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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lessons from Madame Chic

My Kindle is bursting at the seams with all sorts of books.   Quite a few of these books have to do with the French.  The French women, the French culture, the French food.  Most are written by women who either visited or lived there for an extended period of time or married into the country.  Being an immigrant myself, I find culture comparison fascinating.  I also think that although the French women are idealized as the epitome of European femininity, most of the traits attributed to them are common to women all across Europe, including Russia and Ukraine.  Since these traits are not easily cultivated nor are they culturally supported in most of the United States, I like these books as reminders of what's possible.

Lessons from Madame Chic:  20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris is one of those books.  It's written by Jennifer L. Scott, who also writes a blog at The Daily Connoisseur.

Although the book is based on a relatively short period of time Jennifer spent living in Paris, it's a much better book about the French women than some written by women who've spent years living there.  Here are the twenty stylish secrets from Jennifer's book with my comments.
  1. Snacking is so not chic.  (Interesting in theory, but I like a defined snack here and there.  Although I agree that non-stop undisciplined grazing is absolutely not chic.)
  2. Deprive yourself not.  (Quality is important, from food to clothes to daily experiences.  A small decadent meal, especially made from the highest quality ingredients, is so much more filling, physically and psychologically, than a big bag of zero-calorie carrots.)
  3. Exercise is a part of life, not a chore.  (I cannot agree more with this.  Americans spend their lives sitting.  In their cars, in front of their computers at work, on their couches in the evening watching TV.  Our cities are not designed for walking.  Our lives are not designed for walking.  Yet, walking 10,000 steps a day is essential to health.  Personally, on a typical work day, I manage to get at most 3,000 steps by the evening.  I double that number by spending a mere 15(!) minutes on the treadmill.  It's really sad.  Also, recent studies show that gym warriors who are devoted to their burn-500-calories-an-hour-spinning-classes are faring no better than otherwise completely sedentary people.   Oh, and sitting for six hours a day greatly increases one's chances of heart disease.  Europeans believe in activity.  Americans believe in exercise.  Activity is something you do all day, walking, cleaning, doing dishes, generally moving, not at a predetermined time inside a gym.) 
  4. Liberate yourself with a ten-item wardrobe.  (Jennifer is a proponent of reducing your core wardrobe for each season down to 10 items plus a few additions.  Again, the idea is quality vs. quantity.  For me, this is something that's nice in theory, but I actually think that America's winning on this front, and I am not talking about the disposable clothes you can get at discount stores.  Women in Europe will starve themselves to save money for designer clothing, shoes, and bags.   I adore the American sales and know several European women who fly to the U.S. to stock up on high quality (not designer) and extremely affordable clothes.  I also think I would get extremely bored with just ten items a season.  For me, the trick is to weed through your wardrobe on a regular basis and let go of anything that's past its prime.   And don't buy anything just because it's on sale.  Or because it looks okay on you.  Only buy what looks spectacular on you.  Even if it gets you to 20 items.)
  5. Find your true style.  (I so agree with this one.  I think this is a lost (or never acquired?) art for a lot of women.   You need to know what looks good on you, regardless of what's hot in fashion now or what someone gave you as a gift.  Jennifer tells a funny story about wearing a sweater in a color that didn't suit her just because someone gave it to her and learning from Madame Chic that this is a no-no.   Really, you deserve better.  You deserve to wear cuts and colors that suit you.   (And eat camembert rather than carrots.))
  6. Perfect le no-makeup look.  (That's a big one.  It's not easy to look like you have no makeup, yet use it to accentuate your best features.  Although I've happily gone to the office for weeks and months on end with no makeup at all, a little eye shadow and a layer or two of mascara can do wonders.)
  7. Take care of your skin.  (Amen to that.  Without great skin, you can forget about the le no-makeup look. Or any look worth having, for that matter.  Great skin is the foundation of it all.  Great skin shows great health, so it starts with a healthy lifestyle, fruits, veggies, clean air and water, some safe sun exposure, and stress management.  And did I mention the probiotics?   Clarisonic Mia also helps.  Great skin is my hobby.)
  8. Look presentable always.  (I have to hand it to Jennifer.  I've read stories on her blog about always pulling herself together for a dog walk.  (And it paying off when she runs unexpectedly into someone she knows.)  I don't have a dog.   But even if I did, I'd be walking that dog while wearing leggings and a sweatshirt, not jeans and a smart shirt. Always looking presentable is very European, where most women won't run out for bread and milk without makeup and a thought-through outfit; and I find that very few American women see any value in this.  For me, the truth is somewhere in the middle.  I'm busy, so the (imaginary) dog gets walked in leggings.  But I do like dressing up.   Just for the sake of dressing up.   It makes me feel good and alive and optimistic.  Funnily, early on when I was dating Bill, I went to church once with his mom and dressed up for the occasion.   When I arrived to her house, she looked me over and said:  "We are Catholics, we don't dress up for the church."  It made me giggle.  Honestly, I dressed up for myself.  And for the viewing pleasure of the public.)
  9. Practice the art of femininity.  (Another largely lost art in the States.  European women find their strength in acting feminine, in the States it's mostly seen as a weakness.  And in an office environment it's often seen as out of place.  Yes, that's a difficult one.)
  10. Always use the best things you have.  (I'm there!   Break out the wedding china for a Wednesday dinner.  None of us knows how long we are here for, so we should enjoy every day.  Every day we are alive is special and worth celebrating.  Savings things for special occasions makes no sense because you end up not enjoying what you own because the special day never comes.  Use the best of everything you own.  Now, today.  You deserve so much better than subpar.)
  11. Live life as a formal affair.  (Alexis is a big fan of this one.  She likes to have appetizers before her meal (on a separate plate, as a separate course, please) and she insists on eating her dinner in the dining room (no breakfast table, please.  I mean, seriously, how gauche).  She also wears primarily dresses and her best jewelry to her pre-school.  She just turned 5, but I have a lot to learn from her.)
  12. Clutter is so not chic.  (Yes, absolutely!  Clutter is awful and depressing.  I am big on throwing unwanted, unneeded things away and constantly organizing the ones I keep.  Sometimes I go overboard.)
  13. Seek out the arts.  (Yes, I agree that opera and art exhibitions are good for the soul.  As a kid, I spent five years in an art school and five years in a music school.  I saw a lot of good art and heard a lot of good music.  These days, I have a serious job, which gives me quite a bit of food for thought on a daily basis.  I want something mindless for entertainment, so I usually seek out light and unrealistic comedies.  And the Real Housewives of just about any city.  I don't seek out the arts, but if they find me on occasion, I don't run away.)
  14. Cultivate an air of mystery.  (This one's very European and very unAmerican, where everyone shares everything with anyone who'll listen.   Okay, that was an exaggeration, but really, people here are much more in the mood to share their personal information and to make fast friends than in Europe.  Not sharing much helps to preserve that mystery, keep certain people out of your private life and at a distance, and spare your own precious resources otherwise consumed by mindless chatter.)
  15. Practice the art of entertaining.  (This one is also so well suited for Europe, where the work week is shorter and working around the clock to show your commitment to the cause is not expected.  Unfortunately, the American pace of life leaves little time for leisurely dinner parties, with multiple courses and deep discussions.  But it's always good to strive for having just a bit of this in your life.)
  16. Reject the new materialism.  (Yes, your grandmother's china, even if chipped, is an heirloom to be treasured.  Fix what you can, rather than throw away.   Don't buy fifteen of everything.  Personally, I embrace the new materialism, in moderation.  Right along side with the heirloom china.)
  17. Cultivate your mind.   (Yes, read books, look for new information, think critically.  Grow.   It's also important to be disciplined in your thinking and not allow negative thinking patterns to color your mood - but that's from other books.)  
  18. Find simple pleasures.  (Yes, you can find a lot of pleasure as a concierge guest aboard Disney Fantasy, visiting balmy St. Thomas in the dead of winter, but you should strive to find as much pleasure as you can in your everyday life.   In your child's laughter, in grocery shopping, in walking, in admiring that baby hyacinth you bought for $2.49 at Trader Joe's that bloomed into a gorgeous, heavy, and oh-so-fragrant flower.)  
  19. Value quality above all.  (This is similar to 10 and 11.  The idea is that it is better to have one designer purse than fifteen poorly made purses.  Personally, I prefer fifteen designer purses.   But, yes, quality above all is a great goal to strive for.  From grass-fed organic beef to the eco-and-human-safe household products and skincare to the flooring you have in your home and back to organic eggs.  Unfortunately, quality is expensive.  But that's where the idea of a minimalist wardrobe and no clutter comes in.)
  20. Live a passionate life.  (Life lived without passion is only a shadow of what it could be.  You have to love what you do and live your life the way you want to.  Be high on life.)
Jennifer just finished and sent to the publisher her second book.   I can't wait to read it.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Happy Sunday!

Winter is shamelessly stealing our well-earned spring time.  We are one week away from April but somehow we woke up this morning to snow on the ground.    Our Easter bunny flag was flapping in the wind over the snow-covered front lawn, looking surprised and out of place.   Any day now, though, right?  I've been defiantly wearing ballet slippers for the last two weeks.   Although almost every day I am tempted to pull out my UGG boots out of premature storage.

This was yet another busy week and busy weekend.   Most importantly, our extended family welcomed it's newest member!   One of Bill's first cousins had a baby boy on Wednesday!  We can't wait to meet him.   But since he lives half way across the country from us, we will need to wait.

Yesterday, Alexis and I went through five different stores in two hours.  Although Alexis feels fully entitled to at least one toy from each store she visits, I managed to not buy her any toys yesterday.  At store #3, she tried begging for a stuffed Easter bunny and I had to remind her that we have at least three of them already at home.  She then held up the bunny to the cashier and asked:  "Do YOU care if I get the bunny?!"   The cashier honestly said:  "No, I don't care!"    Umm, thanks.  The bunny stayed at the store.  After I returned Alexis home and Emily brought a friend over for a play date, I made yet another run to the home-decorating store.  I wanted to buy a vase for the front hall, which I spotted earlier, and I did.  I also bought two pictures and three metal art pieces.  Bill spent the rest of the afternoon hanging them all up.   Here is one of the pictures, which we hung in the basement.  

We then had our dear friends over for dinner and had a wonderful evening.  Their five-year-old son and Alexis put on quite a show, signing along to Frozen.

This morning, after visiting our family for breakfast, we spent some time looking at fish tanks and fish.  We went to a high end store, where fish tanks+decor+fish go for anywhere from $1,200 to $15,000 and then went to Petsmart, where you buy your own tank, your own decor, your own fish and assemble it all at your own risk.  My guess is, the Petsmart fish wouldn't survive at our house past the evening hours, since no one in the family knows how to take care of fish and I wasn't quite ready to spend hundreds of dollars on a starter fish tank.   So we are still thinking....

Friday, March 21, 2014

Roasted Squash & Beet Salad

This is yet another winner from the Primal Cravings cookbook.  Like every self respecting Russian or Ukrainian, I love beets.  And I get amused every time a cashier fishes out a bunch of beets from my shopping cart, turns it around a few times, then waves it in the air and asks me:  "What this?!"  I always honestly respond:  "Beets."  The rest of the checkout process usually continues in silence.  Sometimes, a particularly curious cashier will ask me what my intentions are toward that bunch.  Sometimes, a cashier will try to count each beet separately and charge me triple amount (they are actually sold as a unit, three-in-one).   I bought these beets from the Sprouts market and was pleasantly surprised that the cashier knew her veggies, no questions asked.

The book suggests using canned beets for this recipe to avoid getting your hands colored in bright red, but I don't mind the color, or the extra work of roasting and chopping my own beets.   I do, however, mind the BPA and other nasty things in the liners of the cans, which potentially leach into the food they contain.  


1 large butternut squash
2   15-ounce cans whole beets
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for roasting the squash
3  tbsp orange juice
1 tbsp fresh tarragon, minced (I skipped it)
Salt and pepper to taste


1.   Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with a silicone pat or parchment paper.
2.   Peel and cut the butternut squash, making sure you remove all the seeds from the bulbous part of the squash.  Cut the squash into small cubes, about 1-inch squares (I cut mine a bit smaller)
3.   Place the squash on a baking sheet, and drizzle with olive oil and salt.  Toss to coat.  Roast until soft, about 15 to 20 minutes.
4.  In serving bowl, whisk together olive oil, orange juice, tarragon, and some salt and pepper.
5.  Cut the beets into quarters and place into serving dish.
6.  Once the squash is soft, place in a serving bowl.  Toss everything to combine.

Organic beets and butternut squash from Sprouts.

Wash each beet and cut the stems off; place each one on a sheet of foil (large enough to wrap the beet); drizzle some olive oil on each beet.
Wrap them up and place them in a cooking dish (they may leak some juice during roasting) and roast.
Cut up the squash, sprinkle with salt, drizzle with olive oil, and roast.
Don't forget the orange juice.  Mixed with the olive oil from the roasting process, it creates an incredible dressing.  This salad is even better the next day.

Monday, March 17, 2014


This cruise was our second time on Disney Fantasy and second time at Remy, a romantic adult restaurant that serves French-inspired cuisine.  It is named after Remy, the character from the Disney/Pixar movie, Ratatoille, and the little mouse appears throughout the restaurant's design.  The restaurant is located on Deck 12 and has a perfect ocean view.  Interestingly, although there are 1500 crew members on Disney Fantasy who come from all over the world, the waiters at Remy that I saw were all French.

On the first cruise, we enjoyed a champagne brunch at Remy.  It was exquisite.  The second time around, we booked the same champagne brunch, but then also saw an announcement of an afternoon dessert at Remy.  It was a one time event on the cruise, so we signed up for both the brunch and the desserts.  By the time the Remy day rolled around, none of us could eat anything anymore, which was quite unfortunate.   To remedy the situation, we canceled the brunch, replaced it with a two-hour workout and showed up at Remy in the afternoon ready to take on the desserts.  I was really glad for this preparation, when I realized that the dessert tasting included six full size desserts with wine pairings.

Remy's glass-enclosed wine room has 900 bottles of wine.
Remy's dress code suggests jackets for men and cocktail dresses for ladies.  I wore my favorite Kate Spade dress.  Fortunately, none of the chocolate ended up on it.

The first dessert was this interestingly shaped cheesecake.  It had a mousse-like texture.

The second dessert was a chocolate ball.  After the waiter drizzled hot raspberry syrup on top, the chocolate promptly melted revealing raspberry cream inside.

This is a Napoleon.   With hazelnut cream inside.  Amazing!

This pistachios dessert was interesting, but the flavor was a bit too strong for my taste.  

Rose-raspberry macaron.  It was giant and tasted like a rose.

Chocolate soufflé was a nice finish.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Happy Pi Day!

Hello, Friends!   To all of you who wrote and asked where were the new posts and where was I, I am here and I am sorry.  Between Alexis's two birthday parties, kids' doctors' appointments, swim and piano lessons, making sure the governments gets its taxes in April, and a picked up workout schedule, I haven't had the time to post.  And even though it's really late now, I wanted to wish all of you Happy Pi Day!  Not that I ever loved math, but if I get to eat pie, it can't be all that bad.

Today after work, I picked up the girls and we went to The Fresh Market.  Fish Fridays are a big deal there during Lent, so I picked up some sashimi tuna steaks for just $3.99, some new European and American chocolate to try, some cheese from France, and, of course, a freshly baked apple pie.  There was a very friendly lady giving out samples of apple pie with vanilla ice cream at the entrance and the girls were thrilled.   Although Alexis asked for just ice cream claiming that she doesn't like apple pie.   Yes, we've found that one person who doesn't like apple pie.  And she lives in our house.

We grilled tuna steaks for dinner, steamed the mussels for Emily, went for a walk by the lake and admired the evening skies.

I hardly ever buy commercial baked goods, but this pie was delicious.   Especially with ice cream.  And it made a perfect ending to a hectic week.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

We Are Back from a Disney Cruise

 Last night we returned to a snowy Kansas City from our fourth seven-night Caribbean Disney cruise.   It was our second time on Disney Fantasy, Disney's newest ship.   It was the first cruise for my sister, her husband, my almost-year-old nephew and Bill's parents, who we convinced to take the trip with us.  My mom was with us, as well, for her fourth cruise.   Although we were a bit worried, having talked so many members of our family into giving up a week of their time and untold thousands of dollars, fortunately for us, everyone had a great time.  

We sailed on Saturday, February 22, were at sea for two days, were in St. Maarten on Tuesday, in St. Thomas on Wednesday, at sea on Thursday, and in Castaway Cay on Friday.  Saturday was the sad day of vacation being over.   (Also, long flights, a layover, busy airports, and traveling all day with two small children and one baby rarely amount to a lot of fun.)  And today was an unpack-do-laundry-organize-the-house-go-through-mail day.  As we were unpacking yet another suitcase, Alexis excitedly asked:  "Are we packing for our vacation in Hawaii?!"  Obviously, some of us are ready to keep on traveling.  

The weather on this cruise was amazing all the way until some rain the Castaway Cay day.  Because of the rain, the girls didn't get to spend any time on the beach this time.  Still, rain and an 80 degree weather is much better than several inches of snow and -9 degrees in KC today.  The schools are cancelled tomorrow for another snow day.   This has been by far the most brutal winter since I moved to KC 10 years ago.  At some point it will thaw out and the spring will come, hopefully, soon.  Until then we will have our memories and pictures.  I will post a lot more about our various experiences on the ship and all the fun the kids had.   For now, just a few pictures.

Disney Fantasy docked in St. Maarten
Midship elevators
Minnie Mouse, by entrance to the Royal Court restaurant

Deck 3 
Alexis, dressed as Princess Jasmine, on the balcony of our stateroom, looking at the gorgeous ocean

Sometimes Alexis gets very serious and contemplative

But not for long...

Princes Auriel and Princess Jasmine meeting Buzz Lightyear

Mango cheesecake from the Cabanas

Aqua Duck at night

Aqua Duck, Deck 11, Disney movies on a big screen 

Cinderella cupcake at a private Princess Tea event 

Private sun deck for concierge guests
Meeting Minnie
St. Thomas, view from the ship
St. Thomas, with my beautiful girls
Animators Palate restaurant
Mickey Bar ice cream
Alexis is getting a pirate makeover for the Pirate night (the night we sailed from St. Maarten).  Her given pirate name was Gertrude Firecastle.