Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Field Trips

Dateline: Stockton, 7/11/08; Petaluma and San Rafael, 7/19/08

Recently I went on two shopping expeditions: one with beading friends to Stockton, and the other with knitting friends to Petaluma and San Rafael. There was a certain symmetry to the two trips. Each included six women (I was the only overlap). In each case, one of the women drove an SUV that fit all six comfortably. Since other people were driving, I was able to relax and knit in the car. Each trip involved about an hour and a half's drive. And by accident, the beading trip included one yarn store and the knitting trip included one bead store.

On the Stockton trip, our main objective was Bead Dreams, which has probably the best selection of seed beads I've ever seen. Other people came with specific shopping lists, but I just bought what looked good to me, hoping that I didn't already have the same color at home. After lunch at a nice crepe restaurant, we spent some time at Knit Witz, whose sign we happened to see on the way into town. There we heard that there was another bead store in town, so of course we made an unscheduled stop at Beads Plus.

The excuse for the knitting trip was to go to the Muench Yarns factory sale in Petaluma. The sale had a lot more yarns than just Muench, since Knitterly, a nearby yarn store, contributed lots of yarn to the sale. Most of the yarn was discounted 50%. I'm embarrassed to say how much I spent on yarn (which I obviously don't need more of); let's just say that I was the big spender in our group. We had lunch at a surprisingly good sports bar in a nearby mall. (I generally don't like sports bars, or almost anything with the word "sports" in its name.)

After lunch we headed south to San Rafael, where we stopped at two more yarn stores, Dharma Trading Co. and Marin Fiber Arts. At Dharma I resisted the temptation to buy more yarn, but I did buy two beaded scrunchies which I wear as bracelets. At Marin I couldn't resist a skein of lace weight Whisper in bright greens. While walking on the main street of San Rafael we happened upon Baubles and Beads, so of course we had to go in there too. I had been to their Berkeley store before, but not yet to San Rafael. You can read Vivian's account of the knitting field trip, with pictures, here.

Although I've talked before about my enjoyment of traveling and shopping by myself, I also really enjoyed these chances to spend a day with other beaders and knitters. I'll look forward to the next field trips!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Shopping in London

Dateline: London, 6/28/08 - 7/6/08

I can imagine my knitting and beading friends thinking: All this travel stuff is ok, but what we really want to know is: What did you BUY? The truth is that I didn't have a lot of shopping time, because we were busy being tourists and seeing family and friends. And when I did have time for shopping, I was so tired that I didn't take full advantage. This is just as well, because I didn't go as overboard as I might have.

During our walk on the south bank of the Thames, I spotted a shop called Funki Fresh that sells beautiful machine-knit garments. After trying on some shrugs and thinking "I should knit something like this", I decided on a purple ruffled scarf that drapes beautifully.

My prize for the most unusual yarn store goes to Weardowny. When I arrived, there was a couch standing on end, between the gate and the main door. I managed to get in anyway and was greeted by friendly women and a friendly dog. There were knitted garments for sale and a small selection of yarn, mostly Rowan. They have knitting classes, and there's also a guest house upstairs. For class projects they have several patterns for sampler scarves. I couldn't resist buying a cute gift package of 2 skeins of yarn and small straight needles in a miniature hat box, plus the pattern for the lace sampler scarf, for 28 pounds. There was no way this was worth $56, but I was caught up in the charm of the place.

I found the yarn departments at two department stores, Liberty and John Lewis, not so easy until I figured out that it was listed under "haberdashery". John Lewis has a substantial yarn inventory, but the prices seemed a lot higher than for the same yarns in the U.S. Liberty's prices were even higher. Both stores had a 50% off sale on selected yarns. At John Lewis I bought some Rowan Kidsilk Night on sale for 3.75 pounds per skein, or about $7.50. I see that online U.S. prices are about $13 - $14, so I did get a bargain. Both stores also had some beads and other craft supplies. Liberty has always been one of my favorite stores. Outside it looks like a medieval castle, and inside the floors look down on a central atrium. The store has gorgeous fabric that always makes me wish that I sewed. There were also two non-department yarn stores on my list, but I didn't manage to get to either of them.

There are two bead stores within a block of each other in the Covent Garden area, London Bead Shop and The Bead Shop. Neither had anything that I couldn't find in the U.S. One was better than the other, although I've forgotten which! The better one had a good selection of seed beads and I bought some.

The new Swarovski Crystallized Cosmos and Lounge is trying hard to be hip and contemporary-looking. The beads are displayed in plastic drawers. The upstairs lounge serves champagne and fancy hors d'oeurvres, and had an exhibit of crystallized clothing.

Camden Town is a funky part of the city that borders on Regent's Canal, and is famous for its street markets. We spent a little time there with Jeffrey and Helene, looking for lunch and overwhelmed by the many food stalls. Later I went back by myself and bought this bag which is all a single zipper, and can be completely unzipped into a very long zipper. ("But why would you want to do that," Jeffrey asked when we first saw the booth. I don't really have an answer; I just thought it was nice and unique, and I have a bag stash that almost rivals my yarn and bead stashes.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

London Life

Dateline: London, 28/6/08 - 6/7/08

I appreciate the signs that are painted on many London streets, reminding you which way to look for oncoming traffic. The arrow is an especially nice touch, in case you've forgotten which way "right" is.

Congestion pricing, which charges drivers to drive into the central part of the city, seems to be working well in London. Traffic seemed better than I remember from previous visits. Cars are very good about stopping for pedestrians. Too bad that New York recently rejected congestion pricing.

The Underground (affectionately known as the Tube), London's subway system, is convenient and usually easy to use. Wherever you are in the city, there's usually a Tube station nearby. But we found that often either individual stations or whole lines are closed. Frequently while we were there, the line we needed to take was closed because of "communication problems". The announcements about the closings were difficult for us to understand because of the British accents. We started looking online to see if there were Tube problems before we left our apartment. Usually it's not hard to re-route.

Riding the Tube requires a lot of walking and stair-climbing. Only the deepest stations have escalators, and a few have lifts. The stairs, plus all the walking I did, are probably the reason that I gained only 3 pounds during the trip. On this trip we took the Tube to and from Heathrow airport, which required a change of trains. It worked quite well, aside from having to carry our suitcases up or down some stairs, and also deal with the infamous "gap" between the train and the platform. (There's often a recorded warning to "mind the gap" when a train comes into a station.)

On my first visit, in 1971, people who saw me looking at a map in the street would often ask if I needed help, and sometimes even offer to walk me to my destination! That didn't happen this time, although a man on the Tube offered us help as we consulted the Tube map (turned out he was from Australia and had recently moved to London). When I asked some people for directions to Liberty, a well-known department store, the people I asked said they weren't from here and didn't know. I found it pretty much by accident, about a block away. But people were very friendly when we approached them with questions.

Prices are very expensive, especially with the pound now worth about 2 dollars. (For years it was worth about a dollar and a half.) In restaurants, prices would have looked a bit high if they had been in dollars, but looked extremely high considering they were in pounds. Our pre-theater afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, a fancy department store that sells gourmet foods, came to 81 pounds, or $162. (Granted, it did include a glass of champagne.)

There wasn't much that was unique playing in London theaters. We saw We Will Rock You, a musical based on the rock group Queen. It has played in Las Vegas and I had planned to go see it there. Jim and I both liked it, even though it was loud, used lots of strobe lights, and had a flimsy plot that was really just an excuse for the music. We weren't exactly in its demographic, but we enjoyed it anyway.

Life in the apartment was mostly smooth, with just a few unusual occurrences. We brought electrical adapters so that we could charge our various electronics. Our dvd's wouldn't play in their player, so the Netflix we brought came home unused. (We didn't have much time for watching movies anyway, and I managed to do very little beading or knitting on the trip.) I loved the British water boiler appliance, which boils water hot enough for tea in seconds. (I've asked Jim to get me one for my birthday!) As I usually do while I'm in England, I became a tea drinker and even added milk and sugar, which I never do at home. Our only struggle was with the washer/dryer, a single machine that does both, but which refused to get our clothes dry, even after we ran it all night. I had to dry that day's underwear with a hair dryer, and we hung the rest of the clothes all over the apartment to dry. We never figured out whether we had done something wrong, or if that's just the way the machine worked.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Less Than an Hour by Train

Dateline: Buckinghamshire, 2/7/08

"Less than an hour by train" is a phrase that Leonard Bernstein used to describe American suburbs in his 1950's opera Trouble in Tahiti. Travel less than an hour by train from London, and you're not in the suburbs, you're in the beautiful English countryside, in Buckinghamshire (abbreviated Bucks), a county north of London. We traveled here to spend the day with Jeffrey's old friends Richard and Judy, who live in the picturesque town of Stony Stratford.

Richard met our train in Milton Keynes, the largest city in Bucks, which from what we saw consists mostly of office buildings and shopping malls. We quickly drove out of Milton Keynes to the small town of Winslow, which had a farmer's market that day. We had lunch at a small sandwich shop that served delicious and unusual fillings, such as bacon and Stilton, on baguette.

After lunch we visited the village of Nether Winchendon, which according to Jeffrey's research is one of the most charming villages in Bucks. The village has no stores or restaurants, only houses and a church dating from the early 13th century. Richard pointed out the old mailbox; "V R" means that the mailbox was made during the reign of Queen Victoria. (Newer mailboxes say "E II R", which stands for the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.)

Our next stop was Claydon House, the ancestral home of the Verney family. The estate now belongs to the National Trust, although members of the family still live in one of the wings. The Verneys were associated with the English civil war in the 17th century, and also with Florence Nightingale, whose sister married a Verney, and who was a frequent visitor to Claydon.

We ended the day in Stony Stratford, where Richard and Judy's house is about a block from the main street. The town was beautifully decked out with flowers, part of an effort led by Judy to enter the town in a beautiful village competition. Stony Stratford is the place where the phrase "cock and bull story" originated, referring to two rival pubs. The town has no less than 6 Indian restaurants, and we ate at the one considered the best, Kardamom Lounge. That night the restaurant had its "gourmet special", where for 10 pounds each person could choose a starter, main dish, bread, side dish, rice, and dessert. The amount of food on the table was astounding, and even more astounding, the 7 of us managed to eat most of it. When we left the restaurant at around 10, there was still some daylight left, although it was completely dark by the time we got to the train station for the trip back to London.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Walking Around London

Dateline: London, 1/7/08 (July 1)

London is a great city for walking, and I feel as if I've walked around the whole city these past few days. I'm too tired to write a long post, but here are some pictures of the highlights.

Outside the British Library, where we saw manuscripts (including Beatles songs).

On the Tube.

The London Eye, seen from Green Park.

Walking across one of the Thames bridges.

Regents Canal (Jeffrey and Helene walked while we took a boat).

Waiting to board the London Eye (a slow-moving ferris wheel with large compartments, offering spectacular views of the city).

Parliament, seen from the Eye.