Category Archives: Home

fine art photography for europhiles

Our home is a collection of old and new. When returning to the states after living in Europe, we shipped many of our favorite things that held sentimental value from our time spent there. Our yellow modern Italian couches and other furniture pieces, dishes, artwork such as framed antique maps, books, and, naturally, our Alessi favorites, as I describe in this past post.

But what had become a challenge was an update to our artwork. Over our modern Italian couches and near several framed black and white photographs, hung a fresco-like painting of Siena on canvas purchased in Italy. It held sentimental value but felt old-fashioned. In fact, much of today’s European and Italian design is more modern than those Americans promoting Tuscan kitchens would like to believe. Our Northern Italian friends have the latest in glass tile, and favor clean lines, modern art and appliances over a traditional look. While we have many traditional items in our home such as a large french-style kitchen pine table, it became clear it was time to update this piece of art on the wall. But how? How does a Europhile – lover of history and things old – accomplish this?

I found my solution last month, while perusing the shelves at our local bookstore downtown for Christmas presents. Above the books, I discovered artistic photographs displayed around the room. The art show was featuring the work of Northern California photographer Dee Conway.

"Room in the Louvre", Dee Conway

“Room in the Louvre” Dee Conway

Several sepia-colored prints from photographs featuring European  architecture that appeared to be near or around Paris caught my attention. (The photos are archival prints on watercolor paper from a film negative).


Dee Conway

Dee Conway

Dee Conway

One photograph in particular, shot wide angle by Conway from a circular window looking out onto the Louvre’s back courtyard produces a peaceful effect with its shadows, texture and clouds.  Quite large and framed in light wood, the photograph – for me – feels so familiar and represents why views like these in Europe never fail to catch my eye and keep me gazing; they fill my soul and spirit when I’m there. I never tire of it.

"The Louvre", Dee Conway

“The Louvre”, Dee Conway

One of her framed photographs has taken the place of the Siena fresco and, with the addition of a few Missoni-style, brightly-striped couch pillows, our room has been updated with the most perfect effect.

All photos by permission of Dee Conway photography at


wallpaper for posh bookworms

This week’s The New York Times Style Magazine included something in their must-haves section for the home that is sure to get my nose out of a book.

The Bibliothèque pattern is Hermès’s first wallpaper collection and features images of a library of French equestrian books.

I’m not even sure I should be calling it wallpaper. Wallpaper to me is the yellow, orange and green striped pattern of my childhood bedroom.  But I’m having fun thinking of the ways I could hang it. Over a cabinet or buffet table? On a narrow wall? (Naturally it’s not a substitute for real, breathing books).

“Bibliothèque” comes in four colors. Want to take a peek? Go to the Hermes web site.   (Give the site a chance to load.) Then choose one from a virtual bucket of rolls, drag it to the “wall”  and “hang” it using a virtual brush. No trimming, smoothing corners or sticky paste required.  Then roll with the possibilities for your home. Price on request.

3 reasons why I live in a university town

My biggest piece of advice for an expat or traveler returning home and feeling uneasy about fitting back into the American lifestyle is this:

Head straight to your nearest university town.

Feel completely out-of-place and suffering from reverse culture shock?  University towns welcome you. It’s no surprise they are featured in books and placed at the top of lists for young people, families and retirees with excellent schools, a vibrant community and rising property values even during economic crises.  And it’s full of out-of-placers, people from all over the country and world. For us, it took two poor location choices and a bumpy re-entry when the sky parted and brought us this realization.

Fellow expats who have come home might recognize the anxiety of  choosing where to live the next episode of life. And for those of us with kids who pass on the idea of raising them in the travel lifestyle, and like the idea of building some roots, committing to a school system and a community, it’s not a decision taken lightly.

So, a combination of life events brought us back to the States, and then back to West Coast. And after trying out places that just didn’t feel right or move us in the way we want to be moved, or meet our lofty international expectations, we arrived four years ago to a wonderful university town that I have come to believe can uniquely be so right for the world citizens, lovers of travel, even restless, never-to-be-pleased souls out there (this blogger included). Here are my top three reasons why:

Walkable downtowns with unique, one-of-a-kind shops and access to the arts.

I can complain all I want, but, no, there is no American town that will replicate the Italian piazzas where we spent our Sundays strolling. So once you get over that, you find there are things you won’t compromise with. Cookie-cutter mall concrete complexes (with the Old Navy, Barnes & Noble and World Market) are not going to do it. We want to window shop.  We want to sit at a cafe and drink a cappuccino in a cup. See people we know. Ride our bikes. University towns by nature often have vibrant walkable downtowns, art galleries, used book stores, a newstand with a great variety of foreign language magazines, independent movie theaters, a farmers market and a vibrant and progressive community that supports buying local. You also have access to great performance halls, arts and theater – without facing  big-city prices of living directly in or near a metropolitan city.

A community with a lot of smart people that places a high value on education.

Educators are curious about the world – they and their students change the world. They settle for a much smaller salary than they would be paid in the private sector. They drive an old 1997 Subaru (like us) and aren’t embarrassed. Their snobbery may come from the number of degrees they hold or publications published, not a fancy car. (If  I have to choose which to be surrounded by,  I will happily choose the former.)

It’s important to have the ability to laugh at yourself when you live in a university town but not affiliated with the university (my husband and I joke that we bring down the city’s education statistics), but you never need to worry  “if there is a doctor in the house.” There will be one. There will be four. Or five.  Or fifty. My daughter’s grade level includes children of at least a few dozen. Or you pick up the New York Times and learn that you daughter’s good friend’s father is a world leading so-and-so (you never knew, it never came up.) Or visit one of the many pub trivia nights in town where geeks are cool, and be prepared to be impressed – and slightly intimidated – by the contenders.

An international feel.

In today’s higher education and budget cut environment, international students are being sought after like never before. And in our town, you see it, feel it and hear it. I walk downtown and hear Italian, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean. I go to the grocery store and see the university international groups come in to tour the store and learn about our food.  For someone who has thrived on feeling out-of-place in other countries, you form an invisible bond with other out-of-placers (that is, now in a place where you are supposedly home). You smile knowingly as they take photos on their smart phones of food displayed in your market. You’ve been there. Outside, public transportation works and is used. Citywide buses are plenty – in our town, we even have a fleet of double-decker buses shipped from London in the 1970s and still in use today. We are also referred to as the “bike capital” of the U.S., with a huge biking culture and miles of bike paths. In fact, our school district sold its buses years ago, and children are expected to walk or bike to school (or catch a ride from mom or dad). A beautiful UC-owned arboretum is open for the community to enjoy. Our city street planners have placed five roundabouts in our city, and provide information on the city web site describing their environmental and other benefits. You can just close your eyes and you are almost back in Europe (that is until you have a near miss with the unseasoned roundabout driver).

More important, you could have finally found that place that incorporates  – not all – but many wonderful aspects you’ve come to love through travel, curiosity and life abroad –  and that you can call home, for now.  We have.

Roundabout photo credit: wikipedia

oh alessi

Our home is a mix of old and new. In our kitchen we’ve got a big chunky pine french country table that seats eight next to a squiggly colorful abstract painting and stainless steel appliances.

When we lived abroad, a shop near our home sold Alessi Italian designer products. Founded in 1922 by Giovanni Alessi, the company is old. But its products always feel new. I know it best for its innovative, artistic, modern design for the kitchen such as kettles, juice squeezers and such in colorful animal shapes and gorgeous stainless steel trays. Old and new. This is why I love Alessi.

Few companies make me want to count my pennies – 18,000 pennies to be exact –  to buy this fruit basket that I really want.

We have this bunny rabbit toothpick holder – it sits on our counter peering out at me when I cook dinner. He (she?) makes me happy.

When abroad, the store that sold Alessi was my favorite go-to place for wedding and other gifts to take or mail home.

This tray is always a hit.

The New York Times Style Magazine posted on their design blog that Alessi now sells the Moka Alessi as a tribute to Alfonso Bialetti who invented the octagonal aluminum stovetop espresso coffee pot that everyone uses in Italy (we still do). Ours is about to go kaput, so my eye is on this next.

Coffee anyone? I promise you it will taste even better with Alessi.

top photo credit: Alessi

favorite things have their place

In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sings about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…those favorite things that “I simply remember…. and then I don’t feel so bad…”

Lately I’ve been thinking about favorite things and experiences abroad that – even today – you can’t find at home or buy at World Market Cost Plus. Growing up, a highlight of the holiday season was the arrival of heavy brown boxes of the sweet-smelling, purple-wrapped Milka chocolate bars from our German relatives. ( It sort of depresses me to find it so easily – in fact, at World Market –  in California today.) I felt the same way finding American-style bagels in Milan. Just not the same as when they would arrive in someone’s suitcase when visiting me in Italy.

So, I got to thinking. What are some of those favorite things that belong to a time and place and can’t be transported? A type of food we encounter on our travels, or a holiday or tradition from home that we miss while living abroad. So I begin by asking fellow blogger and expat Michelle at I Heart Mondegreens  if she would share with us via a guest blog a list of her favorite things about her homes in California and Southern Spain. Read on….(and if you are like me, after reading this, you’ll be ready to book your next trip to Spain asap!)

Things about my homes that I love the most

by Michelle at I Heart Mondegreens

Four years abroad perhaps comes with the inevitable – dealing with the occasional homesickness and, somewhere in the process, beginning to idealize your home country. When I first arrived in Spain, I loved every single thing about it. Spain was fun, exciting, a real dream – I never wanted to leave. Then three years rolled around and, while happily married and living in my beautiful home away from home, I couldn’t help but start to miss certain things about my original niche halfway across the world…

1. Family and friends. Not that I didn’t miss them initially, but having spent 4 years abroad (and moving around during those 4 years) means I’m still in the beginning stages of establishing real friendships. For me, this is the toughest part about living abroad – there have been times when I’ve really needed a true friend around, someone who isn’t always my husband, if only to have the occasional girl talk and additional support.

2. The Holidays. Okay, so Spain has plenty of awesome holidays and fiestas. But once November (aka The Holidays) start to roll around, I can’t help but become a mushy lost soul who wants nothing more than to hop on the first plane out and spend Thanksgiving with her family. I’ve cooked and celebrated three memorable Thanksgivings with several of the utmost wonderful people here in Spain, but there really is no place like home.

3. Multiculturalism. Growing up in California, I always had a very multicultural group of friends – we spoke up to 10 different languages between us! Learning about my peers’ different cultures and beliefs throughout the years taught me tolerance and how to keep an open mind, as well as other lessons that have been invaluable to me during my travels and life abroad. Not that there isn’t a sense of multiculturalism in Spain, because there is, but I might say that it’s still not something Spaniards strongly embrace.

This next section is where I’ll admit that my homesickness got the better of me this year, which, albeit pensively, led me to book a ticket home to California in the middle of the night. The holidays are just around the corner, and I was delirious with excitement. But the following day I woke up and, realizing I’d be gone for a month, immediately began to miss my Spanish abode. In some ways Spain can be like that thrilling badboy relationship you know you need a break from but just can’t get enough of…

1. Spanish food. Maybe it’s because I’ve been here a while, but there is something comforting about Spanish food. Based on a Mediterranean diet, a typical Spanish meal consists of a balanced variety of local vegetables, fruits, legumes, meat, and fish. Since moving to Spain, I’ve never felt healthier when it comes to my eating habits.

2. Tapas! Living in Granada means indulging in the tapa culture, and it’s not hard to see why it’s so popular. A tapa is a small free appetizer served at local bars and restaurants for each beer or glass of wine you order. At 2 euro a glass (about $2.75), many students order two to three rounds and call it a meal.

3. The daily market stalls. I love wandering around the city and smelling the dried fruits, spices, teas and treats found in the open markets. It reminds me of the Farmer’s Market, and is open most everyday as long as there’s good weather.

4. Feeling European. There are days where I still wake up with excitement and think, “I’m in Europe!” There’s something sexy and enchanting about walking the old cobble-stoned streets amongst ancient stone buildings, all while listening to church bells ring from inside of a 500-year old cathedral and feeling its dark, tumultuous history seep into your bones.

5. Living near the Alhambra. A 14th century palace built by the Moors for the last Muslim Emirs in Spain, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I love walking outside the palace walls, where there are lush gardens, streams, and peaceful areas for just sitting and relaxing. I’ve wandered the palace grounds several times, and it never ceases to be one of my favorite spots.

6. The cheese selection. I fell in love with cheese in Europe. Belgium, Holland, France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain – I cannot get enough of their cheeses! Goat cheese, sheep cheese, pesto cheese, spicy cheese, fresh cheese, cured cheese, aged cheese – it’s all locally made here, in almost any town or city you live in. Heaven, pure heaven.

7. The wine selection. Okay, I know California has a great wine selection, too, and I love it. Yet Spain’s is just as delicious and also offers a wide local variety. The best part is that there are still plenty of traditional families who make their own wine from their small vineyards, and most happen to be very delectable (yes, women still crush grapes with their feet!). It’s an opportunity to taste an occasional rare wine, and goes to show that bottling fermented grapes isn’t only for the posh.

8. Not needing a car. One of my favorite parts about living in Spain. Having grown up in Southern California, where a car is essential for even the basic necessities such as grocery shopping and getting to work, I relish in the freedom of not having to worry about filling up my tank or looking for parking. Walking, riding a bike, taking the bus, or hopping on a train is quite common here, and much more economical. Not to mention the fact that you get a daily dose of exercise mindlessly incorporated into your daily routine.


9. Spanish traffic jams. I’d trade road-raged drivers for these happy sheep any day!

10. Siesta. The days run much later in Spain (9pm to 11pm is normal dinnertime), so shops and small businesses usually close from 2pm to 5pm, allowing its employees enough time to go home, eat with their families, and relish an actual break before returning to the humdrum of evening work. With more recent globalization, siesta may no longer be a daily occurrence for everyone, but is still highly appreciated, especially during the boiling summer months.

living well is the best revenge

I’ve  just put down a book titled the same as this post, which adds to a running list of books I’ve read recently recounting life in the magical 1920s Paris.

Living Well is the Best Revenge – first published  in 1971 – describes the early lives of American expats Gerald and Sara Murphy. They intentionally moved to France when disenchanted with the States (with three young children!), and exchanged a safe, predictable life for an unconventional life they created abroad. Aside from Gerald Murphy’s brief but remarkable painting career and an impressive group of friends, they are known for inventing the French Riviera summer season back when tourists split after Spring and sunbathing was rare (no kidding) and when they bought and fixed up a home they called Villa America in Cap d’Antibes.

No one did Living Well quite like the Murphys. They had a love and passion for life and lived it to its fullest.

Villa America became the gathering epicenter for their friends –  the who’s who of the 1920s arts and letters expat scene like Picasso, Hemingway and Fitzgerald –  and it was said no one did Living Well quite like the hospitable, sociable, creative, privileged Murphys. Gerald believed only the invented part of their life (creation of their own happiness, I presume)  held beauty until uncontrollable life events later stepped in and “blundered, scarred and destroyed.”

Sara Murphy's beads on the beach

Hostess with the Mostess: Perfecting the Art of Living

The Murphys lived the good life  – creating a happy, pleasurable life surrounded by  family, friends, dinner parties, beauty, fresh flowers and beach picnics including a daily mid-morning glass of sherry – even though they had less dinero than many of their expat friends. Their hospitality, adventurous spirit, and love for life and the arts, music and books drew people to them. They were generous and supportive (and social connectors) to their friends, many who were emerging artists and writers. They loved their family. They pursued their passions. Described as rebels, they cared little what others thought of them or of their lifestyle.

"Razor" by Gerald Murphy - a brief painting career and ahead of his time

Travel, a great education in living well.

In my experience, living abroad inspires one to live well. For me that means a number of things. Like good food. Family. Togetherness. Creating a beautiful home – no matter where and what size –  that reflects your life and experiences.  Enjoyment of the present, even the mundane events. Creating your own happiness and a life you choose to live – not what others want or is expected. A passion for life and adventure. Curiosity in places, people, and the arts. Appreciation of beauty. From another time, Gerald and Sara Murphy are still an inspirational couple and remind us through this book that living well is the best revenge.

How has travel or living abroad influenced you to Live Well ?

my love-hate relationship with house hunters international

I love it. I hate it. I love it. I hate it. I love it.

HGTV’s House Hunters International is one of a a small handful of programs I watch on TV, which include Stephen Colbert and the Jon Stewart Show.

For those who don’t get the HGTV channel or have never seen the show, House Hunters International is a spin-off of House Hunters, a program that follows individuals, couples and families searching for a new home with the assistance of a realtor. They always end up with 3 choices, and a selection is revealed (the viewer fun is in  guessing which home they select).  House Hunters International properties are featured from around the world.

When I watch, half the time I want to strangle the way-too-typical expats who complain that their European apartment doesn’t come with a big closet or American size kitchen, and the other half of the time I’m swooning over the lifestyle of a family moving from Thailand to Australia where their needs – not wants – include a pool or adjacent beach.

But what many of the featured homebuyers are searching for is a dreamy home – or really a dreamy life – away from” it all” in a country defined in idealistic terms.   While  I appreciate the show’s attempt to feature semi-retirees or international businesspeople that can afford quite a lot, alongside more working-class professionals choosing to relocate, I can’t help wonder if when these home searchers become home owners in Croatia, the Caribbean or Italy, how much they will integrate into the country they are moving to. This is something I often wondered when meeting expats when living abroad, who often lived in expat bubbles, and many of you reading this know exactly what I mean.

But I know that’s not really the point of the show. And I watch. and watch. And try to understand just why I am completely addicted to this show. I think it’s my passion for travel, the location shots and personal stories of why these people are moving to remote locations that pique my curiosity. Or, as  a new homeowner, I love the renovation ideas and home decor (especially the tiles).

I wonder who the interns are tasked with cooking up the episode names that include “Texans head for Cost Rica” and “A Trulli Happy Life in Puglia, Italy” (Really? Come on!), and “Londoners seek a more Leisurely Life in France.” (I’d love to see a follow-up series featuring buyers one year later , like “Stuck in Sicily with a Renovation Nightmare” or “The Mosquitos suck in Belize” or “Why are the Locals Laughing at Me?” )

All vacations come to an end, and I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make.  And for this former expat – and perhaps for some of you reading this –   when you are no longer on vacation, and start to live the highs and lows of daily life as a resident in your new country, that’s when the real fun begins. I hope after these international house hunters finish furnishing their gorgeous new foreign digs, they will experience rich rewards beyond a new house.

But, likely, I’m not the target audience of House Hunters International.