stored in: Nell Hill's and tagged:

Since opening Nell Hill’s 30 years ago, I’ve had so much fun growing the stores and working with so many amazing customers that I’ve hardly taken a day off, let alone gone on vacation. So in May, I did something completely radical for me. I packed my bags and I ran off to France! During my magical time in the Aquitaine region of southwestern France, I learned some invaluable things that will influence the way I decorate and the way I live.…

1. It’s OK to Take Time Off

Most of you probably already have this one mastered. But for me, it’s been a hard lesson to learn. I love my job and draw energy from being with people at the store all day.  But even though I find work exhilarating, sometimes going 100 miles an hour, seven days a week can wear you down. (I know what you’re probably saying right now: Duh, Mary Carol!!!)

My husband, Dan, gets it. He works hard running the business side of Nell Hill’s. But he is also great about setting aside time each year to travel, exploring new places, learning about its people and their heritage.

Usually when Dan asks me to go with him on his journeys, I say no. There’s always too much to do at the stores to take time off. But this year, I decided to give myself an anniversary gift: I took a week of vacation for each decade Nell Hill’s has been in business and went with him. Our trip was an amazing one, not just because of the drop-dead-gorgeous scenery, the fantastic food and wine, and the opportunity to experience such a rich culture. It was amazing simply because it gave me a chance to stop and replenish and spend time with someone I love.

No matter where you go, whether it’s abroad or a stay-cation in your own town, this year, make it a goal to take time off. Escape your daily grind, restore your soul and revel in those you love most. Life if fleeting, so stop and smell the roses.

2. Life is a Colorful Journey

After a quick stopover in Paris, we settled into a darling farm house in Fumel, taking day trips to picturesque towns like Biarritz and Montinac. Each place we stopped, I enjoyed seeing how the French use color in their daily decorating, whether it was a muted palette of neutrals or an adventurous mix of bold hues.

The home decor shops were showing a very modern, sleek, sophisticated style that revolved around the hip color “grange,” which is a cross between gray and taupe.  Similarly, the farm house we rented was decorated in pure white. The owners of the cottage, reflecting a hot trend among France’s younger decorators, painted nearly everything in the home white, from the walls to the antique furnishings. At first, I found this pure palette refreshing. But after a few weeks, I was craving color. I could never survive in an all-white world.

In sharp contrast, many of the homes, hotels and chateaus we visited embraced an adventurous use of color. We ate dinner one night in a crusty old chateau where the decorating was as memorable as the roast duck we enjoyed for dinner. In one seating area, the formal chairs were upholstered in a rich burgundy velvet and piped in a playful lavender fabric – two colors I would never have recommended putting together. Yet it worked. And so did the peppy parrot green ottomans tucked up at the foot of each chair. I think it’s wacky yet wonderful color combinations like these that made so many of the elegant rooms we viewed feel warm and inviting, not stiff and off-putting.

3. It’s OK for Old Things to Look Old

When you live in an older home, like I do, it seems like something is always in need of repair. You finally get one project ticked off the list, then you have to add 10 more in the constant quest to keep your aging dwelling looking fresh and new.

But on vacation, I noticed that the French didn’t seem overly obsessed with the upkeep of their older homes. They seemed to be at peace with the imperfections in the buildings and gardens around them, knowing these quirks gave their dwellings more personality and character.

I left my time in the French countryside resolved to not get so uptight every time something breaks or goes wrong with my 140-year-old home. I am determined not to fret over every episode of peeling paint, every loose cobblestone or dripping faucet, knowing that these things help make my home unique.

4. Flowers Make the World a Better Place

During our visit, we saw all sorts of gardens. Some were very structured and formal surrounding elegant chateaus. Others were a wild tumble of color tucked up next to a crumbling old cottage. I loved them all. But my favorites, bar none, were the window boxes stuffed full of cascading blooms and the gates dressed in flowering vines, like wisteria and roses. Picture postcard perfect, these little vignettes weren’t complicated – sometimes they just featured a few pots of red geraniums – but they were so romantic that they changed the look and feel of the homes they accented.

Years ago, when we converted our back yard in to a walled courtyard, I planned to enclose the area with an antique or replica iron gate. I never got to it. But now, installing a romantic gate at the entrance of my garden is back at the top of my list. I want to replicate some of the treatments I saw in France, decorating the gate with a grape vine, wisteria or climbing rose.

While I wait for my gate to become a reality, I found one garden look in France that I’m going to do right away: Plant smaller garden urns with a mix of succulents, like hen and chicks. I’m going to find two shorter iron urns at Nell Hill’s, fill them with succulents, and place them atop the pillars that stand on either side of my garden.

Next Week … Come visit my garden! My friends and master gardeners Gloria and Lynda, who keep my garden looking lovely, will share secrets for creating a lovely but low-maintenance paradise.

Want to receive the latest blog posting
in your email inbox every week?
Click here to sign up.

45 Responses to “French Connection”

  1. Tina P Says:

    This is so wonderful!
    I am almost fifty and have always dreamed of opening a store of my very own.
    Do tell Mary Carol, how does one begin a journey, in other words how did this all begin for you……

  2. Karina Says:

    That’s great how you took some time off for yourself and for your husband. Everyone deserves a break once in awhile and it’s great how you are very open-minded and decided to be radical for a moment. Bright color hotels are always more eye-catching than the white theme, and actually elevates my mood.

  3. Sheila Says:

    What a wonderful memory you made! I’m sure your hubby was thrilled that you took that special time off for him. He will probably be more than happy to see that you get your garden gate! France looks beautiful but I am looking forward to getting a glimpse of your gardens too. Thanks for letting us have a peek into your journey!

  4. patti g Says:

    Sweet friend,
    I am so happy you took time off to make this memory with your husband.
    Time goes swiftly, whether we are having fun or not. Think Mary Englebreight coined that one.
    I happily anticipate the future ideas you formulate, due to your trip that refreshed your mind, and further innovated your ideas.

    Much appreciation and love to you!

  5. Julie W Says:

    I spent some time in Southern France as well…and it does change the way you look at the world and your life. We seem to get caught up in the details and don’t take enough time to sip on a glass of wine and just watch the sunset. Unfortunately, it was in 2008 – and now the American ways of “work, work, work” has slowly crept its way back into my life. I’m trying to change that. Thank you for the reminder to sometimes enjoy the moments.

  6. Kathleen Says:

    Best article ever!

  7. Judy Says:

    This blog is JUST what I needed today. Thank you, Mary Carol. Sometimes we really need to slow down for a while to savor life and recharge our creativity. Thanks for the reminder….and I planted my birdbath in succulents this year! I’m enjoying it so much but the birds are not a bit happy with me!

  8. Marta Says:

    Mary Carol,

    I’m so proud of you for taking all that time off. You are a high energy person, but I was getting concerned about you! Now, you might be rested for your busy fall. Take care and see you soon. I’m sure you could recommend a nice French Cabernet when we meet next door after work! :)


  9. sandy mccune Says:

    I’m so glad you went to France. I was afraid you were going to change Nell Hill’s to the styles in all the magazines. I hope you will keep some of the Traditional and Provincial styles you have always had. Seeing France will stimulate your wonderful ideas.Now that you know you can go away, you need to do it annually.

  10. Upscale Downhome Says:

    I am so happy for you that you took time for yourself! Your trip sounds absolutely amazing; I am living vicariously through your photos and comments. Thank you for sharing with the rest of us! I really liked the part about accepting the imperfections in your home. Mine is over 70 years old and feels like it has a never ending to do list.

  11. Ann Says:

    And I thought I was only going to get a decorating blog tip. Mary Carol, thank you for being a life coach. I think when you are at peace with yourself and refreshed, it shows in all we do. Thank you for the reminder. Beautiful pictures and thank you for sharing.

  12. Mary G (Topeka) Says:

    Mary Carol! Yeah, I’m so proud of you! You are so deserving and a the R&R was well overdue! And enjoying the French countryside was an excellent choice!


    Picture #6 Since my grandmother was French this reminds me of her decor in her room a huge 2 story home which was built in 1910 my mother moved into the house when she was 2. My grandmother used a lot of red in her house with all wooden floors beautiful oriental rugs where used in all the rooms. The movie Gigi with Leslie Caron also reminded me of her and she loved that movie. Picture #8 reminds me of my cousin’s home she has a house that looks like that a cottage style in San Antonio,Texas and she also loves the French style. So thanks to our French grandmother she taught us to love things items of country and classical french. The only thing she didn’t teach us was to speak french cause then she couldn’t gossip to our aunts. When I went to France I loved it also. When you show us your new merchandise with the french style I want it so bad, but the things I want I don’t have anymore space. Hahaha When I go to visit MO my daughter n law and I have to make a stop to your stores and never come out empty handed. I am so happy to know you and your beautiful stores. Thanks for the pics. Rosanne

  14. Susan Says:

    What a wonderful way to celebrate 30 years in your business! You deserved it and your husband deserved having you along for the trip. Everyone needs to get a new perspective every once in awhile to keep us rested and sharp in whatever we do. Thanks for sharing your journey with all of us. Looking forward to seeing your garden.

  15. Carla (and Bob, your #1 fan) Says:

    Hi there friend, Thank you for taking me away away away!!! I read every word and I will relish your thoughts…or as Oprah calls it…”This I know for sure”. Your latest blog on fabrics is a keeper as well! Thank you so much for giving us such wonderful “word pictures”. Welcome home, Carla

  16. Peggy Says:

    Mary Carol thanks for taking us all on your trip to France and seeing it through your eyes! As always, you give inspiration to our homes and this added the dimension of inspiration to our gardens. Being that time of year, I am in my nine garden beds every weekend and many evenings after work. I read with a chuckle about your idea about filling a garden urn with succulents, as I inherited a birdbath from my aunt (also a master gardener) several years ago when she moved to Tallgrass Creek Retirement Village. With pride, I have kept the succulent mixture going and added some of my own! It is one of my favorites in my nine garden beds! My aunt living her entire live in Kansas City, will be proud to know that she has such European influence in her gardening!

  17. Rick Magley Says:

    Best ever blog! I’m so glad you got to stop and smell the roses a little. Wonderful, wasn’t it? Hope you don’t wait another 30 years to do it again. It will refresh everything you touch.

  18. Alex Says:

    Loved seeing Southern France through your eyes! Thank you!

  19. Polly Duryea Says:

    Hey Mary Carol, I just returned from three weeks in Provence and later on the Cote d”Azure. Five of my twenty-something grandchildren and my daughter Mary and I loved every minute of the trip. We met at intervals, traveling from Marseille, Aix, Rousillion, Moustiers, to Nice and Ville de Franche sur Mer. Loved the markets, the tablecloths, the cheese, and the beauty of the blue Mediterranean! …Can’t wait to see you and compare notes.

  20. pat from Omaha Says:

    Oh my, how wonderful for you and Dan to experience such divine trip together. Nice to know that you have learned that work is not all that life intales. How lovely the pictures were and thank you for sharring. Gene has an old gate planted in the middled of a garden and it has vanilla vine on it. It totally engulfs the gate every year. You might think of using it. I always look forward to your information. See you soon . God willing and the creek don’t rise. Pat

  21. sharon warren Says:

    Loved the photos and all your insight about not only the decorating, but the “living”. Several years ago on a trip to England, I bought an old rectangular porcelain farmhouse sink at an antique auction. I put it in a bed in the garden, filled it with small leaved succulents, and stood old plates in it to look like a sink full of dishes. The succelents look like the “bubbles” in the sink. It has become quite a conversation piece in the garden, and I get to share my story of how it came to be there. Can’t wait to see your garden!

  22. Cathy LaCount Says:

    Loved the blog about your trip! That is my dream trip that I hope to some day take. I, too, have an inherited two-tier fountain that I converted to a garden. I originally planted flowers in it but it got too hot so I planted succulents. The great part is that they come back every year!

  23. Josh Zaroor Says:

    MC- Great to hear of your travel adventures and frankly, I am surprised you haven’t done this every year for inspiration. It speaks to how clued in you are to good living when you don’t even have to go to beyond Atchison and KC for inspriation! But, travel is the greatest education, bar none. I feel lucky to have traveled the globe since leaving Benedictine- it’s changed my perspective entirely.

    For a closer taste of France, with a slight English influence, check out Montreal and Quebec. Quebec is fantastic and can be completely appreciated over a long weekend.

  24. Billie Aye Says:

    I absolutely loved reading about your trip! Okay, it was not quite as good as being there, but very close and as close as I’m going to get.

    It seems to me I need another trip to Atchison to look and look and buy and buy….always a mini-vacation for me! Your Atchison store is my very favorite place to go and browse.

  25. Lynn Storms Says:

    I absolutely loved looking at your pictures as so many memories of the time my husband and I spent in France many years ago…only makes me want to break out of our yearly vacation mold and return to Paris again soon! It is truly a romantic adventure and I want it back!!! Thanks for sparking my interest again! We all need to take the time to enjoy life!

  26. Chris Mitchell Says:

    My husband had a massive stroke last September at the age of 61. He had always been so healthy and active. I encourage you from the bottom of my heart to never put off events like your recent vacation again. I love your stores and the effort you have put into them to make them so interesting and fun, and I know how much you love your work. Just be sure to take time to smell the roses now and then. You never know what a day will bring!

  27. Margaret Zinn Says:

    Best blog ever! Perhaps you should also consider being an advice columnist… but wait — you already are one through your decorating expertise. Thanks for sharing.

  28. Pamela Jo Says:

    What a well deserved experience! It is good to have the memories to treasure and build on. Travel highly influences my senses always sending me in new decorating directions upon my return. (I am on my 3rd redecoration after 3 influential trips in 10 years! – good for Nell Hills!)

    I too love that the Europeans are comfortable in the quirks and imperfections in decor, houses, and gardens. Well worn upholstery, cracked walls, tumbling flowers in the garden and simple pieces like hand hewn wooden bowls used in everyday life give a distinct comfort and family history to their homes that I crave.

    I came back from Italy a few months ago and began to add fruitwoods and simple pine pieces with white ironstone filled with tumbles of lemons and then adding herbs tumbling out of aqua mineral bottles because of a small town that we rented a house in. The tourist areas were filled with the standard fare of “italian trade pottery” in blue, yellow and cyan, colorful linens that are sent to sell stateside, yet the real peoples houses were decorated with well worn and well used simple items of everyday life. The softened linens with several years’ use, in textures you want to touch.

    It changed my entire perspective- again. Room by room I am selling my old furniture and have started to create the feeling I had there in my home and garden loving the quirks I turned up that would have previously sent me looking for perfection before. I hope you will add some simple pieces such as these reflecting upon your experiences (and gorgeous photographs) for us to enjoy in our homes very soon!

  29. Sandy Valencia Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing pictures from your vacation with us; they’re just beautiful! It makes me want to go there!

  30. Cheryl Buckles Says:

    Mary Carol – We took exactly that same trip last April and some of us thought of you each day. I love these photos and will expect a book, eventually, with your take on the French countryside and it’s decor. Can’t wait to see what makes its way into your stores.

    Cheryl – Bartlesville, OK

  31. Cheryl Buckles Says:

    Mary Carol – We took exactly that same trip last April and some of us thought of you each day. I love these photos and will expect a book, eventually, with your take on the French countryside and it’s decor. Can’t wait to see what makes its way into your stores.

    Cheryl – Bartlesville, OK

  32. pat brewster Says:

    Your trip sounds facinating and romantic. Can’t wait to see the french influence in your shop!

  33. Lynda Carrier-Metz Says:

    Thanks for sharing your trip story and pictures. I feel like I took a mini vacation this morning. You are creative and a wonderful writer. PS speaking of color, the peony color we painted our bathroom (at your recommendation) is wonderful. It was an awfully bold move but I am happy we did it. I painted a picture with the same color in our olive green bedroom adjoining to bring the two rooms together. I really like it.

  34. Georgia Says:

    Mary Carol

    I am so glad that you took TIME for yourself! God renews as we evaluate the world going by. It makes us better humans as we appreciate others.

    We have been to France twice (Even Nice and Monte Carlo) but have never gotten to go to the countryside in the South of France and stay. That is on my list. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
    It is wonderful. Almost like being there ourselves.

    Thanks for Sharing

  35. Jean Driskell Says:

    Thank you so much for letting me enjoy your trip by photos & commentary. It is a trip I have dreamed of for many years but may never get to take. I try to make my yard as colorful as some you describe & picture. Still haven’t made the trip to Briercliff but hope to soon.

  36. Sue Hackworth Says:

    Great photography. You did a wonderful job of capturing the imperfections.

  37. Amy Cole Says:

    Loved hearing all about your vacation, the lessons learned and looking at the beautiful pictures! Quaintness abounds and I love it! Thanks for sharing. :)

  38. Ruth Scotton Says:

    Have been to France once years ago. Paris which is not a true representation of France; as New York is not a true representation of the USA. Have always loved the color combinations French country furnishings and the attitude of the people outside the cities, just as I do here in the USA.
    How marvelous to share vacation time with someone you love.

  39. Jay Brown Says:

    So glad you are not going ‘grange’ or minimalist. Both are so boring and unimaginative.
    Loved your comments about accepting the imperfections of old houses, as I live in an 1884 frame cottage that is always needy. It has always driven me crazy that my old house isn’t up to new house standards, but I will try to remember your observations and accept our aging gracefully.

  40. Mary from Villa Park Says:

    Taking time for oneself with a loved one is the best medicine to combat the stress of a hurried life. I loved your insights and inspirations. The thing I love best about travelling in this way is we look at everything on a deeper level. We “absorb” our surroundings and are forever changed. :)

  41. Nancy Hart Says:

    My favorite Blog ever!..Do something wonderful with these photos.

  42. Mary Carol Says:

    What an absolute treasure it was to hear from everyone this week—enjoy your holiday. See you next week!

  43. Ruth Ann Karlen Says:

    Loved the pictures from your France trip! Wow looks like a fun time.
    I so enjoy your email and all your decorating tips and the lovely fabrics. I wish I lived closer so I could visit upir store for all seasons. Have been there once and loved your store and all th decorating ideas.
    Keep up the good work and I so look forward to your emailwith the latest ideas and new merchadise.
    Ruth Ann

  44. Theresa Says:

    Beautiful! Thanks for sharing!
    I’m moving France up on my “to do” list!

  45. Betsy Woods Says:

    Thank you, Mary Carol, and good for you. We don’t want you to
    work so hard that you “burn out”. You are a treasure to all of us who live by the Nell Hill’s gospel of design- Loved the pictures.
    Thank you for sharing.

Leave a Reply