Tuesday, August 25, 2015

work it

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Last week I tried out a class at a friend's kickboxing gym. You don't expect a boxing gym to be the nexus of all things style, but I found myself deep in conversation with two other women debating the merits of loose tank tops for exercise (comfy but slides around and gapes too much when say, doing push-ups).

The women were in leggings that weren't just any leggings - mesh panels and seams mean to flatter; gorgeous prints, and sports bras with elaborate strappy backs, shown off by drapey tanks. They looked great, just like the women in Instagram accounts of Lululemon, Nike, Under Armour, et al.

(The men just wore shorts and no shirts. So simple, life for a man.)

There's so much going on out there in this sportwear market because a crazy amount of women are willing pay big bucks for sports bras and sweats - if the style is right. This is all very new to me, since I've always bought my sportswear in discount bins and during warehouse sales - the point of sport wear was that while they weren't very interesting, they didn't really date. You buy something that works, and wear it forever. Literally - being made of essentially, plastic, my exercise gear last eons. One of my sports bras date from my college years. Running shoes were the only things that fell apart and needed changing.

On a performance level, it's nice to have so much to choose from now - there's actual progress on the materials front. Things have gotten incredibly comfortable. I used it be grateful for any kind of wicking and breathability but now you get wonderfully light fabric, some of them woven like fine knits, soft as air.

Second, they're finally flattering, and there's a style for everyone, whether you like it aggressively sporty and "pro" looking, vintage-y like a Wes Anderson movie, fashion-y with bright prints and complicated straps, or minimalist, in cool, tasteful palettes.

I was inducted into this world of fancy sportswear recently, when I got a Lululemon gift card for my birthday. I'd only gone into the shop once and left intimidated by the prices and creeped out by cultishness of it all, without trying on anything. So this time, when I did try stuff on, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact the things are actually quite nicely made, and the materials definitely feel more luxe on the skin than most.

It's easy to let all this great marketing get into your head - pictures and videos of women working out with each other and doing amazing things and looking all glowy and sweaty. It's the photogenic version of what I loved about sports growing up: being part of teams and sharing in the camaraderie that comes with pushing yourself and rooting for each other and the exhilaration of your body actually becoming good, or at least able, at something.

Now it's becoming another lifestyle, another aspiration being pushed to us by companies looking to make money. But it's also pushing fitness and sports for women into the spotlight. These ads showing women playing football (soccer to Americans), tennis, swimming, running, climbing mountains, skiing, practising MMA, Crossfit, yoga, boxing, dancing - these are all things I want my hypothetical daughter to know they're capable of. Yes, most of these are athletes that also happen to be good-looking and marketable, or they're models, but at least they're demonstrating something positive and empowering. I can get behind that.

But as always, there's the need to separate the gold from the dross. I find most of the high-fashion options out there laughable - which is most of the stuff you find on in the Net-a-Porter sports section. Marmot and Patagonia make tops and leggings that are surprisingly suitable for regular running and studio-based classes, considering they're better known for their outdoor gear. Among the big mass brands, Nike and Under Armour suit my body type best, and I think they win in the quality + accessibility stakes. I admit that Lululemon wins in the "who can make the softest jersey of all them all" stakes, but I can't really get behind the company's vibes and am pretty put off by the bad press.

I think Stella McCartney for Adidas is shockingly poor quality and and the designs are impractical. I do have one of her tops purchased for a mere S$15 years ago during a sale that's not bad, but the brand often uses materials that feel plasticky and the leggings in my experience never sit right on my body. Also, I love Uniqlo but they definitely haven't quite hit the mark where sportwear is concerned. Cotton On Body makes cute things, but I had one top that lost its colour and shape so fast that I'll never try it again.

Which are your favourite sportswear makers?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

women who work: kali, of the nife en l'air

This is regrettably, the last I have in this series for now - I find that much as I miss writing, I lack the discipline to spend time doing in my free time, but I hope this malaise is a passing phase.

In any case, Kali, of The Nife en l'Air has admirably filled the good writing gap on this blog. Notably, with this quote, which I think sort of sums up what I've been thinking about this whole workwear thing:

"In short, once you understand your office’s official and unspoken rules, find a way to adapt them to your own style, rather than imitate a uniform that isn’t you, which will ultimately have a negative impact on your behaviour, and external image."

Couldn't have said it better - like many things in life, style takes patience to hone. Mistakes happen. And more often than not, you'll come out the other side better dressed.

1) Share one, two or three pictures of some typical work outfits that you wear for various work-related occasions and 2) Describe the elements of the outfit in your own words

As a foreword, my personal style is overall pulled together and I am lucky to work in a rather relaxed environment, so I don’t own specific items just for work. I usually combine the most elegant pieces together on weekdays, whereas I mix them with more casual items on weekends.

There are some rules of course, as in any social situation, and it is all the more important to understand them in the work environment because this can have a real impact on how people perceive you professionally. However, these rules are not always the same from one industry to another, depending on the company, and even depending on the service you work for. Also, there are some official rules, and some implicit ones, which are the most difficult to figure out. For example in my company, which is creative, innovative and young, being too dressed up is actually somewhat of a faux-pas.

Outfit-1

This first outfit (above) is an example of what I would wear on any weekday during the transitional season. Simple black khakis with a pair of oxfords, a shirt to dress it up, a simple and practical bag, and a neutral scarf on windy days. This could also be a weekend outfit, as is or by swapping the shoes with Converse for example.

Speaking of shoes, one of the first lessons I learned at work is to find what suits me best, rather than following some arbitrary list of what women should wear at work. As I wrote above, there are some rules to the work environment, but there are many ways to combine outfits that respect these rules, while remaining true to your own style and identity.

When I started working as an intern in an open space, in my early 20s, I was a bit impressed by all this. It was my first taste of an adult work environment, the social class was higher than mine, I was one of the youngest around, and I wanted to be taken seriously. As a result, I dressed the way I imagined a professional woman was supposed to: tailored pants or skirts, proper cotton shirts and high heels. Only that wasn’t me. Now that I remember this period, I probably looked awkward in poorly tailored shirts and uncomfortable high heels I couldn’t walk in. Even though I wanted to be taken seriously, the result was probably the opposite: I appeared as a newbie who didn’t quite know how to approach the work environment. Which is fine when you are an intern in your early 20s, not so much when you evolve and aspire to get more responsibilities.

Shoes

With time, as I grew in confidence and refocused on my personal style, I found that a pair low boots or flats - oxfords, ballerinas or loafers – could be as elegant as a pair of high heels. I also found that I would feel much more at ease, therefore confident, in that type of shoes. As a result, my whole attitude was more poised and I was taken more seriously.

In short, once you understand your office’s official and unspoken rules, find a way to adapt them to your own style, rather than imitate a uniform that isn’t you, which will ultimately have a negative impact on your behaviour, and external image.

 Outfit-2

This outfit (above) could be something I wear for a global presentation in front of dozens of people. I work in international communications for a video game company, so 90 per cent of my time is spent in front of a computer or at internal meetings with the other international teams. However, as the European representative of our communication strategies, I sometimes have to present our plans to all the local teams, which can amount to over fifty persons hanging to my every word.

In that situation, I usually dress up a bit, not because that’s what is asked of us (many of my colleagues do these presentations wearing sweaters and Converse – video game company, remember), but because it makes me feel more professional, confident and reliable. In this example, I wear low-heeled boots instead of my usual flats, a bigger bag to host my laptop and notes, and a blazer jacket, more elegant than my usual leather ones. I’d also probably paint my nails in a dark neutral colour and wear a bit of perfume.

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Which brings me to my second idea: you know this mantra that says, “dress for the job you want, not the one you have”, usually accompanied by a humorous drawing of an office full of super heroes and knights and astronauts. While I understand the actual meaning of that expression (dress like your boss rather than your job level, in order to modify the perception people have of you), I prefer to turn it in a different way: how do you want your outfit to make you feel?

When I choose this outfit, I want to feel sturdy and confident and at ease for a public speech. Knowing my personal style, and myself, I know that a blazer jacket, a polished manicure and a pair of dressed up shoes will help me feel that way. And it works. My theory is that, more than the details of the outfit themselves; it works because the outfit helps you feel a certain way, and, as a result, your demeanour and non-verbal gestures change.

In short, when you decide what outfit to wear for work, ask yourself: how do you want to feel? Not how other people think you should, but how you, deep inside, want to feel as a professional: serious? Sturdy? Confident? Fun? Kind? If you find, within your own style and the boundaries of the workplace’s dress code, an outfit that makes you feel that way, it will change your attitude, and therefore the perception the people have of you at work.

Accessories-1

I’d like to write a word on this particular jacket (above), which illustrates how I integrate some of my personal style in a work appropriate outfit. As you can see, this jacket is tailored like a classical, chic jacket, one that would have its place in a work environment, but it was made of recycled ancient Indian fabric. Adding a touch of oriental or exotic details to my otherwise simple uniform is one of my own style signatures. To me, this jacket illustrates perfectly how I manage to blend these oriental details into work outfits appropriate to my company’s rules.

I would probably wear it with a simple pair of leather shoes as pictured, some fine golden jewellery and a very neutral outfit base (black and grey pants and top). Knowing your personal style, there are tons of ways to add a bit of your personality in your work uniform, even for the most conventional workplace. Granted, this particular jacket wouldn’t fit in everywhere, but this is only one of many examples, which I found iconic to my wardrobe collection.

3) Please fill in the blanks

My style in 5 words, or less: simple, natural/earthy, a bit oriental/Japanese, and a little tomboy perhaps.

Uniforms are a perfect structure to build your personal style around, especially when you have office rules to take into account.

Simple, high quality leather shoes always makes me feel more professional, because they combine comfort and elegance in a way that suits both my style and dresses up any otherwise simple or even casual outfit.

I always wear/carry a few accessories and jewellery items to feel "me", even though professionally, I am dressing for someone, or something: a printed scarf, my engagement ring made by my jewellery designer friend, a garnet bracelet brought back from Thailand, and one or two of my favourite pendants made of natural stone.

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I would never wear high heels to work, because I can’t walk in them and it makes me feel awkward.

People often think just because I work in video games, I shouldn’t care how I look at work – most of the people in this industry wear gaming T-shirts and eat pizza at press events. But I think it is important that my outfit makes me feel like an accomplished professional.

I would tell my younger self that the most important is how you want to feel, the image you want to project, the kind of professional you want to be, both in terms of outfit and in terms of values and ethics. Do not try to conform to what others are expecting of you, because no matter how you look and how well you work, there will be people to disagree or criticise you – first because you are a woman, and it is a reality that women are judged by their looks more often than men, and second, because there are always jealous people who lack of self confidence and feel threatened by your professionalism, efforts and skills.

The idea of "dress for success" is a very useful one when applied internally – what kind of professional do you want to be, for yourself? In order to become that person, of course attitude, skills and overall work behaviour is important, but the outfits you pick and, more importantly, how they make you feel, matter a lot.

Photographs courtesy of Kali. 

See all the other Women Who Work posts here.

Friday, June 26, 2015

women who work: jamie-lee of mademoiselle

Jamie-Lee's experience reminded me of my own - the fact that figuring out what is work appropriate at the beginning is hard, and there will be embarrassing moments to look back on.

And yet, while I do wish I had a bit more guidance when I started working, I think there is no one perfect formula to this, simply because everyone has different tastes and circumstances. You can't tell someone the perfect solution is dresses if that person doesn't like dresses. Maja, Marlene and Jamie-Lee don't dress alike but yet their outfits are perfectly aligned to what is appropriate for their professions.

I think the mistake is to go out and buy what you think a "professional" outfit looks like. What works for me is to buy something that will transform stuff that I already own into something work-appropriate. It could be a pair of trousers, it could be a jacket, it could be shoes. Or I look for things that's a basically a more formal version of what I like to wear.

Anyway, without further delay, here's what Jamie-Lee had to say about dressing for work

1) Share one, two or three pictures of some typical work outfits that you wear for various work-related occasions and 2) Describe the elements of the outfit in your own words
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Photographs courtesy of Jamie-Lee

When Lin approached me to participate in her ‘Women who Work’ series, I couldn’t have been more thrilled – my own journey from a university graduate to being wholly immersed in a primary corporate environment, has been an interesting one. I’ve certainly had my fair share of wardrobe disasters (wearing Lover cami lace shorts when meeting the Prime Minister probably tops the list), however one thing I’ve come to find in more recent years is balance. A balance between the things that I like to wear, and the way I’d like to project myself professionally.

To give a little bit of background, I’m currently based in a corporate office for a company in the media industry. The dress code is corporate, however it isn’t as strict as I would imagine other work places might be. I can get away with a skirt that is an inch or so above the knee, and I can relax my outfit a little bit and mix things up with a pair of quirky flats – which truthfully, I feel most at home in. In saying that, one thing that I never, ever, forget to have on hand, is a pair of classic high heel pumps. Members of the board and financial representatives quite regularly come in for meetings so I find that this is the easiest way to lift an outfit and instantly appear more professional.

A typical week for me is generally desk-bound, answering emails and squirrelling away at my work. It’s a stark contrast to my previous two roles where I was a lot more active, primarily due to the fact that the office campuses were quite spread apart (to the point where it could take 10 minutes just to walk from one to the other). I do occasionally make it out of the office for meetings, but for the most part, I work alongside our team. I suppose because of this, I’m more inclined to throw on a pair of four inch heels on a daily basis.

When it comes to my work wardrobe, I like to keep it simple; it’s mostly neutrals. Sticking to a colour palette comprised mostly of white, grey, navy and black keeps things easy and helps me to get out the door on time. When I was hired for my first office job, it was a completely different story. I was reaching for a lot of prints, and a lot of colour, and looking back, I think I was just confused. Getting dressed in the morning was stressful, and I definitely didn’t make things easy on myself. I was experimenting a lot, just trying to find my feet, and I never really had anyone guiding me in the right direction. You don’t realise when you first enter the workforce how much your appearance (be it the care you take with your hair, your make up, and your clothing) actually impacts a person’s first impression of you, and I think this was really evident with me and the way that I was dressing at the time. To give you a mental picture, it was mostly colourful mini dresses from Karen Walker and those ridiculously high platform heeled shoes which were in vogue at the time.

Being fresh out of university (and a PoliSci/International Relations major at that), I was considerably of the opinion that regardless of my working environment, I wanted to stay true to myself. As you can imagine, this didn’t really translate well for the office.

My first ‘real’ job, was working for a Member of Parliament, and I spent the first few years really finding my feet and making some very questionable wardrobe choices along the way. I was so concerned with asserting my individuality, and not looking beyond my years that I think I actually did myself a disservice. I never thought twice about what impression I gave to the people visiting our office, and what it said about me. I believe Lin has already touched on this, but one thing I found was that weren’t really any resources out there for young people starting out in a professional environment, and even now, I struggle to find any style blogs with a professional aesthetic. At 21, my style inspiration came much from girls my own age; Andi of Style Scrapbook, Rumi from Fashion Toast, Nicole from Gary Pepper Vintage – which, when looking back, they were in such a different situation to me that they could dress however they liked, which is something I completely failed to recognise at the time. Their daily outfits didn’t even come close to matching with my reality.

I really could go on, but I know this is going to be quite long already! Now, I quite like the whole gamine look; it’s a play on sartorial expectations, in a sense, yet I think when done right it looks very chic. For me, I tend to keep it simple with a white shirt, a black blazer and slim cut trousers – which given the simplicity, means that I can have a little bit of fun when it comes to the shoes. This is really one of those outfits that I’ll pull out for an average day in the office, and I think it looks quite smart, even when worn with a pair of flats. I’m no longer quite as game as I used to be when it comes to teetering around in heels so I tend to tuck my heels into a tote bag in the morning (or stash them under my desk), and travel to work in a simple pair of ballet flats.

It took me a really long time to find a pair of trousers that suit me. I stumbled across a ¾ length pair from Forever New and haven’t really looked back since – they are well fitting and the trouser length seems to be universally flattering. I have a heavier wool pair which are great for winter from Karen Walker although these are much easier to pair with flat shoes or a low heeled loafer.

My main ‘work uniform’ tends to be some kind of silky blouse or tank tucked into a knee-length skirt (or one which flirts just above the knee where I can!), worn with a sweater when it gets cold. My go-to brand is Lover, always. I have about four or five of their lace skirts which have served me well so far – this white one is a particular favourite for the warmer months. They sit quite on the waist which is flattering for my body shape (pear/hourglass) and the pretty lace keeps it from getting boring. It’s probably without surprise that I have this exact same skirt in black, but I always figure that if you’re on to a good thing, why stop at just one?

Everlane has become a huge part of my working wardrobe, mostly because they seem to do silk so well, and at such an affordable price point. Sydney gets pretty hot in the summer (it sits around the 28 deg C mark, but occasionally makes its way up to 36 deg C…) so you see a lot of women wearing sleeveless blouses, which are an absolute lifesaver in the heat. I think that’s why I tend to like Everlane so much, their sleeveless silk pieces are just so easy to wear and you can get away with throwing them in the washing machine in a delicates bag.

These two looks tend to form the foundation of my work wardrobe these days as I don’t attend too many meetings and am generally just interacting with my work colleagues. It certainly takes the pressure off a little!

I’ve been trying to wear dresses on a more regular basis, and this Karen Walker lemon dress has been one of the more recent additions. For me, I find that this is the perfect balance; it’s playful and definitely has personality, and it’s demure to the point that it can be dressed up with a pair of heels or worn on a casual Friday with my battered and bruised kitty flats (which admittedly, I’ve been wearing to the office more often than not, as of late).

I’m not going to lie, I still feel a little overwhelmed when it comes to work wear. Finding the balance isn’t exactly easy but I do think I’m almost there, and it’s certainly something that you almost ‘fall in to’ with age. I’ve had my fair share of wardrobe fails, and the one thing that’s really stood out to me in recent years is to invest in the basics – these form the foundation of your wardrobe and once you find the right pieces, everything else can only get easier from there.

3) Please fill-in-the-blanks

My style in 5 words, or less: minimal, understated and classic

Uniforms are... essential in order to get out of the house on time!

A pair of heels always makes me feel more professional, because I feel like they finish off a look, and change the way you carry yourself

I (almost) always wear a quirky pair of flats to the office to feel "me", even though professionally, a pair of heels would be more suited to my role. The Charlotte Olympia kitty flats tend to get the most love as they attract the least amount of attention!

I would never carry a Longchamp Le Pliage tote to work, because I much prefer a structured satchel or a leather tote - mine have managed to withstand heavy rains as well as a nylon tote could, so I figure, why not make do with what I already have?

I would tell my younger self to invest in staple wardrobe classics because in five years time that's all I'm going to want to wear anyway - may as well make a head start!

The idea of "dress for success" is such an overused phrase; success comes in many different forms and isn't always dictated by the job you have. For some, success may be starting a family, for others, it might be running a large multi-national corporation. Personally, I prefer the term "dress for the job you want" - if you're career-oriented, this is probably already going to factor into how you approach your work wardrobe on a daily basis as it is.

Friday, June 12, 2015

climb every...

I am writing this post after I climbed 120 floors, trying to get myself semi-ready for an attempt to reach the summit of Gunung Rinjani, a 3,726-m mountain on Lombok, Indonesia.

I committed to the trip without giving it much thought when I was in Italy, and it was only when I began doing research on the climb that I realised what I had signed myself up for. I know Rinjani isn't Everest, or even Everest Base Camp, but when you read something like fifteen blog posts and they all contain some variation of the refrain "it was the toughest thing I've ever done", you worry.

Hence, stair climbs, which I haven't done since I was an enthusiastic, 17-year-old member of my school outdoor activity club. I started with 72 floors (climbing a 24-storey block three times), then 96, and stayed at 96 till tonight, when I went for 120. At some point I hope to be doing 200 floors three times a week, with a pack, and mixing up the pace while I'm at it. This is on top of some light running or swimming, and my usual yoga sessions.

All the Rinjani research brought memories of the time I climbed Gunung Merapi in with my younger siser, in 2013. Like Rinjani, Merapi is also a volcano - Indonesia's most active volcano or second most active, depending on your source. It last blew its top off in 2010, but still measures a nice 2,900-odd metres above sea level. Because of the volcanic activity, the terrain is especially tough-going near the summit - loose sand and gravel that you sink into and slide back. It's literally two steps forward one step back.

Hitting the slopes of Merapi was not my idea - it was my rather ambitious younger sister who insisted I couldn't possibly resist the idea of climbing an active volcano. Ironically, she spent most of the trekking wheezing and asking if we could turn back. I said no (while also wheezing).

The climb starts innocuously enough. Either your trekking agency picks you up and drives you to the village of Selo, or you figure out your own transport there. Most people start at about 1am, with the aim of reaching the summit in time to catch the sunrise, and then coming back down and perhaps make it back to your hotel in time to catch the last of the buffet breakfast.

From Selo, you start on a steep, asphalt road, and it makes you feel a tad silly. Isn't it supposed to be a mountain? But this ends after a few hundred metres, when you reach New Selo, and get yourself registered. And you're off.

I didn't take any pictures because I am terrible at taking pictures at night, but it was your basic star-strewn night sky, though not quite clear enough to navigate by moonlight. I used a headlamp, which is essential for night climbs of any kind. You'll need your hands, when the going gets steep.

And yes it's a steep climb (like taking two or three steps at a time on a flight of stairs), punctuated by some flat-ish narrow ridges. There are also three plateaus before the summit, on which you can declare "enough!", make yourself comfortable and catch the sunrise.

I didn't have much faith in my fitness at the time (I was only doing yoga, and not even as regularly as I would like) and would have been happy make it to the third and highest plateau, Pasar Bubrah. But when I got there, and was told it the summit was just 300m above me, it seemed silly to stop.

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Pasar Bubrah (above) was kind of fantastic, like being on the moon. The cloud cover is a rather disorienting though. The summit is often shrouded in cloud, and it surprised me, how quickly conditions change. One minute it's bright blue sky, the jagged rim of the peak in sharp relief. And next minute you're in a fog that seemed to muffle even sound.

Well off I went, leaving my younger sister behind, after the guide suggested she was better off resting instead of over-exerting herself and risking injury. His faith in me was slightly misplaced, because the hellish last leg spent ploughing through loose rock and sliding backwards took me so long, the sun was rising before I reached the summit.

I stopped, mid-sink, for a look.

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And when I looked the other way, I saw this (That's Gunung Merbabu) -

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The summit of Merapi is not picturesque - it is a ruin of loose, broken rock. Unlike the sweeping beauty of the summit of, say Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia, the peak of Merapi tips into a crater, which is basically a scary, smoking pit below you. It's a bit like Mordor, as shot by Peter Jackson.

It was quite heart-in-mouth for me walking around on the narrow rim of the crater (that's my guide in the picture) -

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And I felt quite thrown off by the cloud cover. One minute, the views of the surrounding volcanoes are clear and gorgeous. Then the clouds roll in without warning, and suddenly the landscape below you vanishes.

Another glimpse of Merbabu -

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(After this I lost my nerve to take photos because scrambling on the rocky ridge was quite challenging for me. Sadly, the views were better on the other side.)

A glimpse of the valleys below, carved from rivers of lava flow in previous eruptions. Again, when the clouds roll in, you feel slightly claustrophobic, because it cuts off your vision, almost like it's pressing down -

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I sat down on the edge of the crater, and looked down. If you're lucky and get there on a clear day, you can see the lava dome that's forming, glowering, fiery and orange in a grim grey rocky crater. Or so I was told. When I looked down, I saw, well, steam.

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This is the way I came up, practically crawling -

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And then I had to go down. The memory of it makes my butt ache.

The view, from Pasar Bubrah. Pity it wasn't a clearer day, I've seen pictures of way more spectacular views than this (there are lots of volcanoes in the area). You can also see the deep grooves left by lava flows in the greenery below -

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I don't have any photos of the descent beyond this point because I was pretty tired and the way down is not easy - broken rock in steep piles. The way up at night is chilly, but by mid morning, the sun gets pretty fierce and there isn't much shade along the way. A hat and sun block are advisable.

Once we saw this sign, we knew we were home free. They call this spot "Hollywood".

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I sat down and had very very cold Coca Cola. And burped loudly. Classy.

The land around Merapi is intensely farmed, the slopes tightly terraced and planted with all manner of things: rice, jackfruit, dragonfruit, bananas, papayas, sweet potato. Despite the threat of eruption from a rather active volcano, I guess Merapi's fertile slopes are still worth the risk.

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And that was as much as I could take in, before I slept like the dead for the rest of the ride back to my hotel.

A reasonably fit person can do the ascent in about 3 to 4 hours, a less fit being like me took about 4.5 hours. The descent also takes longer than you might expect if you aren't fit, because you're more tired by now and you have to take it slower or risk twisting an ankle (or worse) on uneven terrain. Since I didn't train for this and I was at a rather stationary period of my life (yoga twice a week at most), I think Merapi, despite its angry, frequent eruptions, is pretty accessible and just challenging enough to give you that sense of accomplishment. Definitely worth a visit if you visit this part of Indonesia.

I expect Rinjani to be much tougher. But it was also the idea of doing something that scares me a little that made me decide to go on the trip.

And let's face it, my right knee is likely to make it impossible for me to try something like this at some point in the near future, so I might as well make a go of it while I can.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

home, rested

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The Duomo, Florence, May 2015

Was it really three weeks? Some things feel different - the tightness in my chest has eased, I'm a much nicer person at work. Some things haven't - the never-ending parade of deadlines, the adrenaline/panic of delivering a good piece/project, annoying people. Is it worth it, being the girl who's "only good at her job"? No, but what then?

Italy was a balm for the soul. They call Rome the Eternal City but you could say the same of Florence, Venice and Ravenna, where it often felt like time stood still. Not just because the buildings are ancient, but because there's an unhurried elegance about these places, places that wear the patina of time well and have no overwhelming desire to impress - they did that oh, about 673 years ago (usually more). We didn't stay anywhere for long, true, but I never felt rushed. Italy invites you to linger in its golden light. 

Paris, in comparison, felt much much faster. But still incomparably beautiful, even when it's rainy, grey and blustery. Bookstores, galleries, antique stores on the Left Bank. The lushness of the Luxembourg Gardens. Skateboarders, all grace and ferocity on the banks of the Seine. PASTRY. Every crossing of the Seine feels like magic.  

There are cracks. Large, gaping faults actually, all getting bigger. I see the homeless, the beggars, the drabness of the urban outskirts, the mind-numbing sameness of chain stores (Sandro, Maje et al have taken over Paris!). You meet all sorts in big cities, magnets for people fleeing something else. I chatted with a Bangladeshi man working in a famous gelato shop in Rome who has lived there for 11 years and taught himself Italian, who once worked in Singapore and Brunei in oil refineries and taught himself Bahasa Malayu. I never found out exactly how he got there but I wondered. Looking at the dozens of Bangladeshis and Chinese hawking selfie sticks outside tourist attractions everywhere, I found myself thinking: are they the lucky ones? They could be dead, in a mass grave, at the bottom of the ocean. It was impossible to look away after that. I found myself wishing I had stopped to talk to them, taken their pictures, told their stories.

We look back selectively, and view everything in the best possible light. I enjoy this process. What's the harm with imbuing our experiences with a bit of magic? Who wants to dwell at length on the bad pizza, the banal coffee, the missed buses and aching feet? Every tale from road needs unreal "What have I done to deserve this" moments. On this trip, I kept finding money on the street. No, really. I found a 5 euro bill, the first time in front of the ticketing machine in the Ravenna train station. I went after the man who went before me but he said it wasn't his, adding: "But you are very kind." I asked around a little more but everyone shook their heads, smiling, and someone said: "It's yours now."

(Maybe, unknown to me, it fell out of my wallet and I turned it into a fantasy. Who cares. My friend and I decided to keep the bill unspent as a lucky charm.)

The second time, I was stepping into a corner shop to buy some mints, and there it was, a bright, crisp 5 euro bill, lying on the pavement. Not a single person was about me this time. I picked it up, and gave it to the first homeless person I saw.

In the Paris subway, I found a 2 euro coin by a seat in the station. I left it with other loose change in a tip jar.

I still have the first 5 euro bill, which we forgot to give away.

Oh, that ache in your chest when you come back to a home that's suddenly strange to you, knowing that the cities you left behind have already moved on without you.

But your mum calls and your friends text and the emails ping and you dive back in.

You've missed everyone, you realise. Also, so much laundry to do.

But you're leaving the door ajar. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

break!

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In January, I did that thing I do every year, which is to look at all the ads for flight deals, and pick one, book and go. It was the clever thing to do because it's May and I'm very, very ready for a break.

So I booked a trip to Italy, tossing in a five-day stopover in Paris for good measure (isn't that the whole point of flying Air France?). The last time I visited Italy, I slept in the worst hostels of my entire trip, it was August, good things to eat were far and few in between, and boy it was hot. And I managed to have a good time. This time, the weather is likely kinder and I've wised up on my accommodation hunting skills. I'm revisiting the good old classics of Rome, Florence and Venice with a friend who's never been, and I'm making a detour to Ravenna, to see some Byzantine mosaics so that I am one step closer to my quest to see as many Byzantine-era mosaics in as many cities as possible in my lifetime. There will be PASTA. There will be PECORINO. 

(Also, art, and churches and gardens and palaces.)

There will also be tennis, because one reason my friend and I picked Rome was to catch the Rome Masters, as work forbids us from actually catching the French Open in Paris later in May.

As usual, I indulged in my favourite pre-trip exercise: wardrobe planning. I reckon I need to plan for warm days and chilly nights with the odd rainy day thrown in, and so narrowed down my list to:

Tops
- Striped t-shirt
- White sleeveless linen shirt
- Blue sleeveless linen shirt
- Navy merino wool pullover
- Beige linen knit pullover

Trousers
- Skinny jeans
- Navy polka-dot viscose trousers

Dresses
- Striped cotton sleeveless knee-length dress
- Blue linen sleeveless knee-length dress
- Black cupro sleeveless jumpsuit borrowed from sis

Outerwear
- Olive green cotton parka

Shoes
- Grey high-top sneakers
- White leather lace-ups
- Black flip-flops

Flight outfit (also yoga outfit)
- White sleeveless muscle tee
- Black leggings
- Sneakers as above
- Beige linen pullover above

Others
- Grey scarf
- As many pairs of socks I need to feel secure
- As many sets of of underwear I need to feel secure
- Two sets of pajamas
- Woven leather belt
- My mother's gold ring
- Burgundy leather purse bag
- Camera backpack
- Toiletries

I could have brought more things but I didn't feel like it - I prefer to underpack than overpack (except underwear and socks) and Italy and Paris aren't exactly places where necessities are in short supply. Since I'm mostly renting apartments with laundry facilities I don't have to worry about stale clothes. Nothing annoys me more than lugging a heavy suitcase around filled with things I'm not using.

Well that's it for now. Hopefully I will be back energised and ready to blog! I do miss writing on this space. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

women who work: marlene, of chocolate, cookies and candies

Marlene of Chocolate, Cookies and Candies is a person of firm opinions, and I thought it would be interesting to pick her brain on this topic, from the perspective of someone who currently doesn't report to an office every day, but gets scrutinised a lot nonetheless, being a blogger and someone who writes and photographs professionally.

The questions are slightly different from what I asked Maja, taking into account the fact that Marlene's her own boss.

1) Share one, two or three pictures of some typical work outfits that you wear for various work-related occasions and 2) Describe the elements of the outfit in your own words


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Photos courtesy of Marlene

Ever since I left the corporate world 7 years ago and started working for myself, my outfits have changed drastically. Back then, it was mostly pant suits - grey and black. These days, I work from home so my day to day work clothes can be ridiculously casual. I pretty much live in track pants and sweatshirts (am I allowed to reveal this online??). My only consolation is that I tend to get edgier and better made lounge wear from the likes of The Kooples, Isabel Marant √Čtoile and T by Alexander Wang. Hopefully, I don't look like I'm off to gym!

Most days, I'm at home tapping away. Other days, I could be somewhere else doing a photo shoot where comfort is key. It's hard to look glamorous when you have to squat, bend, run around and carry lots of heavy equipment. There will be occasions where I have to turn up to fashion events where I need to look a bit more spiffy. There isn't any strict dress code that I adhere to. Personally, I'm all about comfortable and fuss free clothes. I hate shopping. Online shopping is a lifesaver for me. I have a tiny closet no bigger than 3/4 of my arm span with a carefully edited selection of clothes. They're mostly in dark colors, namely, grey, black, military green and the odd burgundy. I get stressed just thinking what to wear so I tend to buy pieces that go with most of my clothes.

I have....perhaps....4 pairs of jeans and pants that I wear a lot. I tend to spend more on jackets which are my first love, next to handbags. As I get older, I prefer clothes that are edgier with interesting details. I have a small build so I tend to stick to mostly French brands because I don't have to spend extra on alterations. To me, Rick Owens is a genius at creating clothes that flatter the female silhouette. I have a Chanel jacket which I treasure. I purchased it secondhand at a pretty good price years ago. Isabel Marant does very wearable boho chic well but I wish she would continue to line her jackets and coats. They get ridiculously itchy especially if you're not wearing a long sleeved top underneath.

2) What's a common misconception people have about freelancers?

People think being a freelancer is fantastic because you're your own boss and working from home is a dream. Most of the time, they're right but it can get incredibly lonely as there's literally no one to bounce ideas off. I can spend days and weeks on my own until it's time to do the school run or the husband gets home. I now try to schedule meetings and network with various individuals so that I'm constantly inspired. Being your own boss is pretty scary at times because I'm a one woman band and the buck stops with me. I had to learn to self motivate which is easier said than done.

3) What's the biggest sartorial mistake someone can make when trying to make a good first impression in any kind of professional setting? 

In my previous role as a recruitment consultant, I've had to interview more than a hundred candidates. I've seen some pretty dire outfits including food stains on clothes, unzipped trousers, dirty nails, body odor, bad breath......to name a few. A lot of it is common sense really. If you're not meticulous with your personal hygiene and professional outfit, no potential employer would entrust any responsibilities to you. Once, I had to co-interview with a major client of mine and we both winced when a candidate came in. He was the perfect fit for the role but my client refused him on the basis of his sloppy appearance.So yes....first impression counts!

4) Please fill-in-the-blanks

My style in 5 words, or less: fuss free and comfortable

Uniforms are my lifesaver. I'm one of those who stick to what I like. Jeans, a simple top and a beautifully constructed jacket.

Jackets always makes me feel more professional, because they smarten up a simple outfit.

I would tell my younger self to take risks, make more mistakes and be fearless, because that's the only way to grow.

The idea of "dress for success" is understanding your personal style and being comfortable in your own skin.

P.S: This Harper's Bazaar story about one woman who wears the same thing to work daily has been making the rounds, and Adweek interviewed her. Personally, I need some variety; I suppose to each their own! What say you all?