Thursday, 27 November 2008

Happy Thanksgiving & Happy Birthday Uncle Pat!!!

A friend from the running club was kind enough to send me this in an email, so I thought I would pass it on.

Also, today is my dear Uncle Pat's birthday and I've written him a very long, boring email, but perhaps I can lighten up his day -- and yours -- with a picture

(Pat's the curly-haired cutie on the right. This also gives you some clues about his age...)

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Watching Women

I've always loved watching European women. I discovered this on my first visit to the Grand Canyon back in the early 80's. Yeah, the canyon was amazing, it was REALLY big and it was awesome that a river did that over such a long time, and yeah, the colours were beautiful and the weather was ... well, my first experience of desert and it was all really wonderful. Seriously. But I can only stand and look at a big hole in the ground for so long.

I did the obligatory visit to the tourist shop and that was when I discovered
foreigners. I stood around eavesdropping on conversations in French (which I didn't speak) and listening to the whizzing and clicking sounds of the expensive cameras carried by the Japanese. When I sat outside the shop and watched people emerge, I spotted two women that I knew were not American, but I wasn't certain why I knew, as they weren't speaking. I decided it was the edgier haircuts and the more expensive, less casual, clothes. From what I remember of them, my guess would be that they were Italian. That was the germination of my interest in watching European women, though I didn't realise it at the time. I just thought it was a happy and long-lived memory. I had no clue at the time that I would ever live outside of Oklahoma, never mind outside of the US.

I recognise that I don't dress very well, mainly because most of the time
I can't be bothered to try that hard. I suspect I never will, being a tightwad, but this ideal has been further complicated by age and weight. I don't worry a great deal about it (she claims, dismissively) but when travelling -- which adds another dimension of difficulty -- I do find myself looking to see what other women my age and build wear. I'm not the only one who fails to try very hard, let me tell you. It's a real challenge to find someone whose dress style I admire, but that's what makes it fun.

Being set lose with a digital camera in Prague, I discovered I no longer had to make notes, I could just (discreetly, I hope!) snap their pictures. Let me show you the ladies I spotted. Gentlemen, I'm afraid I didn't pay much attention to the younger set. They usually only wear the latest trend, even when it looks hideous on them. If they get away with wearing trash, it's only because they are young and slim. I wasn't even that interested in the skinny women my age, though there are more of them on the Continent than you see in the UK or the US; they haven't all given up yet, apparently.

When I showed Bill my pictures, I couldn't tell him why I snapped this one.

He was the one who spotted this lady, who he thought looked very Russian. I'm thinking perhaps I admired how nicely her coat matched her hair. It seemed to be a theme that caught my eye, perhaps because I am conscious of my new (ish) hair colour.

Like this

and this.

Actually, I was impressed this lady wore what looked like real fur to me. You rarely see it here in Britain as the animal rights activists are really scary -- positively rabid and mostly wearing dreadlocks.

This lady seemed almost defined by her vibrant hair colour, or it certainly it influenced the colours in her outfit. I had a really tough time taking her picture. If you click on it you'll just see the woman with the orange-y hair and brown-y clothes. I thought it was a bit over the top, but it seemed to work on her.

Good looking coats seem to catch my attention as well, but of course it being chilly, most people were wearing coats or jackets.

This lady's bag pretty much matched her hair. The coat was green leather and with her hair pinned up, she looked to me like a 'Grande Dame'.

Nothing spectacular about this woman, she just looked well put together, probably for work.

It was the lady on the right that I was photographing, but the 3 make an interesting line up. The girl on the left, typical of youngsters, apparently believes she has far better legs than she actually does. I thought the purple and burgundy colour combination of the middle girl was interesting.

Wearing a scarf over a suit is very European and I think it looks rather smart.

I liked this lady's hat. You don't see hats that much on women anymore.

Bill pointed out this 1950's Pepsi ad (which doesn't count).

And then there was this skinny-mini in black that Bill also pointed out, saying how awful she looked. She reminded me of the last time we were in Paris. The Ibis hotel near the Gare du Nord (North train station) in the centre, where we thought we had a reservation, turned out to be over-booked. Thinking they were doing us a favour, they upgraded us, put us in a taxi and sent us way out into the business district to a Sofitel, very up-market. I was really disappointed. The older part of Paris is where people watching is the best to be found anywhere. We didn't have the clothes to fit in at this posh place and a drink cost a stupid £10. Some good did come of it the next day when we found a great shopping mall (this is when I had money to blow) and a letter of complaint to Ibis got us a free night in Nice the following holiday. But I digress.

As Bill was checking out of the Sofitel, a woman walked through the lobby draped over a man in a sharp suit. She wore a black dress (short, flippy skirt, fluid fabric), black tights and the highest, skinniest stilettos I'd ever seen. She was about as skinny as her heels, but she had legs up to her neck, she moved beautifully and she looked expensive.

With her long black legs, she also reminded me more than anything of a spider. Kind of like this girl.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Ugly Prague

I can't claim -- and I wouldn't try -- that everything in Prague was beautiful. I snapped this picture because I thought it looked like a big spider climbing up the building.

Big cities always seem to have their share of graffiti, even in the wealthy areas. In Europe, possibly especially in the wealthy areas, I don't know.

The last time we were in Barcelona I kicked up a fuss because Bill wanted to go down a certain street and it was either nearing or after dark. I thought it looked scary. It was narrow and winding, with tall buildings on either side, just off one of the more historic areas. There was graffiti all over the doors and windows, which were all covered with rolled down metal guards. He was a bit annoyed with me, but gave in. We went back in the light of the next day and found expensive shops with exclusive apartments above.

I think it can be very difficult to tell a good from a bad area
when you are in a different culture to your own. The signs can be quite subtle -- or not. I figured when we passed the sex shops (one of them very specifically labelled as only for men) and the absinthe shop, we probably weren't in the best of neighbourhoods in Prague. That said, a new Sheraton is schedule to open up in the next block very soon.

I told Bill how sad I thought this doorway was, when it could have been so grand. He thought the statues looked sad about it, too. Looking at it now, I can just hear them:

Joe: "Pete, can you believe what someone's done to our door!?"

Pete, scratching his head, "Why do people want to go and do such an ugly thing?"

Monday, 24 November 2008

Mad about Mucha

Bet you've never heard of Alfons Mucha. I never had. Bet you know and like his work. I love it. Sadly, the Mucha Museum doesn't grant photographic permission, not even at a price.

If they did, you'd have every inch of what was on display here on these webpages. (Bad enough that you'll have to suffer through the Museum of Decorative Arts, which does sell permission to photograph!)

Alfons Mucha was a Czech graphic artist, at least that is how he made his living. Born in 1860 in Moravia, he trained in Paris as a painter and did the starving artist thing for a while, hanging out with folks like Gauguin and Rodin. In 1895, he was commissioned to do a poster to advertise Sarah Bernhardt's role as Gismonda and that made his name. He went on to do a series of Bernhardt posters, and then illustrated calendars, magazines, cookie tins, you name it. He did big stuff for the Paris Exhibition and in the early 1900's he lived in New York, where he also made a big splash and had all the work he could manage. Just Google Alfons Mucha images and you'll see what I mean.

I was interested to learn that two important aspects of Art Nouveau were that it represented nature, ie natural shapes and forms, and thus all the use of trees and flowers. Also that it was meant for the designs to be such that they could be transferred to decorate household items; I read elsewhere that it was something to do with 'removing the line between art and audience'. I think it was more of a good marketing ploy. Either way, Mucha published at least one book demonstrating how virtually everything should be decorated. I just wish more people followed his instructions.

Another thing about Art Nouveau was that it was traditional to present the work in a series, such as the Four Seasons, the Four Times of Day or the Four Arts. Bill translated the Four Arts poster for me. Not speaking French, I had to ask what exactly were the Four Arts. He knew: music, dance, literature and painting. I'm continually astounded at what that man knows.

The museum itself (run by Mucha's grandson) calls him a graphic artist, which surprised me. It sounds sort of...plebian. When I think about it, though, decorating posters and tea boxes is what graphic artists do. After he'd made his name and, presumably fortune, however, he returned to the Czech Republic -- now part of the new country called Czechoslovakia -- and set about what he really wanted to do, paint about the history of the Slav people. If his graphic art is so beautiful it melts my heart, his paintings are absolutely awe inspiring. Unfortunately I can't find the one I really want to share. I can only find what looks like it might be the central figure of that painting, available commercially with the name Winter Night.

I was thinking the title of the larger painting was something about The Star, but I can't find it anywhere online. It is a huge picture of a winter night lit only from a single star above. A lone woman in traditional peasant clothing kneels, surrounded by nothing but deep snow, until you look more closely and see some wolves watching her from a hill top not that far away. She is highlighted by starlight and her face is turned upwards to it with such sorrow and resignation that it gave me chills. It's really a disturbing picture. Mucha painted it about 1920, just after the Russian Revolution, which of course is part of the history of the Slavs. Bill and I can't remember whether the it was the notes beside the painting or Bill's interpretation that the wolves represented the Communists. It has to be acknowledged that peasants didn't fair well under the Tzarists either, which is why communism was seen as a viable alternative.

Mucha appeared to have enjoyed a very successful life. He got to spend the last 18 years working on his Slav paintings, but also producing other patriotic works for his country, such as designing their money and all their official documents, like passports, etc. Though over time his work faded in popularity, not being new anymore, he was still a famous and influential enough person that when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, he was amongst the first people they swept up and took in for 'questioning'. He died shortly after that experience, in 1939.

It's all over the internet that his work is still copyrighted, as it has not yet been 70 years since his death. I'm not sure about all the legal stuff, but sounds to me that as of the 15th of July next year, I can change the format of this whole blog to Art Nouveau! Until then, you can feast your eyes here, or here or here.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

More Architecture Affection

I think turrets are way cool and Prague has a fair few of them.

They may be almost as wonderful as balconies. P
robably better than balconies if the weather is bad.

I love bay windows, too.

Bill commented on these.

I think spires are awesome,

and bridges that link buildings across a street (Bill remarked on this one)

and amazing street lights.

Bill said this was an 'art deco' style building. He loves art deco, so I took his word for it. If you click on it, the decorations at the top look sort of art-deco-y and the curves and lines...I see what he meant.

Jane's tourist guidebook, which we borrowed one day when they were off on a bus trip of some kind, said this was an example of cubism.

The building is called the Black Madonna because of her.

I didn't love what we jokingly referred to as 'The People's Buildings', reminiscent of the flat we stayed in on our first trip to Prague 6 or 7 years ago. All the buildings were just concrete slabs with holes for doors and windows. I asked Bill if that was how they came up with the name 'Communist Block'. In spite of it not being very attractive, it was still part of history and therefore fascinating.

I've no idea about who built this building and really, it's not awful. It has clean lines and lots of windows for light, something only fully appreciated by those living in locations with very short (and long) days. It's the grey colour and the style of the figures that made me slot it into the 'communist block' category. Out of curiosity I translated the words over the door, using Google Translate (marvelous stuff on the internet, isn't there?). It says: "Ostava employee pension and sickness insurance OSR". That qualifies as "Power to the Workers", doesn't it?

I didn't mind the black, clean lines of this modern-looking building

but I confess to preferring black antiquity in all its gaudy spendour.

Not only were the buildings wonderful colours,

so were the trees.

I would love to live on this street, wouldn't you?

Mind, it's also the square where I nearly got killed by a smart ass young Czech driver who whipped his car around the corner and into a parking place, narrowly missing me. I was standing in the car parking area taking a photo of a doorway (subject of at least another 2 or 3 posts, probably) and never saw him coming. The whole thing took everyone's breath away, not just mine. One more step back and there may have been one less pesky tourist in Prague. I muttered a few of my choicest words, which Chris was dying to hear me repeat, but I wouldn't.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Bloody Builders! (Yep, it's a rant)

I can't believe it. Ages ago I set about getting estimates for having the shower and the shower enclosure replaced. Here in Britain it's not too uncommon to have a both bathtub and a separate shower stall. Why they do that I'm not sure, but the house came that way. We began thinking about changes when the tiling around the shower started to give way. The narrow bath is quite practical, but it's too narrow to put a shower over it. For a while we thought we'd look at re-doing the bathroom, but eventually decided just to replace the shower, only using plastic sheeting instead of tile.

We arrived at this after visiting a couple of local showrooms. In the first, the guy dragged us upstairs to show us his most prized item, something he was really proud to be selling. It was a huge silver shower stall with a black stone floor. It had jets at the side in addition to the overhead stream of water. It had multiple temperature settings for each member of the family, so the poor dears wouldn't have to re-adjust the water temperature every time they took a shower. It had several other features that one would take for granted in a modern shower, like ensuring that the pressure and temperature weren't affected by use of water taps elsewhere (which ours currently doesn't have), and perhaps a few more I don't remember.

The main things I do remember were that it had a
remote control to turn it on (if you're that lazy, do you bother to bathe at all?). Also, it cost £10,000. For a shower. There was something about those two things together that so help me I had to restrain myself from grabbing the remote control and hitting this short male idiot over the head with it.

I wanted to leave right then, but Bill was the man with the checkbook and he did a deal for the guy to come out and measure, etc., and give us an estimate for replacing the shower and/or re-doing the whole bathroom. I was careful to explain that we were not in the market for David Beckham's bathroom and had no interest in spending £10,000 for a shower of any description. He required a £25 deposit for the estimate and design, which Bill paid. In the end he came back with a £4,000 bid for the shower replacement (but cautioned us that this didn't include his project management skills). Having that estimate, we never went in to look at his whole bathroom idea.

We looked at another showroom across the road, but there were literally so many things to choose from it was tough to even narrow it down to a few. We were still thinking possibly about doing the whole bathroom then, mind. Another problem with that place was that it only sold the fixtures; you still needed to find someone to do the labour.

Another guy from another company came out (for free) and gave us an estimate of about £2,000. He was nice enough, but somehow when he learned I used to work for the NHS, he felt he needed to tell me all about his medical history that I really didn't want to know, though I tried to make appropriately sympathetic noises. Given his size, I don't think his medical future looks too great either. I was hoping to get some references from other people they'd done work for, as they'd only been in this line of work for 18 months. I forget what else they'd done for ages, flooring maybe. Getting references is a very American idea, apparently. It's just not done in Britain and Bill told me I had no hope. That was a reasonable answer but the one I got was that they weren't allowed to provide me with references because of the 'Data Protection Act.' (There really is such a thing, but it's nothing to do with what I was asking for). That was the point where they began to lose credibility, but I figured it was my mistake for trying on foreign ideas. It did annoy me how many times he told me that the Data Protection Act was the problem. I think he liked how official it sounded.

We went into their shop and liked the materials and the workmanship on display. Bill was happy enough with that until the guy mentioned they required 80% of the charges up front, before they even set foot in the door. The guy was really disappointed when I told him we wouldn't be using their service. He kept saying "It's usual business practice" like if he said it enough times I'd believe him.

Another two guys came out to the house, one of whom looked just like Ozzy Osbourne, except without his money. They looked the shower cubicle over, had a chat and volunteered to do the job for £1,100, which was great, except I rang their company 4 times, chasing a written estimate, which never came. Another builder told me those people only did electric showers, quick and cheap work apparently with about a 90% mark-up for labour. They would never want to bother with a shower enclosure. So why didn't they just say so?

I finally got three more estimates. One guy sounded like he wanted to knock holes in the outside wall, another wanted half the money up front. The third guy seemed reasonable enough, though his bid was actually the highest of the last 3, about £1,800. I called and spoke with his wife to confirm they didn't want money up front and she said not. We scheduled the job for Wednesday, the week before Jane and Chris were to arrive.

On the Tuesday evening, he called and said he couldn't do the job as he had another scheduled for that day and the wife had underestimated the time it would take him.
It was a disappointment as Bill had taken out the carpeting in preparation for the work to be done, but since we wouldn't likely have replaced the carpet anyhow, this wasn't major. We thought about doing it the Monday they arrived, but 3 people without a bathroom, 2 of them jet lagged, didn't sound very good. We rescheduled the work for this past Monday. Chris and Jane had their showers in an enclosure that was part tile, part green bin liner and duct tape. Fortunately, Chris does a lot of his own building work and Jane is therefore used to living in a building site, so they handled it OK.

The shower guy rang Monday morning at 8 am to say that he was at the suppliers and they didn't have any white shower surround, only something called 'marble effect'. I asked what colour it was and he asked if I knew what 'marble effect' was. I said, "Yeah, but marble comes in lots of colours, doesn't it?" He found the label: blue agar. I explained that the bathroom was now green with brown floors and I didn't want a blue shower. He said he couldn't get the white surround until Thursday.

I said I would call Bill and get his opinion and call the guy back. He didn't know his mobile phone number. I said I could dial '1471' and it would tell me his number. It didn't, he'd withheld the number when he called. Bill wasn't at work yet. I went to get dressed and couldn't find half the stuff, it having been moved to the East Wing in preparation for the work in the bathroom. By this time I was yelling out loud, the house being empty and me have some frustration to vent!

Travis, the shower guy, called back. I told him I didn't have an answer for him yet, he needed to hang up, figure out his phone number, then call me back and give it to me. He did so. Bill eventually called and agreed we wanted a white shower. I called Travis back and he said he was available to do the work on Thursday and would come with white materials. Half an our later the wife rang and said they were cancelling the job, it was too big to do without a deposit for the materials.

Someone from the running club recommended a Polish outfit, saying they did really good work for a reasonable price and they were incredibly reliable. I believe it, as they are completely booked through Christmas.

I guess I should have gone and bought some blue paint...

Thursday, 20 November 2008

This One's for Jane!

You wanted 'my' cornbread recipe. It's actually from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook my Grandmother gave me for a wedding present back in 1977. It's pages are stained and spattered and I've used the recipe enough that I know it's on page 99 (but not frequently enough to not need the recipe).

Perfect Corn Bread
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar (I sometimes use a bit less)
4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup yellow cornmeal (AKA polenta)
2 eggs (or you substitute: TBS of water + heaping TBS of soy flour for 1 egg)
1 cup milk (we always used skimmed)
1/4 cup shortening (I always melt it in the microwave; I've used vegetable oil as well)

Heat oven to 425 F. Sift flour with sugar, baking powder and salt; stir in cornmeal. Add eggs, milk and shortening. Beat with rotary or electric beater (or just a spoon will do), until smooth. Do no overbeat. Pour into greased 9x9x2-inch pan. Bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

I think of cornbread as being part of my heritage -- it's a Southern thing. Mom cooked it often to eat with beans, though from a Jiffy box, not scratch. I had to learn the scratch variety after coming to the UK. I once asked Rita to send me various items like Jiffy cornbread mix, instant puddings, boxed macaroni & cheese, things I couldn't find here, sort of like a CARE package for Christmas. Imagine my surprise when the box was actually labelled by the US Post Office as a CARE package -- imagine the surprise of the British Customs staff! Only Rita could have pulled off something like that.

Cornbread is possibly the best eaten hot with butter. However, it is nice cold with butter. Southerners (and Bill) sometime eats it for breakfast, but Bill only adds butter; he doesn't pour milk over it. Cornbread is also good as part of Thanksgiving stuffing; substitute about half of the bread pieces with an equal amount of cornbread.

I've learned to like my scratch cornbread better than the packaged kind. Cornmeal is much coarser even than the 'coarse' variety of polenta (in addition to medium and fine) that I can get from the Asian food store (Brighton Grove in the west of Newcastle is my favourite). Consequently the cornbread I make here is more like cake.

Which is probably why Bill is willing to eat it for breakfast...

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Prague Pictures

I loved the buildings I saw in Prague (I took 103 pictures I've categorised as 'buildings'). I loved them for their colours

for their extravagant decoration

the statuary

for their balconies.

I love balconies.

I once told my Mormon boss that in a previously life I must have been a damsel in distress who was rescued by a knight in shining armour (etc, etc). I told him I probably had really long hair as well, but I wouldn't let someone climb up it to rescue me -- he'd have to supply his own resources to qualify as a hero.

The Mormon religion not allowing for previous lives, only being sealed in eternity with present and past relationships, he thought my affinity to such things was probably just inherited.

I didn't expect him to take me seriously, but it was fun to tease him at the time.

NB: I'm aware the pictures are a bit wonky, but I've found that if I 'fix' them, you can't click on them to make them larger. These are 'clickable' so you can see even more detail to drool over, if you're that way inclined (like me).