Friday, September 21, 2007

Fall

Today I realized that on October 8, and on every Tuesday thereafter, I will be able to get 10% off my purchases at Ross Dress for Less. Not that I typically shop there -- but Ross is wedged in between my two preferred discount stores, TJMaxx and Filene's Basement, in a local strip mall and, walking from one to the other, I couldn't help but notice the huge poster in their window that might as well have had Uncle Sam pointing his finger straight at my graying head. Speaking of hair, as usual at this time of year I've been thinking about coloring mine, which, to be perfectly honest, has stopped graying and is now shedding even that last little bit of pigment in favor of silver and white. The only thing that prevents me is the awareness that even the tiniest bit of root growth flashes like a lighthouse beam when it's silvery-white and nothing makes a woman of a certain age look even older than gray/silver/white roots.

Yes, it's almost my birthday and this year I complete my 55th year. I am officially on my way to 60. If I were not part of the Baby Boom generation, I would be leaving middle age and creeping up on elderly. Fortunately, that won't happen. Having more or less come to terms with the ugly realization that the only alternative to middle age is death, we Boomers don't intend to let it go that easily. None of us will ever be elderly, aged, senior, or geriatric, not even in our 90s. It may not be pretty, but we will be middled-aged for the rest of our lives. Middle-aged R Us.

So far my body is helping me out with this fiction, in spite of my total failure to get on the physical fitness bandwagon. My anti-bandwagon stance started early: as a child, the only thing I didn't like about JFK was that he made us do sit-ups. Seriously, there was some kind of presidential physical fitness initiative when I was in elementary school and all of a sudden instead of hanging out on the swings at recess, I had to do sit-ups and chin-ups and, most humiliating of all, girl push-ups. When this happened, in the second or third grade, I was already committed to a fully sedentary life of the mind and typically spent recess trying to sneak back into the classroom to read. (The swings were my back-up activity if the sneaking failed, since swinging was something you could do sitting down.)

I have, however, been feeling extremely achy and creaky, which is probably why the age thing is on my mind. The reason is that on Tuesday I fell. I was walking to a meeting on a long up-hill sidewalk that's broken every 15 feet or so by a set of 4 steps. On one of those sets of steps I somehow managed to get both feet off the ground at the same time. I don't mean that I jumped. Both my feet were just no longer on the ground. Since I was moving forward when this happened, I continued to move forward, but also down. My knees hit first, then my right hand and then my right cheek. I was flat out on the sidewalk with little stars and birds circling my head. I sat up and waited for the spots to stop swirling in front of my eyes, then gathered my scattered belongings and continued up campus to the meeting, where I received much sympathy and a bag of ice for my cheek.

The worst thing about the fall was that four young men were walking towards me when it happened. They saw me fall. They saw my belongings scatter. They saw me sit, dazed, with my hand on my cheek. They walked right past me and said not one word. It's true, I thought - the basis of every cozy British house mystery, that gray-haired women are invisible, is true. I ranted about this to my colleagues at the meeting, who were shocked. When I got home, I ranted about it to K, who was shocked. I've been ranting about it ever since and everyone is shocked. The experience has upset me tremendously, and not because today's youth are louts or because civil society is in decline or because it's the end of the world as we know it. No. I'm upset because I am now old enough to be well and truly invisible. If a gray-haired lady falls on the steps and no one over 30 sees her, has she actually fallen? Apparently not.


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Now playing: The Ramones - I Wanna Be Sedated
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Silver Orchid redux

A couple of months ago I finished (or thought I had finished) this pendant. Its organic look arose from a thoroughly organic process, involving as much accident as intent. You can read about its early life here and here. In the second post I noted K's opinion that it needed to be hung from a chain, not a rubber cord, "because the pendant needed to be seen as being worthy of a beautiful chain. Because it's so weird. And ugly." As you can see from the photo, I did put it on quite a nice oxidized chain. And the pendant has been hanging around waiting for a buyer ever since.

I knew it wasn't going to be an easy sell. This isn't a pendant for everyone and maybe it's a pendant for no one but me, but that's ok - I like it. Still, I've never been completely happy with how it hung on the chain and so I fiddled around with some other options, including a beautiful dark grey silk cord which I'll definitely use for something else.

The other day I decided to make a chain, just because it's something I haven't done. Now that was fun - and that statement certainly qualifies me as a full on metal nerd. It took a couple of hours of snipping wire, balling the ends, pickling, curling, twining, tumbling, oxidizing, and polishing, but at the end I had a lovely long chain, a bracelet and a couple of dangles for earrings. About half way through the process I realized the chain was meant for the Silver Orchid pendant. "Meant for" as in, they'd look great together, but also "meant for" as in intended for. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had a hunch that what the pendant needed was a longer, more substantial chain that could match its organicness. (What? you'd prefer organicity?) And over the past week or two, as I've been working at work and wishing I had time to make jewelry, what I kept wanting to make was a chain, which I thought was a little odd, but who am I to question my unconscious mind?

Here's the result. There's no clasp - the chain is maybe 24" long and just slips over the head. Notice that the alignment of the pendant has changed as well. I also attached the cluster of pearls to the end of the chain rather than to the pendant itself - much neater.


Here's another picture showing how the pearls and pendant relate. I think this necklace might just be finished.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Thwack, thwack, thwack...

I'd say that the beginning of the fall semester is like a black hole that sucks up all available time and energy, except that "black hole" sounds way too peaceful for what's happening around here. "Whirling vortex" is more like it. Picture me as Dorothy with the tornado bearing down crying "Auntie Em! Auntie Em!" Toto and I are huddled in the house watching scary people fly by the windows. Are they the Wicked Witches of the East and West? No, they are the dread helicopter parents.

The phrase has been all over the media: ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the NYTimes, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and loads of other places. There's even been some research done on the phenomenon. Talk about helicopter parents in mixed company (i.e., faculty and administrators) engenders lots of rolled eyes and laughter. Let me tell you, the reality is scarier than any wicked witch and nothing to laugh about. I know the justifications: they're paying obscenely large amounts of money and have a consumer's right to be involved; they just want what's best for their children; their child is unusually talented/phenomenally gifted/psychologically fragile and needs special care; they've always been this involved in their kids lives, etc., etc., etc. I don't buy any of it. This kind of behavior is all about the parents.

Yesterday I spent several hours dealing with a roommate situation: a bunch of girls (that's what they call themselves) having trouble negotiating who gets which room in a suite. This kind of thing is standard at the beginning of the academic year. (Typically, the drama in sorting out suites comes from groups of girls. Guys move in without much fuss - "sure, I'll take this room, whatever." Roommate issues among groups of boys tend to arise later from what we like to call "behavioral issues": a guy comes home drunk, passes out, gets up in the middle of the night and urinates on his roommate's backpack or desk or computer. Seriously - this is a common occurrence.) So back to the girls. Everyone attempting to resolve the situation (six administrators and one RA) thinks the argument would have been over in an hour if parents hadn't become involved. Sadly, three sets of parents did become involved and two days later there is still no agreement. We've had parents screaming at each other and at girls who aren't their kids, mothers sobbing hysterically, two threatened lawsuits, and more public bad behavior by alleged grown-ups than I've ever seen. At this point all the girls are desperate to work things out themselves and the parents might just have gotten the message that they need to step back, but I doubt that this is the last we'll hear from these folks.

And it's not like these particular parents are unique. Two years ago, a mother who lives nearby came to clean her son's room every week until his roommates rebelled and asked us to intervene. Last year an irate father insisted that his son needed to be moved into the room he had had as a freshman. We get calls weekly from parents who say, "Don't tell my son/daughter I called, but...". They even call us to complain that their kids aren't going to bed early enough. One father wanted us to make sure his son was properly nourished while he was attempting to lose 30 pounds in a month to qualify for a sport. Another called because two courses his son wanted to take were scheduled at the same time and he insisted that we reschedule one of them. Every year students are disciplined because their parents were inappropriately involved in their academic work - I suspect the number of papers that are essentially co-authored by parents and students is shockingly high. Usually only a handful come to light each year.

These sorts of interventions are infuriating to deal with and they cost universities and colleges ridiculous amounts of money. They also don't help the kids. About 2/3 of the time these interventions are followed by a visit from a thoroughly humiliated student who doesn't want the parent involved but doesn't know how to get that across. And the kids who actually want their parents involved in every decision they make every day - those are the ones I really worry about. Parents, do your kids a big favor: take your separation issues, your identity issues, your need to feel needed, whatever it is that motivates you to be over-involved and work it out somewhere other than in your kid's life in college. You're probably paying a lot of money for this college education. Stand back and let it work. It's the only way you'll get your money's worth.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Afterthoughts

  • My new favorite painting tools are plastic scrapers (the kind you can buy in the hardware store for spackling) and kitchen sponges, preferably the kind with scrubber stuff on one side.
  • Painting in the garage does not work when the garage has no light except what comes in the open garage door. It can also lead to pain in the knees from crawling over the concrete floor.
  • Painting on a picnic table outside is nice, but can lead to stripes in the paint and pain in the lower back.
  • Buy stretchers when you buy the canvas because waiting for them to arrive so you can stretch the finished painting is really frustrating. Especially when it's Labor Day weekend and you know the order won't even be processed till Tuesday! (remember 'Til Tuesday?)
  • Showing incomplete paintings to people is risky. Sometimes they can say helpful things. Other times their likes and dislikes can distract you from whatever it is you're trying to work out.
  • I used to think my painting was all about color and texture. Now I know it's also about gesture.
  • There's a really interesting Flickr group where people post photos of paintings in progress. I thought I'd post photos of the second painting there, until I looked at what's already up. Those folks are amazing painters!
  • Like Kenny Rogers said, "You got to ... know when to walk away and know when to run." Sometimes you just need to put the sponge down and step away from the canvas. You can always come back later. And if you don't like it, there's always gesso.
  • Isn't it annoying that using a bulleted list in Blogger messes up the spacing? It also happens with blockquoted text and sometimes after inserting pictures. There are several hacks out there to fix it, but, really, this just shouldn't happen!!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Painting update

Work on the big painting has ground to a halt. First, it was the series of thunderstorms that made it difficult to work in a garage where the only light comes from the open garage door which can't be opened because the rain is wailing. Then it was the set-up - working on a 4' x 5' canvas on a hard cement floor covered with a plastic dropcloth is not optimal. The plastic bunches up and makes unexpected lines in the paint - not always a bad thing, but mostly annoying. The whole thing slides around and the plastic sticks to my sweat-covered self. (It is August in New Jersey.) The cement hurts my knees. Who knew knee-pads were crucial painting gear?

But after a few days away from the painting, I figured out the real problem was the feeling that I was painting a request. K wanted something that would "go with" the greenish-khaki of the office decor and didn't want anything remotely representative. "Think Rothko - just colors." I don't do Rothko, but I gave it a go. After a few days of painting what I had was a swirl of completely undistinguished blues and greens, with a few accents of burnt sienna and yellow ochre. Pretty colors, totally uninspiring.

Something that was, maybe not inspiring me, but nibbling at me: the collage I'd done a couple of months ago and blogged about here. It came about after some friends and I posted childhood pictures of ourselves. Comments one of my friends made inspired me to make a copy of the picture, alter it with some screen printing and writing, then build this collage around it. The process was totally different from anything I'd ever done, it was fun, I liked the result, and wanted to do more - but work and life intervened and I hadn't returned to it. Frustrated with the whopper, I decided that now was the time to do something else.

I'd been remembering a little scrap of a practice painting that I'd done over a year ago from a sketch of my face. Instead of going back to the childhood photos, I thought I'd start with that. I also wanted to work on a slightly larger scale so a 2' x 3' piece of hardboard became the backing for the collage. Grubbing through my test pieces and rejected paintings, I came up with a few more to rip into strips, but the textures and colors weren't exactly right. Whatever. I wanted to get started and figured I'd fix it later.

After much ripping, pasting, and moving around, I had the hardboard covered. It wasn't coming together in the way the first one had though: too many different colors and textures (aka, whatever bites me in the butt). So, I pulled out the stencils and added some texture that covered several pieces at a time. More unified, but too busy. I left it for a couple of days and when I looked at it with fresher eyes, I thought the problem was that there was no sense to the color arrangement. One of the things I like about the first collage is the color progression from dark red-brown to blue-yellow, to the sepia of the photo. The colors of the canvas strips in the new piece weren't organized as coherently. Well, that's what paint's for, so I added some washes over some of the canvas strips to unify their colors. I think it's done, at least for now.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

White Tops

Writing the last two posts, and the responses to the first one, motivated me to do some research on my father's career. You'd think with a past like this I'd have written about it before, but in this case familiarity bred a lack of interest. As usual, Google revealed a treasure-trove of resources, among them, White Tops, a magazine put out by the Circus Historical Society. Browsing through the archives I was stunned to find an article titled "1960s Boom-Boom's Bandstand". (You'll need to click on the picture to be able to read it.)


I've been searching for a copy on eBay but haven't found it yet. I may have to look for it in an archive and actually go xerox it - so primitive. I will track it down though.

I also posted a request for information on the CHS message board and already received one helpful response with some suggestions for getting in touch with people who might have worked with Boom-Boom. I'm not sure where all this will ultimately lead, but at the very least, there should be a few more circus posts.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Circus life

We didn't travel with the circus, which is both the good news and the bad news. On the bad side, it meant that I wasn't part of the magical circus world. When I was very young, I watched Circus Boy on Saturday mornings, wishing that I could run away with Corky (played by Micky Dolenz - yup, that Micky Dolenz, the one in the Monkees). It also meant that my father was gone for nine months out of the year. We saw him once or twice a season when the circus came to our area of central Texas, but that was just for a day at a time. I allegedly went through a stage, at around 4, when I called any man who came to the door "Daddy". During the winter, when the rest of the circus was in winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida, he made money by playing in local dance bands, which often meant that he was on the road traveling to gigs a couple of days a week. So, the memory of helping him glue glitter and letter manila folders is one of the few father-daughter activities I actually remember.

On the up side, by not traveling with the circus I was able to go to school. True, it didn't seem like such a great deal at the time, but I can see the benefits at this point. Circus folk, the performers anyway, typically did travel with their families. Often the entire family, including kids, was part of the act. The Flying Wallendas are one of the best known family acts. My father was especially fond of the Wallendas and worked with them in various circuses throughout his career. (I always thought it was odd that they were called The Flying Wallendas when their act was tightrope walking. I thought "flying" should be reserved for the aerialists, who were my favorite performers.) I suppose circus kids went to school during the winter and there might have been some who were tutored during the season, but it's hard to believe they got a great education. Also, traveling with the circus wasn't, and probably still isn't, glamorous -- unless we're talking Cirque du Soleil, which is a fabulously glamorous circus that might actually provide glamorous accommodations for the performers.

The performers, musicians, and circus hands lived in trailers, which would be parked every which way out behind the tent, far enough away so that they wouldn't be bothered by nosy audience members and upwind of the elephant pen. It was a little immigrant neighborhood, not just because they were itinerant performers, but because most of the performers were actual immigrants. Walking back to my dad's trailer through the dust or mud -- it was always either dusty or muddy, because trucks and trailers tore up the fairground -- I heard half a dozen different languages punctuated by the big cats roaring, sniffed odd cooking smells and the occasional whiff of an elephant pile. You could never really escape the smell of the elephants.

As a child I found these visits behind the scenes strange and a little disturbing. Partly it was the feeling of being in an unfamiliar, rather seedy neighborhood that didn't look like a place I'd be allowed to hang out in under normal circumstances. Partly it was the clowns. They typically didn't take off their make-up in between shows, but they would, of course, take off their clown suits. It's pretty disturbing to see a man in full clown make-up, a stained undershirt, worn corduroy pants held up with suspenders (not the funny clown kind), and a receding hairline smoking a cigarette while he polishes his shoes. Also, the clowns always seemed to be frowning and unfriendly.

Other people were friendly though. There are dozens of people who saw me every year when the circus passed through Texas and I'm sad to say I don't really remember any of them. I do remember what they'd say when they saw me though: "Boom Boom! How did such an ugly guy like you end up with such a pretty daughter?!"

Monday, August 20, 2007

Going to a flea market and ending up at a circus

Today I got up ridiculously early and set out for a large flea market on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border. Mainly I went to buy ephemera - I'm not sure what's going to come of it but I've been collecting old photographs, pamphlets, and illustrations for a couple of weeks. I also thought I might find some useful tools. What I ended up with was a stack of old photos, two books, a wonderfully weird "silver-tone" belt from probably the 60s (I like the way the links interlock), and three different types of African trade beads. I don't normally use African trade beads in my jewelry, but these caught my eye because they look like stacks of miniature 45s. I exchanged cards with the seller, a gentleman who was very excited to hear that I made jewelry using Adinkra symbols.

I hadn't been to the flea market in ages and the whole experience was bizarrely nostalgic. Partly it was the weather - chilly and misty, it was more like late September than mid-August. And September means the start of school and, more importantly, the end of summer, which is a moment of multi-layered nostalgia. All those childhood summers when you could see the beginning of school bearing down on you like a red plaid steamroller kicking up a flurry of orange and gold leaves. Being part of academia, I've never really escaped the feeling that the year starts in September. What really made it nostalgic though, was the poster for the Clyde Beatty Circus prominently displayed at one of the booths. (This isn't the exact poster I saw, but it was similar to this one.)

My father was a drummer in the circus. He had gone to Julliard but dropped out to become the drummer in the Ringling Bros. Circus when it was still under canvas, when it was still a real circus. Later, when Ringling stopped traveling, he moved to the Clyde Beatty circus. Clyde Beatty was a lion tamer who was killed by his favorite lion. I used to have two claws from an earlier favorite lion who went rogue and had to be put down. I kept them in cotton in a white box like the ones you get from a jewelry store. They looked like dirty pointed yellow toenails.


My father's nickname, Boom-Boom, was given to him by a non-English-speaking circus hand who accompanied it with the appropriate drum-beating gesture. I think it stuck because it suited him: he had a booming voice and a personality to go with it. His belly was round and solid, he smoked big cigars, and wore his hair in a short flat-top, tight on the sides. He imagined he was Jackie Gleason: "One-a these days, Alice..BOOM!" He imagined he was Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich and Johnny Carson. He imagined he was famous and, I suppose, in the circus world, he was famous, a little.

After some years the band leader who hired my father retired and Boom-Boom became the band leader as well the drummer. This meant that he was responsible for arranging all the music that played during the performances, hiring all the musicians, and working with the acts to coordinate their musical cues and highlights: Drumroll! as gymnast #1 clambers to the top of the human pyramid. Rimshot! as he lands on the see-saw that flips gymnast #2 into a somersault. Fanfare! as gymnast #2 flies to the top of the same human pyramid and lands on a pair of shoulders.

For me one summer, it meant that I could help him with his work. He carried the music for all the musicians in a big wooden chest. That summer I helped him organize the music by writing the names of the songs and the parts (bass, organ, trumpet) on manila envelopes. That summer he also built short wooden screens that sat in front of the first row of musicians, hiding their music stands. They were about three feet tall and he painted them with musical notes in bright colors. I helped him glue glitter onto the notes. As the band leader, he wore brightly colored jackets and shirts with ruffles down the front. It was generally agreed that he was the best in the business.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Surplus heaven, with bacon

At jewelry camp we teased the instructor for constantly referring us to Harbor Freight as a source for cheap tools - we figured he had to be getting a cut for sending students there. It is indeed a great source for tools and supplies of all kinds. However, my hands down favorite cheap surplus-type place is American Science & Surplus. I got a package from them yesterday that contained an excellent set of riffler files, a bunch of small magnifying lenses of different powers and thicknesses that I hope to turn into pendants, a couple of amber bottles for storing liver of sulfur and other nasty potions, a set of 15 tiny drill bits, a universal chuck key (for when I lose the one that came with my flexshaft), two cheap but fun little kaleidoscopes, a bag of ten mini-spirographs complete with pencils, and a "hand grip massager" -- all for under $25. The kaleidoscopes and spirographs are for a box of toys and art supplies I keep on hand to amuse visiting children. The hand grip massager was intended for K but it's pretty useless so it's going into the pile of truly weird stuff we keep for Christmas re-gifting swaps.

But wait, there's more. This morning I was looking through the print catalog they included in the package and discovered several must have items:

-- Gummy bacon. Actually, they have gummy pork sausage as well, but bacon is, well, bacon.
-- Bacon bandages. For when you slice your bacon for real...
-- Bacon tape. Also in pork sausage flavor.
-- A pigapult, for flinging miniature pigs, which you can also purchase.

You might sense a porkish theme developing here. I have long said that the first axiom of southern cooking is "Everything is better with bacon." It's also my personal motto.

More good stuff:

-- a mirage maker (one of my personal favorites for obvious reasons)
-- 2.5" miniatures of the terracotta Chinese warriors
-- a pulsating body part
-- plasma bulb heart nightlight
-- a working model of a steam engine

and tons of flasks, bottles, pipettes, magnets, robot parts, telescopes, microscopes, toys, office supplies, gizmos, and whatchamacallits. It strikes me that much of this stuff would make excellent fodder for mixedspecies, four guys who need no help at all in generating some of the weirdest stuff on the planet. I have a soft spot for these guys because they share my bacon obsession. A couple of weeks ago I bought three sets of their Murder and Mayhem coasters and they are totally fabulous. I could do one of those blog interview things, but that's not really my style or theirs. Better they should speak to you in their own way.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Big canvas

With all the traveling and jewelry making I've done this summer, there hasn't been much painting going on. Then K, whose staff just moved into a new set of offices, asked if I'd like to make some very large paintings for a 30 foot long wall in one of their reading rooms. Not exactly a commission, but an expression of support that provided a much needed kick in the pants. Yesterday after the bead show I hit Pearl Paint, aka heaven on earth, and bought 6 yards of primed canvas, some large jars of acrylic paint in my usual colors, and a few other sundries. Then on to a hardware store for some rollers, wallpaper brushes, super-sized scrapers, drop cloths, and anything else I thought might be useful.

This morning, in spite of the fact that it's Sleep-in Sunday, I popped awake early, anxious to get started. I set up shop in the empty garage, thus furthering my ultimate goal of taking over all the space in and near the house for my art and jewelry-making. I lined up my pots of paint and gels and matte medium on some chairs that are stored along the wall of the garage. The big door was wide open and sunlight streamed in.

My paintings have always been smallish - I think the largest was something like 36 x 40. One time a woman who was at our house for some reason I forget asked me if all my paintings were this "comfortable, human scale." She was, of course, from Manhattan. Perhaps I imagined the patronizing tone, but in the spirit of those Gary Larson "what we say, what they hear" cartoons, what I heard was "Are all your paintings this bourgeois dilettante size?" Things were about to change. I tore off 5 feet of canvas and the rrrrip gave me shivers. Laid out on the floor it looked huge and I wondered where to begin.

One thing I sometimes do is put down a layer of matte gel for texture, so I decided to start there. As a first step it was perfect: I could start to get the feel of working on the canvas without making any color commitments. Twenty minutes later I had used two-thirds of the big jar of medium and I was pretty happy with the result. I figured I'd let it dry for half an hour and then start laying on washes of color. I didn't reckon with NJ humidity: after half an hour it looked as wet as it had when I put it on. I decided to work on jewelry. I strung a necklace, worked out a design for a fused wire pendant and cut up the silver wire, re-strung the necklace, took pictures of a new necklace, listed said necklace on Etsy, noodled around in various forums, and finally, in desperation, did a variety of chores I would really rather not have done. Four hours later it was finally dry.

By this time I knew that I wanted to work mainly in blues and greens on this canvas and I was rarin' to go. I used the roller, the wallpaper brush, scrapers, sponges, and balled up newspaper. It was great. After half an hour, I and everything I was wearing, including the ugly but very comfortable Teva sandals I had bought in Greece when my old sandals blew out, were covered in paint. Apparently, big canvas = big mess. That layer dried more quickly, being quite watery, and I was able to put on two more before the light gave out and the mosquitoes set in.

Working on a large scale is definitely different. It made me realize that I have characteristic gestures that work for the scale of paintings I'm used to making. How to translate those gestures into the larger size? A larger implement is just part of the solution - the gesture itself has to be larger or else it has to be broken down into smaller component parts. Or maybe the old gestures just aren't right for this scale. This painting may end up being a "do over" - thank heavens for gesso - but that's ok. It's thrilling to have a new problem to work on and to be painting again. It's also pretty great to have a partner who's as excited about this process as I am.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bead Show Blues

The bead show was a great disappointment. I thought it would be full of suppliers and instead it was full of what seemed like local bead shops. Maybe big local bead shops, but nonetheless. Lots of dyed freshwater pearls of low to middling quality. Lots of stone bead strands, very few of which were at all interesting. Lots of Swarovski crystal - not that I have anything against it, I sometimes use it, but you can find it everywhere. There were only a couple of dealers who had cabs and only one had cabs worth buying, though even they weren't anything really special. Nevertheless I found a few things to take home.

My favorite stone, right now at least, is blue chalcedony and I especially love a blue chalcedony druzy. I picked up a quite nice strand of good sized ones, some botryoidal, that will make excellent pendants.







I also bought several other strands: striped agate teardrop beads
teeny 1-1.5mm peachy pearls, small 3mm silver grey pearls, small labradorite teardrops - these I'm going to use as chain substitutes for some of my silver pendants









five different kinds of vintage lucite beads - I have a retro streak that doesn't really fit with the style of jewelry I'm making now and that no one else seems to be interested in because every retro piece I've made has failed to sell - but why let that stop me?
four very small cabs: three white opal and one pink tourmaline - opal is my birthstone and these not very flashy ones remind me of a pendant I had as a child








and a hank of silk cords - scrumptious colors.







Grand total? My lips are sealed.


There's one other thing I bought that I'm really excited about: a Paraiba tourmaline crystal that hasn't been polished. It's pink and blue and frosty and absolutely gorgeous. It also cost way too much and is responsible for putting me over my self-imposed spending limit for the show. These pictures don't really show how luminous it is.

Maybe this is just buyer's remorse (not an a usual affliction for me) but, I've been reading a little about Paraiba tourmalines in the couple of hours since buying it and I'm starting to think that it might not actually be one. It looks suspiciously like this regular tourmaline.

(This picture is in the public domain and comes from Wikipedia and you can see it in context here.) True, this one's not frosty, but that might just mean it's been polished. However, the non-pink areas on mine are more blue than green and Paraiba tourmalines are known for being more blue than green, so I'm not going to worry about it. My new tourmaline is a beautiful piece of rock and I've already started sketching ideas for how to use it - another example of "love the stuff".

Friday, August 10, 2007

Crazy for stones

Auctions on Ebay used to annoy me. Do I have time to sit around waiting for the time to run down with my finger poised on the "bid" button? No. But so many of the good stones on Ebay are sold via auctions and the "Buy it now" stones never seem like that much of a bargain. That's all changed now and the tipping point happened in Greece. We were in one of the many jewelry stores we investigated there and K admired a necklace that consisted of a black druzy on a silver cable choker. Totally simple and shockingly expensive. I said, "Don't buy it - I can make it for you, easy." Give a girl a few days in jewelry camp and she thinks she can do anything.

The first step, obviously, was finding a nice black druzy. The one we saw had a druzy pocket in a smooth, shiny black oval, like the one in the picture below (which is a spoiler since now you know that I did find such a stone, but this is a blog, not a mystery). I checked all my usual stone sources and discovered only a couple and they were too expensive. So I checked out Ebay. There they were - lots of them and beautiful ones. Trouble was, they were all being sold via auctions. Quelle drag!

Then I discovered AuctionSniper, one of the many programs that bid for you. It offered three free "snipes", so I gave it a try. I won three stones for roughly half what I thought they'd cost if I bought them through a regular online store. These two are my favorites. They're from a seller call aroc55, who mainly seems to sell slabs. Now I have the black druzy -- all I need to do is figure out how to get it onto a cable with no visible setting showing. I can't recall if the one in Greece was drilled or what, but this one isn't so I'll have to be creative. The other agate druzy is my favorite though - great translucence in the surrounding stone and the druzy really sparkles, but not so much as to look artificial, which I think is a problem with some of the coated druzies.

The third stone is a pyrite druzy that's a beautiful gold color with rainbow highlights. (And, yes, I do have a thing for druzies. It all started when K gave me a gorgeous druzy ring for Christmas. I had never seen one before and it seemed like a magical stone.) It's a beautiful stone, but I had a hard time figuring out how to set it since the height varies a lot from one part of the stone to another. Also, it just didn't look good next to silver, not even oxidized silver. I'm not ready to shell out the money for gold at this point so it seemed like brass was the answer. Fortunately I had some brass sheet left over from jewelry camp and this is what I came up with. I'm pretty happy with the design, but I need to remake it because the metal got pretty marred while I was playing around with it. One thing I learned making this is that sketching really only works for me as a way of keeping track of ideas. When I'm in the throes of working out a design it's much more useful to make models of stiff paper.

Shopping success is a great convincer so I signed up with AuctionSniper and went a little crazy. I bought a nice apricot druzy, two matched druzies that look like little geodes, four chalcedony cabs, a ruby cab, and two druzy pendants. The apricot druzy, also from aroc55, is great - good size, good color, nice even height. The little geodes are very cool, but I was so smitten with the picture I neglected to notice how teensy they are. The size was right there in the description but the beautiful macro shot was so mesmerizing I missed it. Also, they're quite round in the back, which means they'll be difficult to set, and the backs are also very cracked and unstable looking, so they can't be used without a setting that covers the entire back. The chalcedony cabs could be chalcedony, but they're dyed such a violent blue that they could be anything. Fortunately, they only cost me $4.01, of which $3.95 was postage. The ruby cab arrived today and looks ok, except that I think it has a bubble in it. Do real rubies have bubbles? The last two druzy pendants haven't arrived yet - they're coming from Brazil. I hope they aren't a disappointment.

Things were clearly getting out of hand. At one point I had 16 snipes waiting to happen. After the tiny geodes and chalcedony cabs arrived on the same day, I canceled all my outstanding snipes and tried to get a grip. That was three days ago and so far I'm still on the straight and narrow. There have been a couple of close calls, like yesterday when I decided I had to have some plume agate and sniped six listings before I could stop myself. They've all been deleted though. Staying on the wagon is difficult but knowing that I'm going to a bead show tomorrow, where there will be lots of people selling beautiful stones, helps a lot.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Oia and away...

Santorini is so beautiful it's difficult for me to imagine how people can bear to live there year round. Every time I looked up I felt like I got hit in the head with a beauty stick and consequently walked around in a daze most of the time. Besides the gargantuan striped cliffs, the black volcano sulking in the caldera, and the ubiquitous white houses with blue, green, and aqua shutters, there's the ocean in seven different shades of blue-green with an occasional bit of purple thrown in just to confuse the tourists. In the evening a haze on the horizon blended the sunset colors into watercolor washes over a third of the sky.

K, who lived in California for 10 years, was a little nervous hanging out on the edge of a crater and the towns certainly do look as if they're poised to slide right into the caldera at the first sign of a tremble. I bought two photos of the volcano smoking, one from 1926, the other from 1935. Imagine waking up and looking out your front door to see this:


We met some lovely people in Oia and two of the nicest were Assia, who works at one of our favorite jewelry stores, and her son Toni, who works at our hands down favorite restaurant in Santorini. We met Assia while shopping for gifts. The store, Lithos, like most of the jewelry stores in Santorini, has lots of lava bead jewelry, but they also have other really wonderful jewelry by Greek artists - we thought it was the best jewelry store we'd seen since 21st Century, our favorite store on Hydra. Assia was charming and helpful and, when we'd finished buying way too much, we asked her where to go for a good, not so expensive, dinner. (This was on our first night in Oia, after the sunset I wrote about last time. As we walked the main pedestrian street getting oriented and looking for dinner, we were struck by how expensive and upscale the restaurants were -- not the usual tavernas we'd come to expect and love.) She recommended Thomas Grill, where her son Toni works.

Thomas Grill turned out to be a family-style restaurant that was busy, but not so busy we couldn't find a table. A friendly looking young man approached and we asked if he were Toni. No, but he called Toni out to seat us. K said, "Your mother sent us" which caused the staff and half the customers to laugh out loud and Toni to blush bright red. He recovered, seated us, and we had a truly fantastic meal followed by a very nice conversation with Toni. Turns out that he and his mother are Bulgarian and they only live on Santorini during the tourist season. We had a wonderful time and went back there for dinner the next night as well. At that point we might as well have been family. The host took us to "our table" and, after another great meal, Toni came out not just with complimentary ouzo, but also with two bright yellow Thomas Grill t-shirts for us. Pictures were taken, followed by handshakes all around. (That's Toni on the left and Thomas in the center. I'm afraid I don't know the name of the woman.)

On the way back to the hotel we stopped in at Lithos to tell Assia how much we liked the restaurant. She was helping a customer but when she looked up and saw the Thomas Grill t-shirt I was holding up she started laughing and came to give us hugs. The customer was pressed into service as a photographer and we went on our way, promising to send copies of the pictures.

Our three days on Santorini started with the worst hotel experience of the entire trip, but we ended up feeling that we had come to a magical place. Much too soon we were on our way back to Athens and then a hellish 10 hour flight on Olympic Airlines that started by being four hours late getting off the ground and deteriorated from there. A hint if you're planning on traveling anytime soon: don't watch the two hour pilot of Lost the day before you have to get on an airplane or you're likely to end up clutching your partner's arm yelling "Oh, shit!" when you hit turbulence. In my defense I'll say that it was pretty serious turbulence and the older couple next to us were busy crossing themselves repeatedly while I was expostulating.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

From Firostefani to Oia

We awoke, determined to make the best of things, only to find that the shower didn't work: no water. I dress and track down the owner. He fiddles with the thing and gets a small stream of water to come out. "Oh, it was a little broken. Now it's fixed." Leaves. We can't get more than a little stream to come out and, even more distressing, it's not even warm. I can deal with a lot of things, but a day without a hot shower isn't one of them. Back out to find the owner, who first goes to check the boiler, which is working. He runs the water for several minutes, telling us that you need to run the water for several minutes. We tell him we have. "Sometimes when a lot of people are taking showers, you know..." Right. The water apparently warms up a little and he says triumphantly, "There, see? Hot now." Leaves. The water isn't close to hot, more like room temperature. While we're puzzling over this, the trickle fades to a few drips. Back out to find the owner, who's getting almost as annoyed as we are. He tests the water and finds both the water pressure and the temperature satisfactory, doesn't understand why we don't, no one else has ever complained. Leaves. Breakfast arrives and it is, predictably, the worst food we've had in Greece. Coffee is a pot of warm water and a few packets of Nescafe.

We decide we must escape. Will we be able to find another room for just two nights? Will he try to make us pay for all the nights we've reserved? The price for this hellhole is 135 Euros/night - not cheap! It seems that the price of hotels in Fira/Firostefani is generally high, especially if you have a view of the caldera. The view is great, but not without a hot shower to back it up. I call a hotel in Oia that I see advertised on our Santorini map: The Museum Spa Wellness Hotel. Against all odds they have a room available for the next two nights, which I promptly reserve. We pack.

We set off to face the owner together, agreeing that I'll take the lead and K will play bad cop if necessary. We find him and I say bluntly but nicely, "We want to check out. We're leaving." He looks bewildered, confused. "What? Why?" "We're not happy here," I say. K says, "The shower isn't good." Not very bad cop-like, but true. He seems hurt, doesn't understand, no one else has ever complained. But then he takes us to the office and gives us a refund...and offers to call us a cab...and takes our luggage up the million steps to the street...and waits with us until the cab comes (extremely awkward), loads our luggage, and gives us hearty handshakes as if we're old friends leaving after a great visit. All the way to Oia we talk about how awful we feel for leaving and how thrilled we are that we left. Vacationing can be emotionally complex.

In spite of having a few too many words in its name, The Museum Spa Wellness Hotel turn out to be a lovely place. Not, perhaps, as lovely as the pictures on the website suggest, but nice enough that we almost tear up when we see the bright, airy room and the lovely pool area. Into the pool, then the shower (hot! excellent water pressure!), then to schedule a massage and facial for the next day, then off to find an iced cappuccino. The vacation is back on track.

That night we have drinks at the rooftop bar of the Pelekanos Restaurant, like half of the other tourists in Oia, so as to watch the sun set. For some reason, that evening has a particularly festive feel. People are introducing themselves to each other, offering to take pictures of other couples, and Mr. Nikos, Bar Man (as it says on his lapel pin), is the master of ceremonies. If he likes you, he'll mix you a shot glass of his mysterious fuschia-colored cocktail. As the sun nears the horizon, it feels like we're watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year's Eve. We applaud when the last sliver of red disappears.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Paros, part 2 and on to Santorini

One minute I'm basking in the Greek sun, the next I'm back in NJ in the muggy rain. Expulsion from Eden can't have been any worse than this. Truth be told, I was ready to come home - or at least ready to have my workshop, bed, and cats close to hand again. Could all three have been transported to a lovely Cycladic house on Paros, I would've been very happy to stay.

The second half of our stay on Paros was in Naoussa a formerly sleepy fishing village which has now turned into an upscale resort town. There are still piles of nets on the docks but a Greek friend said he thought they were "for the tourists," not the fish. The center of town is chock-a-block with restaurants, cafes, souvlakerias, and clubs. At night it's like a carnival, with colored lights strung in the trees, vendors standing at carts or walking through the crowds, and music coming from every direction. This young entrepreneur was selling roasted corn and the ubiquitous balloons on sticks. SpongeBob Square Pants and his friend Patrick were very popular.

We stayed at the Stelia Mare Hotel, which is about a 15 minute walk from the center of town. Coming from the Pension Sofia we were stunned by the scale and relative luxury of the place. Our executive suite was maybe four times the size of our room at the Sofia and came complete with a kitchen larger than most NYC apartment kitchens, a living room/dining room area, large balcony, and truly spacious bathroom. The breakfast buffet was exhaustive: cheese and spinach pies, croissants, two types of fresh bread, Greek yogurt, honey, melon, cereals, local cream cheese, fresh tomatoes, boiled eggs, scrambled or fried eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns, and Greek cookies. Unfortunately, the coffee was awful and even paying for a cappuccino didn't improve matters much. The people who work there are professional and charming. Still, our hearts belonged to the Pension Sofia, which gave us a lovely home at a quarter of the price of our executive suite.

Thankfully, Paros and Santorini are in the same group of islands, so we didn't have to troop back to Piraeus to get to our next island stop. I truly loved our time in Paros - it has the perfect mix of good beaches, good food, good shopping, and gorgeous scenery. Nevertheless, the highlight of our trip was Santorini.

Approaching the island by ferry you see sheer cliffs striped in black, red, and white, topped with white towns that drip over the cliff edges like icing. The ferry lands at Athinios port, which is a sliver of a town clinging to the base of the cliffs. It's a dusty, noisy strip of shops, with tour buses, vans, cars, and motorbikes weaving in and out of the crowds of suitcase-rolling tourists. It looks like something out of the Star Wars frontier scenes.

The first night we stayed in a small hotel in Firostefani, a suburb of Fira, the main town on the island of Thira, which is the largest of the group of islands that make up Santorini. The hotel, which, like all the others we stayed in, I had found on the internet, was not good. Even if we hadn't just come from the lap of luxury it wouldn't have been good. To be fair, the room was very large and it faced the caldera, meaning the view was stunning. It even had a living room/dining room area and a kitchen - but everything was shabby and dingy. The furniture looked vaguely early American, like it had been purchased from the Sears catalogue circa 1965. There were no lamps, only wall or ceiling mounted spotlights with bare bulbs. The bathroom was small and had the kind of shower that consists of a drain in the floor and a shower head on the wall. We decided to make the best of it and went off to dinner in Fira, where we had a fabulous meal at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the caldera and overlooked by a neighboring church.

Getting to and from the restaurant was a bit of a trial. We walked (30 minutes each way), by choice on the way there and of necessity on the way home. Getting a cab in town is impossible and we had no idea how to find a bus. Also, the streets that look so nice and straight on the map are actually winding paths that detour around corners and dead-end into shops, which is to say, we got lost. A few times. The center of Fira is a souk with roofed arcades that open into miniature squares, but the stores are much more high-end than anything we'd seen up to that point. It was crammed with people in snaking lines like the sidewalks in Provincetown at high season. By the time we finally got home we were exhausted and didn't much care whether the room smelled slightly of insecticide or not - which it did.

Next time, we find paradise in Oia.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A very sad story

What's to be done when scuba diving off the coast of Paros proves to be unexciting? K decided that kiteboarding sounded like a good idea. And so it came to pass that last Sunday, after a morning of diving, K set off for an afternoon of kiteboarding under the tutelage of Frank, kiteboard instructor from hell. (Actually, he's from France.) Fast forward to 6:30pm that day: I was reading under the grapevine covered pergola with a glass of Greek white wine on the table beside me and a cat curled at my feet. K walked up the path to the pergola, limping, hands held up like a just-scrubbed surgeon on the way to the OR. "Are you ok?" "No, I fell and the kite dragged me." Injuries included a thoroughly scraped and bleeding right knee and shin; a badly bruised and swelling right hand; a similarly battered left hand whose pinky finger looked distinctly crooked. "It's broken - we have to go to the hospital." "No, I think it's just bruised - see, (wiggling pinky) I can move it." "Make a fist." Pinky, refusing to play nice with the other fingers, maintains its queasy angle. "I guess it's broken." We hop into our rented Twingo and K, the only one of us who drives standard, takes us to the medical center.

Greece has a national health care system, so health care is free, even for visitors, which is, in principle, a great thing.

The medical center in Parikia is a large white (of course) building near the center of the port area. On Sunday in the early evening, we walked into what appeared to be the ER entrance and found two very young women in beach wear sitting in plastic chairs in a dingy hall. The reception kiosk was dark and empty. Next to it were metal double doors labeled "Emergency" in English and Greek. Next to the doors a red metal paper number dispenser, the kind you see in front of the deli counter at a supermarket, was bolted to the wall. One of the young women opened the ER doors and waved us in -- turned out she was there with an injured friend. We never saw a receptionist. Inside, two doctors sat on opposite sides of a battered metal desk. Four exam areas were defined by curtains, only two of them with hospital beds. One of the doctors took K to an exam area and started prodding the broken pinky hand. I escaped to the waiting area. A few minutes later K emerged, the broken finger buddy-taped to the ring finger, the leg scrape white with spray antibiotic, and with instructions to return in the morning for an X-ray.

The next morning the medical center is still shabby, but no longer deserted. At least thirty people crowd the waiting area. The reception kiosk is still dark, but there appears to be someone sitting in the shadows. K inquires of the shadowy figure and is told to take a number. D05. We're confused because there's another number dispenser on the other side of the kiosk giving out numbers like C83. Do the Cs get seen before the Ds? The answer is unclear. We sit and wait. Nothing seems to be happening. A young woman in a white lab coat walks by sipping iced coffee and disappears through a door. Someone is smoking nearby. Finally, K sends me on an errand: "Find out if I really need X-rays. Maybe taping the finger is all that needs to be done." I go off in search of an open internet cafe and access to our own Delphic Oracle: Google.

Half an hour later, armed with the knowledge that X-rays are a good idea for broken fingers and that the finger should be splinted as well as buddy-taped, I leave the cafe. Arriving at the medical center I find that K has obtained a "prescription" for an X-ray and has moved to the Radiology waiting area. Unfortunately, the X-ray machine is broken. They expect it to be repaired within an hour. Everyone should wait.

Should we wait or go home and come back in a couple of hours? I recall noticing that there was a private medical clinic near the public medical center on the map of Parikia and set off to check it out. Turns out the private clinic is right behind the public medical center. I walk up the wide marble steps, open the glass door, and step into a cool sanctuary. Behind the modern reception desk sits a professional looking woman in a lab coat. Two people sit in the carpeted pastel waiting room. Music plays softly in the background. I find out that K could be seen in "maybe 15 minutes" and that an X-ray would cost "maybe 70 Euros". I hurry back to the medical center, where the crowd in the Radiology waiting area is large and restless. I sit down next to K who says, "What did you find out?" "First of all, it's heaven. Second, you can get an X-ray in 15 minutes for 70 Euros and there's a doctor who can then see you right away for an additional charge." "70 Euros? That seems like a lot." "But it's so worth it." "Right."

We abandon the world of public health care and gratefully wrap ourselves in the luxury of pay-as-you-go (and hope your insurance reimburses you later) health care. K is given X-rays immediately, waits no more than three minutes to see the doctor, and emerges after 10 minutes with hands in the scrubbed surgeon position -- both pinky fingers have been splinted and buddy-taped and both hands have been wrapped in flesh-toned stretchy bandages. The scraped leg has also been thoroughly bandaged and wrapped. To my lasting shame, I burst into laughter, as does the old Greek woman who is the only other person in the waiting area. K looks like a very sad lobster with giant flesh-toned claws.

The left pinky is indeed broken and needs to remain splinted for two weeks. Swimming might be possible if the splinted wrapped hand can be kept dry. Scuba diving? Out of the question. No more adventures for this trip.

***********************
I'm a big fan of universal health care. Here's one of the many reasons why: My Uncle LeRoy worked in highway construction for around 20 years, but always on a project basis, which meant that he never had health insurance. When he was 62 he injured his leg and couldn't work. His leg required tests, treatments, medicine, hospital visits, all of which my aunt and uncle paid for out of pocket. They sold off most of their land. Their truck was repossessed. They borrowed from relatives, but they still couldn't keep up with the bills or afford the continuing treatments that were needed. Finally the doctor who had delivered all their children and treated their family for thirty years said that he'd treat my uncle for free, even though he had recently retired from medical practice. All of which is to say, I know what it's like to live without health insurance and without access to affordable medical care. Sadly, our brush with the Greek health care system reinforced every complaint about national health care I've ever heard. We, who have the luxury of health insurance and enough money to pay for anything the insurance doesn't cover, find it difficult to tolerate the waiting, the lack of attentive service, the poorly equipped hospitals and clinics, all the indignities of health care for the masses. If we lived in Greece, we would surely pay for the superior medical care available through the clinics, so the national health care system wouldn't benefit us at all. This made me very sad, until I remembered my Uncle LeRoy. Had there been a national health care system in the US, he and my aunt wouldn't have had to suffer the indignity of bankruptcy and relying on the charity of a generous individual. Less than perfect health care is better than no health care.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Paros, part 1: Parikia

A last minute change of plans (see Hydra, Isle of (Ugly) Cats) and suddenly we had 5 days on Paros and no reservations. Tripadvisor wasn't much help, except to warn us away from the Hotel Apollon. Google gave us the Pension Sofia, a lovely place run by Sofia and Manolis. Arriving at 1:30am we weren't aware of much except that the garden seemed very large and the room seemed a little small. The bed, however, was a real double bed, not two twins shoved together, and very comfortable.

The next morning we looked out over the garden from our second floor balcony and were overwhelmed by both the size of the garden and the number of decorations: artfully tilted amphorae, sculptures, bas reliefs, fountains. Shaded by a grove of olive trees that bear almost as many olives as leaves, it's a cool breezy sanctuary. Grape vines cover arbors, pergolas, and fences, laden with huge clusters of still-green grapes. Roses, a little burnt from the previous weeks' heat wave, but covered with fat blossoms, keep company with oleander, bougainvillea, jasmine, tomatoes, squash, dill, basil, and geraniums the size of small shrubs. Every inch of the garden has been touched by loving hands -- even the stones in the paths have been primped: a white painted outline sets off each one. (Later we discover that this is a Parian thing - it's done throughout both Parikia and Naoussa in private spaces and public. Even some concrete sidewalks are painted with white lines to imitate the stone paths.)

Breakfast was simple and wonderful: coffee, incredible fresh oj, pound cake, and two kinds of fresh local bread with butter and delicious jams. The breads are great. One is a kind of semolina bread with a sesame seed covered crust. The other is whole wheat with sesame seeds and fennel seeds on the crust - delicious. The oj is squeezed to order by an ingenious machine we saw in several sizes at various hotels and cafes wherever we went in Greece. This Rube Goldberg contraption takes whole oranges in, slices them in half and squeezes them between rotating ferris wheel ball and socket thingies. At the bottom is a spigot that dispenses divine nectar - I never saw what happened to the spent orange shells. No doubt the deliciousness of the oj has to do more with the incredible Greek oranges than the machine, but the combination of the two adds up to an impressive sensory experience, especially first thing in the morning.

What really makes the Pension Sofia special are the owners, Sofia and Manolis, and their daughter, Evita. They are warm and friendly - always helpful and attentive, never intrusive. Sofia, who runs the business end of things, is exotically beautiful and quietly efficient. Manolis, a native Parian, former plumber, and the creator of the garden, made breakfast most days and does many other things that aren't apparent to guests. He also picked us up at the ferry at 1:30am when we arrived and drove us to our hotel in Naoussa when we left for the second part of our Parian vacation. On the way he told us the brief charming story of how he and Sofia met: "Her family lived in Athens but had a small house on Paros. In the small house was a small bathroom. One day, they needed a plumber for the small bathroom." (He smiled.)

The pension is across the street from the Cine Paros, an outdoor movie theatre. Walk down the street past the cinema and in two minutes you're at the corniche and a nice beach. The main part of the town is to your left, including a shopping area of winding streets, jewelry and clothing shops, and cafes. Parikia has at least five internet cafes. My favorite was Cyber Cookies - it has only three machines, but the connection is fast, the prices are good (first 20 minutes free), the iced coffee is excellent, and no one was ever smoking while I was there. Avoid Memphis.net: they make you pre-purchase access time in blocks - no refund if you don't use it all. Also, I found the connection to be quite slow - possibly a side effect of their many machines.

If you turn right at the corniche, away from the center of town and towards Livadia Beach, you'll quickly come to our favorite restaurant in Paros, Taverna Akrogiali, which is next to the Hotel Paros. Iannis, the son of the owner, proudly told us that their taverna is a real Greek taverna, not a tourist taverna. How can you tell the difference, we asked? At a real Greek taverna the food is good and they bring you something sweet at the end of the meal for free. At a tourist taverna, the food is blah, you have to pay for dessert, and they only care about taking your money. He told us all this as he brought us a lovely cream pastry that we hadn't ordered as an end to a delicious meal. We were so charmed by the good food and good people that we ate there twice more before we left and are setting out from Naoussa tonight for another meal there.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Slow boat to Paros

An entrepreneurial opportunity of gargantuan proportions is waiting for someone in Greece. All you have to do is create a central scheduling office for ferries to the islands. Every company has its own set of routes and schedules and there is no way to get an overview of who's going where when. If you could maintain an updated database of schedules, prices, and which trips have open seats, I'm sure you could do a brisk business just telling people where to go for tickets. The importance of such a resource struck us with the force of a revelation when we decided to leave Hydra early. Carefree fools that we are, we hadn't booked a return trip to Piraeus or the trip to Paros, our next destination. On Wednesday, we attempted to book this two-part journey for Friday. After much back and forth between Hydra's two tourist agencies it seemed that we could get to Piraeus, but not to Paros. We felt like we were trapped in that joke where the old Maine guy says, "Yah can't get theah from heah." Finally, we decided to book a fast boat to Piraeus for Friday morning and trust to luck once we were in the port.

Come Friday morning we bid farewell to the mangy cats of Hydra and set off. We arrived in Piraeus in about two hours. I stationed myself on a shaded bench with our luggage and K went off in search of transportation. While I amused myself by taking pictures of random travelers, K hoofed it all over the port trying to find us a way to get to Paros. An hour later, we were the proud owners of two tickets to Paros on the slow ferry leaving at 9pm. For the rest of the day we cruised the Archaeological Museum, where we saw this incredible vase, among other things, and hung out in the passenger terminal, which is a large air-conditioned cafe with surprisingly good cheese pies.

The ferry looked like the QE2 compared to the fast boats we'd been traveling on up to this point. We boarded, along with what looked like half the population of Athens, and a fleet of cars and trucks, only to find that our economy class tickets did not guarantee us seats. If we wanted to sit we had to snag a table in one of the on-board cafes or out on the open decks. We opted for an open deck, but soon discovered that the reason we had found an empty table so easily was that it sat directly under the vent from the McDonald's-clone just inside. After half an hour of being bathed in a constant flow of warm greasy air, we decided to try the indoor cafe experience. To our surprise, the cafe area in front of the McD-clone was a no-smoking area where people actually weren't smoking. And that's where we sat: in the middle of a mall food court on board a slow ferry. For four and a half hours. Fortunately there was a bar.

As we drew near the port of Parikia on Paros, most of the many hundreds of people on the ferry got up and moved to the stairway on the port side of the ship, where we had entered. The ship tilted. We looked at each other and, in one voice, said, "Poseidon Adventure." Picking up our bags, we headed for the other staircase, trying to be as heavy as possible. I don't know if our quick thinking saved the ship, but it did mean that we got out faster than most, since both sets of stairways led to exits.

Waiting for us on the dock was a mob of yelling, gesticulating people holding uniform white and blue signs bearing the names of hotels, pensions, and camp sites. We quickly spotted our host from Pension Sofia and were whisked away to our room, grateful to have arrived safely on the isle of Paros.

A note about getting to and from the Greek islands: there are several different kinds of transports (ferry, fast ferry, flying dolphin, catamaran). Tripadvisor has a good description of the travel options and how to book.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Hydra, Isle of (Ugly) Cats

Hydra is the most cosmopolitan of the Greek isles, so it says on the island's website. Cosmopolitan or not, it is certainly beautiful. Hydra town climbs from the harbor in a steep semi-circle of white stone buildings and terracotta roofs, punctuated by brilliant outgrowths of hot pink bougainvillea. The only engine-powered vehicles are the utility vehicles owned by the island government, which makes the island a peaceful pedestrian haven. The donkey "taxis" that wait to take your luggage to your hotel are charming, if aromatic - though the owners are fastidious about immediately scooping the piles their donkeys produce into canvas bags. The water is a crystal clear blue-green that's enticing even to a non-swimming aquaphobe.

Still, Hydra was a disappointment: the only dive shop, which is still advertised on the web and by local tourist agencies, had closed. For me this wasn't a problem, but for my partner diving is one of the reasons went to Hydra in the first place. It wasn't just this disappointment that set us against Hydra, though. Hotel and restaurant prices are inflated and the quality of the latter ranges from awful to just good. The highly touted shopping isn't any better than the shopping here in Parikia, Paros, a much less aggressively self-promoting port. The real problem was that Hydra town was claustrophobic and fly-ridden. The streets, which are more like paths with steps, are made of the same stone as the majority of the buildings, giving the effect of a single organism that bulges into hotels, restaurants, and shops like mushrooms protruding from a giant rhizome. All paths seem to force you down to the harbor, a destination whose charms are exhausted in a day. Vast numbers of flies make outdoor eating almost impossible. I suspect that the number of flies has to do with the presence of the donkeys (or more specifically, the donkey dung), which makes the whole experience distinctly unsavory. Also, the town is overrun with cats -- scrawny, mangy, scarred, rheumy-eyed cats. One was so ugly I called it the Nazgul cat, and I'm a thoroughly soft-hearted cat lover from way back. There is clearly no spaying or neutering going on and it seems that the size of the cat population exceeds the available resources. We had planned to stay five days, maybe seven -- we stayed only three, which was one too many for me.

If you go, don't avoid the donkey taxis. If you don't want the donkey experience, hire one of the human-powered two-wheeled carts.They charge 10 Euros per donkey for luggage or riders. They also cost 10 Euros. Just don't roll your suitcases to and from the hotel yourself. You'll make a hellish racket and probably ruin the wheels of your suitcase on the uneven stone pavement in the process.

The nicest man in Hydra runs a jewelry/clothing store called "21st Century" right on the harbor. I think his name is Lakis Christidis - that, at least, is the name on the store bags. He's a silversmith as well and has a sharp eye for unusual artist-made jewelry. His prices are fair and he is kind, helpful, and genuinely informative.

Next, Escape from Hydra, in which our protagonists overcome great obstacles in their attempt to travel from Hydra to Piraeus and then to Paros in one day.