29 Jun 2017

Toxic Love in a Southern Garden

There is a deathly obsession going on in gardens of southern France and elsewhere in the sunkissed regions of Spain, Italy and Greece. No matter how toxic the relationship, the likes of my mum and my unfortunate next-door neighbour will pursue the affair nonetheless, despite the warnings.

'Oleanders', oil on canvas by Vincent van Gogh (1888), via The Met Museum

The affair involves misleading lust for mediterranean flowers of the easy kind: easy come, easy grow, easy show, easy go. A native of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, it was later introduced to the Far East and Central America. Give them a good watering in times of peak Summer heat, they take care of themselves the rest of the time. They even remember to flower year on year in time for Summer and would even do a little dance if they didn't look so conceited. They're a novice gardener's delight, thus can be pruned back, hacked hard and generally grossly mistreated. Still they will manage to summon enough gusto to thrive back to shape within a trimester and reward you for your carelessness with a myriad blossoms.

The Terrace at Méric (Oleanders), oil on canvas by Frédéric Bazille (1867), via WikiArt

Those come out all over in a rash, in shades of pink and white. The blossoms may look prim and proper as you drive by but get off the car and take a closer look: they are messy. They discard leaves and flowers on a whim, like a furry pet sheds hair, and the freshly-shed flowers end up sticking in clumps to the pathways and pavements and garden tables and the sole of your shoe. Maybe Charles Baudelaire spared them a thought when he penned The Flowers of Evil. You might call them pretty if you're my mum or the woman next door but that sort of beauty is lethal: avoid it at all cost!

(pict source)

They look impressive to the easily impressed, but it's all falsely affected to the tune of fakery in a flurry, like soul sisters begonias and petunias. They're a fifties garden fashion throwback that never actually went away - or went anywhere for that matter - passed on from generation to the next like a heirloom. Why? Because - remember - easy come, easy grow, easy show, easy go. Ubiquitous, so they are, especially when originality is unsummoned and garden space needs to be filled, a hedge be hastily erected at a moment's notice: Nerium oleander is the shrub of choice.

Fatal attraction

No surprise to be had: they behave as expected. The plants are easy on the dollar sign too. In their droves, they charm the charmless garden and will even endeavour to hide a multitude of sins like the ugly breeze-block wall they are backing onto or the irregularities of the terrain. They may fool you with their myriad petals and get you to absolve them of their sins. But their aroma shall fool you not with the old sweaty tee pong, yes the soaked-out worn-out garment that should have been thrown in the wash (or best, in the bin) but clocked an extra day instead. Sweaty pong is all there is to get out of that shrub, and if you stand long enough nearby, you may decide the heavy lingering aroma is posh speak for 'putrid'.

Pretty poisonous is the ugly truth!

Call it oleander all your might, it is of ill repute, plaguing life and playing with death, for it is toxic through and through. My next-door neighbour knows it, yet she amorously planted a couple of those next to her plum tree and allows for the branches to get jiggy with it under the midnight sun. And she still won't come to her senses, instead dragging her chaise longue across her patch of land so it stands exactly right under the flimsy shade of her protégés, admiring their pretentious stance from underneath as she lays down. A morbid rehearsal to God's waiting room?

Putting on a show!

My mum built hedges of those in her dreams and now her dreams are coming true. Leave it to her and leave her to it: she'll talk to them and caress their finger-like leaves with maternal care. Care for them to grow big and vigorous and take over her front lawn like a corporate mission statement: bold and boring. She'll refuse to notice the sap seeping out of the branches and scores of ants and white flies glued onto it. My mum taught me as a child about the toxicity of oleander and now she can't have enough of it in her garden's front row. Such a puzzling contradiction!

Where's Tickle gone? To the safety of the nearby bougainvillea!

I don't see birds showing an interest and rare are the butterflies that do so. I don't take an interest either: I actually dislike the plant with a passion and, as a nature lover, this is one strong statement. Tainted love for some, quiet desperation for others!

17 Jun 2017

Living Up to Better Homes & Gardens

Roby and I had an interesting conversation recently about home expectations and the difference between men and women on the subject and how magazines and visual social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest are geared towards the female market.

Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab's Beirut home is a man-woman pacifier of style and comfort!

My husband laments that women drive their men to an early grave through the way they organise home life. Women, he argues, are heavily influenced by home and interiors magazines and home improvement programmes, and as a result seek to recreate the look in their own home - at their own peril.

It must be said though that in general terms, a woman's forte is a certain idea of style and aesthetics that defines her individually, elegance, an indeniable eye for detail and for the eye-pleasing (understand all the cute little things out there!). This unfortunately clashes with men's domesticity quest for efficiency, practicality, comfort, ease of use, durability: the no-thrills, no-BS, no superfluous, home! In other words, emotion vs. reason.

Interior designer Suzanne Kasler worked her magic on this Atlanta home!

Generally women are a soft touch: easily influenced, and thus a marketer's dream. PR guru Edward Bernays understood it almost a century ago.  In this day and age, the varied media platforms play their part in inspiring women as a priority because whatever the ladies fancy, it's quids in for the corporations!

Stenciled table project, via Better Homes & Gardens

A woman inspired has her appetite whet, i.e. her desire to purchase. The desire is influenced and reinforced further until they feel they have no other option than spend cash, seal the deal, make that purchase and with it that elusive slice of happiness!

Women have a propensity to spend cash on a whim, not only on fashion items but on homewares and home improvements that will come to pass with the next whim. New season paint scheme, furnishings upgrade, conservatory revamp, kitchen worktops replaced, when there is nothing wrong with what they have. They get bored quick and fancy a change and that house will never be quite enough. If they still feel unsatisfied, they will want to look for the next best place and sell this one off! Out with the (not so) old, in with the new...

A woman frets when her house is untidy (but is rather acceptant of her own untidiness). Their domesticity quest is form over function anytime! Clutter (trinkets, knick-knacks and other clutter contributors), poor sense of flow from one room area to the next... Objects are put away a certain way that only makes sense to her, everything in a place that is not about convenience but decorum. Yes I have been there too!

The Millhouse (Shaker) Kitchen by DeVOL Kitchens

If her home does not quite equate Better Homes & Gardens, a woman will be quick at blaming her man for not doing something about it (as in some DIY!) or getting a pay rise to afford the professionals in. A householder who strives for her house to look like BHG (and other lifestyle mags for that matter) might as well have a museum for a house. This is  therefore a no-go domestic area according to my husband. You must feel at home in your own home. Point taken.

The DeVOL is in the (kitchen handle) detail!

Further Resources on Style:

1 Jun 2017

Lovely & Nice

Towards the back end of the 19th century, as the quaint small fishing harbours and coastal villages of southern France (Provence and Côte d'Azur) started morphing into the famed vacational hotspot now known as the French Riviera, Nice already was at its cutting edge: it had metamorphosed into a pretty butterfly, opening up to the pleasures of the sea and spreading its wings towards the future, embracing the Belle Epoque follies and later Années Folles (Roaring Twenties)... Its seaside mystique and splendour stretched beyond WWII, yet with less of its earlier upmarket gusto and panache, but this is a story for another time.

La Réserve, c.1900: a fantasmagorical - surrealist - folly that could have been dreamt up by Magritte!

Nice by name was Nice by nature back then: an almost pristine natural canvas of dramatic proportions, lending its coves and curves to architectural wonder, integrating the natural environment - its masterpiece - with style and elegance. The reworked landscape became imbued with a tangible frond of the exotic: imported Phoenix canariensis palm trees and other floral exotica that would lend themselves beautifully to the Orientalist trend of the times.  

Saint-Nicolas Cathedral, c.1935: testifies of the importance of the Russian community in Nice

La Promenade des Anglais would come to epitomise the renowned coastal seafront with dreams of odysseys to faraway exotic locales. A French Ipanema, a wide, tree-lined, five-mile sweep of a boulevard which was (and still is to this day) a destination point for leisure pursuits, parades and ceremonies, dotted with elegant Winter homes that later doubled as Summer villas, set in landscaped grounds and a seaview to boot.

Excelsior Régina Palace, 1912: fit for Queen Victoria

The properties unashamedly belonged to British and Russian aristocracy (and later the nouveau riche) who - it seemed - altogether led the way in terms of the resort culture before the French had even conceptualised it, at least outside their colonies. Progressively the Winter resort turned into a seaside resort with the construction of residential apartments, and leisure establishments such as luxury hotels (palaces) and casinos celebrating luxe, leisure, insouciance and joie de vivre

Nice, Jetée-Promenade, c.1900: an exotica showcase to itself!

In terms of turn-of-the-century architecture, we find a marked influence towards neo-classicism, with oodles of orientalism and a hint of Victoriana: Le Negresco Hotel is a perfect example. Or how about the (now defunct) Orientalist-inspired casino of the Jetée-Promenade? The concept was influenced by the Brighton Palace Pier, while Crystal Palace was the initial inspiration to the project instigator, marquis d'Espouy de Saint-Paul. The casino was designed by British architect James Brunlers. There is no denying that Brits shaped the French Riviera.

Nice, Jetée-Promenade, 1897: the Orient has landed!

La Promenade would be further celebrated with the advent of the automobile era as a G-spot of sorts. Any show-off driver and social climber worth their salt would make a point of showing up and down the Promenade. Success, it was thought, would rub off if only you showed up on the Promenade, unashamedly pretending to be someone you're not for a part of the action while secretly standing in awe of it all.

Nice unfolds from the Mont Boron, 1891

Only a small number of the original villas are still standing on the Promenade today. Some look sorry for themselves, locked in limbo, in need of refurbishment. Land value comes at a premium on the Promenade and it is likely that some of the older properties are locked down in hostile takeovers, expired leases, inheritance issues, tax conundrum or other legal and financial predicaments, ultimately pending a demolition order to make way for yet another high-rise. In the world of real estate emotion hardly has a say, even less so when the matter at stake is located in a sought-after, world-renowned tourist area.

Nice Opera, 1885: all about flamboyance!

Sorry to rub it in but as it stands today the Promenade has lost its lustre. Now it is easy for nostalgia to cloud one's judgement and I recognise that I sometimes allow it to take over my objectivity, yet I approached this particular subject with an open mind and visited the Promenade on at least three separate occasions that I can recall over the last seven years and everytime the lack (loss) of architectural cohesiveness hit me.

Promenade des Anglais and Palais de la Méditerranée, c.1930: cheek to cheek

Clearly building clearance took its toll. Relentless since after WWII, it has left battle scars in the form of an incongruous mish-mash of styles, some of questionable appeal. Cue the gutted Palais de la Méditerranée, whose Art Déco façade was salvaged at the eleventh hour... in order to be incorporated to the Hyatt behemoth. Elsewhere the Promenade is compromised by styleless cheap-looking condos and other bland hotel chains like Le Méridien (which replaced the stylish Hotel Ruhl). These modern structures may unashamedly steal the seaview; they however steal neither the looks nor the spirit of a time where elegance and refinement were the byword.

Avenue de Verdun, c.1920: just off the Promenade

It is understood that Nice City Council wishes for the Promenade to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site contender, and therefore is currently sprucing up its image. Who are they kidding? In this vanity exercise no amount of landscaping or carpark redesign will compensate for the negative architectural impact caused by waves of property clearances that made way for a non-descript, non-cohesive Promenade.

Nice from the Jetée-Promenade, c.1900: a view at your beck and call

The Nice seafront is certainly a tale for the unashamed: bold and beautiful yesterday, bland and brash today. What remains of its bygone golden age, if not found in pockets in-situ, will be appreciated pictorially in the comfort of your home. Prolific and talented French photographer Jean Gilletta (1866-1933) made sure of that by taking thousands of pictures that wrote all to themselves an anthology to Nice, Marseille, the Riviera as a whole, the southern Alps and further afield! He followed the muse and she never left him! His photography froze people, places and time for posterity, immortalised a depiction of Nice that is both haunting and promising, an epoch where all seemed possible...

Motorcar, c.1925: sweet and fancy!

Source: All photography by Jean Gilletta. Take a peek at his impressive collection... and sweet dreams to you! Hey, happy shopper: all the (repro) prints featured are for sale by the way!

'Bateaux dans le Port de Nice', by Tony Minartz (1870-1944)

Further Reading: