Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Year of Living Fabulously

It was the best of times.

It was the worst of times.

As we usher out 2006 and look ahead to 2007, we reflect on the things we've done, the places we've been, and the things we've acquired.

It was a year of monumental changes. A year of exhausting work. A new house. A new pet, my first cat ever. A year of tireless new work projects that kept me far away from my new house and kitty for many a late night, not to mention my honey. And of course, it was a year of one of the biggest events of my life: in less than 5 hours, I went from being a single girl to a married woman. Of course, the planning took 9 stressful months, which fell in between busy worknights and tiring moving weekends, and the wedding cost as much as a new car. Which is definitely on my list of things to acquire in 2007. But at least I won a small bet -- I was the last girl standing among my high school and college friends.

And boy was it a year of seeing the world! A 22-day whirlwind tour of Italy, including Rome, Florence, Venice, Sienna, Bologna, and Tuscan wine country. Plus a 4-day shopping trip through London, the city of ladylike style. Eating, drinking, and shopping our way through Europe without a care in the world. Now that's La Dolce Vita!

It was a year of buying generously. Where should I start? January: Ralph Lauren leopard-print calf-hair kitten-heel flats, Off Saks. February: Tod's chocolate leather Kate media bag, eBay. June: Cole Haan white pocket Village tote, eBay. August: King-sized bed frame, Ikea, and new King-sized mattress, mattress store down the street. New sunroom-dining room furniture, Ikea. September: Cole Haan G-Series mink-trimmed black skimmers, TJ Maxx. October: Gucci gold-trimmed signature Abby bag, Gucci boutique, Rome. MaxMara red leather satchel, and MaxMara black and white wool pencil skirt, MaxMara store, Florence. Joseph navy cotton sateen 3/4-length trench, Harvey Nichols, London. And others, I'm sure, but who's counting?

Unfortunately, the generous buying eventually gave way to some necessary selling. Gone: Louis Vuitton Marais bucket bag and gold keychain, 2 of my prized possessions. 3 Coach bags and a pair of suede Coach gloves. Dooney & Bourke bag and keychain. Oh well...

Just as it as a year of buying generously, it was also a year of giving generously. I gave some great presents this year. $700 to my sweetie from New Egg for his birthday. $500 Dell computer to sweetie for Christmas. $250 worth of steaks and seafood to my parents in Florida. Jars of preserved white truffles from Tuscany for my mother-in-law (which I may point out are litterally worth their weight in gold). Several Furla handbags from Rome for my pal Anna, my sister-in-law, and my father-in-law's significant other. A Michael Kors bag and several gently-used Nordstrom and Ann Taylor goods to a friend. A knock-em-dead black velvet Moschino cocktail confection to a different (very teeny) friend, who admittedly squeezed into the dress in a way that I would never be able to again. A veritable trunkful of apparel to same friend. A nice collection of soft girly treasures to a friend who seems to be lacking them. The usual shoes and clothes to charity.

With sorrow, we lost people near and dear. My grandmother, the matriarch of my mother's family, who finally lost her battle with many illnesses. We pray that she is truly in a better place now. We also said goodbye to some people that made us laugh, made us think, and made us boogie down. Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin. Tough-guy and actor extraordinaire Jack Palance. Joseph Barbera of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon power duo. Soul man Wilson Pickett. Prolific TV producer Aaron Spelling. All-around nice guy President Gerald Ford. Larger-than-life singer James Brown. And with great drama -- and much more publicity than he deserved --ruthless genocidal tyrant Saddam Hussein was brought to justice and executed under the watchful eye of the world.

Who could forget the year if hookups and breakups? Out: Jen & Brad, Nick & Jessica, Sir Paul & Heather, Jude & Sienna, Charlie & Denise, Mr. and Mrs. Locklear, Pamela & Kid, Carmen & Dave, and everyone's favorite sweethearts Ryan & Reese. In: Brangelina, Tomkat, Denise and Richie, the new Benifer, and Nicole & Paris BFF again.

And so we say farewell to a year that will be one of the most memorable for me. Goodbye, 2006!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? ...
And here's a hand, my trusty friend And gie's a hand o' thine ...
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup of kindness yet, for (days of) auld lang syne.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Santa Baby, Slip a Longines Under the Tree (For Me!)

Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree, for me
Been an awful good girl...

So I didn't get anything super girly to wear for my birthday. Quel disappointment! Now, before I get carried away, I should point out that I did receive one very girly present that made me feel totally soft and furry. My faithful friend Anna gave me a luscious pair of dark brown rabbit fur earmuffs trimmed with velvet. I was able to test them immediately as the thermometer suddenly dropped from 78 degrees to 39 degrees. In fact, as I write this, the mercury is plummeting to 14 degrees this very night. I couldn't have walked a step outside today without the gentle insulating caress of my luxurious new earmuffs. So to be fair, I did receive one girly present for my birthday.

Lest you feel too sorry for me, let me assure you that I got some adorable presents. My dad dutifully bought me a set of very stylish steak knives, per my request. They were a chic French set with slightly curvey blades and unique red handles. My gal pal Pamela got me a tres chic little photo book for my honeymoon photos that will one day migrate from digital to paper format, and my other gal pal Valerie gave me a fabulous set of drink mixes from Williams Sonoma (we should all be so blessed as to have friends that work at Williams Sonoma, because the presents I get from her are always the presents I keep and love to use). And, my sophisticated friend Suzanne gave me a beautiful ivory porcelain jewelry box to match the ivory porcelain picture frame she had given me for my bridal shower.

Finally, my hubby presented me with a brand spanking new, top-of-the-moment souped-up Dell computer. It has 2 processors, slots for several different memory cards, at least a couple hundred gigs of hard drive space, and enough RAM to run all the memory-hog applications I insist on using at the same time. It was really a generous present, especially seeing as how we've way overspent our budget with the wedding, 3-week European honeymoon, and my liberal spending on clothes and handbags in Italy and London. And of course the little splurges I have made since our return. So I put him under no obligation whatsoever to get me anything more than a "token" present, say an angora sweater or a little silk treat from Vickie's. But he decided that my computer was so outdated, it made my almost 7-year-old car look new. My, how time flies! I remember like it was yesterday when I custom ordered my first Dell computer in 2000 and was brimming with joy when my then-roommate helped carry and install everything into my room, including our first DSL line. It was the coolest technology at the time, with an Intel Pentium 800 GHz processor and a 20 GB hard drive. How funny that sounds now! Anyway, I've now been using my new computer for a week and I definitely adore it! Dell is so the way to go with computers. Once you have one, you are converted. So, I definitely received some fabulous (and fabulously expensive) presents.

But no little sparkly gemstones or gold presents I had been -- however unrealistically and unfairly -- holding out for. Or a lovely new handbag to complement my new society wife status. Or a fur jacket that I had been drooling over. Or the present that I really really really wanted this year, and I told my man too many times to remember: a new watch. Granted, I didn't really hold anyone to my ambitious demands. I sort of threw it out there a few (dozen) times and was met with such an abrupt reply that I sort of lost hope. "You are getting a computer." So I comforted myself with the fact that I would have the coolest, fastest, most revved up computer this side of the Mississippi, thanks to the efforts of my techno-brilliant better half. And I would now be able to type my blog faster, edit budget spreadsheets without suddenly losing all my work, save my photos without wondering if my hard drive was going to crash the next day, and most imprtantly, surf the net faster to e-swipe all the goodies in the last 10 seconds from under the noses of unsuspecting ebayers. Ha, there are some uses for a super-fast processor!

So I was (and am) very grateful for a fab new computer. I needed it and not a day too soon. But my hedonistic desires nagged and nagged until I had to so indulge them. I wanted, needed, something shiny to play with, and unlike my man, electronics just didn't do it for me in the right way. So what was the first thing I did when my hubby finished custom installing all the newest software on my Dell? I took it out for a spin -- on the online retail superhighway, of course. To look for presents that make a girl feel like, well, a girl. And what was at the top of my list? A gleaming, superfly, classy watch, preferably encrusted with a few specks of ice.

You see, the watch I've been wearing for the past 7 years was a gift for my 25th birthday. And at the time, I had received a generous sum of cash from relatives, shopped around, and carefully picked out the watch I had wanted. And I had worn this watch lovingly for the past 7 years, faithfully and proudly, without so much as cheating on it with a cheap glittery evening accessory watch. But the watch had been showing more and more signs of my reckless wear. First, some rubbing off around the bezel. Then, slight dents and even window cracks in the face. And frankly, the showroom quality of the watch just wasn't up to par with my current glamorous lifestyle. It was more than okay for an aspiring 25-year old: A sharp-looking Seiko kinetic with notched numerals, a black face, and two-toned metal band. I'll give credit where credit is due: it's one heck of a tough watch for putting up with constant banging into furniture, drowning in water, and exposing to cold and heat. And I never once had to change the battery -- just shake it up baby, then twist and shout. Presto! It runs on kinetic energy. Hard to beat a feature like that.

Alas, for all these years, I clung to my Seiko like a baby blankie, not being able to find anything as efficient as the kinetic energy source, and not having the money to afford anything truly high end to make my trouble worthwhile. But you see, I kind of outgrew it, sort of like a teenager outgrows a kids' bike, or an up-and-coming Hollywood starlet outgrows a trashy boyfriend. They might still function fine, but they don't really look right on you anymore. My watch looked much too clunky to wear with dressy attire, and lately, it was just too annoying and big with its oversized face to fit under slim sweaters. Then there was the new bling factor, which intruded like an unwelcome baby into the life of a beloved only pet. All of a sudden, the bling on my left hand became more important than the watch on my left wrist, and the watch just didn't measure up to the bling. So either the watch had to go or the bling, and you can bet your last penny that the bling wasn't going anywhere. (You might ask why I didn't just switch the watch to my right wrist, but this is simply not ergonomically feasible given the fact that I've worn my watch on my left wrist ever since I've had a watch. And besides, even on the right wrist, the watch would still look out of place when seen on the same body as the bling.) I wanted more and more to just leave the watch off, poor thing. Unfortunately, there are those of us who can't fathom going through a day -- let alone life -- without a watch, which is why I never cease to be surprised by folks who don't find the need to wear one. Granted, we have cell phones now that tell the time, but these folks were around long before we had the luxury of cell phones, and they baffled me then. How can one not want to know constantly what time it is?

As an aside, I should be completely honest, since anyone who knows me even remotely will immediately laugh and poke holes in my logic. I have always owned a watch ever since I can remember, and all these decades, it hasn't helped me in the least, because I am always hopelessly running behind and late to everything in life. Yes, before you ask, I was late to my own wedding. Of which I warned people for several years prior... But that's another topic altogether.

Hence, I set out to indulge myself with a little harmless online "looking" -- which is one or two degrees behind online "shopping" -- at some watches. It couldn't hurt to know what was out there. Maybe I wasn't yet deserving of a Cartier or a Patek Philippe, or the Omega I had torn out of a magazine, but perhaps a little Coach or Gucci? Maybe an innocent Esquire or new Swiss Army ladies model? Perhaps a vintage Tiffany? I certainly deserved that! I still had Christmas, for heaven's sake!

So I ambled on to Amazon, Overstock, Smart Bargains, ebay, the usual starting places. Nothing at the big "O" or Smart Bargains -- either the watches I could afford were too cheap, or the "luxury" watches I drooled over were priced $2000 and up. Amazon showed some promise. Ebay, as always, produced more than a few pretty pieces. Found a distinctive Coach pink aligator strap watch with a diamond bezel. Not too bad, at the now reduced price of $399. Found a few used Tiffany's, but nothing recent. Found tons of Omegas, but the diamond models just wouldn't drop below $1700. Sigh. Took a tour of Amazon. Thousands of watches! So many, I had to delegate one brand search per day. Came across some beauties from brands that I had never really considered before: Michelle, Raymond Weil, and my new favorite, Longines.

After a week of avid searching, price comparison shopping, and narrowing down my selections, I have finally found the objects of my affection. 1) An exquisite Longines Dolcevita with a blue mother-of-pearl dial and diamond-encrusted face and bezel. 2) A stunningly chic Longines Dolcevita with black face, Roman numerals, and diamond bezel.

So Santa, what do you say? Can you dig into your bag o' treats for just one more present for this good little girl?

Come and trim my Christmas tree
With some decorations bought at Tiffany's
I really do believe in you
Let's see if you believe in me

Santa baby, and hurry down the chimney tonight.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Holiday Bling, Without the Frostbite

As I sit here nursing my painfully swollen sinuses and babysitting the cat, having just picked him up from a grueling (for him) vet visit and scrubbed all his dining items and floor following his unpleasant bout with a tummy infection, the merry sights of tinseltoe and festive sounds of holiday music are the furthest thing from my mind. In my semi-miserable condition, while I attempt to comfort my nose and throat with soothing pots of tea, I can't even fathom slipping into a luscious velvet concoction and getting glittered up for the holidays. And yet they're creeping in. Signs of the holidays. First, sneaking in with little white lights innocuously strung across storefront windows. "It gets dark so early now, we have to add a little more light." Sure, I can buy that. Then, coming like the fog on little cat feet here and there, boxes of holiday cards here, bags of red-wrapped gourmet chocolates there. For those who are so disgustingly ahead of the curve that they insist on writing their cards in mid-November (and require some chocolate assistance while they work?). Fine, let the anally inclined rejoice. Slowly but surely, the trimmings of the holidays arrive, and presto -- one day, you're out getting dish soap at Target and find that the whole darn store has come alive with holiday spirit. That's when it hits you. They're heeeeeeere.

And that means one thing: holiday parties. The average social lady and gentleman-about-town have a minimum of 5 holiday parties to attend. Add 5 if you have a multitude of (equally social) friends, 2 if you and your spouse are gainfully employed, and another few if you have a large extended family, particularly with step-parents and such. That's a lot of partying. And everyone expects you to shine like the North star while you dazzle your spouse's coworkers, impress the heck out of your in-laws with your rendition of egg nog, and charm the pants of your friends with witty tales. All the while remembering to send them all cards in a timely manner and buying enough toys and treats to open your own ebay boutique.

Another thing I've noticed is that holiday parties start earlier and earlier each year. It used to be (or so it seemed) that holiday parties were held, well, closer to the actual holidays. Of course, there are so many holidays now to choose from -- Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Eid -- who knows which holiday a given holiday party is celebrating? But still, I've considered it an outrage that our annual Scottish Christmas Walk in Old Town Alexandria occurs without fail on my birthday weekend, December 2nd. That alone brings in tourists and heavy foot traffic -- and what's up with it happening 3 full weeks before Christmas? But at least that's been taking place for more years than I've been around. What excuse does my office have for throwing the holiday party on December 6? Even more incomprehensible, who at my husband's place of work decided to have their holiday dinner on Friday, December 1st? I mean, I'm still recovering from the marathon feast that is Thanksgiving weekend during that week. At least they're feeding us steaks from Morton's, which isn't altogether a crime... A further conundrum is when to invite people to our house for dinner or just cocktails. I'm trying to find a spot on my calendar, but my better planning friends have already beat me to the punch. There are just no Fridays or Saturdays left in December, and the Sundays are quickly disappearing. At this rate, we won't have our post-October honeymoon wine and cheese party until January, and forget about the ladies' Sunday brunch, book club dinner, or girl's movie night. They will have to wait until January if not February with the way my schedule is booking up.

But I digress. The real fear I have with holiday parties is figuring out what to wear to each without running up my budget. I'm not such a Hollywood diva that I can only wear one fabulous dress one time before retiring it. But on the other hand, I can't exactly show up to each party in the same knock-em-dead dress or the same show-stopping accessories without repeating myself on film. And you'd better be sure that everyone takes pictures at holiday parties. Those are the photos that get printed out, make it into frames, and get passed around to the whole world. Maybe because everyone makes an effort to look cheery and decorate themselves to the hilt. And why not? There are so many vivid, shiny objects to compete with. Besides, the weather outside can be a bit frightful by then. A little bit of pizzaz never hurt a girl, especially during the holidays.

Which brings me to the point of this discourse. I was fumbling through my nightly assignment of catalogues last night while blowing my nose on cue every 90 seconds with the other hand when I finally opened a Ross-Simons catalogue that had fallen by the wayside (under my bed). Tired of the endless Lord & Taylor non-sales and already having taken my fill of Macy's one-day-sales, I thumbed through it, happy to look at glittery objects for a change. Obviously, I wasn't in any financial shape to buy an estate piece, and Lord knows my other half had bought his share of bling in the past year -- more than enough that gave him the right to curtly nip any idea in the bud that hinted that I should expect something sparkly in this year's stocking. So I wasn't really looking to spend on jewelry, mind you.... But I had a small card I could still play. My birthday, after all, was 2 weeks away, and I believed myself to be entitled to some small token of radiance. And so I thumbed. Hesitantly at first, but more bravely after I began to notice some exotic little pieces.

Sure, I had heard of amethyst, but what was it doing in a gorgeous carnation-pink cushion-cut ring? What in heaven's name were"aventurine," "diopside," and "kunzite?" How about "lemon quartz" -- was there a "lime" and "orange sherbert" quartz too? Despite the wacky names, there were some alluring pieces in there, and I had to have a closer look. Of course, plenty of diamonds caught my eye, and I would obediently slap my hand and quickly turn the page each time. But what really stood out were the unusual semi-precious stones, not unusual by name as I had heard of many of them, but unusual in the way they were set or their color. Suddenly, a bright orange citrine blazed like the sun surrounded by a corona of white topaz and encrusted on a 14-carat yellow gold ring. Large dollops of yellow-green peridot glowed, suspended on gold earring wire. A giant pink tourmaline towered like a beacon over a circle of tiny diamonds, while a cluster of clear icy aquamarine dangled like lasers. All in all, this was a captivating collection, and not just for one such as myself who is easily distracted by shiny objects.

Now, I can't stand wearing fake, or "lab created" stones. I prefer my jewelry au naturel -- it's either real diamonds or it's nothing. I'll take ravishing row of garnets over "synthesized" rubies any day. So if you're of similar ilk, you'll be pleased to know that all of the jewels I endorse here are the real thing. Even better, they are considered semi-precious stones, so they are actually worth something. Personally, I've always considered fine jewelry to be a fine investment, which sometimes justified otherwise completely unnecessary purchases. Before you laugh at me, let me tell you a story.

When I was in college, I worked for Christian Bernard Jewelers, an upscale jewelry store at the already upscale Georgetown Park Mall. Having managed to convince the manager to hire me -- even though my prior retail experience consisted of selling underwear -- I spent many evenings and weekends dressing displays and peddling tres cher trinkets. Shortly after I started, the manager, who was at that time in her mid-fifties, took a liking to me. She told me about her family and her travel adventures, and she lived vicariously through my tales of college parties and romantic affairs. Anyway, she convinced me to start collecting nice jewels. The reason? When she had first graduated from college, she needed to buy a car. At the time, she didn't have credit, and her assets were rather low. But having come from a family of jewelers, she had accumulated a fine collection of estate jewels. Good thing, because the bank accepted her estate jewels as collateral and gave her a car loan. Allegedly, she used the same "assets" to be approved for her first mortgage. Fine jewelry, after all, doesn't really decrease in value, and sometimes, it increases multifold. So you see, collection real gemstones and gold can actually pay off.

So how does this story relate to holiday glam? It doesn't really. But if you're like me and you can't resist a brilliant bauble every now and then, you might as well buy real gemstones. And, you may be surpsised to learn that some of the most exotic-looking stones have very down-to-earth prices. Check out Ross-Simons and see if you can pick up a few holiday lights that won't burn out. These hot stunners are so dazzling they could make any ordinary diva look like an old-school Hollywood starlet. That should make you look forward to some holiday parties. The scintillating conversation is up to you.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

La Dolce Vita: Tales from Italy - Rome

As promised, here is the 1st of 3 posts dedicated to our whirlwind Italian adventure. We spend a total of 23 days on our European honeymoon, most of it being concentrated in middle and northern Italy, beginning and ending with London. The following travelogues were written using a Blackberry Pearl (without a QUERTY keyboard!).

October 12 - When in Roma

Enjoying a memorable trip (2nd for me) to the Imperial City. We are staying in an impressive hotel with a giant patio and a separate balcony 100 yards from the Trevi fountain. Our entire hotel is made practically out of marble. In fact, the whole city is made out of marble. No wonder it has survived 2000+ years! As we enjoy the crisp air on our long terraza, we are planned each day's sightseeing while resting our feet after traversing the entire city on foot.

This is certainly a city to experience as a pedestrian (and not just because I feared for my life when being whisked about in automotive transportation). The roads in Rome are legendary, and each part of the city promises unique sights, new adventures, and interesting people worth sitting down to talk to. If, that is, you can get them to sit down for more than 5 minutes.

Rome's streets are its very lifeblood, coursing with hurried activity and events of all types. Nowhere in the world will you find a more passionate, vocal, proud, and at the same time important city. New York be dammed -- this is truly the city that never sleeps.

This is also the city that, for better or for worse, directly influenced the history of the Western World and the development of European civilization. Its history is written all over its ancient brick streets and eroded ruins that sit unbothered right amongst boulevards buzzing with modern life. It's a fitting analogy; masterfully interwoven wits its rich, ancient history is a bustling, vibrant, technologically advanced, and still important city.

Its marvelous cuisine -- so far we've sampled fresh mozzarella, orgasmic gellato, cappucinos that never dissapoint, authentic alfredo, prosciutto, and out-of-this-world vitello -- blows many European cities I've visited right out of the water. There is something for everyone here, from simple fresh ingredients to fresh seafood (Rome is, after all, almost a beachside town) to heavy meat dishes with rich, flavorful sauces.

Romans eat heartily for good reason: they need the sustenance to keep up with the frenetic lifestyle. Both the work and the play here requires energy. You almost don't want to sleep for fear of missing something. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, you appreciate the early-morning bustle, the almost-suicidal Vespa riders that fly through the dark narrow alleys at all hours, the throngs of pedestrians that risk their life to cross the non-existent crosswalks to board one of the many busses, the extended wine-filled lunches, the dramatic sagas of young (and old) couples who take their arguments to the streets, the early evening cocktails followed by late-night dinners, the concerts and entertainment that last well into the wee hours, and the ubiquitous bars and cafes serving one last nightcap to those who just don't want the day to end.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and it goes without saying that Rome's infinite monuments cannot be visited in one week. Even a year wouldn't be enough to explore its many hidden treasures. I would venture to guess that all the history buried under its grimy, diesel-coated marble buildings and narrow alleys remains to be uncovered for centuries to come. Its thriving commerce, exciting street life, and diversity of cultures continue to make Rome a solid powerhouse. Yes, this is truly the Eternal City, a city that will not be put to rest anytime in our lifetimes.


October 15 - Last Night in the Imperial City

We ventured out to the hipper, a little less touristy part of Rome last night. Per our young concierge's advice, we hit the streets of the Trastevere neighborhood looking for some lively nightlife and outdoor dining. Trastevere can be likened somewhat to D.C.'s Adams Morgan or a cross between New York's Greenwhich Village and Lower East Side. It's just a little less brutal on the pocketbook, it boasts some hip boutiques that can't be found elsewhere, and it's a blessed relief from the rest of the tourist-inundated city. The crowds are mixed -- families with older children compete for space in the smaller restaurant terrazas with young romantic couples carrying the requisite single rose which was purchased from the numerous gypsy-like street sellers.

The restaurants here are even more crowded than in the posh center of Rome, especially on a Saturday night when the "real" residents of Rome come out to play. Fortunately, each restaurant smelled worthy of the long wait and crowded rooms. There seems to be far less English spoken here, so it doesn't hurt to at least know a word or two. Trastevere also has its share of bohemians, scholars, and pickpockets, which you might expect in the slightly less pricey part of town across the river. There are some less-than-savory parts, but we kept mostly to the safe, well-lit, and well-traveled areas.

So far the concierge had been right on with his dining suggestions, which led us to enjoy several excellent dishes of veal, homemade pastas, gnocchi, and of course many glasses of house wine. For lunch we usually opted for the outdoor trattorias and pizzerias which offered fresh pannini, little squares of pizza with all sorts of innovative toppings, salads, and antipasto. All meals were followed by espresso and we visited the gelattorias at least once a day.

The gelatto is truly out of this world! We could eat it all day long - rain, sleet, snow or shine. Each gelattoria strives to be more imaginative than the other, concocting blends that you never really expect to find in one scoop, then heaping yet another unexpected combination on top. This topped off with the occasional heavy cream and stuffed into a freshly baked waffle cup. The businessman clad in strict suits line up along with the teenage couples, fashionable power-divas clad in all black, and moms with salivating children.

Naturally, we had to walk the food off. Staying right in the heart of the high-class shopping district -- namely the areas surrounding the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain -- of course lends itself to exploration of the retail kind. If you think the weekends are busy in your local shopping mall, try getting a foot in the door of Hermes while being pushed along by massive crowds of Roman shoppers, all the while swerving to miss the occassional biker or miniature automobile that dares to take on the pedestrian street.

Having survived some grueling crowd dymanics, I managed to purchase a few stylish garments to better tour the city in (when in Rome). We then headed to my friends Gucci, Fendi, Furla, and Ferragamo for a few treats that Rome is famous for. Oh, not all for moi, of course! Think of the lucky friends and family back home. Not to worry though, my pocketbook sustained only minor damage so far. I'm saving myself for Florence...

Well, it's been a good introduction to Rome. We saw the ancient ruins, the medieval churches, the Rennaisance palazzos, and the modern street life. We stuffed ourselves with incredible Roman cuisine and shopped till we literally dropped in the crowd-infested streets. We could stay for weeks-for months even-and not see it all. But we have other places to see on this tour.

Now it's off to Tuscany!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Party Like a Queen with Mikasa Platinum Crown Expanded Set at Macy's

I am overcome with giddiness as I finish drying and putting away my still-twinkling platinum-banded china that I just acquired on clearance (stole was more like it). Can you believe I purchased a 45-piece fine china collection for only $169.99? It's gleaming white with a beautiful silver band rimming the edge, engraved with a delicate scroll design, and finished with a second thinner silver band. The cups have an old-school ladylike-ness to them which makes me want to lift my pinky as I sip my tea. Anyway, the reason this is such excellent news is that I recently returned from my honeymoon to find that almost no one had gifted us any china settings.

Now, between you and me, this wasn't a catastrophe, as I wasn't going to register for china in the first place. I've always been content with my Target Home collection yellow and blue banded dinnerware, which routinely gets mistaken for the Crate & Barrel Capri Collection (after which I can't resist quipping, "Thank you dear, it's from Target.") So why did I even register for 12 place settings of Kate Spade's June Lane silver china, you ask? Because my mother developed ulcers upon hearing that I had not gone china pattern shopping with my betrothed, and this wasn't going to do. I must have fine china to pass on to my children, she insisted. She called me every day to inquire about which pattern we had finally settled on until I caved in. And also, my friend and bridesmaid Patty -- who had been right about so many other aspects of wedding planning and married life -- told me it was necessary. What would relatives give me if, heaven forbid, I didn't register for 12 place settings of china and all the expensive accoutrements that crowned the dinner table?

So register I did. But receive I didn't. Except for a lovely creamer that arrived in the mail, 2 types of bowls (each of which I registered for separately as for some reason Kate Spade doesn't believe in providing soup, cereal, or fruit bowls in her place settings) that were a present from Patty, and finally, 2 very generous place settings from my childhood friend Candice and her parents. So this was the extent of my fine china kingdom? Two china settings, 2 random bowls, and a creamer? And this was supposed to help me become a proper hostess how, exactly? Normally, I wouldn't have fretted, but recently we had been volunteered for quite a few holiday parties and family dinners. I had the in-laws coming over for dinner in a week. We had been promising to have our friends over for a big wine & cheese party to share our honeymoon photos and treats we had brought back from Italy. Plus, Christmas dinner for the whole gang just 6 short weeks away. My paltry collection -- however pretty it looked sitting on top of my buffet -- simply wasn't going to work.

So how fortunate was it that Macy's decided to have their biggest one-day-sale of the season exactly when I was looking to grow my china collection? It couldn't have been timed more auspiciously. After all, I was registered at Macy's, so all I had to do was take back the china I had received and exchange it for something I could actually use. So, I proceeded to pack everything up, carry it into my car, and make a trip to the Macy's return counter. And how much do you think 2 place settings, 2 little bowls, and a creamer earned me? $457! Wow!! Those were some pricey pieces. The saleswoman asked if I wanted to exchange it for anything? As a matter of fact... I whipped out my folded-up Macy's flyer, turned to the dog-eared housewares page, and asked if I could please see the Mikasa Extra Values china sets.

There were 2 expanded sets on clearance: Mikasa Platinum Crown (top photo) and Mikasa Cameo Platinum (right). I followed the saleswoman to the china table and inspected both patterns. The two were equally elegant and thus worthy in my kitchen, though the Platinum Crown had just a little more bling. That made it the obvious choice for moi. The 45-piece expanded set, which consisted of 8 plate settings (including actual soup bowls), a creamer, sugar bowl, round platter, and large serving bowl, was on sale for only $199! But my luck was unstoppable that day, because the $199.99 set -- which normally retails for $380 -- was reduced to $169.99. Now that's an unbeatable value! You can't even buy a 20-piece set to serve 4 people for less than $137.10 (at least that's the lowest price I found, at Rudi's Pottery). Even Macy's was pawning each place setting for $39.99, which would total $159.96 to serve 4. So imagine what an absolute giveaway 8 place settings + a sugar bowl + a creamer + a serving bowl + a platter is at $169.99!

Without hesitating, I snatched up a 45-piece set and rushed home to unpack it. No broken pieces, no missing plates, just perfect. Immediately I loaded up the dishwasher with my new set to make sure it could take the heat. No problems whatsoever, not a scratch on the platinum band. Finally, I made room for my 45-piece set in the upper tiers of my cabinets. It all fit, somehow. Fabulous!

Now I'm ready to entertain like a proper queen! And I paid sheer pennies.

I just went back to try and get another 45-piece set (you never know when you'll have more than 8 for dinner) and saw that Macy's price was now back up to $199. Rats! Oh well, you can't win them all. But it's still a fantastic value at $199, so maybe I'll get it anyway...
Post Post Script:
Well, what do you know? I eschewed the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday insanity and bided my time. As luck would have it (again), Macy's sent me a friends & family coupon for 20% off. So I went back and purchased another 45-piece Mikasa set -- which was still priced at $199 -- for $167 with my discount. The 3-Penny Princess strikes again!


Saturday, November 11, 2006

House of Tar-zhay: Haute Couture for the Masses

I finally dragged myself out the door last night -- well, let me be honest -- my husband pushed me out the door last night -- to make the monthly Target run. Since we had been away for the past month, and there had been too many last-minute wedding details to attend to before we left, I hadn't made a proper Target run since mid-September. Upon our return to the States, I had been procrastinating, buying time each day with various excuses to run this or that errand, clean the house, or get groceries that I had forgotten. But now, we were dangerously low on toilet paper, the cat had no litter, and there was a very real possibility that we would have to clean our teeth with baking soda as we were down to our last squeeze of toothpaste. I was out of excuses and I would simply have to go. Even if it was Friday night. The movies would have to wait.

So it was with a fair amount of lethargy -- and with no excitement whatsoever -- that I finally waddled over to Target, full after a carb-heavy meal and with my usual after-dinner unbuttoned (but at least fully zipped) jeans. Upon entering, I was greeted with the requisite "dollar bin" full of little notecards and party supplies that is just another innocent way that Target manages to squeeze an extra $20 out of your trip (I could have sworn I only bought paper towels and bottled water -- how did I end up spending $40?). Tempted but resolute not to spend any more than I had to, I kept reminding myself that I was really, truly broke now after the expensive honeymoon shopping trip, a $200 hair dryer that I had to buy immediately upon return (because I blew up the old one as soon as I plugged it into the first London hotel room outlet -- there was literally a shower of sparks that flew out of the wall), and now a brand new pair of leather boots (however cheaply I may have gotten them), plus the new Victoria's Secret bra that I had already forgotten I had purchased. So no more wasteful spending if I was going to make it to the holidays. Not even from the dollar bin.

Sighing with relief, I proceeded further into the store with my newly found cart and pulled out my shopping list to examine. Let's see, dishwashing detergent, toothpaste, tissues, batteries ... where to go first? I know, let's keep walking ahead so I can check out the latest women's apparel. Wait, that's nowhere near anything else on my list -- in fact, it's completely on the opposite end of the store. Oh, it will only take 5 minutes. I just want to look quickly. Please....? Oh, okay. You win. But we're only passing through for 5 minutes, just to see if there are any cute workout pants. Yes!! (I regularly have conversations with myself -- sometimes, I manage to have silent ones).

As soon as I made that fateful decision, a host of temptations accosted me on the other side -- the women's apparel department, that is. Would you look at that gorgeous velvet and satin cocktail skirt. I wonder how much it is. It would be great to have something new for the holiday parties this year. And check out the sharp black mini-trench. A bit reminescent of the Burberry one I had just brought back. What's that I see? A luscious floral silk cami and a rich burgundy velvet skirt! Equally fetching on the next rack was a silver brocade party skirt and a lace-trimmed black cardigan. And oh my, that is a striking burgundy brocade cropped swing jacket -- I'll bet it would be swell with the burgundy skirt. Love the black pencil pants too! I would really rock the town in those topped with a furry leopard-print short jacket (see top photo).

Am I seeing things, or does the label on those pencil pants say "Behnaz Sarafpour"? And does that silk cami tag say "Paul & Joe"? What are they doing at Target? I had been faithfully flaunting my Isaac Mizrahi for Target finds ever since he started designing chic, elegant ready-to-wear at thrift-store prices 3 years ago (while simultaneously debuting an exclusive couture line for Bergdorf Goodman). But now, all these other runway goodies seemed to have hit the Target aisles. Thank goodness, too! Now, a girl could walk into Target for toilet paper and walk out with a Bahnaz Sarafpour evening dress, Paul & Joe jeans, Isaac Mizrahi shoes, Rafe handbags, and correspondence cards by Anna Griffin. Granted, Isaac Mizrahi didn't start the couture-to-chain-counter revolution. Lots of well-known designers have been producing less-expensive creations for the masses (remember Martha Stewart for K-Mart?). But, Isaac pioneered truly well-designed, couture-worthy cuts that could pass muster on 5th Avenue almost as well as on Main Street. This resulted in a much improved wardrobe in the closets of millions of working-class women.

Isaac's belief? "The only way I can substantiate doing the high stuff is doing the low stuff -- it's the democratic way. I get upset when it's just about expensive clothes." Me too! But what is the secret of Isaac's success? "American women are not dumb. They don't want copies of designs from last season... People aspire to high fashion, and they get it with this line. A bang for your buck!" There you have it, straight from the horse's mouth (courtesy of Shop Etc. Magazine, October 2006). At a star-studded fashion show in 2004 , he showcased both the Isaac Mizrahi for Target and Isaac Mizrahi New York fall lines in combination with each other. The funny thing was, some people couldn't tell which was which.

I've tested that theory, by the way, and it works. Not that I have loads of real couture to test, but I've got plenty of Target-couture that I wear side-by-side with prizes I've scored off the Saks sale rack -- and everything in between -- and frankly, I get as many (or as few) compliments on one as I do the other. Moreover, I've been on the giving end of such compliments, only to be informed that the cute handbag or chic blazer came from Tar-zhay. In fact, I have no shame in pairing Mossimo jeans with Manolo sandals, or Isaac Mizrahi for Target jackets with Marc Jacobs bags. I don't even mind mixing it up with the "lesser"Target brands (Xhilaration, Merona) if they go well with my higher society pieces. Fashion is about mixing it up, right? The important thing is that the pieces are cut well for one's body and fit properly, and certainly one take a $20 skirt to the tailor as easily as a $200 one. Which in fact I do, frequently. Sure, no one expects triple layering or hand detailing from Target, and I'm not advocating that everyone should buy their next interview suit there (though I've witnessed more than a few savvy gals who wear a Target coat like it's Tocca or a Mossimo suit like it's Michael Kors), but it's great for fun splurges and keeping up with the endlessly changing trends. Think of it as haute couture for the masses.

Needless to say, last night's battle was over before it started. I mean, how could I resist the spectacular faux-fur trimmed coat for $69.99? The outrageously stylish rectangular tortoiseshell sunglasses for $19.99 (see bottom)? The super-luxe velvet skirt with the satin waistband for $29.99? The deliciously divine red suede ballerina flats for $29.99? Or the ultra-chic black pencil pants for $34.99? I couldn't of course! They would have to come home with me. At least a few of them... So into my still-devoid-of-household-products cart they went. Unfortunately for my anxious husband (not to mention my poor kitty), I didn't make it to the household aisles for another hour.

But do you want to hear the worst part about it? My husband loved the new velvet and satin concoction! Just like he loved the new boots I just found a few days ago. And the $200 wool skirt I just had to have in Florence on our honeymoon. And the $600 Gucci bag I scored in Rome just a month ago (which I will admit was a good deal). And the $960 trench coat I bought in London 2 weeks ago. In fact, my husband loves almost everything I bring home. Instead of discouraging my shopping habit, he actually encourages it. On several occasions, he has shoved me out the door (every once in a while with cash in hand if I wasn't cooperating) to go shopping so he could carve out plenty of quality time in front of ESPN, Play Station, and some inexplicably addictive video game called Civilization. He brags to others of my shopping conquests. He convinced me to start a blog about my shopping adventures. Do you see the impossible odds I am up against? I can't not shop. Birds fly, fish swim, and I shop. Period. It's a damn good thing I'm such a smart shopper (European honeymoon splurges not withstanding).

Anyway, here are some of my favorite reasons to capitulate. Can you really blame a girl for falling in love with these gloriously cheap goodies?

Isaac Mizrahi Quilted Leather Gloves, $22.99

Isaac Mizrahi Chocolate Stretch Cotton Jacket, $19.99, and Box Pleat Skirt, $12.49

Isaac Mizrahi Flip-Frame Handbag, $27.99

Isaac Mizrahi Faux-Fur Trim Coat, $69.99

Isaac Mizrahi Black Satchel, $22.99

Isaac Mizrahi Brown Silk Chiffon Dress, $59.99

Behnaz Sarafpour Lace Headband, $7.99

Behnaz Sarafpour Granite Brocade Skirt, $39.99

Behnaz Sarafpour Satin Skirt with Velvet Ribbon, $39.99

Thank you, Tar-zhay for another almost guilt-free shopping experience. And thank you Isaac and Behnaz for making a girl look like a million for a hundred bucks. With prices this low, there is simply NO excuse to dress unfashionably this season!