Craig and I were guests at a dinner party last month, hosted by one of our favorite couples, Roberta and Bob, in their enviable new home. The house gleams with clean contemporary lines, white walls, pale oiled ash floors and chic modern light fixtures. Everything is tidy, fresh and crisp. The home’s neutral palette is a perfect showcase for the couple’s eclectic and colorful art collection, expertly displayed in thoughtful groupings. A wall of glass doors opens to an immaculately landscaped yard, where we guests gathered around a rectangular gas fire pit, enjoying cheese and wine and admiring our surroundings.
The wine was a deep rich cabernet, the dusky hue of a ripe black plum, perfect for a cool early autumn evening. I casually refilled Bob’s wine glass and set the bottle down on the fire pit’s wide brim. A moment later, I realized that a drip from my careless pour was causing a deep red ring to form on the pale gray stone beneath the bottle. “Oh, I’m so sorry! I hope I haven’t stained the stone,” I mumbled guiltily as I scrambled for a napkin. Roberta shrugged serenely, uttered one simple word: “patina,” and continued her conversation.
Patina. My new mantra. I’m a perfectionist, you see. I sweat the small stuff, the granular stuff and the subatomic stuff, sometimes all at once. I don’t entertain much (really at all), in part because it exhausts me to think about getting the house perfect for guests, and in part because I’m afraid someone will spill wine on my treasured Oriental rugs. I have shoes in my closet that I never wear because I don’t want to scuff their perfect pellicles.
My friend Mithoo recently told me that years ago, she splurged and bought herself a BMW. Weeks later, she realized she’d made a mistake—she couldn’t enjoy driving the car because she was always worried about getting a scratch or a dent. “I didn’t own that car, Laura,” she admitted with a sad chuckle. “That car owned me.” I vowed then and there to dig my pampered shoes out of the closet and maybe host a dinner party or two.
These thoughts were rattling around my head during my first trip to London two weeks ago. Craig was traveling there on business, as he has many times, and I finally had the opportunity to join him. It was glorious! We walked and walked and tubed through the city, and everywhere we went we marveled at its history. Both Dickens and Shakespeare called The George their local pub, sat before its sooty brick fireplace, trudged up its creaking stairs. I was the only patron there one day for lunch, soaking up the patina along with my fish and chips.
At the Borough Market, ancient iron gates creak open up to reveal an acre of culinary delights atop cobblestones scarred by centuries of wagons, carts and ox hooves. Prisoners of Queen Elizabeth I inscribed the Tower of London’s thick stone walls with prayers and diagrams, a colloquy of heartache and faith. Down in the bowels of the Churchill War Rooms, coffee stains, doodles and pinholes decorate crumbling maps once used by bunkered generals feverishly tracking enemy forces. All of these marks give life to the inanimate objects they adorn. People were here—people who opened heavy gates before dawn, butchered livestock for market, prayed for release, struggled, plotted and laughed. Had they left no marks, we’d all be the poorer.
And poorer I was about to become, because browsing the quirky shops of Bermondsey Street in South London, I fell in love with a locally crafted leather carryall. Chocolate brown with a subtle stamped inlay of rutting stags on one side, it spoke to me from its perch atop a rustic wooden chair. “This is what I’ve been looking for all my life,” I enthused to Craig. I picked it up, unzipped it, carressed its supple hide. “My purse will fit in here, plus my headphones, my water bottle and my iPad. I’ll take it with me every time I travel!”
“But won’t you worry about damaging it and hate yourself if it gets scratched or stained?” he asked, glancing at the price tag. I thought about the scuffs and scratches in store for this unblemished piece of luggage. Could I really see “burnished” where I might once have seen “marred?” I imagined the bag ten years from now, each mark a memento of the trip where it was acquired. “Patina,” I replied, attempting Roberta’s serene gaze. Patina.