We are lucky to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth here at the southernmost tip of Africa. We have a great climate and lots of wonderful things to see and do. For recreation we don’t need to travel far, but since our roots and our family are in Finland we’ve been making a yearly ’trek’ up to the far north for as long as we’ve lived here close to the Cape of Good Hope.
A few years ago, as our two children became teenagers, we decided to show them a little more of the northern hemisphere than just Finland. So, over the past four years, we’ve visited some awesome places in Europe and the US. My initial idea was that it’s good for the kids to see and get a feel for places and things that get referred to in movies, art and literature. A kind of general knowledge education if you like.
I think we’ve accomplished that, but much more importantly we’ve built lots and lots of great memories together – as a family.
We often remind each other of these trips:
“Do you remember that warm summer night in Copenhagen when we were walking home through Tivoli and Sting was there singing ’Englishman in New York’?”
“Do you remember the old men playing chess on the sidewalk in Brooklyn?”
“Do you remember that best-ever pizza at that restaurant by the train station in Versailles?”.
Small things and fleeting moments that become precious and timeless because we share them.
This year we headed for Italy and had a fantastic time. We spent three weeks working our way through an ambitious sightseeing schedule and made the most of the time we had in Rome, Florence, Venice, Siena, Pisa and various smaller towns.
As expected in Italy, we saw some impressive fashion statements:
In terms of soap I once again had good opportunity to test my soaps ’away from home’ in conditions different from the regular conditions under which I usually test soap. Just before leaving I grabbed a few different bars from my stash and it was interesting to see how the different formulations performed.
It was very hot during our entire stay in Italy. The temperature was above 30C every single day for three weeks. This, of course, meant that we took plenty of showers. We stayed in a series of very nice Airbnb apartments and in each one the four of us shared a bathroom. So, four people (including two teenagers) taking three showers daily – that’s twelve showers a day – using the same soap. I.e. extreme heavy-duty conditions for any soap.
The first soap to be put to the test was a well-cured bar of my Sandalwood Rose soap with pink clay. The formulation is a good balance between hard oils and olive oil with a fair amount of stearic/palmitic acid.
I’m proud to say that this soap performed like a real trooper. Rich, creamy lather, elegant fragrance and very pleasant after-feel – and the bar survived well through our first week in Rome without disintegrating or turning into mush. I did what I usually do when travelling; I made a small hole in the bar and pulled a ribbon through to be able to hang it to dry. You’d be surprised how many shower cubicles come without soap racks or with soap racks placed right in the water stream..
The following week we spent in a charming Tuscan manor house in San Donato in Collina just outside Florence. For a week this tower built in 1146 was our home. 1146 AD, that’s 870 years ago…which is kind of hard to wrap your mind around. The tower has probably been repaired and refurbished and remodelled a few times along the way, but somebody’s idea of that tower on that hilltop with views all the way to Florence was first made tangible 870 years ago. It’s very special to have been able to call it our home for a little while..
At this spectacular location in the midst of Tuscan olive orchards I decided to treat myself and the troops to a bar of 100% olive oil soap that I had been curing for the past two and a half years. Not quite as historic as the tower itself, but pretty ancient still for a modern bar of soap.
Olive oil is generally regarded as the gentlest of all soapmaking oils and after more than two years this truly gentle soap felt superb on the skin. I could work up a pleasant lather and the after-feel was second to none: smooth, soft, supple and well-nourished skin. In my shower at home I always have a bar of pure olive oil soap in the line-up of soaps being tested and used and I love it.
But, twelve showers a day was a complete overload for the 100% olive oil soap. On the third day it had been reduced in size more than the Sandalwood Rose soap in a full week, and it was covered in gelatinous slime. Yours truly was prepared to take a bit of slime in return for the truly great skin feel, but the troops were unhappy and it was time to declare lesson learnt: this soap did not work well under these conditions.
Luckily there was more soap and another bar richer in hard oils was up next: an extra bar of this custom order lavender blend soap which, I’m happy to say, passed the test of heavy-duty use with flying colours.
I’m not prepared to dis a classic 100% olive oil soap just yet. It’s still a wonderful soap in my opinion – when used appropriately. What my experiment shows, I think, is that ’using soap’ can mean a large variety of things and that discussions about how long soap lasts in use depends to a great extent on how ’use’ is defined. Twelve showers in a day puts very different strain on a bar of soap from, say, twelve showers on twelve consecutive days.
To perform optimally soap bars needs to dry well between uses and in our case that didn’t really happen with any of the soaps. But, ’dry enough’ also means different things for different formulations. Optimal drying time for pure olive oil soap is longer than for soap rich in saturated fat. That doesn’t lessen the value of olive oil soap, it just means that you have to take proper care of it to be able to enjoy it fully.
Wise from this experiment I’m now beginning to see that the rather prohibitive size and shape of traditional olive oil soaps like Marseille and Aleppo blocks, is not just an inconvenient coincidence. Those soaps come in blocks specifically because you aren’t meant to twirl them in your hands, dip them in bath water or a shower stream and rub them over your body. You’re meant to stand the soap away from water, rub the block with a damp cloth or sponge and then use the cloth or sponge to work up a lather and rub your skin. Used that way a bar of olive oil soap will last a very long time – and you’ll probably get just as clean.
Easily arranged at home perhaps, but not so convenient when travelling. When moving from place to place, spending a night here and a few nights there, you want soap that doesn’t go soggy and is easy to pack – even when wet.
Liquid soap springs to mind, but do you really want to travel with extra water if you don’t have to, adding to the weight of your baggage and risking leaks in suitcases? I know I don’t.
A good option is a brine bar. The salt in the bar makes it very hard and durable and better suited for a twelve-showers-a-day situation like the one we had. A brine bar may ‘weep’ on the surface in damp conditions, but due to the high salt content, moisture on the surface is not likely to dissolve the soap in any significant way.
My favourite option at this point would be a well-superfatted Beldi soap. Made with 100% olive oil it’s very gentle and soothing and being a paste in a container it doesn’t need a lot of maintenance. If you get water in the container you pour it out and leave the lid off until the next use – the pH of the soap is high enough to discourage microbe proliferation. When you need to pack up you put the lid on and off you go.
Being a potassium soap Beldi Soap is also more readily soluble than a traditional hard 100% olive oil soap bar and easier to work into a lather.
For all those days out and about, walking for miles, standing in queues etc, etc. I had also brought along my trusty Travel Soap – of course. This particular Travel Soap tin is a true globetrotter having by now crossed the equator numerous times and travelled with me on three continents, regularly wiped clean on the outside and refilled whenever necessary.
Once again the concept of little single-use soap pastilles worked perfectly: the tin travels in your pocket or bag and when you need to wash your hands you take out one pastille, put away the tin, and wash your hands as usual. We came across some fairly dodgy public restrooms where you really didn’t want to touch anything, least of all that grubby dispenser of liquid handwash that everybody touches BEFORE they’ve washed their hands, and it was great to have our own soap handy.
In all fairness we came across some very nice bathrooms too. This one, for instance, was not too shabby: Napoleon’s bathroom in Palazzo Pitti in Florence.
This large basin made from black granite from Aswan in Egypt now stands in the Vatican and may once have graced the Baths of Caracalla. I wouldn’t mind having a bath in it.
In very hot weather like we had, you tend to feel the urge to wash your hands quite often. It turned out that frequent hand washing is convenient in Italy. In all the towns we visited, big and small, there were lots of little drinking fountains in the streets. Carrying our own soap we could quickly wash our hands under the water stream of a fountain before – and after – having some of that famous Italian gelato.
Having a well-developed and discerning sweet-tooth I could go on about the gelato at length, but I’ll just say that we had heaps of it wherever we went. While prices varied the quality was remarkably good everywhere – and those ice-cream colours are just so very inspiring..
For somebody carrying South African Rand, travelling in Europe is expensive these days. Our shopping was mostly grocery shopping and we picked up lots of beautiful fresh produce and heavenly mozzarella. I also came across this bottle of olive oil. Something about the branding appealed a lot to me, but at 40 Euro for 500ml it had to stay in the shop and wait for somebody else..
What I did buy was a genuine Bialetti caffettiera moka, a traditional octagonal aluminium espresso percolator. And to go with the coffee I got some chocolates. Now, ordinarily white chocolate dyed blue and orange wouldn’t really be my thing, but when I saw these little Venetian masks in their box in a sweet shop in Venice, they spoke to me in no uncertain terms.
They became mine and I had a plan for them. I had been eyeing some touristy key-ring masks in exactly the same size and shape, but the chocolates were easier to use. When I got back home again I made some soap in the shape of the chocolate masks. These, I felt, would go nicely with my new square silicone moulds that I had stumbled across in a shop in Rome.
And so my Bauta soap was created. ’Bauta’ is the name of Venetian masks of this particular shape, which allow the wearer to talk and eat without removing the mask. Today we associate Venetian masks with revelries and Carnevale and we think of them as richly decorated, but back in the day when the Bauta mask was born, masks were used much more commonly than today – in a variety of situations. When the citizens of Venice voted they wore Bauta masks to conceal their identity and it was compulsory for women to wear the Bauta when visiting the theatre. Casanova is said to have worn a simple Bauta mask when out and about cavorting on clandestine business in Venice.. The white Bauta mask was typically worn with a black cape and veil and a black tricorne hat.
My white, soapy Bauta masks sit on blocks of charcoal-coloured soap for dramatic contrast inspired by the original Venetian dress. To make the look a little less menacing and more festive I added some gold leaf. Considering that this was the first time I’ve applied gold leaf to anything at all, I think it worked out pretty well.
I like this little Italian soap ‘souvenir’. I’ll treasure it while sorting through all the impressions and inspiration I brought back home from my trip. Who knows, some of it might just find its way into some new soap projects..