a valued customer

It’s a source of real irritation to me that, no matter how much you spend in an Australian shop, no matter how high-end, the likely greeting by the shop assistant at the till will be “Just these today?”. Once I was shopping for a whole new work wardrobe, assisted by a personal shopper. Even with the personal shopper’s discount my bill in one shop was a comfortable four-figure number. “Just those today?”, I was asked as I approached the counter. I almost asked whether she would prefer I shop a little harder just to gain her acknowledgement as a bona fide customer.
So I love shopping in Japan, where every transaction makes you feel like royalty. On a whim the other day, I stop by a Birkenstock shop on Shinsaibashi in Osaka. One pair of sandals and a $100 spend later, the shop manager escorts me right outside the front door before formally presenting me with a heavy cotton bag containing my purchase. With a low bow, he thanks me and I walk away. Fifty metres away at the corner of the street, I look back and he is still there, still bowing low.
For a $100 transaction.
A few days later a lovely shop assistant helps me choose a new yukata (summer kimono) and matching obi (tie belt) in the fashionable halls of Dai Maru. This young lady has almost no English, and embarrassingly I have even less Japanese. But fashion, colour coordination and commerce need no common language, and after an enjoyable trying-on session I spend around $80 on a lovely new black, white and red creation. My purchase is lovingly wrapped in tissue paper and placed in an iconic Dai Maru paper bag, with a clear plastic bag popped in for later in case it rains. The shop assistant asks whether we will browse some more in the South Building or return to the Main Building. When I indicate the latter, she politely escorts me to a set of marble stairs, indicates where I need to go, then presents me with my purchase with a low bow and an “arigato gozaimas-ta”. As I reach the top of the staircase I look down, and the young lady is still there, still bowing until I am out of sight.
I love this country.

curly questions

I’ve had curly hair all my life. I had long hair for most of my twenties that eventually grew to be a curtain of unruly waves, then got chopped back to a bob.

1996 25 October Mairead Fiona Sue

my thirtieth birthday!

In my “world traveller” phase I chopped all my hair back to a pixie cut and when I grew it back the curls were a lot lazier, less defined.

Over the years I spent ten fortunes on hair products trying to tame my frizzy mane. John Frieda’s Frizz-Ease was my best friend. Styling my hair at home became a complex cocktail of up to seven (seven!) products in a specific order. And still five days out of seven I looked like Worzel Gummidge’s slightly messy younger sister.

The older I got, the more frustrated I became. My hairdresser bill grew and grew as I tried every new product on the market. Cupboards filled up with bottles, aerosols and pump-action containers of hair products, all seven-eights full. More times than not if I caught a glimpse of my reflection, my spirits would sink. I wasn’t vain and I didn’t have high expectations: I only wanted to look respectable really.

The dreaded mid-forties came. Looking for a new job, I polished up my working wardrobe and got new headshots done by a professional photographer. On the morning of the shoot I took particular care with my hair but it still grew into a halo of amorphous frizz. At the photographer’s suggestion I twisted my hair back into a severe up-style just to look halfway decent.




… and after.

I turned to the internet. Maybe I needed a new hairdresser. All roads led to a man called Neel in a funky-sounding salon in Collingwood called Cherry Bomb. Didn’t sound like a salon for an ageing executive with no tattoos. But I got an appointment anyway.

That first appointment changed my life. I walked into a colourful, cruisy salon staffed by an army of curly-haired stylists, and was taken in hand by the famous Neel. A young man from Brighton in England, Neel has made curly hair his niche (even though he wears his own close-cropped). He was positively evangelical about his advice, learned over the years from curly hair specialists all over the world.

  • First: shampoo is not your friend. It is full of sulphates that have been sucking the moisture out of your hair for years. Go home and throw all your products out.
  • Second: silicones are not your friend. John Frieda is an imposter. Silicones only give the illusion of a frizz-free solution for a few hours until your hair realises it is actually being parched to death and reaches back out into the atmosphere in search of water. Go home and throw all your products out.
  • Third: towels are not your friend. Your curly hair is actually quite fine and fragile. You need a micro-fibre towel and a gentle touch. Go home and throw all your towels out.
  • Fourth: hairbrushes are not your friend. You are damaging your fine, fragile hair every time you brush. Go home and throw all your hairbrushes out.
  • Fifth: your hair is unique. If it is cut when wet you will have no chance of showing off what curl you have. Always have your hair cut when it is dry.
  • Six: Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise.

Over the next three months I read all the books, subscribed to all the blogs and brought my haircare regime back to basics. I really did throw all my products out. I started to wash my hair with conditioner, massaging my scalp with my fingers to clean it instead of relying on the squeaky-clean feeling of a head full of suds.

I slathered good, simple, sulphate- and silicone-free conditioner onto my hair and didn’t rinse it all out. I wrapped my wet hair in a micro-fibre towel, combed it gently with a wide-tooth comb and then slathered even more conditioner onto it before allowing it to dry naturally. I washed my hair only every five or six days, and revitalised it in between washes with yet more conditioner.

After a month I could really see a difference. After another two weeks on a tropical island with pure coconut oil in my hair, I was like a different woman. Even after scuba diving I could simply soak my hair in conditioner and walk out the door looking fantastic. I finally achieved my impossible dream of half-decent hair every day.


after Neel cut my hair for the first time

The strange thing is that all of this cost so much less time and money: most of these pure products were very affordable and could be used as both a conditioner and a styling product. My seven-step styling regimen was reduced to a quick once-over with a wide-tooth comb and a generous dollop of Sukin conditioner. In summer my hair dried naturally in the car on the way to work. The extra time taken to wash and dry my hair in the morning went from one hour to barely ten minutes.

So why am I telling you this? Because so many women don’t know. We believe the Unilever/Procter & Gamble marketing hype. We don’t realise we are poisoning our hair and stripping away the very thing we are desperate for: moisture. We buy products full of petroleum-based chemicals, drying alcohol, formaldehyde and artificial perfumes, and wonder why our hair doesn’t react well. The alternatives are not expensive or hard to find, but I suppose they don’t help the bottom line of Garnier or Proctor & Gamble.

Lou Davison is a young Scottish woman who spent the early years of her life hiding her curls until an accident a few years ago left her with a lot of time on her hands. She did lots of research and discovered the so-called “curly girl” online community. When she moved to Melbourne Lou found that there were almost no resources for curly-haired people here so she started her own blog, sharing tips and tricks in the hope that she could inspire others to discover what she had.

“It sounds ridiculous, but discovering this new haircare method literally changed my life”, Lou tells me as we chat with other curly-haired women at a meet-up in Brunetti’s in Melbourne. “I used to hate my hair and now I embrace it. I see women in the street who are doing what I used to do, and I feel like going up to them to tell them there is another way.”

Love Your Curls

It’s hard to believe that Lou could ever hate the beautiful mane of golden spiral curls she loves so much now. Her website is a treasure trove of information and inspiration for all things curly. She even has interviews with regular curly-haired women who tell all about their routines and care tips – no two curly heads are the same so we are always on the lookout for similar people whose secrets we can share.

These days there are good websites and blogs in most countries for curly-haired people (mostly women) to get informed, share information and support each other in their quest to be kind to their hair. The interesting thing is that curly-haired people are still often seen as dangerous, uncontrolled, and even unprofessional in a workplace setting. It takes a little bravery to take the first step, but I can almost guarantee you that like Lou and myself, it will change your life and save you money and time into the bargain.

Useful links for curlies around the world:






what i wish i’d known…. by Nora Ephron

“I Feel Bad About My Neck (and other thoughts on being a woman)” is a book by the late great Nora Ephron.

It was a fantastic, hilarious read the first time around, maybe fifteen years ago. These days it feels more like required reading for everybody of my vintage. Here is an excerpt – my favourite chapter. Tell me which line rings most true for you.

What I Wish I’d Known

  1. People have only one way to be.
  2. Buy, don’t rent.
  3. Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from.
  4. Don’t cover a couch with anything that isn’t more or less beige.
  5. Don’t buy anything that is 100 percent wool even if it seems to be very soft and not particularly itchy when you try it on in the store.
  6. You can’t be friends with people who call after 11 p.m.
  7. Block everyone on your instant mail.
  8. The world’s greatest babysitter burns out after two and a half years.
  9. You never know.
  10. The last four years of psychoanalysis are a waste of money.
  11. The plane is not going to crash.
  12. Anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for at the age of forty-five.
  13. At the age of fifty-five you will get a saggy roll just above your waist even if you are painfully thin.
  14. This saggy roll just above your waist will be especially visible from the back and will force you to reevaluate half the clothes in your closet, especially the white shirts.
  15. Write everything down.
  16. Keep a journal.
  17. Take more pictures.
  18. The empty nest is underrated.
  19. You can order more than one dessert.
  20. You can’t own too many black turtleneck sweaters.
  21. If the shoe doesn’t fit in the shoe store, it’s never going to fit.
  22. When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.
  23. Back up your files.
  24. Overinsure everything.
  25. Whenever someone says the words “Our friendship is more important than this,” watch out, because it almost never is.
  26. There’s no point in making piecrust from scratch.
  27. The reason you’re waking up in the middle of the night is the second glass of wine.
  28. The minute you decide to get divorced, go see a lawyer and file the papers.
  29. Overtip.
  30. Never let them know.
  31. If only one third of your clothes are mistakes, you’re ahead of the game.
  32. If friends ask you to be their child’s guardian in case they die in a plane crash, you can say no.
  33. There are no secrets.


are you bikini ready?

At this time of year we are bombarded with magazine and website articles telling us how to get “bikini ready” for the New Year. As a Woman Of A Certain Age with a beach holiday on the horizon, I alternately devoured these articles or shunned them completely, knowing that I had failed in my plans to lose 5kg before our holiday and that my bikini body was nowhere in sight.

Fast forward to the day before we fly. I stand in the fitting rooms in Target with an array of bikinis, having convinced myself that my elegant but sensible black one-pieces would not be enough to tide me over for twelve days on a tropical island. I buy a purple two-piece, two sizes larger than my usual size in the desperate hope that it will somehow make me look thinner.

Two weeks later, after piling on even more pounds in the winter wonderlands of the northeastern United States, I stand on the balcony of our beachfront apartment and know I am going to spend the whole beach holiday in that purple bikini. I am so happy to be in the sunshine, on one of my favourite beaches in the world, with good company and (god help us) excellent food, that I no longer care how I look. All that matters is how I feel, and I feel like a Tropical Queen.

By day two I have perfected my sashay down the beach before immersing myself in the turquoise water to cool down. The purple bikini is now way too big for me, having already stretched in the seawater. I fold the bottoms down to make them even smaller – the suntan is all that matters now.

Every day I watch a procession of tourists walking past. Women of all shapes, sizes and ages sport a staggering array of swimwear. Without the aid of a spreadsheet (this is a holiday, after all) I watch and analyse, and the Five Commandments of Bikini Wearing emerge (specifically for Women Of A Certain Age, but relevant to any woman who is a little less than confident in her appearance).

  1. Choose a bikini. Don’t choose a one-piece. No piece of swimwear is going to make you look like Halle Berry coming out of the sea in that Bond movie, and anyway all that fabric on your tummy in the sun will be really uncomfortable. Relax. You are on holidays. By day three you are going to feel like a Tropical Queen and will believe you look like one too. You look fine, and anyway nobody is watching you because they are either worried about their own wobbly bits or they are already at Tropical Queen status in their head. If you are still unsure, throw a sarong in to hide your curves until day three.
  2. Avoid Large Bikini Bottom Syndrome. You have already decided to wear a bikini. Don’t spoil it by going large. Any stylist will tell you that swathes of patterned fabric draws attention to any area of the body, and anyway it will make you look middle-aged. In the past week I have seen a size 18-20 lady at the water’s edge, shoulders thrown back,  rocking a skimpy sunshine-yellow bikini and looking like a goddess. I have also seen a couple of thin, athletic women of a similar vintage, slightly stooped, looking like apologetic grandmas in their big-knicker bikinis.  Don’t do it unless you have a real reason for that extra support like a post-op scar. You may not be able to see this in the badly lit fitting rooms of your local mall, but take my word for it: you want a fairly skimpy bikini bottom, no more than an inch and a half or 3cm of fabric at the side of your body. If you can find one that ties on the side, so much the better. Remember, the fabric will stretch after a few days and the last thing you want is a bikini bottom that looks like a full nappy, or one that falls off as you get out of the water (it’s happened on this beach twice in the past week).
  3. Bikini tops must be multi-functional, or else you will need more than one bikini. In fact, you probably need at least two or three bikinis for a two-week holiday. Remember, this is essentially your “working wardrobe” of the trip. Never mind how many frocks you pack for the evenings – you will be spending up to ten hours a day in your swimwear, and you will be doing more than lying on a sunbed in that time. Your bikinis need to work for sunbathing, strolling on the beach, jumping into the water and drinking cocktails at the bar. Bandeau type bikini tops are great for minimising tan lines; the ones with a removable halter straps are great for a bit more security when wandering about or when hit by a rogue wave. More well endowed ladies will need properly fitted bikini tops in the appropriate cup size. Again, a halter-neck top will help with the support and look great.
  4. Choose strong colours and patterns. This is no time for nuance: look for bold colours and designs especially if you are a pale-skinned person like me. Pastels are all very well but they look washed out under the bright tropical sun. Go for bright greens, reds, oranges, blues and purples. Avoid all-black items unless you are already sporting a fine tan – if you absolutely must choose black, find one with white piping around the edges. It’s softer on the skin. If you have had your colours done, opt for the stronger colours in your palette.
  5. Accessorise. Again, this is your holiday daywear. Bring cheap and cheerful jewellery to accessorise each piece of swimwear you bring. A pair of matching earrings here, a statement bangle there, some toe-rings, a wide-brimmed sunhat and a matching cover-up or sarong, and you are making an outfit out of your swimsuit. Bring a simple crocodile clip or two if you have long hair. Don’t forget the footwear too: they will have to be sturdy enough to get you down the beach without falling over, but fabulous enough not to ruin the overall ensemble. Think pretty coloured flip-flops or a summery pair of Birkenstocks.

The most important accessory is, of course, lashings of sunscreen. Go one level higher than you think you need, especially if you are aiming for eight hours a day on that sunbed. You can always go down a level after your first four or five days when you have built up a base. The last thing you want is sunburn that keeps you out of the sun, ruins your coordinated look and quite frankly can lead to premature ageing and skin cancer.

Above all remember this: you already have a bikini body. You already look great. You just mightn’t feel great yet. But by day three when the Tropical Queen comes to town, you’ll look back and thank me. Promise.


waiting to exhale

It might be the longest night for most in the northern hemisphere, but to us it is the shortest night. Determined to wring every last drop out of a brief New York City visit, we book late night tickets at the Blue Note to see Chris Botti, and get back to our hotel less than three hours before our wake-up call is scheduled.

Bleary-eyed at half past four in the morning, we lug our bags downstairs, say goodbye to the night staff and put ourselves in the hands of the limo driver.

An hour later I am sitting in the American Airlines club lounge, Virgin Mary in hand (it’s been an alcohol-laden few days) and a relatively healthy granola breakfast on the way. Orlando has opted for yet more eggs and bacon than you can shake a stick at. At this point it’s a case of whatever will get us on the plane still conscious.

We sit slumped in our exit row seats, ignoring Wolverine on the TV and the wonderful American Airlines in-flight service (a polystyrene cup of luke-warm tea is all we are offered in five hours) and fall into a coma. I wake about three hours into the flight and realise it’s almost time to ditch the fur-lined boots and woolly jumper for rather more tropical sandals and fresh linen.

The azure horizon changes and we can see the northern-most tip of Barbados taking shape.  I peer out and try to identify each beach as it emerges from the haze. Is that Dover? Or Worthing? Orlando doesn’t care: all he sees is an island he calls home.

Stepping out onto the apron at Grantley Adams International, the feeling of warm tropical air on my bare legs and arms is just perfect after two weeks of freezing temperatures, wind chill and thermal underwear. The air is laden with the perfume of the tropics. We scribble our landing cards hurriedly and I follow Orlando to the “Citizens only” booth, avoiding the growing queues of tourists.

The immigration lady gives us a formal “good afternoon” but her eyes are friendly. Minutes later we are in the cleanest taxi cab I have ever been in, diverting off the Tom Adams highway and taking the back roads down to Oistins. Beautifully kept concrete homes make way now and again for older, smaller weatherboard homes and the occasional brightly painted chattel house, all equally well presented. Occasionally a verandah or a front door is festooned with Christmas decorations, the tinsel taking pride of place on this sunny island. An odd snowman or penguin ornament looks out of place but cheerful enough in the mid-afternoon sunshine.

Finally checked into our temporary home, we stand on our balcony overlooking a tiny beach, miles away from the main tourist centres, and finally start to relax. All we can hear is the sound of the Caribbean Sea pounding just yards from our door. The turquoise and blue of the water hurts my eyes after two weeks of weak winter daylight.


A quick visit to the supermarket for some provisions, and just before sunset we finally make it into the water. The day has cooled down somewhat as we dip our feet into what feels like a chilly sea. Orlando dives straight in, whilst I stand and wait for one of the big rumbling waves to envelop me.

We bob up and down chest-deep in water, breathing in the warm evening air and watching the colours change in the sky. As the sun sets, a handful of teenage boys play a rowdy game of football nearby on a postage stamp of white sand as we give ourselves over to the water.

Later on the balcony the rum punch is strong and the fried flying fish going down a treat: that healthy breakfast seems like a long time ago now. The sun sets quickly in the end, leaving us in darkness with only the pounding of the waves and the trilling of the crickets to keep us company.

It’s going to be an interesting two weeks.

in praise of suburban shopping malls

“This place makes me sick.” I turn to Connor, surprised at this vehemence. “Physically sick, I mean”, he continues. “It’s the fluorescent lights, I’m sure of it. They affect my eyes. I hate coming here.”

A teenager who hates shopping malls? Intriguing. I love them, always have. I inherited a love of shopping – or might I say power-browsing – from my mother, who in her mid-eighties still loves a trip into town every Saturday afternoon to see what bargains are to be found, have a coffee in a familiar but old-fashioned cafe, and probably head back the following week to return or exchange what she has bought once she’s tried it on in the comfort of her own home. Her wardrobe is to be envied.

I guess that’s why it’s called “shopping” and not “buying”.

I have always lived beside a decent suburban mall, and they have always been a favourite after-work-Thursday and Saturday morning destination. Perhaps I am a woman born after her time, favouring the newer, shinier, climate-controlled, more convenient and yes, more sterile experience of the modern shopping centre to the tired, depressing, wind-swept strip malls of my youth. Free parking, plentiful toilets, no outdoor garments required and a plethora of inoffensive franchise coffee shops: they lure me every time.

I pride myself on knowing which car park to use to get to my most frequented stores. I always plan a side trip to the pet shop on the middle level, in case they have new kittens in. I love a pound shop or $2 shop, for stocking up on ziplock bags, or gift wrap, or hair clips, or liquid ink pens. It reminds me of Hector Grey’s shop on Liffey Street in Dublin when I was growing up. I love a plastic bargain.

People complain about identikit malls. I think that’s part of their beauty. I can walk into a new shopping mall anywhere in the world and orientate myself within minutes. Regular food court on the bottom level or at the extremities of the building. Fancier eating establishments embedded in or near the posher stores. Mainstream brands grouped around the anchor stores: Zara in Ireland will sell more or less the same as Zara in New York, and have the same shop layout. Specialist shops on the top level,where only the dedicated will search for them.

There is a special place in my heart for the famous stores unique to one country: Dunnes and Penneys in Ireland, John Lewis and M&S in the UK, J Crew in the US. To me they are a special treat to be enjoyed and celebrated, knowing you can rely on the undies in M&S, the homeware in John Lewis and the affordable work separates in Dunnes.

And there is always a hidden gem: the incredible salt-beef sandwich place tucked up in the gods in Brent Cross; the charming little craft stalls in Lakeside, the delicious freshly made sandwiches in that dodgy-looking cafe in Blanchardstown, the best fruit and vegetable store I have ever seen in the new extension of Highpoint.

I know the tired strip malls of my youth have invariably morphed into gourmet, organic, hand-sewn, slow movement, locally owned designer streets with more choice than you can shake a stick at, but do they have an ATM for every bank known to man? Shelter from the heat of summer and the storms of winter? A good $2 store or pound shop for stocking up on cheap candles? Free wi-fi? I’ll leave you to your wicker-baskets and sensible market trolleys. You’ll find me a little way out of town where the free parking is.

the big barossa

A free hire car upgrade is always a good way to start a weekend away. Satnav on and away we go, out of Adelaide, up the Main North Road to wine country. Shiraz country, to be precise: the Big Barossa.

Once past the outer suburbs the landscape becomes more and more sun-scorched, all browns, ochres and straw-yellows. An hour later we round a bend in the highway and there they are: vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. “Hello vines!”, I call excitedly.

Off the main highway we meander towards the town of Nuriootpa. I welcome each winery sign like an old friend: Torbrecks; Richmond Grove; Peter Lehman. We locate our guesthouse and head straight to the cathedral of wineries. Penfolds seems the perfect place to worship on an Easter weekend.

I queue to buy some tawny, then join the crowd at the tasting bar. Never mind the pinots, or the affordable Koonunga Hill: I ask the pourer to start me on a shiraz-grenache-mourvedre mix. The first sip is divine, and so it begins.

On down the list I go, past an interesting shiraz-mourvedre and a very lovely cool-climate shiraz, but predictably it is the big Bin 28 that has my eyes rolling back in my head as the deep purple liquid hits home.


The big hitters of 2010 – Bin 408 cabernet sauvignon and Bin 389 cabernet shiraz, the Baby Grange – are tempting. But it’s the last pour, the 2010 Bin 150 Marananga shiraz that is the very best of all. As the last drops trickle down, I thank the lord for those first pioneering Barossa winemakers who made their home here way back in the mid-1800s.

Back in our guesthouse, we open a bottle of the farm’s own 2008 shiraz and lower ourselves into the waiting hot tub on the verandah. We sit and gaze over the vines as the sun sets, moving on to a decent local tawny as we put the world to rights.


Back inside we curl up on the sofa with a platter of local pates, cheeses and salamis as darkness settles and the countryside falls silent.

Another day in wine paradise.