23 April 2012

I Don't Heart Singapore

We arrived at Istanbul Airport at the same speed we left it a few days ago – supersonic.  Our taxi driver really outdid himself – it felt like we were in a movie car chase.  And this time, instead of just sitting back and enjoying the ride I found myself wondering if there were airbags in the doors – oh dear, is this a sign that I’m turning into a fogey?  The driver was beaming when we got to the airport.  See, I got you here really fast, he said.  Yes, we said, Yes you did.

Then a few hours to lurk about Ataturk Airport.   It’s always boring hanging about airports, but here’s a sight you don’t see every day:  in the Ladies there were a bunch of very old, very short, very fat ladies in their burqas, struggling to get their feet up into the hand basins.  There were foot washing facilities not far away, but why visit them when you can just contortionalise yourself to get your feet in the nearest available hand basin?  I was somewhat taller than the lot of them and figured I could probably get my feet into the right spot if I needed to, though it wouldn’t have been comfortable.  But these little old ladies were determined to get the job done, and hoiked up their multiple layers of clothing to do it.  One old lady forgot to turn the tap on before she started her gymnastics and by the time her quite chunky ankle was under the tap she was stuck because she then couldn’t reach the tap.  I did not point and laugh (though I did smile on the inside) and stepped forward to help, but one of her friends quickly came to her rescue.  Ah, the enriching experiences of travel.  I don’t think I will forget this sight for a while. 

Then we had two days in Singapore, and I must admit I’m not so fond of that city.  We had a good time at the Zoo on the way through five weeks ago, but even that raised concerns in that the big cats appear to have zero enrichment in their small cages.  Big animals like the rhinos couldn’t even raise a trot before reaching the other side of their enclosure.  The orang utans have a world class environment, it appears, and it seems to be excellent for them but for other species the enclosures are less than adequate.

But beyond the Zoo, there isn’t a great deal to do.  Little India, where we stayed this time, is full of gold shops and Indian restaurants and that’s about it.  China Town and Bugis Street have markets selling the knock-offs and cheap t-shirts that markets the world over sell, but we found way cooler and unique t-shirts in the Amsterdam markets.  If you have any interest in the antique shops you’d better crank up that forklift you use to carry your enormous wallet about, because you’re going to have to empty that enormous wallet.

Sure you can visit Asia’s first Cable Car Museum (didn’t).  You go visit the Stamp Museum (didn’t).  You could visit a number of parks and enjoy the park-like nature of all the trees and grass (didn’t).  And stuff you can do that might be interesting, the Zoo, cruising down the river, touring the city, etc, we have long since done.  So these days it’s all a bit of a yawn and we’re not finding new and interesting things to see and do each trip, as you can in other cities (not counting Brunei, which is even boringer).  The one thing you can be sure will be good in Singapore, though, is the food.  You can’t really go wrong, wherever you end up. 

And what a difference it can make to your visit if you encounter sympathetic and professional staff at your hotel (or not).  Because of the limited flight choices when flying from Istanbul to Singapore we landed at Changi Airport at 5.30am.  Last time we arrived into Singapore at some ridiculous hour we went straight to our hotel and they arranged early check-in for us with no fuss at all.  And on that basis we chose the same hotel, knowing that we would need an early check in.  I had sent an email eight weeks ago advising of our very early arrival and asking to be advised in return if this would present a problem or if there would be any additional charges.  And having received no reply I assumed there wasn’t a problem, the same as last time.

So we arrive at the hotel, having been awake for that point for approaching 24 hours (cause there was no sleeping on the plane for either of us).  And we encountered Mr-I-Don’t-Know-And-I-Don’t-Care at the reception.  No, he had no knowledge of my advice of our early check-in – even though he had all the other information contained in that message.  And no, nothing could be done because the hotel was fully booked and anyway if he could arrange an early check-in it would cost almost as much again as the room had in the first place.  Fine, I said, I shall just sleep on your couch in the foyer for a few hours, shall I?  He didn’t care what I did, so my hopes of embarrassing him into removing the dishevelled woman flaked out in the middle of his foyer were dashed.  Doug was more awake than me – God knows how, so he perused various tourist brochures and stood guard over me while I dragged out my pillow and didn’t sleep but at least put my head down.

But after an hour the shift changed, Couldn’t-Care-Less went home and was replaced by a lovely young woman.  I explained the situation to her and how during our last trip to the hotel this had not presented a problem, and she advised that no indeed it was not a problem this time either, and within half an hour we were in our room.  Hurrah for professional young women!  So up we went to our room, which is described on their website as Superior but was actually little more than a very tiny dog box.  You don’t get much for your money in Singapore, I’m afraid.  But you know what?  You don’t notice that when you’re unconscious, and I was unconscious for the next seven hours. 

Doug went out exploring several times while I was comatose – I have no idea how he functions on no sleep because I have never ever been able to do that – and he found somewhere for us to have dinner a bit later.  A few false starts later, while Wrong-Way-Palmen got us horribly lost trying to find a restaurant literally just down the road from the hotel, and we both enjoyed a light dinner. 

Lack of sleep was finally having an impact on Doug, so we wandered back to the hotel and on the way I found a hairdressing salon that did permanent hair straightening.  I had this procedure done about 9 months ago and was very happy that all my curls and frizz (which can get downright unruly for gels who live in the sub-tropics) were magically transformed into smooth and shiny and sleek.  Doug says he prefers the curls, but I like smooth and shiny and sleek.  And seeing how it was about half the price it costs in Australia and I was feeling all jetlagged and frizzy and not very smooth and shiny and sleek, I booked myself in for a hair make-over the next day.

Ah, smooth and shiny and sleek is the way to go.  The 2.30am Wide Awakes have made their presence felt already and will be with me for the next week, I know from experience, but even looking all haggard and jetlagged it feels better to have good hair.  I think my head still smelt a little bit chemically on the flight back, but I was sitting next to Doug and no-one else and husbands are obliged to put up with their wives’ hair adventures.  It’s The Rule.   

As an aside, I wasn’t stopped once in regard to the electric lamp in my hand luggage which was a big surprise and on that basis I shall get more adventurous with what I cart back in my hand luggage next time.  Doug was asked about all the whopping big carving knives in his suitcase after Singapore Airport Security noticed that he was carrying a whole bunch of deadly weapons with him, but when they learned they were kitchen knives they didn’t care anymore.  One of them has a blade almost a foot long, but there’s no problem if it’s for cooking (rather than to further your Gangsta career).  We’re not complaining, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – go figure.

So we killed a few hours having lunch, endless drinks and a bit of Duty Free shopping at the airport (this LancĂ´me stuff had better make me look 18 again, for the price they charge).  A seven hour flight, we were back into Brisbane and stepped straight into a Customs Detector Dog training exercise.  I have done a bit of recruitment for this Customs Unit in the past and I am totally supportive of them and their work, and the dogs being trained were all young, with their tails wagging madly and so, so, so happy to be there.  Not really like the rest of us, who were tired after the flight, but nonetheless every single passenger had to line up in turn so the dogs could be walked past us.  But as I said, I am very supportive of their work.  Until they stopped at me!  Well, not really stopped as such, but the dog hesitated with me long enough to have the Customs lady ask me what was in my pockets or strapped about my waist.  And yes, I was in Turkey a few days ago but nothing was in my pockets and that thing about my waist is a spare tyre that we don’t talk about in polite company.  In the end she decided he was just being all wiggly and friendly towards me because when he came up to me I said Hello gorgeous to him and he liked any attention he got.  So note to self, don’t be so friendly towards drug detector dogs at the airport any more. 

So, having escaped my last chance at imprisonment for the trip, it was a few more hours to the Sunshine Coast and we were home.  The moggies all look like perfect angels, and we didn’t believe for a second the tales of paper towel shredding, cardboard box destruction, wee small hours chasey/wrestlemania games across the bed, and the demands for different food (like smoked salmon) and point blank refusals to eat that muck ordinarily referred to as The Best Cat Food Available.  They had been specifically instructed by me to be on their best behaviour while we were away, and I have no doubt they heeded my every word.  Except that Calypso got into Doreen’s handbag and was caught red-pawed chewing her way through the mobile phone charger just as we were arriving home.  It’s a bit hard to deny culpability when a bit of the cord is still dangling from your mouth as we walk through the door.  So okay maybe there was the odd incidence of naughty, but they were all immediately snuggly and cuddly so she was forgiven and it’s easy to replace a mobile phone cord.  Except if she ever gets caught red-pawed by me doing something like that, in which case it’s Smacked Bum City.  Yes I’m home people, and it’s back to doing as I bid.  More-or-less.

We’ve already heard from the packers and our consignment should arrive in Australia on 2 June, all going well.  Then it’s our bi-annual fun and games with Customs and Quarantine, and the new things should be on the shelves by mid-June, all going well.  I’m back on deck in the shop on Wednesday 25 April (and so is Calypso, which will shock her furry little socks off, having run amuck for the past five weeks).  I have plenty of good stuff in my hand luggage for Show and Tell, and I’m looking forward to seeing everyone.

19 April 2012

Istanbul - Constantinople

My attempt at last minute shopping in Manchester was thwarted.  I saw a very cool, extra large 1960s Lava lamp in a good little retro shop we often visit when in town, and if it had been the first day of the trip rather than the last I would have bought it.  But I thought that carrying a litre or more of combustible gel in my hand luggage might not go down well with Airport Security.  It might add a bit of interest to my Blog, to have been wrestled to the ground and arrested as a terrorism suspect, but you’ll just have to imagine how amusing you would have found that.  And I wouldn’t dream of putting the lamp in my luggage, having seen on many occasions how rough luggage handlers are, because then I’d end up with a litre or more of combustible (but cool) Lava lamp gel throughout my suitcase. 

I did predict that I would nonetheless end up in the total frisk/full body x-ray naughty corner in pretty well every airport we went through on account of the electric lamp I decided to bring back in my hand luggage.  I thought that the cord and plug showing up on the x-ray machines would cause me grief throughout several countries.  But the first stage, through Manchester Airport, passed more-or-less without incident.  They did hesitate for a long time over the jewellery in my handbag – no doubt admiring my taste in all things bling – but ignored the lamp in cat trolley entirely.  Go figure.  Only boarding in Istanbul and Singapore to get through now.

We got to the hotel in record time because yet again our taxi driver was a Formula 1 wannabe.  What is it with us and taxi drivers around the world, where we seem to telepathically communicate to them in any language Get us to our hotel, STAT?  And so they drive like Bats out of Hell.  The only exceptions to this otherwise universal rule are in England, where all taxi drivers just toodle along, and Kuching (Borneo), where every single driver on the road is certifiably mad and they all drive accordingly and the road lanes are there for decorative purposes only because everyone entirely ignores them.

Anyway, we arrived alive but already feeling the first vestiges of jetlag.  Douglas’ birthday dawned in Istanbul, and while we didn’t exactly leap out of bed at first light we did make a reasonable showing of it, and set off for some sightseeing.  We visited the Basilica Cistern first, which is literally a huge underground water holding cistern built in 532AD and, unexpectedly, it is beautiful.  It was the city’s main water supply for centuries, and is filled with lovely and huge columns, many salvaged (we don't say plundered, dahling) from ancient Greek monuments. 

The base of two columns in the Cistern are giant Medusa heads, and apparently archaeologists have long argued over the reasons why one of the heads was placed in situ upside-down, and the other on the side of her head.  But having studied archaeology at uni (and being a total Time Team fan) I know how prone archaeologists are to leap to exotic conclusions, and how every single thing must have been the result of a ritual or something spiritual or otherwise deep and meaningful, and nothing ever has a bog standard explanation.  Bad news, dudes!  My considered explanation for the Medusa heads not being right-way-up is that they literally weigh several tonnes each, and they were being used as the bases of columns and so were going to be under 8m of water, and so they were left where they were plonked.  Sorry, but I saw an entirely rational reason for their placement – that the labourers building the place said She’ll be right – and there was nothing mystical about it at all. 

Then we toured Hagia Sophia, and hired a professional guide to show us the hidden corners that we would not have found by ourselves, and he was worth it.  What a fascinating building, 1500 years old, and it showed the influences of all sorts of religions and all sorts of cultures over that period.  We stepped out of Hagia Sophia into a huge wind storm, with things flying everywhere and dust blinding everyone.  You know you’re in a really solid building when you have no idea that Istanbul is blowing down around your ears while you’re in there.  We later saw on the TV News that roofs all over Istanbul had blown off, street signs were down, a big boat had caught fire, trees had toppled everywhere, cars had crashed all over the place, and windows from high buildings had blown out.  But we didn’t know how dangerous it was to be outside at that point, and braved the high winds to make our way the short distance to the Topkapi Palace. 

Doug was literally handing over the money for our tickets when suddenly the ticket lady heard someone saying something behind her and got all alarmed and asked us to wait while she listened to the rest.  And the rest was that someone had just been killed in the Palace grounds, by a massive 300 year old tree falling on them in the wind storm.  So the Palace was immediately closed for the rest of the day.  We later learned that a number of people had been killed by falling tiles and flying debris around the city and we were lucky to have been in a relatively protected area while it was all happening.

We reconsidered our plans and decided to find somewhere (inside) for lunch, and spent a few leisurely hours enjoying a nice meal.  By then the storm had passed and it was off to the Egyptian Markets (also known as the Spice Markets) for a look around.  We found these markets to be very similar to the Grand Bazaar only with spice stalls as well, so we weren’t too interested after a short while, though we did buy some delicious Turkish Delight to snack on later. 

The Spice Markets open pretty well onto some docks, and we decided to take a cruise down the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus Strait and a little way into the Sea of Marmara.  12 Turkish Lira ($A6) for a 1.5 hour cruise was a total bargain, and proved yet again that it’s often better to just explore a bit yourself rather than go with the tour companies.  It seemed a little incongruous to be sitting on the river that divides Europe and Asia, looking at the ancient buildings of Constantinople, but listening to Lady Gaga.  Fortunately, the Call the Prayer commenced at a giant mosque right at the docks (Istanbul appears to have at least a dozen very giant, ancient mosques) so all music was immediately turned off and wasn’t turned back on.  We saw that not only is Istanbul an amazingly hilly city (with really, really steep hills) and the old part is full of beautiful ancient buildings, but there is also a lot of forest very close to the city, which in the Springtime is a riot of green but also thickly dotted with pink blossom trees.  Lovely. 

Then we tackled the Istanbul tram service, not knowing exactly whether we were catching the right tram because we have precisely zero Turkish language skills between us, but we figured it out and made it back to the main drag near the Blue Mosque (near our hotel).  We selected some yummy looking desserts to take back to our room from one of the many yummy looking dessert shops in this area - yes, in addition to the Turkish Delight bought earlier.  Doug justified it as his birthday treat, and who was I to disagree? 

Throughout the day I was getting a total moggie fix, and decided that of the hundreds and hundreds of cats that roam the streets of Istanbul I would I’d like to feed at least one.  We had met an American couple who said they bought some dry cat food so they could make offerings to the many moggies they met, and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that. 

Anyway, on the stroll back to the hotel we met a number of nice cats but one in particular who immediately adopted us and walked with us down the road, giving a running pussycat commentary all the way.  This is the one I need to feed, I told Doug, and he duly went off into a nearby corner store and bought a small can of tuna for her.  She and I stopped at a small nearby park and chatted away while Doug went to get the goodies, but oh no, this moggie didn’t like tuna and turned her nose up at it entirely.  Another cat was attracted by the smell and gobbled it all up, but my little friend was still meowing plaintively at me and walking with us as we resumed our way to the hotel. 

Right next to the hotel was another corner store which the Little Miss accompanied me to, so I went in and spoke with the shop keeper.  My little friend sat right at the door, didn’t come in but positioned herself to keep an eye on me, while I told the shop keeper I wanted to feed her and she didn’t like fish.  He produced some salami and assured me this would be a big hit.  Even though I had my doubts (because it had pistachio through it) I bought several slices and he chopped them up for her, and yes indeed this was a huge hit.  I took her around the corner to somewhere safe to eat, and felt very mean sneaking off while she was enjoying her dinner, but she showed every sign of wanting to come back in my luggage and I couldn’t adopt her.  And anyway, from the way she led me to the right shop and then waited patiently at the door while I bought her delicious looking pistachio salami I suspect I was not the first tourist she had scammed for a meal, and she no doubt lived in one of the apartments down the street.  So anyway, that was my Do a Good Deed for a Moggie in Istanbul, and I think we both enjoyed it.  And so did the cat who got the tuna without having to hoodwink me at all.

Then back to our room, to enjoy our desserts and see what Turkish television had to offer.  It appears they have a rule that lit cigarettes cannot be shown on TV here, so whenever a movie shows someone having a cigarette a big grey blob appears over the offending fag.  So if the person who is smoking is holding the cigarette near their face, or talking with the ciggie in their mouth (as tough guys always do) then their entire face is also grey blobbed out.  How would that suck if this was your big break in the movies, and they grey blobbed out your face because your scene called for you to smoke a cigarette?  And seeing how every second person in Turkey seems to smoke (not quite as bad as France, but right up there), then the grey blob campaign does not appear to be working so far.

So this has been Istanbul/Constantinople for us, and we really enjoyed it.  There is still plenty for us to do, and I can see us coming back for a stopover on a future buying trip.  Just not on Turkish Airlines.  Tried them twice now, and two strikes and you’re out I’m afraid.

Next stop, Singapore.

16 April 2012

How Good is Yorkshire?

Now we’ve moved on to Yorkshire for our last few days in the UK.  We quite liked staying in Grantham, down in Lincolnshire, which was very well placed for us to attend the big Fairs and is surrounded by beautiful countryside, so I think that will be a fixture on future trips.  The oddly named but pretty village of Croxton Kerrial was just down the road and very nearby was Harlaxton College, which is very grand and looks like a poor cousin of Hogwarts.  We passed through Balderton on the way to one of the Fairs, and thought what a wasted opportunity that was – why would you name a village Balderton when you could have called it Balderdash?  A much better choice, we agreed.

Yorkshire is a beautiful county, with rolling green hills, drystone walls and at this time of year lots of gambolling lambs.  The Yorkshire Moors have their own bleak beauty, with lots of purple heather and yellow gorse, and the occasional wildly tumbling brook.  You can see why people set novels in this region.  But by golly it’s a little cold! 

The last Fair we attended – biggest antiques Fair in the world – was pretty sucky, to be frank.  I expected to do some major volume buying there, and I did buy plenty of things, but nowhere near as many as I was expecting.  There were lots of lovely but horribly over-priced pieces, but mostly it was affordable but so boring why would you bother stuff.  Finding the lovely and affordable pieces was quite a challenge.  So the general verdict was that for the most part it was too expensive or not good enough.  I know every trip is different, but it’s a shame when the biggest Fair in the world doesn’t pan out as you’d like.  Doug says it’s the result of my becoming jaded after buying for so many years – plain old/plain old just won’t cut it anymore, so I walk past what is probably good enough stock because I’m too busy looking for the better pieces.  But I don’t want good enough, I want dang good.  And he often identifies what I’m likely to go for, or points out things to me that I missed but then want, so he’s just as bad as me on the Being Jaded front.

So we had our last chance to buy at an antiques centre up in Yorkshire, and boy did it deliver.  Hurrah!  Doug says I have now spent as much as I should have, and I am really pleased with what I got.  I’ve never offered Victorian stoneware items before, but oooh wait til they are displayed en masse in the shop – they will look really lovely.  They have nice neutral colours that will go with any kitchen and a really attractive tactile feel and the not perfect glaze that I favour in utilitarian mid-19th century pieces.  They should sit very nicely with the 20th century semi-industrial pieces I’ve collected, so what a good save that was.  I’m afraid a few pieces won’t make it past our own kitchen, but we shall decide exactly what we’re keeping when they get back.  So anyway, suffice to say that I am seriously chuffed with these purchases, and I think they’ll look great in the shop.  And I bought enough that they will largely contribute to a good kitchenalia window display.

But it wasn’t just Victorian stoneware, I also bought some lovely 1930s ceramics, Deco glass and a few charming WWI embroidered postcards that will look beautiful when framed.  So we emerged from the centre totally weighed down but very happy Vegemites from the last gasp shopping trip.  Then it was pack, pack, pack.  And pack some more.

Tomorrow we’ll box up our travel equipment and the coats and bits and bobs we don’t need to lug back in our luggage and replace all that with the stuff we do want to lug back, then it’s the final visit to the packers, drop off the van and we’re done.  We’re flying out of the UK on Tuesday, will have a few play days in Istanbul and Singapore (which I may or may not blog about as they happen – we’ll see), then home.  And how good will that be?  Very good is the answer.  We’ll be back in the shop on Wednesday 25 April.

11 April 2012

Exhausted but Triumphant in Northern England

Do you know, some unkind souls say mean things like Ah, Poor Diddums when I complain about how exhausting it is to be a professional shopper.  What is a Diddums anyway?  I’m pretty sure it’s something mean.  And how unwarranted these jibes are, because let me tell you that it’s utterly exhausting to go shopping for six hours straight, with only one little hot chocolate to sustain you.  And it wasn’t even the very fabulous hot chocolate you get in the Paris markets, where they include cinnamon and ginger and something else we haven’t been able to identify and the lady couldn’t explain in English (and we had no hope of understanding in French).  Now that was the best hot chocolate ever.  But I had only regular hot chocolate to sustain me during my shopping marathon yesterday.

No snow, no rain, but a wickedly cold wind accompanied us all day.  It made for some brisk browsing, to be sure, and many stall holders hadn’t come – the Fair was maybe a third of its usual size.  Nonetheless, Doug tells me that I am now a Good Gel on the spending front.  But boy you have to be quick to get the good stuff!  Early on, when many stall holders were still sleeping in their trucks and caravans – even though the Fair had opened – we spotted some good factory trolleys.  We’ve had them before, and kept one and had a wait list on the other, so I had some interest.  But the dude wasn’t out and about yet, so we went elsewhere for a while.  We met a charming Frenchman, who sold me lots of lovely enamelware at great prices, and I told Doug it is now an essential requirement that he cultivate a charming French accent.  Even this guy saying See you lat-ER was charming.  And with great enamelware at good prices, it was a nice way to start the day.

I also bought three nice, big, metal French watering cans.  They look very different from the English watering cans, and usually they are very hard to find so I snapped them up early in the day.  I had a request from a customer to find one, but the others can sit with some enamelware and one of the French grape buckets, a Scottish neeps basket and Parisian bottle crate to create a nice semi-industrial window.  I’ve got so much good stuff I’m already planning what some of the front window displays will look like, and the things won’t even arrive in Australia until June.

Doug and I had to part company so he could lug stuff back to the van and I could keep buying the stuff for him to lug, but he caught up with me about an hour later and told me I had to bolt quick smart back to trolley man, who had almost sold out of the trollies.  Bloody Hell!  An Italian dealer and a French dealer had come along and bought almost everything he had, but I got in there and mixed it with the continental dudes and managed to get two.  These are from a former piano factory in the Netherlands, and yet not too different from the trollies I bought a few trips ago which were from a car factory in Czechoslovakia.  Anyway, they look fabulously industrial – uber semi-industrial – and the lady who missed out last time should be well pleased and the remaining one will be front and centre in the window.

A few Fairs ago Doug bought me a lovely Lea Stein red bakelite cat brooch I had admired, and as I examined it that night I regretted that we didn’t buy a few pieces for the shop.  You have to look carefully at bakelite jewellery to ensure it has no hairline cracks, and of course Lea Stein is French and needs to be appropriately marked on the back.  But anyway, at the big Fairs you can find most anything and sure enough I found some really excellent Lea Stein brooches.  They will look lovely together in the jewellery cabinet, and we’ll see if people like them as much as me.  I must say the prices have gone up somewhat since I last bought Lea Stein about 15 years ago, but that’s a good thing for people who invest in good costume jewellery (like me).

The antiquities buying continues apace, and this time I obtained a good selection of Roman carnelian beads that were excavated in north Africa.  Carnelian is a deep smokey peach coloured semi-precious stone that is quite pretty.  The dealer was very cagey about exactly where they were excavated (as dealers always are), but he did mention that the dig is still in operation and the best known dig in north Africa, as far as I know, is Leptis Magna (present day Khoms in Libya).  So okay, being in Libya maybe the dig is not in operation at this exact moment, but this appears to be the most likely source of my beads.  I also secured a couple of very nice bronze medieval rings, and these ones fit women.  Usually the medieval rings that I find are monstrous and only fit men, so I was glad to finally get a couple for women.

Today it’s wet and windy and I’m glad that for the most part we’re inside doing a whole lot of packing.  We’ll need to venture out to the Laundromat for some emergency washing if we want clean knickers for the rest of the trip, and will no doubt visit the packers to drop off what we can so the van is cleared for the stuff I find at the next Fair.  Tomorrow is the biggest Fair in the world, and I’m really looking forward to it.

But we’re also tired now, and ready to come home.  We miss everyone, and the mogs, and even things like sleeping in our own bed and getting in our own shower (hotel showers vary widely, but most aren’t as good as ours and these things matter after a while).  The shop and moggie sitters (my parents) have been doing really well in the shop in our absence, and from all reports only Calypso has tried it on by being a bit naughty.  But I think she’s going to be a bit naughty for the rest of her life, so it was probably just business as usual for her.

My legs are really tired from all the walking about yesterday – the Fair covers acres and acres and there is a lot of walking to and fro, but I am girding my loins for tomorrow, which will make yesterday’s Fair seem like a doddle. 

10 April 2012

Just As Well Shopping Warms You Up

By golly England knows how to do cold.  The weather was so nice when we first arrived, and the last week in Europe has been lovely, but back to the UK for the first of the big four Fairs we’re attending and it was time to dig out some thermal undies.  We travelled by ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich, and I must say that Stena Lines are the best of the ferry services we have travelled on so far. 

So anyway, we arrived to a cold snap and made our way up to Norfolk knowing it wasn’t going to get any better by heading north.  You know I am a Dedicated Shopper when I’m out in -2 degrees to get the early bargains.  The very first thing I bought was a lovely glass jug, but it was literally coated in frost and I thought it was opaque glass but when it thawed out I saw that in fact it’s iridescent glass, which is much better.  But although it was a down-right chilly start, the sun quickly came out and it turned out to be a pleasant day.  Still coat weather, but no rain and a bit of warmth in the direct sunlight.

Yet again I bought lots of lovely Art Deco glass (yay!), plus another French Deco electric lamp on a marble plinth and with a globe shade, but this time the figure is of a flying bird.  This one, I promise, will go into the shop.  We also bought some very nice French enamelware, although of course it was more expensive than if you just go to France and buy it there, but it was sufficiently nice that I still wanted it.  I’m going to have the most fabulous enamelware shelves ever.  Plus more jewellery – like I need more jewellery, but Too Much Bling is Not Enough is my new credo.  And I also obtained two pewter and glass sardine dishes – very Downton Abbey - and they were exceptionally hard to come by even before such table accessories became fashionable and sought-after.  You go for years not finding things, and then there are two right in front of you – that’s antiques hunting for you.

My quest for nice antiquities is continuing to go well, and at this Fair I turned up a nice medieval floor tile (c1450) from an old church in Norfolk.  I’ve not bought tiles before, but this one and the Elizabethan tile with the rampant lion I bought earlier are lovely and I have determined to look for more in the future.

Then it was the long drive down to Somerset, to position ourselves for a large Fair on Good Friday that has always yielded good results.  Fairs held over Easter always attract huge crowds – there is nowhere else to shop so they hit the antiques shops (that are always open – no such thing as a public holiday in the antiques trade) and the Fairs.  And by golly this Fair was absolutely packed.  The busiest we’ve ever seen it. 

And as usual, the Queue Nazis were out in force, trying to make everyone line up a good hour before the Fair opened, so they could stroll down the line and sell tickets at their leisure, while everyone waiting froze to their toes.  But not us.  We’ve been to this Fair before, and knew that if you just wait in your vehicle until the opening time you can walk straight up to the ticket booths and start shopping a good half hour before the Well-Behaved-Do-As-The-Queue-Nazis-Tell-You people who queued up an hour earlier.  It’s so easy to make the Brits queue up, as a general rule.  Once we even saw a queue of cars patiently line up behind a parked car.  They all sat there until someone went and told them that they might be waiting a while, seeing how the driver of parked car they had queued behind had legged it into the Fair.

So at opening time we made our way, with a small group of other regulars who knew better than to risk frost-bite just for the Queue Nazis’ convenience, to the ticket booths to get our entry tickets.  There was no-one at the ticket booths because the Queue Nazis had made everyone else line up down the road.  Several hundred metres down the road.  Once they spotted us a couple of the Queue Nazis raced up to our small group and attempted to stop us buying tickets.  Sod off!, we all shouted in unison, The Fair is now open and we’re here buying our tickets.  But there’s a Queue!, cried the Queue Nazis, You’ve got to get in the Queue!  Sod off! we all again shouted in unison, Go herd your Queue.  Meanwhile, a few people in the Queue Nazis’ Queue spotted the Maverick Queue (that would be us) and ran up to join us.  Overwhelmed by our numbers – there must have been, cor, almost 50 of us by then – and seeing their queue starting to disintegrate before their very eyes, the Queue Nazis did indeed sod off and marched up and down their remaining queue, which I must say was still impressively long, to Keep Public Order. 

I tell you, give a poorly educated, inarticulate, middle-aged man a luminescent yellow jacket and a token of power, and whoosh! you have a Queue Nazi on your hands and all sense and reason goes out the window (or joins the end of the queue, if he has his way). 

So what a traumatic morning for the Queue Nazis.  We’ve never had so many people join us in the Maverick Queue before, and it was a refreshing sight to see British people taking a stand for doing something sensible (like buying their tickets at the ticket booth when the Fair opened) rather than be bullied into queuing in the cold.  And okay there weren’t many of us, but the numbers of the Maverick Queue are growing.  The Maverick Queue will soon take over, and sensible ticket buying will ensue, and this will be the end of the Queue Nazis’ world as they know it.  Can you imagine Britain without Queue Nazis forming unnecessary (but oh so lovely and straight and long) queues, and those who let the Queue Nazis bully them?  The Revolution is coming, my friends.  Just call me Che.

So anyway, after braving the Queue Nazis (albeit momentarily), we made it into the Fair.  The clouds hung low and ominous all day, but no rain and we skipped away with an excellent stool with built in steps, yet more Deco glass – but how amazing that we buy so much and yet never see the same thing twice – and some really nice ceramic pieces.  We’ve been a bit low on the ceramics so far, but our best piece from this Fair was a breakfast set for one (ceramic tray, teapot, cup, toast rack, sugar bowl & milk jug) in a lovely turquoise which is very nice indeed. 

We also snapped up a double soda syphon, which poor Carl the Electrician will be turning into another lamp for me.  We have one of our own, and I’ve been looking for another for such a long, long time.  This one doesn’t have the mesh that they often have around them, but it’s still an excellent piece that weighs a tonne and when it’s ready for display it will be very much in keeping with the semi-industrial look I’ve been hunting for.  And when it’s ready it will go straight to the front window and we’ll see how long it lasts.

So, triumphant and dry, we headed back north to Lincolnshire, to position ourselves for the last two Fairs of the trip – the biggest two.  The weather has turned downright chilly – even snowing in Yorkshire (where we’re heading later in the week).  We ensconced in the little market town of Grantham for a few days, to do some packing and have excursions to nearby antiques centres as well as attend the Fairs.  We’ve already picked up some very nice books, plus an excellent jug, basin & chamber pot set.  Chamber pots are always used as flower pots these days (from one scent to another) and this set has a lovely paisley and blue combination that will look striking in the front window.  There will be no shortage of front window pieces, which is good news for my trusty Window Stylists who come by to play and make the place look nice every Thursday. 

Tomorrow is the first of the Fairs for this week, followed by the biggest Fair in the world on Thursday.  If serious volume buying can’t be done at these Fairs, it can’t be done.  Doug is pressuring me to spend more money, and I’m trying, but my hopes are pinned on these last two Fairs.  Fingers crossed I find lots of lovely stuff.

04 April 2012

Buying (or not) in Brussels and Amsterdam

Brussels is certainly full of Grand buildings.  The Grand Square is indeed Very Grand, and throughout the city there is no shortage of other Grand buildings - there was clearly a large amount of major construction work going on in this city in the 1690s.  That’s about it for Brussels.  Except, my goodness there is an awful lot of dog poo on the pavements – the worst we’ve ever seen in any city we’ve visited - and you’ve really got to watch where you walk. 

We visited the Vossenplein flea market early in the morning, though it was really more like a trash and treasure than what we’ve come to expect from (French) flea markets.  We did buy two pieces of seriously good, high quality French 1960s glass, and a few pieces of Art Deco glass, but for the most part it was a very down-market flea market.  Not to mention that when you asked how much something was it was always an outrageously high price until you said no thanks and walked away, and then the prices came down to about a sixth of the original asking price.  I hate being sized up to see how much someone thinks they can rip me off for, and I tend to get pretty grumpy, pretty quickly. 

Then we went for a walk along the road that is described as having “warehouses full of bric-a-brac”.   Hmm, must have been a translation breakdown there – since when have ancient Egyptian statuary (genuine!) and ancient Greek urns (genuine!) been considered “bric-a-brac”?  Yessiree, there were some really great things in the “bric-a-brac” warehouses, but this strip of antiques shops was even more expensive than the high end shops in Paris.  I’m afraid my idea of bric-a-brac doesn’t extend to hugely expensive, hugely old antiquities.  Maybe I should rethink that position, but not until I win Lotto.

So anyway, even though we ended up getting some very good glass (and seriously good Belgian chocolate, of course), Brussels isn’t somewhere worth visiting on a buying trip.  Not to mention, we reckon we’ve seen pretty well everything we might want to see there, so in all probability we won’t be back.  We like Brugges a lot more.

Then it was on to Amsterdam.  What a lovely city.  There are a basquillion bicycles here – I’ve never seen so many bicycles in one place, but it’s got to be better than that many cars.  Lots of the roads in the older part of town are closed to traffic in any case, so it’s by foot or bike for everyone.  

Parking could have been a major issue, especially in a van, but right next door to our hotel was secure parking and we even got a good discount for being hotel clients.  So with parking sorted, we headed out immediately to see the Waterlooplein flea market.  Not as crappy as the Vossenplein flea market, and in fact we ended up with some lovely French enamelware and a good little Dutch bucket.  I also bought a selection of very cool t-shirts which featured appliqued robots and gangsta mickey mouse and cranky koala, etc, and I’ve never seen anything like them so they will be a nice souvenir of Amsterdam. 

Other than that, the buying has been pretty slim pickings.  I did get very excited upon finding a heap of excellent French 1920s/30s magazine covers and images, but then I became suspicious because they were individually wrapped in cardboard and plastic and you couldn’t see the backs.  A genuine magazine cover or image will of course have advertisements or articles on the reverse side, and not only were these wrapped so you couldn’t see the back, it was also odd to find such a large number of really good pictures in one place.  Sure enough, with sufficient questioning it was eventually admitted that they were all copies.  It was such a pity because they were great pictures, but I will only buy genuine covers or images.

We visited the Hells Angels’ support shop (no, I don’t know what that means either) because they featured an extremely fabo poster of a nude tattooed Dutch girl in their window, to see if they sold copies of this poster, or indeed would sell that poster.  But no on both fronts.  It took ages for their shop to open, so the Hells Angels clearly have a cushy lifestyle that involves big sleep-ins.  I recall seeing a bunch of them once riding through Noosa, and we laughed at how incongruous it looked and called them Hells Lattes.  But not to their faces.

On our first day in Amsterdam we walked for bloody miles – it’s not such a small city when you walk from one side to the other, so on our second day we decided the train and trams were the way to go.  Plus we toured the canals on a boat, ate pancakes, and generally got all touristy.  We decided against a visit to the Rijksmuseum on the basis that Dutch Old Masters isn’t our favourite genre and instead visited the Amsterdam Annexe of the Hermitage Museum (the main body of which is in St Petersburg, and we figured this was easier than visiting Russia).  But guess what was on loan from St Petersburg?  Old Masters.  So there was no avoiding a bit of culture, and I must say I did particularly like a painting by Frans Snyder of a cook telling off a moggie that was trying to drag off something from the larder.  A nice painting that also had a familiar feel to it – you could almost hear the cook yelling Just what do you think you’re doing? and the cat was entirely ignoring him, of course.  Just like at home.

We also did a quick tour of the giant Flower Market, and saw that they sold Cannabis Starter Kits.  I took a photo, as evidence.  An American gel standing next to me got all excited and bought one, but I expect it will be bad news for her when she reaches American Customs upon her return home. 

I did turn on the TV here but saw no bosoms.  However, there was a quiz show in Dutch called The Pain Game that involved blokes getting their bare bums smacked with planks of wood really hard – they had quite red cheeks by the end of it – but for reasons we could not quite fathom.  It also featured sequences of balloon animals having sex, which were quite eyebrow raising in the middle of a game show, however bizarre the show, and again we could not figure out the connection between these sequences and the rest of the show.  Cultural breakdown, no doubt.  This was a prime time show, not something on late night telly, and we could just imagine the conniptions it would cause if shown in prim old Australia. 

The buying in Amsterdam hasn’t been good enough to include this city on future buying trips, which is a pity because we really like it here.  The few pieces of enamelware we bought were in unusual shapes and nice colours, but they were French.  Many Dutch and Belgian antiques are very heavy in design – pretty stodgy and old fashioned I guess I would say – and horribly expensive.  In the end, the verdict was that we didn’t like it or couldn’t afford it for almost everything we saw.  Oh well, I’m still glad we came here because we’ve had a great time.

Tomorrow back to the UK for the first of the biggest antiques Fairs in the world, and the business end of the trip.

02 April 2012

Shopping in Paris

Why do I like shopping in Paris?  Because it’s fabulous, that’s why!  On my first day I spent almost the entire budget for France/Belgium/Netherlands at the Porte de Vanves markets, and was hobbling and broke by the time we got back to the hotel.

I do hate having to walk away from beautiful things that I really want, but for the most part I was a good gel and only bought things that I have a realistic chance of selling at a price that will make my customers happy Vegemites.  The sacrifices I make for you, customers!  I hope you totally appreciate me.  For example, I was offered a beautiful vase for 250 Euro less than such a piece would ordinarily sell for, so it really was a bargain, and yet it was still an inhale-sharply-and-back-away-carefully price so I had to say no.  This happens a lot when shopping in Paris, and yet if you hold out for the bargains (the real bargains, the normal-person bargains) they eventually appear.

We had to make two trips to the van to unload our goodies – and the van was parked about a kilometre away so it was a bit of an expedition when we were fully ladened with stuff.  My poor cat trolley really took a pounding.  Last trip I bought the most enormous and heavy metal pestle and mortar, and that took a fair bit of lugging on cat trolley to get it back to the van.  This time I bought an even heavier metal book press, which is a really lovely piece but it broke cat trolley three times on the way back to the van and we had to make a series of running repairs on it.  Luckily, shipping back to Australia isn’t based on weight.  I had seen a book press earlier, but Doug had a spack-attack at the thought of having to carry it back to the van, but when I saw an even nicer one a bit later he was much more amenable when he realized I would be the one doing the lugging.  Not to worry, I had him well weighed down as well. 

So, now we have yet more Art Deco glass, some lovely cutlery (I think we’ve cornered the market on Art Nouveau carving knives with carbon steel blades – the best type – this trip), the aforementioned book press, copper saucepans and frying pans, enamelware and a couple of beautiful glass Art Nouveau ceiling light shades.  Paris isn’t the cheapest place to buy French linen tea towels but I scored a few, plus some really big and wicked looking tailors’ scissors.  I’ve been after some of these scissors for years and have never seen them at even remotely reasonable prices, but voila! – this trip I have three giant pairs and one merely big pair.  I did still suck my teeth over the prices, but in reality I’d never seen them at better prices so there was never any doubt I was going to snap them up.  I also bought an excellent French metal potato basket – Doug said he inwardly groaned as soon as he saw it because he knew I would be buying it (and he would be carrying it), but that was light compared to the three large wooden wine crates he later had to carry off.

I think my favourite thing is a lovely Art Deco electric lamp, which features a large metal figure of a snarling panther on a rectangular marble plinth and with a globe shade next to it.  Quintessentially French Art Deco, heavy as, and really lovely.  I’m not sure if it will make it into the shop or not at this point.  I also bought a nice selection of chromed (and needing to be rechromed) Art Deco car mascots, and they are really attractive.   I even got a kangaroo and a kookaburra mascot!  In the Paris markets!  They are very nice and small enough to bring back in my luggage, so it will be good to offer them soon after our return.  Some really will benefit from being rechromed, but they will look seriously spiffy when they’re done.

And jewellery!  Loads of lovely jewellery.  I am so blinged up now it’s ridiculous.  Even though I bought a lot of vintage American Christmas Tree brooches in England (because I only ever see them in England) I was waiting for France to make the majority of my jewellery purchases, and just as well.  Yet again, a huge amount of the budget is blown on jewels, but Doug just encourages me to buy more these days because jewellery is such a big seller for us, so I have carte blanche to shop ‘til I fall down dead on that front.

Then a late lunch and a relax in the hotel because we were exhausted.  And yep, turned on the telly and yep there was an advertisement with a young man almost naked, running about and exercising and such, with the best torso anyone has ever had, ever.  Doug begs to differ, but I maintain that a bare male chest is still a bare chest.  I said to Doug I don’t know what this ad is for, but it’s a really good one.  Even now, I don’t know what he’s advertising but I’ll have some.

And okay when I said shopping in Paris is fabulous, that was before I went to the Porte de Clignancourt markets today.  They are less than fabulous, these days, and primarily a market for gawking at a huge amount of very beautiful things that you won’t see anywhere else, but at prices that would make even a movie star on a movie star salary hesitate.  Mostly.  There are a few bargains to be had, but they are few and far between, though I did manage to fill cat trolley with things like some good ceramic baking pans (keeping one), a huge carbon steel ham knife, and very nice enamelware. 

I also walked away from but then came back to – quite a feat in the labyrinth that is the Clignancourt Markets - a very beautiful soda syphon that will convert into an unusual and lovely lamp and also a huge, bulbous mesh covered wine bottle that I will also probably get turned into a lamp.  My electrician Carl hates it when he sees me walk into his shop with yet another challenge for him. 

So, all-in-all there are heaps of entirely covetable things at Clignancourt, but this is not the place to shop unless you are an interior decorator with a Saudi Prince for a client.  Thank goodness I went so mad at the Porte de Vanves markets yesterday.  Next stop Brussels, and then on to Amsterdam.

01 April 2012

Tour de France (mini version)

You know, I have made the Channel crossing from Dover to Calais (and back) on many occasions and I always enjoy the sight of the white cliffs of Dover.  The green foliage goes right to the very edge of the cliffs, then there is the abrupt drop of white into the sea.  But on all of these occasions I have never seen blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover.  I think this must have been some type of war-time propaganda to drive the Nazis mad with jealousy – the Brits had blue birds and they didn’t.  Anthropologically speaking, as I have mentioned before, many cultures believe that blue birds signify health, happiness and prosperity.  But has anyone ever seen an actual blue bird?  Not in Dover, they haven’t.

As usual it was a smooth crossing, and we arrived into late afternoon sunshine.  As is my tradition, immediately upon arrival at the hotel I turned on the TV to see how long it would take to see French bosoms.  And sure enough, within less than 30 seconds there they were.  Technically they weren’t bare bosoms (which Doug insists is the actual criterion) but they were enormous and they were very nearly bare.  It was an advertisement for French undies and let me tell you, you don’t get much for your money.  But they do make you look very bouncy and fabulous.

And then a quick surf found Dr Who in French and with French subtitles.  Is it any wonder that I struggle with this language when what the actors were saying, pronunciation-wise, bore no semblance whatsoever to the spelling of the words on the screen.  It’s such a beautiful sounding language, but dang it’s hard to know how to pronounce the words when you see them written.

Off , then, to explore Calais.  Not much to report, unfortunately.  The Opera House/Theatre is a very beautiful building and the Town Hall is a gobsmacking confection of opulence (how unlike Councillors to spend humungous amounts of money on their own accommodation).  There are lots of very lovely smaller buildings too, but not much else to see and really nothing to do.  We visited a large supermarket, which is also a tradition on our first day in France, to stock up on goodies.  French supermarkets have fabulous goodies, so we’re all set for Le Picnic with plenty of pate and fromage and mousse chocolat. 

Then it was a play day at Chateau de Pierrefonds in Picardy.  This is the castle where they film the TV show Merlin, and my plan was to inveigle myself into being an extra so I could appear as Sorceress No. 3 in the closing credits.   But, double-spit, the filming schedule doesn’t start until June so that scuppered my plans to become a star of the screen.  But what a fabulous castle!  It was the best we’ve ever been through, and we’ve toured some excellent castles in our travels.  There were dragons and griffins and angels everywhere, the best gargoyles you’ve ever seen in your life, and even stencils of very cool looking hedgehogs on the wall of one reception room. 

It was very much Medieval meets the Arts and Crafts Era, which is the result of it being built in 1393, and then Louis XIII laid siege to it in 1616 and dismantled a lot of it (and you can still see his cannonballs embedded in the outer walls), and then it was restored in the mid 1800s.  Boy it was well done.  We toured it immediately after lunch – because of course it closed for lunch, all of France closes for lunch – and that meant we had the entire place to ourselves and it was a bit eerie but wonderful being alone there.  And no, we didn’t play up when no-one was looking.  Not much, anyway.  This is one stonking big castle – how many enormous reception rooms did you need back then?  Down in the crypts there is a large selection of marble figures over burial plots, and it’s very dark and mysterious and somewhat how I imagine the crypt at Winterfell, as described by George R.R. Martin in the Song of Ice & Fire series. 

We stopped for the night in Chartres, because that’s where we ended up at find-a-hotel time, and seeing how we were there we thought we’d better go and see the world-famous Cathedral.  The old part of Chartres is beautiful and affluent, with the centre-piece being the Cathedral.  It’s not for nothing this was the first of France’s UNESCO sites – it’s impressive everywhere you look.  It has the largest labyrinth in Europe, set into the floor right in the middle of the Cathedral, which is said to chart the progress of your soul through life.  Many people were walking the labyrinth, stopping at every turn to say a prayer, and some people were even crawling around it.  Every single one of the enormous stained glass windows is gorgeous, and many of the statues are said to be among the finest in Europe.  The ceiling is 37 metres high, which is dead impressive now but can you imagine how it looked to people back in the day?  Yep, the Church had loads of power and buckets of money, and it showed.  Restoration work is currently underway and wow how different it looked in the 12th century!  Light and colourful and even more beautiful.  It will be worth revisiting in about five years, to see how the how place looks once it’s been tarted back to its original state.

After Chartres it was a few hours’ drive to visit a dealer from whom we often buy lovely things, from cross-roads crosses to Deco glass to marble-topped bedside cabinets.  Serge is a good guy, but his place is largely a scrap metal yard so you’ve got to keep your eyes open to find all the little treasures he has just plopped into out of the way corners and in cupboards and behind lots of junk.  Nothing is beautifully displayed, and you really have to hunt to find things, but I enjoy a bit of a scrounge.  We always come away happy from Serge’s, and this time was no exception.  No cross-road crosses this time – he and other dealers report that they are getting almost impossible to find these days – but a few lovely small pieces of ecclesiastical metalware and some good enamel kitchenware in unusual colours like red, lavender and rich turquoise (I’ve never had lavender enamel and the turquoise piece is outstanding).  I also picked up some attractive Art Deco kerosene lamps and a small selection of very nice 1920s copper saucepans.  All good buying.  The more unusual colours in enamelware are more expensive because even the French actively hunt for them so there is a lot of competition for a limited amount of stock, but boy they are lovely and my enamelware shelf is going to be eye-popping when I get it all back to Australia.

Then it was battle on the Peripherique (one of the busiest roads in the world) to get to our hotel in Paris.  I’ve said it before, but I really do prefer the sound of French police sirens to the Australian ones.  And how amazing, when you’re in the middle of thousands of cars that are packed into tiny little lanes, when a police car needs access a path magically opens for them and they’re able to make pretty good speed.  I don’t know how we all get out of the way, but en masse everyone makes a jump to the left (or a step to the right).  Our Note to Self for next trip is bring a siren!