Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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Fashion Miss

I have officially missed my chance to experience the couture euphoria that is the bi-annual Milan Fashion Week.

Although I have never been a fashionista, I had always assumed that IMG_0886I would take advantage of this emblematic experience of the fashion capital of the world at some point in my nearly 3-year residence. It’s the sort of thing you are just supposed to do. It’s like seeing the Sistine Chapel when in Vatican City, or taking a Gondola ride in Venice. The experience is not complete — you have not felt the beating heart of the city — without that essential component. These icons may not be elements of the daily life of the locals, but they are still bound to the identity of the city itself and thus are not to be missed, however far they lie from any individual visitor’s natural interests.

Of course, having introduced those parallel examples, I have to admit that my first visits to the cities of the Popes and of the canals did not include the requisite sites.

The cupola of St. Peter's Basilica

The cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica

For our family’s first trip to Rome we had budgeted only one day for Vatican City and we hadn’t booked our tickets ahead of time. When we arrived in the square of St. Peter’s Basilica the line for the Museum (the only way to access the Sistine Chapel) had already wound the kilometer or so from the Museum entrance into the square. With a 21-month old in arms we weren’t eager for that 3-4 hour wait. So, instead we opted to climb the cupola of the Basilica. Of course, we hadn’t really thought through the whole infant-in-arms factor, since he certainly wasn’t climbing all those stairs, nor was then 4-year old Princess Imagination! Once we had recovered from that cardiovascular stress test, we called it a day!

View from the top (almost worth the climb!)

View from the top (almost worth the climb!)

The Gigglemonster found Daddy's hat much more entertaining than the view.

The Gigglemonster found Daddy’s hat much more entertaining than the view.

We did manage to hit the Piazza San Marco...

We did manage to hit the Piazza San Marco…

My first trip to Venice also lacked the quintessential experience of the canals because I was there with my Mom, my older sister, and my two little ones (rather than my husband) and I figured I would save the romance for another trip.

That’s one of the things about “visiting” Europe as a resident — it has always felt like I would have the chance to catch the things I haven’t yet done. In the last 3 years I have spent exponentially more time as a tourist than I had spent in my entire 33 years prior to landing in Italy, but I have done all that touring with the background knowledge that I’m not really that far from home. I would read my guidebooks and make my plans, but when the reality of travelling with young children inevitably derailed my schedule that was OK. I could always plan a do-over.

In the case of the Sistine chapel and the gondola ride, this was well-placed confidence. Along with Robin Williams’ character in Good Will Hunting, I now do know what it smells like in the Sistine chapel (sweaty tourists) and also what it sounds like (low murmurs in countless languages regularly interrupted by staccato loudspeaker demands for silencio). Less of a disappointment were my two gondola rides – the first with my younger sister who shares my enamored response to the city of magic waterways, the second cuddled next to my husband watching the delight play across the faces of our children. Both floating adventures offering a unique celebration of the romance of the canals.

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In the case of Milan, however, my casual assumption that I would eventually get to a Milan fashion show has not be fulfilled. The fall fashion week overtook the city last week, and I barely noticed. There was one electronic announcement of Vogue’s Fashion Night Out that floated through my inbox, but my life was too busy with grocery shopping, and sick children, and school events, and birthday parties to take much notice. I wasn’t even engaged enough in the manifestation of the city’s obsession to really regret my non-involvement.

To be more accurate I should say that I felt no regret UNTIL I drove past one final event yesterday afternoon. Our apartment, in a very non-posh residential area of the city, is strangely close to a permanent Calvin Klein showroom. This venerated space is usually closed up and walking by the tinted windows yield my curious eyes only glimpses in shaded silhouette of monochromatic clothing racks . Yesterday, however, the exclusive doors were thrown open and a small crowd of beautiful people were gathered on the street, the creative parking of their luxury cars blocking traffic and their air of sophisticated ennui gliding down the sidewalk to intimidate my mommy-blogger soul as I slunk past in my bright blue Citroen Picasso.

I suddenly hit me that this was it. I was never going to have a chance to blend into that chic crowd and experience my moment of glamour by association. The realization was painful. I don’t think my vanity is exceptional for a thirty-something American woman, but neither do I relish the obligation to think of myself as a fashion outsider. Considering my attire as my longing gaze slid past all the pretty people, however, I had to face facts. I was dressed in a plain, white, cotton sweater, boot cut Lucky jeans, and (cringe) scuffed up brown clogs! Back in the States this get-up would be perfectly acceptable attire for any number of social events (not to mention Sunday errands, which was what I was doing). In Milano, however, Lucky is not recognized as a brand, the only recognized style of jeans are skinny jeans, and I have never, ever, seen one single other person in the city wearing clogs. If I had tried to enter the fashion show in that pitiable outfit, it’s entirely possibly that the illustrious brand being presented would have permanently banned me from ever purchasing their clothing. They might not have actually sent wanted posters sporting my picture to all of their international stores, but then again…

It was a low moment for me. I wanted to be above it all. I wanted to be able to hold my head high and confess without shame that “fashion isn’t my thing and I don’t really want it to be.” I’ve always been happy to ignore name brands and style trends and just wear what looks good on me. But the fact is, Milan is contagious. Just as I could not visit Vatican City without absorbing some level of awe for the grandiosity of the Roman Church, and I could not escape Venice without inhaling a craving for the fragile beauty of blown glass and floating palaces, so it seems that I have not walked the streets of Milan without succumbing to the endemic worship of the god of fashion. I can roll my eyes at the price tags and wince at some of the more extreme attempts of the select fashion plate moms who frequent the kids’ school, but deep down I envy the women who could step out of the school corridors and onto a magazine spread. It’s not just their perfect size 2 figures (although that doesn’t help), or their glowing olive skin long after my summer tan has disappeared, it’s also the posh image they project. They look beautiful, and stylish, and like they belong, which leaves me feeling unattractive, and frumpy, and like an outsider.

Which leaves me with a question about I would change, if I could. Would I spend the time to follow each new trend and the money to adhere to it? Would I fill my closet with dry clean only couture that requires a second closet for matching shoes? Would I actually wear the daring fashions that look so chic on others because they have the attitude to pull them off? I can’t pretend that I don’t sometimes long to look like that, but do I really want to change myself? Because, really, fashion is not just the clothes one wears, it’s also how one wears them.

I am aware at this point that this post could read as very judgmental, and that is not how I mean it. I am not judging the spiritual depth or the personal admirableness of any of the moms whom my jealous eyes follow. In fact, some of them have become my friends and the last 3 years have taught me a lot about judging by appearances.

But the realization this last fashion week has brought to me isn’t about them, it’s about myself. If were to embrace the world of fashion, committing the time, and energy, and money that would be required to keep pace on the streets of Milan, it would mean changing myself. It would mean a reprioritization that pulled away from things I really want to value more. I can confess that all the pretty people make me jealous, that they even make it hard to hold to my personal integrity. But jealousy is slightly different that value. And at my core I know that’s just not me.

So, the fact that I have missed out on fashion week is a bittersweet reality. I don’t doubt that it would have been fun. Had I managed to wrangle a ticket to some minor show I could have wrestled something from my closet that would have spared me total humiliation. I would have enjoyed the glimpse of glamour, and sophistication, and the life of another world. But ultimately, I can’t really regret the miss. The truth is that I am more than a little eager to escape the streets of Milan and their ever-present pressure to present a fashionable face. Italy I will miss: the language, the food, the many friends we have made. But I won’t miss the fashion that is so central to this city. It’s beautiful. But it isn’t me.

My family are the only accessories I really need.

My family are the only accessories I really need.

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Hair and Vanity

Princess Imagination and I have an ongoing battle about her hair. I want it brushed regularly. She resists contact between her hair and any kind of brush or comb. I want it arranged in some way that looks relatively neat and keeps it from covering up half her face. She prefers it wild and free, which invariably means it is ends up in her mouth and eyes and makes it hard to see her pretty little face.

At the beginning of the week I thought I had finally landed on a solution: headbands. After refusing a ponytail, braids, or clips, Princess Imagination enthusiastically embraced my desperate proposal that she at least hold her hair off her face with a headband. She allowed me to settle it in place just behind her bangs, with the wispy curls she still has framing her face from her baby days securely tucked behind the band. Suddenly she looked neat and well-kept and her sweet little face was fully visible. Victory! We were both happy, and since she has a large selection of these hair-taming accessories, I had a lovely fantasy of future mornings unmarred by mother-daughter hair battles.

The fantasy lasted until I picked her up from school that afternoon. In the intervening hours her sparkly pink headband had somehow been transformed from a hair-taming implement into a co-conspirator in operation birds nest. Rather than neatly holding back her hair from its proper position atop her head, it had gone vertical and was smashing her bangs flat on her forehead while the escaped front locks were running free, with several section plastered across her cheeks as the result of time spent bathing in her mouth. Argh! What is wrong with my child?! She is a beautiful little girl, but no one can see that because she seems determined to turn her hair into a frizzy, knotted, veil!

With the distance of a few days I can recognize that my response to this very unusual styling was probably an over-reaction. I don’t think Princess Imagination is deliberately covering her face with her hair. She simply finds it uncomfortable to have her hair pulled back, and also finds it convenient to suck on her hair to satisfy her oral fixation (which is probably my fault for nursing her so long). The resulting follicle foibles do not worry her because she is just oblivious to what she looks like.

And there’s the source of discomfort in this little domestic squabble. The problem is that appearance is not a matter of oblivion for me. In contrast to my daughter’s indifference, I care a little too much about appearance – both hers and mine. This concern about how I and those associated with me look goes back a long way. I can vividly remember my own screaming temper tantrum at the age of 8 or 9 in reaction to a rather unusual wardrobe selection by my older sister. Granted, choosing to wear a wrap-around ballet skirt as a shawl was eccentric on the part of my sister, but my reaction was also a bit excessive. And the extremity of my reactions, from the mid-80s to now, makes it clear that the issue  is really with me, not with the creative accessorizers in my family. I just care too much about appearance.

Now, this is not to say that I am a fashion plate by any stretch of the imagination. I do not have dozens of handbags. I do not buy shoes to match specific outfits. I cannot justify spending three or four times as much for designer labels. And I do not spend an hour coiffing my hair every morning (or any time of day, ever). BUT… I have to admit, that there is a very dissatisfied little corner of my mind that turns an unattractive shade of green when it spies the glamourously styled moms doing drop-off at school. I am ashamed of it, but it is there. A part of me desperately wants to be the one who draws admiring, or even envious looks.

Of course, more than a year and a half of residence in one of the capitals of the fashion world has exacerbated this tendency. Two years ago I could not have even attempted to tell you what the fashion trends of the season were. I bought clothes that suited my style and figure and did not worry too much about what was trendy. Now, just taking my kids to school or walking past the shop windows in the neighborhood of my Italian class gives me an education in the current colors, cuts, and must-have accessories. This knowledge is anything but helpful. It focuses my awareness on all the things I don’t have and makes me self-conscious about the functional clothes and shoes dictated by my role as a stay-at-home mom. In more basic terms, it both increases the value I place on appearance, and amplifies my dissatisfaction with my own achievement relative to that standard.

Naturally, this evolution has not made for a happier me. However, I realized something as a result of my headband confrontation with Princess Imagination. My feelings of fashion-inadequacy are not really the matter of greatest importance. What matters is how much I have allowed my appearance, and my daughter’s, to impact my emotional state. I do not want to be that mother. I do not want to be that woman.

What I do want is to teach my daughter that what matters is the kind of person we are, not the way we look. What I do want is to teach her is to be concerned about what her behavior and her speech (rather than her clothes and her hair) tell other people about who she is. What I do want is to live the kind of life that teaches these lessons more effectively than my words ever could. These desires are not easy to achieve. It might actually be a more attainable ambition to be the fashion-plate mom that draws the envious gaze of others at school drop-off. But that achievement would not be worth the effort.

And so, I will continue to fight this life-long battle to stop caring so much about appearance. I will remind myself that the time I have while Princess Imagination and the Gigglemonster are in school is not best used for shopping. I will pull my hair-back into the ubiquitous pony-tail and use the time I saved to spend to prepare myself in pray a bit longer each morning. I will continue to wear my sweaters and boots from last winter (or five winters ago) and thank God that I have more than enough clothes to keep me warm as the temperature drops. And, when I brush my daughter’s wild hair out of her face so that I can look into her eyes, I will tell her that she is beautiful because of who she is, not how she wears her hair.

The headband-across-the-forehead has been a favorite look of Princess Imagination’s for years. Maybe she wants a crown?

Her smile shines even through her hair.