to the things she loved most in the world.

…As was exemplified by the decor in the lovely little guest room in which I stayed:

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The painting on the wall was an heirloom and was inspiration for the room’s color scheme: soft beige and gray and dusty blue. But instead of using obvious pink from the flowers, my friend turned it up a bit with red accents. She also used sumptuous combinations of textured textiles: crisp cotton sheets, a baby-soft fleece spread, and the runner at the foot of the bed is a silk sari from India. The beige and red striped linen on the small chair was repeated on a bed throw pillow and on a wide Roman shade for double casement windows. I love the surprising pop of green in the tiny lamps on the dresser in the third photo. And the decanter of water and glasses on a tiny tray, a perfect touch.

My favorite detail (glimpsed in the second photo) were flokati wool rugs layered on top of sisal at each side of the bed. So wonderful to sink my toes into when I woke in the morning.

I came away from Oxford with two strong reaffirmations: A desire to learn throughout my life, to not ever be content with my current store of knowledge. And a desire to edit my own belongings as strictly as has my friend, so my surroundings will be as lovely as hers; so friends visiting me will feel as comfortable and comforted as I felt in her home.


Paris, faire du shopping

You find yourself in Paris for a day. How do you make the most of the opportunity? You go to the Marais.

And in the Marais it occurs to you that some people are simply born French; the rest of us may pine and dream, but the privilege of being French belongs to only 65.7 million people in the world. Being one of 315 million crass Americans, you lament you are not French.

You see a tiny man with crutches and beret, shuffling his way along a cobblestone street. More than likely he has lived out his seven or eight or nine decades in this very neighborhood; his blessing and his curse. It can’t be easy to navigate in his condition but there he is making his way slowly, past three little girls in flapper haircuts and school uniforms, each vying for their Daddy’s ear to report their day. Does the old man have daughters, you wonder? Have they gone far away from him by now?

You turn down a quiet, non-commercial street, walk past a large building block with a gated inner courtyard. You see open casement windows, spilling warm light onto window boxes full of geraniums and perfectly symmetrical topiaries. You notice that other buildings on the street, those without the protection of a courtyard, have decorative iron grilles on windows, not bars like your neighborhood in Brooklyn. The grilles create an elegant fortress which simply wags its finger, “No, no…” at threats from the outside world.

Another turn, another commercial street, an entire shop selling only scarves. The French have elevated the humble scarf to such prominence in fashion. Earlier, you saw a man in a v-neck sweater looking quite sexy. Then he put a scarf around his neck and instantly looked effeminate. Too bad, but so French.

Then, a window display of artful underwear, panties made of perfectly smooth Lycra, scenes from assorted famous paintings across the crotch. Wearing them would make one feel beautiful from the skin out.

Here, a perfume shop advertising custom fragrances. You recall your last trip to Paris, meeting two girls on the Métro. One of them spritzed herself with a heady, autumnal perfume. You asked what it was and learned that the girls were second year students in a five-year course developing fragrance. You had never heard of such a school; but of course, they replied, “It exists only in France.”

You step inside a home accessory shop filled with objects made of glass and paper and wood. Their beauty is juxtaposed against the setting: a hodgepodge of storefronts joined together, their once elegant tile floors unapologetically veined with patches of cement. You almost buy an enamel tray, to fuel your addiction to trays, but decide against it. You’re trying to edit your style and none of the trays in this store call to your heart.

Moving on, you see a cheese shop and brace yourself for entry, knowing the aroma will overpower. You used not to like the strong smell of cheese but now you enjoy inhaling deeply, coating the insides of your lungs in the must. This shop is a sensory treat in more ways than one with careful displays of pickles and chutneys on the shelves, towers of cheese wheels and tubs of crème fraiche in the chilled cases. The walls of the shop are covered by art deco tile in light yellow and green. Reading the labels in the case, you vow to improve your knowledge of cheese, your ability to choose something nice. As you exit, you have a laugh at the “No Smoking” sign on the door. Probably the only place in France where smoking has forever been forbidden, le fromagerie.

Outside, a motorcycle honks before rounding a tight corner, and you do a double-take at a woman in drag. A woman, you’re quite certain, so that means she’s not wearing drag, right? She’s the most carefully dressed specimen you’ve seen all day. You’ve noticed most French women look incredible, yet often their clothes do not match. This woman is a Pantone vision in purple and black. It must have taken her hours to prepare.

Other shops: a purveyor of fine tea; a tiny, tiny florist; a novelty store where you catch the clerk’s eye and share a laugh over a sweatshirt in the window, emblazoned with an Hermès style logo, only this one says:


Next you see two women at the trunk of a car, one pulling a dress from a large shopping bag. It is cream-colored lace, and obviously holds significance to the one who shows it to the other. In a few minutes, while you’re browsing a vintage store called Gilda, the woman will come in with the dress, present it to the male attendant, and make a strong sales pitch. You overhear the man say, “I find this part strange,” as he examines the bodice. Yet, a price will be proposed, a bargain will be made, and the woman will leave with cash in hand. The man will stuff the dress back into the bag and under the counter.

In front of a pharmacy is a group of university students, talking and laughing loudly. Their presence almost keeps you from going inside, but you’re on a mission. You’re looking for papier d’arménie, an ancient natural room deodorizer. You try always to buy this on trips to Paris. It’s a small booklet of paper strips, and when a match is set to a strip, like incense, the paper slowly burns and sends forth a rich, clean perfume. So you step around the students and look inside the pharmacy, and behold! papier d’arménie. You buy three booklets. When you complete the transaction in not-quite-fluent French, the clerk says the price: “sept euro,” then to account for your deficiency repeats in English: “seven Europe.” He immediately catches his mistake, as does the woman working at his side, and you all have a laugh. You tell him it’s okay, you understood.

Mais oui.

Le Beaux Verre

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I spent a rainy afternoon this week wandering my favorite Parisian neighborhood, Le Marais. This tiny shop on a meandering side street captivated me from the moment I saw its jewel box contents.

I admire so many French customs, and the stylish ease with which the French live. Re-loving old and beautiful things was, I believe, original to the French, who even hand down their homes, filling them with treasures from the past. It’s hard to imagine how precious goods such as the glass pictured here has survived into the 21st Century, but I’m thankful it has, providing an elegant example that living mindfully need not be beauty-deprived.