Let’s be honest. So many occasions in life are simply not as good as we imagine they will be. Family vacations, road trips and outdoor dining come to mind. I blame movies and magazines for jacking up our expectations.
No movie or magazine ever captures the jet lag, the monotony, the bugs or bad weather. Realities that often turn such “occasions” into events that need to be endured, like an Ironman or a bad marriage.
But that doesn’t stop me. Heck no. This summer alone, I have vacationed across time zones, taken a road trip, and, with the highest hopes, have tried to dine al fresco whenever I can — despite unbridled resistance from family members.
Ever the optimist, I have this fantasy of summer outdoor dining, where cotton-puff clouds dot blue skies. The bugs all take a siesta. The breeze is just enough to flutter your hair and cool your skin, but never enough to whisk away the napkins or blow out candles.
My family doesn’t buy it.
“Let’s eat outside tonight!” I’ll say chirpily, evoking a chorus of moans along the lines of “Noooooo.”
“Eyeew.” “Forget it.”
“Why don’t you like eating outside?” I recently asked my oldest daughter, though I should know better. Like me, she’s not known for holding back.
“Uhh, besides the bugs, and the fact that we have to coat ourselves in insecticide even if we’ve just showered, because the Citronelle candles never work, and sweat soaks through our clothes, and there are flies in the food, and the sun in our face?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, waving my hand dismissively, “besides that.”
“And the fact that the table and chairs are never clean, and we kids always have to clean them, and you have to run in the house a dozen times for the things you forgot while the food gets cold or develops salmonella, and the seat cushions are usually wet and soak through our shorts, and when you wrap them in plastic bags they crackle when you sit on them and stick to your legs. And the barbecue smoke blows straight up your nose. And then lightening strikes and the skies open up and it pours, and we wind up inside anyway? I mean, what’s not to love?”
OK, so maybe outdoor dining isn’t always pitch perfect. But sometimes, once in a great while, the stars align, and the weather behaves, and all the bugs are butterflies, and the candles stay lit, and the mood is just right, and food tastes better than it has a right to, and that’s when dining al fresco is simply magical.
And that is why I will never give up trying to make it work — beautifully.
Fortunately, I have a kindred spirit in British stylist Selina Lake.
“By not taking their lives outside more, people miss fresh air, a feeling of space and being close to nature,” Lake said to me this week, when I reached out to talk about her new book, “Outdoor Living” (Ryland Peters and Small).
In 160 sumptuous, flower-and vintage-linen filled pages, Lake convinces readers that heavenly bliss may very well be right in their backyards and shows how to add glamour to gardens, inspiring even the most conscientious objectors to get out more.
I got in touch with Lake to find out how we all could make the outdoors even more enjoyable this summer, and for ways to overcome the realities of nature and the resistance of families, and create a little more al fresco magic.
• Outsmart the wind. Because candles are often no match for the wind, even when they’re tucked inside hurricane lamps, Lake relies on battery-operated candles instead.
• Plan for sundown. Lake likes to use solar-powered festoon lights as they will naturally turn on when it gets dark. Don’t forget to light stairs. Little lanterns perched on steps look romantic, and help guests find their way.
• Beat back bugs. “Bugs can be really annoying when you’re dining al fresco, but that’s all part of the experience,” Lake said. “You just need some pretty food covers, and some insect repellent.”
• Have a plan B. Putting your table on a covered patio or porch, or under a temporary canopy, can be a buffer and allow you to eat in many weather conditions, including rain. But always be prepared for a change of weather, Lake said. “You still may need to dart inside or into the garden shed.”
• Add flower power. Lake’s signature style mixes oodles of vintage floral fabrics and patterns. Outdoors she combines floral napkins, table cloths and throw pillows with mismatched flowered china. When you find a fabulous cotton print fabric in a second-hand store, nab it, she said. Use pinking shears to cut out large squares to line serving baskets or make napkins. She also likes vintage tins and sturdy baskets as containers for serving up utensils, or certain foods.
• Say it with stems. Cover your table with lots of fresh cut flowers. If they are clipped from your yard, or are wild, even better. Mixed flowers are more casual than having all one type. Lake puts loose stems in jam jars and pitchers, and also scatters them across the table.
• Make a wheelbarrow bar. Fill an old wheelbarrow with ice then beverages to create a moveable bar that’s ready to roll.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.