One evening my husband and I strolled through the Beguinage in Leuven, a university town in the Flemish part of Belgium. Beguinages (or begijnhofs as they are called in Dutch) were medieval lay sisterhoods in which women led lives of piety and charity without taking permanent vows. At best, the Catholic church had an ambivalent attitude towards the beguines. Women weren’t supposed to have this much freedom or to exist independently from male control. The sisterhoods were prosecuted and labeled as heretics, but despite all of this they maintained their order. Belgium had the highest number of beguinages in the world, and about 30 remain today (albeit non-functioning). If the desire to live free from men counts, then the beguines might very well represent the earliest form of the women’s movement.
Although today Leuven’s Beguinage is a UNESCO heritage site housing university students and faculty, there is an aura of serenity pervading its narrow streets. The setting sun tints the grey cobblestones a rich gold and plays on the still water in the canals. The swallows paint delicate arabesques over the sky, making me strain my neck as I admire their graceful spins. The red geraniums spilling out of the window boxes give off their dusty metallic scent, and each tiny streets ends in a small secret garden awash in roses and privet. The beguines may have vanished, but their oasis of quiet beauty remains.
The ability to appreciate these quiet enjoyments is the main thing I’m learning since coming here. They are often just as special as anything planned on a grand scale. Slowing down takes some effort on my part, however. I walk faster than any person in the street. When we sit at an outdoor cafe enjoying a glass of beer or lait russe–a term for latte in Belgian French, I can’t help glancing at my watch. Do I have to go home already and work? To cook dinner? To make another work call? Relaxing is an art people around here practice well, but I still operate on the American concept of time. Here, on the other hand, time acquires a different (much longer and less defined) meaning, and my main adjustment lies in accepting it.
Little by little, I’m learning to cultivate quiet enjoyments. Summer offers many opportunities to create my own little rituals that allow me to take a deep breath and to recharge. They don’t require much expense or planning. My summer pleasures are the pleasures I can partake in, regardless of whether I’m busy with errands or have a whole day to myself. This is not an exhaustive list, of course, but just a few season specific delights. The best part is that some of these pleasures can be easily shared with others.
A bath scented with cologne is something I’ve come across in old French movies and Russian novels. I finally tried it one day, and I’ve become a cologne bath convert. You fill up the bathtub and add 2-3 Tablespoons of any citrusy cologne (something as common and inexpensive as 4711 works really well). The warmth of the water helps diffuse the scent, and the rejuvenating effect is remarkable. If you have time, the cologne bath is refreshing enough to take it in the morning. Afterwards, the scent lingers on your skin, and if you add an orange blossom scented cream such as Roger & Gallet Bois d’Orange body lotion, you don’t need a perfume. On week days, I content myself with a splash of cologne into the shower for an uplifting burst of scent, but the weekend mornings are my bath time.
A Colorful Fruit Cup for Breakfast
This simple pleasure is courtesy of my mom. She may grab a bite on the run during lunch, but her breakfasts are usually a little ceremony in themselves. Even if all she’s having is a cup of coffee and toast, she will set out her favorite plate, cup and silverware. If she has very little time in the morning, she sets the table the night before, so that all she has to do is to fill up the cup and pop a piece of bread in the toaster. But the sense of quiet enjoyment sets a nice mood for the whole day, and I can attest to this.
In the summer, I love fruit for breakfast. I mix a couple of types of fruit for different colors and textures. Apples and apricots with yogurt; pears and strawberries with kefir; raspberries and peaches with soft goat cheese–the combinations are limited only by seasonal availability. I slice and arrange fruit trying to create a still life in a cup. Beautiful, healthful, delicious. I can’t imagine a better way to start the day.
Garage Sales/Outdoor Flea Markets
I love to look at other people’s junk. A sign for a garage sale tempts me more than the advert for Barney’s 50% off clearance. I can’t say that I have a great record of bargains, other than a rose painted Limoges cup for $1 and a silver tea strainer for $10. I simply enjoy browsing through the stalls covered with chipped china, patina worn bronze candle holders and tattered books. Who is that dapper gentleman in the yellowing photo? Did this cup with an indelible lipstick stain belong to a beauty who wore marseilles waves and smeared her mouth crimson the moment she got out of bed?
Peaches and Feta Cheese
The first time I tasted the combination of sweet watermelon and salty feta, it was a revelation. Each bit was refreshing, exhilarating and addictive. Since then I’ve been pairing feta with just about any fruit, but peaches stand out as a particularly luscious foil to the musky, salty feta. I slice peaches thickly, arrange pieces of feta over them and add a generous drizzle of olive oil. A pinch of crunchy salt flakes, and it’s ready. To enhance the milky sweetness of peaches–the same one that gives Guerlain Mitsouko its velvety touch, you can add aromatic herbs like mint, basil or tarragon.
Rose and Orange Blossom Perfumed Sheets
My grandmother dries her linens outdoors, and their scent of grass and sunshine must be one of the reasons why I sleep so well at her house. At home, we would be reported to the building association if we tried drying anything outdoors, so I experiment by using scented waters to perfume my sheets. Orange blossom is one of my favorite scents for linens, and if you have a bottle in your cupboard–remember, I urged you to try it in this rice pudding?–the fantasy of a Mediterranean summer can be easy to create. I add 3 Tablespoons of orange blossom water for every 1/2 cup of water, and mix it in one of those cheap spray bottles sold at gardening shops. Or try rose water for a headier variation. Just before getting into bed, I mist the water lightly over the sheet and hop under the cool, fragrant covers. Sweet dreams!
What makes you anticipate summer the most? Do you have your favorite summer rituals?
Photography by Bois de Jasmin