Cleopatra For A Day: Expat Beauty & Fashion

I’m still assimilating everything — and everywhere — I’ve experienced in terms of fashion and beauty, but here are a few thoughts.

This appeared in The Displaced Nation, March 19, 2012.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 5.18.36 PMContinuing our feature, “Cleopatra for a Day,” we turn to Anastasia Ashman, an American whose love of the exotic led her to Southeast Asia (Malaysia) and Istanbul, Turkey to live (she also found a Turkish husband en route!). Having just moved back home to California, Ashman opens her little black book and spills the fashion and beauty secrets she has collected over three decades of pursuing a nomadic life.

BEAUTY STAPLES

Like Cleopatra, I’m into medicinal unguents and aromatic oils. My staples are lavender and tea tree oil for the tropical face rot you can get in hot, humid places — and for all other kinds of skin complaints, stress, headaches, jet lag, you name it — and Argan oil for skin dryness. I take them everywhere. I also spray lavender and sandalwood on my sheets.

When living in Southeast Asia I liked nutmeg oil to ward off mosquitoes. (I know that’s not beauty per se but bug-bitten is not an attractive look, and it’s just so heavenly smelling too, I suppose you can slather it on your legs and arms for no reason at all.)

I didn’t even have to go to Africa to become dependent on shea butter for lips and hands, and I like a big block of cocoa butter from the Egyptian Bazaar in Istanbul for après sun and gym smoothing — less greasy than shea butter, which I usually use at night.

I’m not really into branded products. When you move around it’s hard to keep stocking your favorite products and I find companies are always discontinuing the things I like so I’ve become mostly brand agnostic.

I just moved from Istanbul to San Francisco, and I got rid of almost everything I owned so I’m seeing what basics I can live with. Because to me, basics that do a wonderful, multifaceted job are the definition of luxury. You’ve got to figure out what those basics are for you.

Oh, and when I am in Paris, I buy perfume. Loved this tiny place in Le Marais that created scents from the plants on the island of Sardinia. And wouldn’t you know it, the second time I went they’d gone out of business. Crushing.

My favorite perfume maker in Paris at the moment — very intriguing perspective, lots of peppery notes and almost nicotiney pungencies — is L’Artisan Parfumeur. I’ve got my eye on their Fou d’Absinthe.

In another life, past or present, I know I was involved with perfume…

BEAUTY TREATMENTS

Believe Cleopatra would drink them dissolved in vinegar? In Malaysia I used to get capsules of crushed pearls from a Chinese herbalist down the street from my house — apparently they’re good for a creamy-textured skin.

I’ll take a facial in any country. I like Balinese aromatic oil massages when I can get them, too, and will take a bath filled with flowers if I’ve got a view of the jungle. Haven’t yet had my chance to do a buttermilk bath. I also do mud baths and hot springs where ever they’re offered, in volcanic areas of the world.

Another indispensable: the Turkish hamam. It’s really great for detoxification, relaxation and exfoliation. When living in Istanbul, I’d go at least once a season, and more often in the summer. It’s great to do with a clutch of friends. You draw out the poaching experience by socializing in the steamy room on heated marble benches, and take turns having your kese (scrub down) with a rough goat-hair mitt. You hire a woman who specializes in these scrubs, and then she massages you with a soapy air-filled cotton bag, and rinses you off like a mother cat washes her kitten.

Soap gets in the eyes, yes.

I own all the implements now, including hand-crocheted washcloths made with silverized cotton, knitted mitts, oil and laurel oil soaps, copper hamam bowls (for rinsing), linen pestemal (wraps or towels), and round pumice stones. (For haman supplies, try Dervis.com.)

DENTAL CARE

I’ve had dental work done in Malaysia and Turkey and was very satisfied with the level of care and the quality and modernity of the equipment and techniques. I got used to state-of-the-science under-the-gum-line laser cleanings in Malaysia (where my Taiwanese dentist was also an acupuncturist) and worry now that I am back to regular old ineffective cleanings. I’ve had horrific experiences in New York, by the way, so don’t see the USA as a place with better oral care standards.

In general, I like overkill when it comes to my teeth. I’ll see oral surgeons rather than dentists, and have my cleanings from dentists rather than oral hygienists.

ENHANCEMENTS

Turkey apparently has a lot of plastic surgery, as well as Lasik eye surgery. One thing to consider about cosmetic procedures is the local aesthetic and if it’s right for you. I didn’t appreciate the robot-like style of eyebrow shaping in Istanbul (with a squared-off center edge) — so I’d be extra wary of anything permanent!

HAIR

I’ve dyed my hair many colors — from black cherry in Asia to red to blonde in Turkey — and had it styled into ringlets and piled up like a princess and blown straight like an Afghan hound. That last one doesn’t work with my fine hair, and doing this style before an event on the Bosphorus would make it spring into a cotton candy-like formation before I’d had my first hors d’oeuvre.

I’ve had my hair cut by people who don’t know at all how to handle curly hair. That’s pretty daring.

I looked like a fluff ball for most of my time in Asia, because I tried to solve the heat and humidity problem with short hair and got tired of loading it up with products meant for thick straight Asian hair.

Now that I’ve relocated to San Francisco (which, even though it’s close to my hometown of Berkeley where I haven’t lived in 30 years, I still consider “a foreign country”), I’m having my hair cut by a gardener, who trims it dry, like a hedge. Having my hair cut by an untrained person with whatever scissors he can find is also pretty daring!

FASHION

On the fashion front, I have an addiction to pashmina-like shawls from Koza Han, the silk market in Bursa, the old capital of the Ottoman empire and a Silk Road stop. I can keep wearing them for years.

I also have a small collection of custom-made silk kebayas from Malaysia, the long, fitted jacket over a long sarong skirt on brightly hand-drawn and printed batik, which I pull out when I have to go to a State dinner and the dress code is formal/national dress. (It’s only happened once, at Malacañan Palace, in Manila!)

I have one very tightly fitting kebaya jacket that is laser-cut velvet in a midnight blue which I do not wear enough. Thanks for reminding me. I may have to take out the too-stiff shoulder pads.

LINGERIE

I like state-of-the-art stuff that does more than one thing at once and find most places sell very backward underthings that are more about how they look than how they fit, feel, or perform. Nonsense padded bras, bumpy lace, and stuff that is low on performance and high on things I don’t care about.

I got an exercise racerback bra at a Turkish shop and had to throw it away it was so scratchy and poorly performing. No wicking of sweat, no staying put, no motion control. But it had silver glittery thread — and (unnecessary) padding!

JEWELRY

I like most of the jewelry I’ve acquired abroad and am grateful to receive it as gifts, too. All of my pieces have some kind of story — and some attitude, too.

From Turkey: Evil-eye nazar boncuğu pieces in glass and porcelain; silk-stuffed caftan pendants from the Istanbul designer Shibu; Ottoman-style enameled pieces; and an opalized Hand of Fatima on an impossibly fine gold chain. This last piece is what all the stylish women in Istanbul are wearing at the moment.

From China: White pearls from Beijing, pink from Shanghai and purple from Shenyang.

From Malaysia: I got an tiny tin ingot in the shape of a turtle in Malacca, which I was told once served as currency in the Chinese community. I had it mounted in a gold setting and wear it from a thick satin choker.

From Holland: A recent acquisition from Amsterdam are gold and silver leather Lapland bracelets with hand-twinned pewter and silver thread and reindeer horn closures. They’re exquisite and rugged at the same time.

WEARING RIGHT NOW

Today’s a rainy day of errands so I’m wearing a fluffy, black cowl-necked sweater with exaggerated sleeves, brown heathered slacks, and black ankle boots. They’re all from New York, which is where I’ve done the most shopping in recent years.

My earrings are diamond and platinum pendants from Chicago in the 1940s, a gift from my grandmother.

I’ve also got on my platinum wedding and engagement rings. They’re from Mimi So in New York.

DAILY FASHION FIXES

I liked FashionTV in Turkey, which was owned by Demet Sabanci Cetindogan, the businesswoman who sponsored my Expat Harem book tour across America in 2006.

The segment of Turkish society interested in fashion is very fashion forward. I enjoyed being able to watch the runway shows and catch interviews with the designers.

If I could draw and sew I’d make all my own clothes but I am weak in these areas. In another life, when I get a thicker skin for the fashion world’s unpleasantries, I’ll devote myself to learning these things and have a career in fashion design.

STREET STYLE

In Istanbul, Nişantaşi is somewhere you’d see some real fashion victims limping along in their heels on the cobblestones and Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrian boulevard in Beyoğlu, would be a place to see a million different looks from grungy college kids to young men on the prowl, with their too-long, pointy-toed shoes.

TOP BEAUTY/STYLE LESSONS FROM TRAVELS

In fact, I’m still assimilating everything — and everywhere — I’ve experienced in terms of fashion and beauty, but here are a few thoughts:

1) Layering: I learned from Turkish women to layer your jewelry and wear a ton of things at the same time. Coco Chanel would have a heart attack! But the idea is not to wear earrings, necklace, bracelet and rings all at once, but lots of necklaces or lots of bracelets or lots of rings at the same time.

2) Jewelry as beach accessory: During the summer Turkish wear lots of ropy beaded things on their wrists during a day at the beach — nothing too valuable (it’s the beach!) but attractive nonetheless. Jewelry stands feeding this seasonal obsession crop up at all the fashionable beach spots. Dangly charms and evil eyes and little golden figures on leather and paper ropes.

3) A little bling never hurts: I’ve also been influenced by the flashiness of Turkish culture, and actually own a BCBG track suit with sequined logos on it. This is the kind of thing my Turkish family and I would all wear on a plane or road trip. Comfortable and sporty, but not entirely unaware of being in public (and not at the gym). Coming from dressed-down Northern California, it was difficult to get used to being surrounded by glitzy branded tennis shoes and people wearing watches as jewelry, but I hope I’ve been able to take some of the better innovations away with me. I know I’m more likely to wear a glittery eye shadow now that I’ve lived in the Near East.

4) The need for sun protection: It was a shock to go from bronzed Los Angeles to can’t-get-any-paler Asia and then to the bronzed Mediterranean. In Asia I arrived with sun damage and then had lots of people helping me to fix it — I even used a parasol there. Then in Turkey everyone thought I was inexplicably pale and I let my sun protection regimen slip a bit. I’m back on the daily sunblock.

5) What colors to wear: I also used to get whiplash from trips back and forth between California and Southeast Asia in terms of color in clothing. In Malaysia the colors were vivid jewel tones — for the Malays and the Tamils especially. The louder the print, the better. Around the same time I was living in that part of the world, I witnessed a scuffle between shoppers at C.P. Shades in my hometown Berkeley, fighting over velvet granny skirts in moss, and mildew and wet cement colors. That kind of disconnect wreaks havoc on your wardrobe, and your sense of what looks good. Right now I’m trying to incorporate bright colors into my neutral urges. I’m still working it out.