27 – Stepping firmly into my “Late 20s”

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I hit 27 this weekend, affirming my status of falling into the “late 20s” age bracket, taking one step closer to the big 30. 

The weekend started off in style with an early finish at work, thanks to the France v Uruguay quarter-final match. With a seemingly easy win, the streets were buzzing with noise as I headed home to freshen up before catching the train with my boyfriend to the Stade de France.

He’d bought tickets months ago for an Ed Sheeran concert as a birthday treat. We’d got VIP tickets as these were the only ones left, but it turned out to be a good choice with access to the lounge, great seats and unlimited drinks during the concert. Now, I’ve been to concerts and festivals before, but I wasn’t at all prepared for seeing such a big star in a sold-out show. As the music blasted out on the opening “Castle on the Hill”, I felt tears in my eyes and slightly emotional at just how good his music was. I even surprised myself at how I knew the lyrics of every son inside out… I must listen to him more than I think!

The following day, D-Day, arrives. I’m nervously awaiting the England v Sweden match, remembering as a kid in primary school watching my team be knocked out of this stage of the World Cup. 2 goals up and then the final whistle blows, a sigh of relief – England will, for the first time in my lifetime, be heading to the semi-finals. My birthday celebrations can begin.

After being spoilt with gifts, cards, flowers and champagne from mon amour, he’s taking me out to Loca, an Argentinian restaurant in the 18th, just behind la Butte Montmartre.

We started with Boudin Noir, Oeuf de Cailles et Haricots Verts for me (Black pudding, Quail egg and Green beans) with Stracciatella, Aubergines et Endives for him (no translation needed) which was absolutely delicious. Our main consisted of a deliciously tender Entrecôte steak with barbecued potatoes and leeks for me, with an oh-so-fresh octopus, tomates confites and grilled cucumber for him. We washed everything down with a glass of Malbec each, enjoying the breeze and sounds of football fans next to open doors, before strolling back home via Sacré Coeur.

As we get older, we come to expect less from birthdays, to dread getting a year older, forever closing in on the next “milestone” birthday. But for me, as the years tick by, I always feel surrounded by love and excited for the year to come.

 

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Being French: A gastronomical guide

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January is the month that everyone is waiting for the end of and yet, it passes by so slowly. Paris has been particularly dull these past few weeks due to the seemingly relentless rain and the question on everybody’s lips is “Is it Spring yet?!” Within the last month, we had one glorious day on sunshine, which my boyfriend and I spent strolling next to the flooded banks of the Seine. However, for the rest of the month, we’ve had to occupy ourselves with other pastimes.

Apéro is, in my mind at least, a form of art for the French. When I first arrived in France, I delighted in the way that people gathered together for a few glasses of wine with small plates of charcuterie and cheese – it was something I’d never experienced in the UK and it’s still one of the small things that I love about living here.

Whether it’s at home or in a bar, everyone has their ideal ingredients for their perfect apéro composition. This month, I went to Chez Nous, a cute wine bar in Saint-Germain, to celebrate a colleague’s birthday. While we all swiftly agreed on our choice of wine (red), opinions often differ when ordering small plates of food – should we go for 2 meat and 2 cheese plates, 3 cheese and 1 meat, or something different altogether? And once you’ve chosen your combo, which type of meat or cheese to select? One thing is for certain, I have never had the same apéro combination more than once and at the same time, I have never had a bad apéro.

Continuing in the theme of food, one rainy Sunday my boyfriend and I took ourselves to the Musée du Chocolat which, as you might have guessed, is a museum on the theme of Chocolate. The first part of the exhibition tells the history of chocolate, from the Aztecs to its introduction in Europe in the form of a liquid drink. Next, the story continues with the commercialisation of chocolate, moving into solid form before heading downstairs to a demonstration from one of their chocolatiers and finally gazing at structures such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe made entirely from chocolate.

Throughout the visit, we were able to taste chocolate – from tasting a recipe as close to that used by the Aztecs, to modern-day chocolate with different tastes depending on its country of origin. We finished our tour with a real-chocolate hot-chocolate, where a cube of your chocolate of choice is dunked into a cup of frothy milk. I am a self-confessed chocolate addict, forever trying to satisfy my sweet tooth, but even I was all chocolated out by the end of this museum.

The New Year is usually the time of calorie-counting following the indulgent festive season, but this month is anything but in France (and that’s before we even mention the galettes de roi for Epiphany!) Whilst everything must of course be taken in moderation, the French appreciation of good food and drink is something that never fails, even in the dull, dark months of January.

The Parisian Weekend of Culture

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The past couple of weekends have been so moche in Paris… I’m sure I say this on an annual basis, but this year is the coldest I’ve experienced in a long, long time. Because of this, I’ve been spending most of my weekends boycotting restaurants and bars in favour of staying-in with my boyfriend, experimenting with home-cooked meals followed by Netflix binges. However, after a few weekends of this magic formula, cabin fever had begun to set in, and so it was great to get out of the house for a weekend of culture.

My boyfriend had received some vouchers for the Philharmonie de Paris for his birthday back in September and decided to reserve spots for Les Planètes. This was my first visit to the Philharmonie (yes, shame on me) and so I was probably more excited than him, if I’m being honest.

As we’d booked so far in advance, we’d managed to nab spots a few rows from the front and so were treated to a spectacular, up-close view of the musicians at work. This was something I was beginning to regret during the warm-up act; a rendition of an organ-led set that was at times painful to the ears. Thankfully, the main act of Les Planètes more than made up for this. We were treated to seven pieces of beautifully composed music inspired by the characteristics of the planets in our solar system, backdropped against images taken from NASA. Although the first set was somewhat overpowering, the second half of our evening was perfectly complimented by the amplifying acoustics of the place, making you feel like you were transported into outer space.

On Saturday, I braved the cold along with my colleague to visit the Exposition Dior at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. We’d been talking about going forever and when we couldn’t find any pre-booked tickets until January, we decided to brave the queues. Upon arrival, we were informed that the queue without tickets stood to be 4 hours long, which we put down to a massive overestimation (you can never take the French seriously in matters of time). However, they weren’t far off – we waited 3 hours in freezing temperatures to finally make it inside.

This is one of those expositions that has all Parisians going crazy throughout its runtime… and I can see why. It was honestly one of the most beautiful expositions that I have ever seen. Even if you’re not that into fashion, you will be taken aback by the vast collection of original sketches, vintage dresses and one-of-a-kind couture pieces worn by celebrities of past and present. Every other group you’ll overhear will suddenly transform into globe-trotting fashion critics and while it’s slightly amusing to overhear middle-aged men exclaim that Galliano “lost his mind” when designing such pieces, such experiences speak volumes about the wide-audience appeal of this exposition.

Autumn: The season of Magic in Paris

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Autumn is by far my favourite season in Paris. As everyone returns from their summer holidays, the streets get busier again, new restaurants and bars open on every street and I get to dig out my heeled boots from their summer hibernation. However, for me Autumn is not just about rekindling my love with my classic black boots. This is the season that takes me back to my arrival in Paris four years ago.

In September 2013, I stepped off the Eurostar with one very large suitcase and a backpack to begin an internship within a marketing agency. Paris was a mystery to me at this point; although having visited several times to see the main tourist attractions, I didn’t imagine I would settle in this city.

Working in the 2nd arrondissement at this time meant that on a sunny lunch break, I’d often grab a sandwich with colleagues and head to Jardin des Tuileries. I remember arriving one day to find marquees had been pitched up in our usual spot and my colleague explained this is where some of the shows for fashion week took place. It felt so magical to me to be so close to the action, to just be a few feet away from the runways of some of the biggest names in the fashion business, having daydreamed about working in this industry since being a teenager.

For the past three and a half years, I have been doing just that, starting at a sustainable fashion platform, before this year joining the digital marketing team of a customisable jewellery house. Four years on from my arrival in Paris, I was tasked with organising an event during fashion week to host bloggers, press and stylists. Whilst returning home one night after dining at the former Jean-Paul Gaultier’s flagship, I spotted 90s supermodel Claudia Schiffer leaving an event; no matter how many years I spend here, Paris Fashion Week has a magic feeling to it, that takes me back to my 22 year-old self staring in awe at the marquees in Jardin des Tuileries.

Autumn also marks the arrival of Nuit Blanche; an annual, city-wide, all-night cultural festival. It’s events such as Nuit Blanche or (another favourite) La Fête de la Musique that you don’t really see in the UK and that, for me at least, make France a special place to live. My first Parisian Nuit Blanche was spent sitting on the banks on the Seine, witnessing an amazing fireworks display performed by a famed Chinese firework artist.

This year I revisited my old neighbourhood, as some would say the “bad side” of the 18th arrondissement. We walked around places that are usually closed to the public, this year visiting the train tracks and warehouses of the SNCF where artists were performing. Our evening finished at Le 104, a cultural space transformed for the evening into an open dancehall. While Nuit Blanche events can be hit and miss, I just love seeing the streets transformed and filled with people of all ages, experiencing events that they might have otherwise not have done.

When people back home ask me what I like about living in Paris, it’s actually difficult to put into words. The best way for me to describe it is a really personal feeling; it’s the small things that are almost intangible to the outside world. Personally, it’s the feeling I get every Autumn, swept up in the magic of fashion week or the atmosphere of filled streets for Nuit Blanche… every year it makes me fall in love with the city all over again.

Another year older, another year wiser

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What a wonderful weekend of surprises! I was well and truly spoilt rotten by my friends, family and boyfriend this weekend as I officially entered my “late” twenties, with my 26th birthday.

As I’ve grown older, expectations for my birthday celebrations are not as high as they once were. This year marked 10 years since my high school prom, so, beginning to feel old, my expectations for birthday celebrations have dropped to a well-written birthday card message and some flowers from my closest friends and family. This year, not only did I get this treatment, but so much more as well.

Being at work on the Friday, the day was no different from any other, except the fact that I’d brought a batch of cookies for my colleagues to celebrate. Of course, everyone wished me a happy birthday throughout the day, and I was very content with this. However, just before I was due to leave, my colleagues surprised me with flowers, some macarons and a gel-manicure set (they know me so well!) and a card signed by everybody. This took me completely off guard; having only worked here for just over 2 months I was not expecting this at all, so it was lovely to receive these gifts and such kind words.

The surprises were due to continue, as my boyfriend had planned to take me out to Guilo Guilo, a fantastic Japanese-French fusion restaurant in the 18th arrondissement. Seated around the kitchen, we had front-row seats to see the renowned chef prepare the set-menu dishes. We were treated to a gorgeous 8 course menu, with well-composed, tasty and sometimes unheard of, exotic ingredients.

After such a delicious treat, I was not expecting the scene when I walked through our apartment door. I was greeted with the surprise of our dining room table topped with flowers, champagne, chocolate cake, a jewellery box containing white gold and topaz earrings as well as a beautiful card and book about hidden Paris spots. My boyfriend had already bought me a handbag for my birthday that I’d helped pick out, so he had really spoilt me (too much in fact!) but it was so lovely seeing the time and effort he’d taken to plan out each part of this evening, truly making me feel like a princess.

On Saturday night, as is my birthday tradition in Paris, my girlfriends and I took a trip to Pasdeloup in the 11th arrondissement, seated as always at the table by the window. The chef has recently changed, so we were sceptical if it would still be up to the same standards, but each plate we tried was equally as delicious as before – in particular their octopus dish served with fettuccini and courgettes was amazing. After another round of being spoilt with gifts from the girls, we finished the evening by meeting the boyfriends at a new cocktail place nearby – Bar Bisou. The concept is something I hadn’t seen before. There are no menus to choose your poison of choice; instead you tell the barmaid how you like your cocktails – for me something rum-based, fresh and fruity – and they will whip up a drink to suit your tastes.

However delightful this weekend was, being truly treated like a princess, it is strange to think back, as I do with each passing birthday, to this time last year. I had been through, and was still going through, a particularly rough year back then – after a year of digestive health issues, losing 10kg in a couple of months and numerous hospital exams and tests, the doctors were still perplexed, and I was feeling pretty down at the prospect of turning 25.

A mere few months later, I started a treatment and my life literally turned around – I felt confident and happy again, taking pleasure in small tasks and enjoying feeling easy enough to go out and see my friends. I met my boyfriend soon after, we moved in together and earlier this year, I found a new job after having been made redundant; my life today could not be more different than a year ago.

So now, when people ask me, as they have done in previous weeks “How do you feel about turning 26? Are you dreading it?” I’ve quite honestly answered that it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I am so much happier and grateful for even the smallest things in life, that I used to take for granted. Although it was lovely to have all of these surprises from my family, friends and boyfriend, it is an even better feeling to be surrounded by the people who got me through these tough times and who I know will continue to be there for me, whatever the future may hold.

Swan Lake: The Dancer’s Dream

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I have always loved dancing, but as I mentioned in my bio, it’s usually when I think nobody is watching. But this wasn’t always the case. For 10 years I attended ballet, tap and modern jazz dance lessons up to three times a week. I was a regular on the stage, whether it be performing in the annual pantomime, dance school shows or competing at dance festivals. Although I gave up the dance classes once I started high school, today I still dream about having the confidence to go up on stage and perform again.

This weekend I was transported back to my childhood as me and my boyfriend decided to see the Russian Ballet perform Swan Lake at the Palais des Congrès in Paris. He loves classical music and so this paired with my love of dancing, this seemed like the perfect fit. We booked our tickets very last-minute and so were limited in our choice of seating. The only tickets remaining that seated us together were front and centre, only ten seats up from the stage, costing 75 euros each. We initially hesitated over the cost of course, but after reasoning this was not your everyday experience, we snapped the seats up. And we were so glad that we did.

Anastasia had been my favourite animated film as a kid (no joke, I dragged my mum to the cinema three times in the space of two weeks to watch it!) Remembering the beautiful sparkling blue dress she wore to see the Russian Ballet perform at Paris, I rapidly start mentally going through my wardrobe wondering what I was going to wear. After a little googling, I found that ballet-going attire is a little more relaxed these days, and so went for a smart casual look instead. On arrival, some people were dressed in jeans and trainers, whilst some had donned evening gowns and heels, so I felt perfectly dressed and not out of place.

It always surprises me that Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was originally considered a disaster after it’s premiere in 1877, as the show was an out-of-this-world experience. So much of the music is instantly-recognisable and it was so beautifully played. I was particularly impressed by the scene when Odile performs 32 fouettés in a row – a ballet move whipping your leg around the back of your supporting leg to twirl you back to the centre position – as well as the female dancers seemingly being permanently en pointe. I only tried pointe shoes briefly before retiring from my dancing days, but it is no joke. It was easy to see why the dancers were breathing heavily on the wings, while recuperating before their next piece. I’m always admirative of dancers and the physical fitness they must hold, all the while retaining their elegance and grace.

I truly recommend Swan Lake to anyone that has the chance, ballet newbies and experts alike. We were glad to have spent a bit more money for the fantastic seats – to be able to see the orchestra and the dancers up close, examining their every move was amazing. And while I might not have had my Anastasia moment on the steps of the Opéra, this will surely be an experience I’ll never forget.

A weekend of wine without the hangover

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When you think of Paris, images of fresh baguettes, cheese and red wine come to mind. And you’re not wrong. There is, however, a more cosmopolitan side to Paris. Every weekend brings the opportunity to discover a new restaurant, a new cuisine, a new concept. This weekend, by complete chance, we dined at not one, but two relatively unknown restaurants offering the promise of beautiful-tasting natural wine, without the added side effect of a hangover the next morning.

Our first stop on the wine tour was Brutos, a French-Brazilian fusion restaurant in the 11th. Brutos has only been open for a month, so we were pleasantly surprised to get a reservation for four on a Friday evening without any problems. We started by sharing some parmesan fritters with some delicious natural white wine to work up an appetite. This was swiftly followed by some tasty beignets de morue and cervelle de veau (sometimes it’s best not to translate before eating).

They serve rare cuts of meat that you won’t find in a traditional brasserie and sothey don’t ask how you would like your meat cooked. Every dish is cooked to perfection, in the best way according to each cut of meat, to bring you the most flavour. My boyfriend and I both went for a slow-cooked lamb shoulder, served with houmous and farofa – a Brazilian fried flour side dish. This was accompanied by a red wine so pale and light, you may be forgiven for thinking we were drinking rosé instead. We finished with a bottle of orange wine (yes, it really does exist!) along with cooked apples served with crumble and dulce de leche.

After spending the next day DIY-ing in my boyfriend’s new apartment, we headed to Merguez & Pastrami around the corner from his place in the 9th. We had spotted the place a few weeks ago, thanks to it’s New-York-esque decor and so we were grateful to grab a spot at the bar on a busy Saturday evening. We started with the restaurant’s namesake of merguez sausages, alongside some veal meatballs served with a spicy dipping sauce and a selection of sesame-seed bagels and challah brioche – a pleasant change from your traditional Parisian bread basket. We both chose a schnitzel-topped tagliatelle dish in a garlic and parsley sauce for our main, washed down with a glass of naturel red wine from the Loire valley.

Natural wine is becoming more and more à la mode in Parisian restaurants and so, despite a higher-than-usual price tag, your head will thank you for it come Sunday. Besides the natural wine selection both of these spots offered, it was something of a rarity to the Parisian eating-out scene that made me want to return to these spots again; the friendly, welcoming and attentive staff. The dining-out experience in Paris can often be spoilt by rude waiting staff that you have to chase just to take your drinks order, something that shocked me when I arrived in this city. Let’s hope that this new “concept” of friendly service is here to stay so we finally feel that we get what we paid for.

The Fairytale of the Department Store

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Window shopping is my go-to rainy afternoon activity. The world of Parisian department stores is ideal in this respect – filled to the brim with designer items I covet but could never afford, it is the perfect escape from reality.

I remember when I visited New York at the tender age of 17; I was wowed by seeing designer shops with my own eyes, featuring names I’d only even seen in glossy magazines when researching my GCSE Textile coursework. It seemed so fantastic, so fabulous to see these luxurious products in real life, imagining the kind of lifestyle led by the people who had the chance to own such items. I still get this fluttering feeling when I step into one of the many iconic department stores in Paris. It may sound cheesy, but it feels like I’m stepping into a fairytale; glimpsing at another world and the people who inhabit it.

Le Bon Marché in Paris’ chic 7th arrondissement is no exception to this rule. It is considered to be the world’s first department store and so is the pride of Parisians. From the get-go you will be dazzled by bright lights, iconic architecture and some of the most famous names in the fashion business.

After an hour or so of dragging my boyfriend around the luxury departments, we headed across to the world-famous La Grande Epicerie. This spot is a foodie’s fantasy with its selection of gourmet groceries, chefs preparing dishes in front of your eyes and countless aisles of food and drink imported from around the globe. From the wall of (mineral) waters to the endless variety of spices stocked on their shelves, it is a treat for all of your senses. .

Being an Brit living abroad, many people will often ask you what do you miss about the UK? Amongst the Frenchies, the Brits have a renowned reputation for having the worst food, so it is to their surprise that my answer always revolves around something food-related..(and my family of course – sorry Mum!)

Therefore, after hunting down some truffle salt and popping corn to satisfy my craving for some DIY popcorn, I headed to the UK aisle to grab a few essentials. Despite filling my basket with some home-comfort delights, I had to draw the line at paying 3,60€ for a tin of Heinz baked beans. Although it is all too easy for me to get swept away in this dream-like world, nothing will bring you crashing back down to earth like an over-inflated tin of baked beans. Yes, it has been imported from the UK. Yes, you cannot beat a tin of their tomatoey goodness. But no, I just could not justify spending this much on my staple student meal that, had I been in the UK, would have cost me a mere 70p.

Sure, one day when I’m rich and famous I won’t bat an eyelid about popping into Le Bon Marché for my new Chanel clutch, some expensive foundation and a tin of the most expensive beaked beans to reminisce on my student days… For now this remains a pipe-dream, staying well and truly on the shelf.

The Parisian Puzzle: Where to brunch?

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The art of brunching is a Parisian weekend staple. In provence, it is sometimes a struggle to find a quaint café to nurse your hangover or catch up with friends over a cup of coffee and some form of eggs due to many places being closed on a Sunday. In Paris, however, the choices are unlimited – whether you’re plutôt œuf poché or œuf au plat, everyone has their go-to brunch spot.

My personal favourite is Hardware Société around the corner from Sacré-Cœur. Being lazy is what weekends are all about, so this Australian-French café, being a mere 10 minutes walk from my place in Montmartre, is fast becoming my weekend tradition. Each weekend their Instagram account tempts you with their savoury and sweet specials, along with a variety of amazing dishes served by the friendliest staff you will come across in Paris – a real gem in my eyes.

Despite this being my golden spot, it is necessary to leave your comfort zone from time to time. I enlisted the help of my friends Lauren and Beya to share their favourite brunch spots whatever the occasion:

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  • With a group of friends:  Pas de Loup in the 11th is one of the only places I know that accepts reservations – I have loved every single dish I have ever tried here so go wild, the world is your oyster. (Side note: their truffle popcorn is truly the bomb)
  • With your significant other: Lauren’s go-to is Buvette Gastrothèque in the 9th. Their signature dish is their croque monsieur, but Lauren swears by their scrambled eggs dish served with ham
  • When you’re hungover: To soak up your hangover, Beya recommends Animal Kitchen in the 10th, famous for their burgers and Beya’s personal favourite – nachos
  • When you’re on a budget: For a classic but inexpensive brunch, head to one of the various addresses of Pain Quotidien across the city with a mix of tartines and pastries
  • When you have a special occasion: On the pricey side, but as their buffet brunch comes with a glass of champagne you can dine in style at Peninsula in the 16th; perhaps not week-in week-out, unless you win the lottery overnight

The best brunch spots in Paris will inevitably continue to grow and change; always have your ear to the ground to be in-the-know about the new must-try resto .. Or if you’re out-of-the-loop like myself, have the best girl friends (who would, if finding the new “it” spot was an olympic sport, take gold, no questions asked).

Battling the January Blues

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The secret to beating the January Blues? I’m no scientist or doctor of course, but an afternoon of indulgence and pampering seems to be key in my book.

For this reason, I self-prescribed myself a trip to L’Atelier de Beauté Anne Sémonin for a well-deserved massage, body scrub and facial session. The spot was recommended to me by a friend, after I mentioned I was looking to spend the remainder of my Christmas money on a relaxing treatment.

Lady Luck was certainly on my side, as I stumbled across a flash sale on Balinea, a website and app that allows you to reserve and pay for your beauty treatments in advance (a God-send for phone-phobic expats like myself). The treatment was down from the usual 150€ to 85€. This paired with an introduce-a-friend promo code*, meant I enjoyed an afternoon of relaxation for only 75€. And given the treatment I received, this was an absolute bargain in my eyes.

After being greeted my two lovely ladies, I made my way through to the treatment room. I laid down on the heated massage table (complete bliss) and we began with the body scrub. This was followed my a hot oil massage that left me so relaxed I could have easily drifted off into the land of nod. I’d had massages before, but this was without a doubt the best I had ever experienced – the right amount of pressure was applied without leaving me sore in the aftermath.

The facial is adapted to your skin type and so after cleansing and toning, I was given a treatment to clean and remove impurities with an exfoliating mask, followed by hot water vapour applied to my face. Next up was a mineral mask to revitalise my skin. As I have a combined skin type this was ideal to cleanse yet hydrate my face. My treatment concluded with a protecting cream and brightening serum to give it a coup d’éclat – as I glanced in the mirror I just had to pause and admire the way my face glowed.

Stepping out of the salon, I felt fresh, cleansed and most importantly, utterly relaxed. The post-festivities comedown combined with my relentless search for work during the past few weeks had taken its toll. While a self-prescribed pampering session will not make the January Blues disappear completely, it helped me feel rejuvenated and ready to continue the battle with (excuse the pun) a fresh face.

* For a 10€ discount on your first Balinea treatment enter this code at sign up: 68CPQUZ