Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Purchasing Power Parity

I mentioned Daily Lit some time back and the fact that I've made non-fiction selections to date.  Lately I've been getting selections from a blog, a series called MBA Mondays. I thought about pursuing a Masters in Business Administration a good while back, but decided it wasn't the road for me. The bits I've received to date have largely been about accounting, mergers & acquisitions, stock options, etc. Not that interesting or useful to a retired person like myself - and I won't claim to have understood most of it. However, there were a few posts I found particularly interesting.

One of them referred to Purchasing Power Parity.  I found this interesting because it can apply to international exchange rates, which affect me directly. My income is in USD, but most of my expenses are in GBP. I was struck by this, because I had the same idea myself, without the MBA background.    I remember making numerous comparisons about costs between the US and 'rip-off' Britain and finding much to whinge about.  For the most part anything I buy when on holiday in the US will be cheaper for me because I'm not paying the exchange fee when I drag money across to the UK.

However, this isn't really what Purchasing Power Parity is talking about, exactly.  The author, Fred Wilson, explains that this concept suggests that "a basket of goods that are traded between markets should cost the same in different markets." He gives an example of "The Big Mac Index" published annually by The Economist (lifted from Wikipedia, apparently). If the price of a Big Mac is $4 in the US and £3 in the UK, then the correct exchange rate should be 1.33 dollars per pound. It is a way of determining whether a currency is overvalued or undervalued, a difference which will eventually balance out. He goes on to give specific examples for 2008 that show that the GPB was overvalued.

How does this apply to my finances? Not very much at all as, so far as I can tell, these matters are - as they say over here - 'outwith' my control.  Someone who invested in foreign currencies might do well to be familiar with this idea, however, and it did occur to me that in the short term this information might be useful in choosing less expensive holiday destinations if going abroad.

If this sort of thing interesting you, I suspect Fred Wilson's blog A VC (Venture Capitalist) might also.

When you travel do you notice the difference in what things cost to when you're at home?

(Oh yes, and Happy Leap Year Day!  Happy Birthday to my friend Gerrie, who is something like 12 years old now...) xxx

Monday, 27 February 2012

Slashing Your Grocery Bill - Part II

This is a continuation of my ruminations about the strategies  in the Tightwad Gazette.   Amy published 17 ideas for saving money on food.  Last week I talked about those I think we use well.    For these, I think we are sort of in the middle:

Gardening - The whole of the (small) green space in the back of the house is given over to growing veg and fruit, however, the range and volume of foods grown there aren't very impressive.  This is partly due to the cooler weather and shorter growing season than other areas enjoy.  We have various possibilities for creating greenhouse space that we've not explored, partly out of laziness and partly because travel and gardening aren't always compatible.   I think we could possibly do better than we do, but we need to resolve that conflict and I've not yet got my head around that.

Bulk Buying - In the past we've been excellent at this. So much so that we've backed off and have focused on emptying the cupboards and freezers to ensure we're not storing food we'll never get around to eating. These days we shop with a list and pretty much only buy what is on it. If there is a great deal on one of those items we buy lots of it (I bought 20 jars of marmalade once when it went on sale for half price; Bill eats marmalade 99% of the time, so I knew it wouldn't go to waste). However, I don't trawl the store looking for other bargains, so we don't have the stock we once did. I have a feeling I might soon suffer from the sticker-shock we tightwads sometimes experience.

Elimination of Non-nutritious Foods - Amy's list of junk they still bought included coffee, tea, sugar and cocoa. I would have to add tonic, which I like to mix with the fruit juices I find too sweet, and the occasional bottle of lemonade or soft drink. We also buy wine and (when Jane and Chris come) gin, but alcohol is not included in our food budget (nor are toiletries or cleaning supplies).

Choosing Less Expensive Foods - This refers to the idea of choosing tinned tuna instead of tuna steaks, ground beef instead of beef steaks, fruit and veg in season instead of the same foods all year round, etc.   I sometimes wonder if I've fallen victim to the 'superfood' marketing ploy, as we bought broccoli week after week until we started growing curly kale ourselves.  Adding more oily fish to our diet is another thing that costs more.  Bill doesn't care for chicken pieces with bones in, so I buy boneless breasts wholesale and freeze them separately.   We still buy red and yellow bell peppers and sweet potatoes for their nutritional properties. These are relatively expensive, as are butternut and other squashes. We grow and eat beets but find they are not our favourites.  If they weren't so healthy I'd give them a miss altogether, but I am prepared to eat things I only like a little if I think they are really good for me.  So in little ways due to preference and seeking health benefits we have made more expensive choices.  If I were going to be tougher about the food budget, I'd probably start here by looking up the nutritional value of various foods (again).   

By the way, Bill recently sent me a link that suggested one could save £400 per year buying frozen rather than fresh.   My guess is that frozen is more likely to be cheaper if one insists on eating out-of-season items, but I rarely find better deals (except for frozen peas) in the frozen food section than buying in-season at the green market.

Portion Comparison - This also refers in part to choosing less expensive foods. For example, instead of paying for boxes of cereal, make a batch of pancakes from scratch. Amy once published that the price per ounce of brand name cereals was on a par with beef steak. On the cereal front, I can recommend raw oatmeal (porridge) with sliced bananas, milk and sugar.   If you don't care for this idea, home made muesli is not too hard.  Another aspect of this that she doesn't mention is something we're guilty of: when we have a whole roast chicken or a gammon joint we probably don't contain ourselves to a single portion at that first meal, we rather pig out. It's a small luxury, but it does contribute to the increase in our food budget.

Preservation of garden surplus - When we have surplus we definitely freeze it, but this is not a common occurrence. As a rule, we just eat our way through whatever is available because the volume isn't that great and/or because the plants will last long enough for us to finish them off.

A Price Book - I certainly did this when I first come across and food seemed much more expensive to me than it was in the US. I'm not as good at keeping up my price book now.  Prices around here stayed very much the same for a long time and I pretty much knew what was a good deal or not.  Then, right I retired (of course!) everything everywhere seemed to inch (or leap) up.  Our grocery bill has remained relatively low in part because we had so much stock.   I'm still confident that buying fruit & veg at the green market, fish at the fish quay, making bread at home, buying meat and poultry in bulk and dividing it to freeze, buying dried beans and herbs from the Asian market (once a year) is our best bet, and price comparisons still seem to show our local Morrisons is less expensive than other supermarkets.  But I will make more of an effort to update the price book.

Maintaining an Optimum Weight - I do appreciate that if one is not supporting an obese weight one can buy less food.  We are both within the healthy weight range: Bill at the bottom and me at the top (so of course I'd like to weigh less).    I could argue that Bill runs a lot of his calories off and if we didn't support his running we could buy less food, but  That's not going to happen because his running has so many benefits that whatever food he consumes is cheap at twice the price.  Also, and I see this counters my own, instead of spending more to eat less carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, pasta) and more protein as a weight loss strategy, I really should just run more than I do:  inexpensive carbs are the ideal running fuel.

Waste Nothing - We eat nearly every bit of our leftovers in soups, quiches and casseroles. We make stale bread into bread crumbs, old fruit into spice cake and we eat our oldest veg first to make sure it doesn't get wasted.   We don't return to the green market until we are down to eating tinned or frozen as a way of ensuring all the fresh veg gets used up. On the other hand, I'm aware that we could do more with the fish we buy, making fish stock; the same could be said of whole chickens or turkey stock. Fish based soups aren't something that appeals much to me, though I should at least try it once.  As to chicken or ham stock, as these contain animal fats.  So, in spite of their use making the food go further, I'm wondering if it doesn't run counter to the other health-based choices we try to make.    Does anyone ever consider this issue?

These don't happen in our house:

Buying Marked Down Damaged Goods - It is one of my pet peeves about British supermarkets that they don't feel the need to mark down any sort of damaged tin. I've yet to discover any place like the 'dented can' place I used to shop in Oklahoma City.  All I can do is try to ensure I get items with perfect packaging, as wonky tins can sometimes be difficult to open.

Coupons - I rarely buy a newspaper and even when I do, I don't see coupons in them unless it has to do with money off a McDonald's meal or the like. I never used coupons much in the States, preferring to avoid the marked up convenience foods they were for. I can't recall ever seeing a coupon discounting a package of lentils or a litre of milk.

What strategies - if any - do you use to keep your food costs down?

Friday, 24 February 2012

One Tiny Thing

Anna, over at Pleasant View Schoolhouse inspired me with her post, One Tiny Thing.  Her blog is an oasis of peace, order and pretty things that is always a joy to behold.  I'm guilty of giving my house a lick and a promise - and sometimes just the broken promise - but hers is a well run, spic & span house (then again one can pass for almost anything on the internet, right?).

Anyhow, her One Tiny Thing made me look around and see what I could make better.  I have another squillion 'medium to large things' to do, but one by one I'm also tackling the little things that have always annoyed me no end. 

I'm sorry to surprise you with this shockingly bad photo of a fish.  Never mind the fish for the moment, it's that stupid white tag on the red blind that I'm talking about.  I don't know if Bill hung the blind backwards or what, but it drove me nuts for I don't want to admit how long.  Once I finally pulled out a pair of cuticle scissors and carefully cut the stitches that held it in place, I felt so much better! 

The fish, by the way, is a hake and though you can't tell from the photo, he is quite round.  There was enough fish there for four people and hake is delicious, not too strong but with a very pleasant mild flavour.  He cost only £2 as well.  Bargain!

Are there 'tiny things' around your house that make you crazy?

Wednesday, 22 February 2012


Yet again, I'm changing my blogging schedule.   I'm aiming for Mon-Wed-Fri for a while. 

I saw this at Ikea for only £5 back in May.

In spite of the fact that it was pretty inexpensive for something that would hold at 24 scarves, I wasn't in the least tempted.  Instead I was thinking that those plastic ring things that you used to get with six-packs of coke would be a starting point.  Only diet coke doesn't come that way over here and the occasional purchase of coke is in the cheaper 2 litre bottles.  Beer comes in 4-packs with rings, but I wasn't about to spend a fortune for a product we don't want just for craft supplies!  So I started looking at other sources for rings. 

There were some rings that were in the top of a large sample curtain that Jane gave me on our last trip to Australia (her daughter works in an interior decorating shop that was shedding loads of fabric samples).  When the large roll of tape on my dispenser suddenly came to an end, I had a nice large ring.  I cut a few small plastic yoghurt pots into almost-round slices and then realised that toilet paper rolls would serve the same purpose, as they didn't need to have a lot of strength.

I took scraps of yarn and crocheted around each ring and then crocheted each ring to the covered hanger and to each other.  I figured if the rings were connected the gaps between would form another hole that a scarf could go through.

Admit it, doesn't this have, character?

After a while I realised that just using a doubled length of black yarn to tie the rings together would work fine.  And then it seemed I could have gone one forever... Believe me, I have more than enough scarves to fill all these holes and the between spaces!  But I thought this was a good time to stop.  After all, a hanger will only hold so much weight and the bulk of so many scarves would take plenty of closet space.

My creation loaded up!

Starting with the covered hanger, this took me a couple of hours, but they were fun-filled hours and I used what I already had in the house.  One could no doubt come up with a neater, more tasteful design, but actually I found yet another way to hang my scarves so that I could see them.  I believe it is intended to hang multiple pairs of slacks, but for now I prefer this use. 

Who says a slacks' hanger has to hold only slacks?

I've been moving each scarf to this second hanger as I wear them, so at some point I'll see the ones for which I don't really have any use.  

Are you ever inspired to make things rather than to buy them? 

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Cat in the Sun

A friend of ours, Terry, mentioned the other day that the 19th of February was supposedly the worst, most depressing day of winter.  Personally, I think he's just not yet adjusted to retirement.  He travels extensively in summer, but the winters drag for him. 

Seems a strange photo to put on the RSPB website, but there you are.

I looked on the internet for any evidence of his statement, but 'Blue Mondays' appear to be in January in the US and all I could find for Britain was some folklore that seems to be the British version of Groundhog Day (a tradition I've never given any attention).

When the cat lies in the sun in February
She will creep behind the stove in March.

Of all the months of the year
Curse a fair February.

If it thunders in February it will frost in April.

If February give much snow,
A fine summer it doth foreshow.

I can't tell what this month is predicting - it's been both confusingly mild and bitterly cold!  Just another example of how perverse British weather can be, as well as a reminder of why I've always ignored Groundhog day.  I suppose the fact that over time people have looked for evidence of the end of winter in February is a universal indication that by now we're ready to be done with it.  I know I am.

As I consider various volunteer opportunities I've been passing ideas on to Terry if they seem suitable. His situation reminds me that if retirement may be challenging for a couple, being retired and single might be a lot worse.   My search for a suitable photo to dress up this post led me to discover Aselin Debison.   Watching this video convinced me that it's easier to be happy in pretty weather.

Are you ready for winter to end?

Saturday, 18 February 2012

One More Brown Thing

This is the purse I'm carrying this month.  It belonged to my Aunt Rita and I absolutely love it just for how it is, but even more because she made it.  I remember when she started making purses and her fellow nurses couldn't buy them off her fast enough - most had fancy beaded trims and she found amazing fabrics to use.  I asked her why she didn't leave her  part time occasional work in neonatal ICU and make bags for money instead.  Her answer was that bags were fun to make; if she did it for money, it wouldn't be fun any more.  I could follow the logic, though it does fly in the face of some career advice these days.  On the whole, I think she was right; and she did love her work most of the time, though she retired soon after that conversation.

I've quite enjoyed making bags myself lately, and this one looks dead simple, as it is pretty much two squares stitched together on three sides.  There is an inside pocket on one side that closes with a small snap.  The bag itself also closes with a small snap.  I believe it is made from home decorating weight fabric. 

Good Heavens!  What a different natural light makes to a photo!

The finished bag measures 11" tall (including the 1 1/2 inch leopard trim, which looks to be a 3 inch strip folded in half) and 12" wide.  The seam where the trim has been added is covered by a 1/2 inch ribbon.  The finished straps (each one attached to its own side of the bag!) are sewn inside the bag and are 1" wide and 24" long, which makes a perfect  length for me to sling it over a shoulder.  It holds everything I need including a small notebook and my clunky camera.

So, with all those details, I'm sure you could sit down and make one just like it.  This is certainly enough detail for me and I'm sure there are a couple of colours in which I still down own a bag.  Another nice characteristic of this bag is that it lays flat and so a person could find room for a whole stack of them! 

Actually, there is even more brown in my plans.  Turns out that one cannot go from red hair to blonde in one step (without some kind of orange in between), so I've coloured my hair 'dark ash brown'.  Red hair is pretty stubborn, mind, as I can't tell much difference, but I had decided to work my way back to blonde for the summer.  If I don't like it, I can always go back to my weird red.

And funny enough, ilegirl recently discovered she looks great in brown...

Friday, 17 February 2012

The Knowledge

I met up with our Russian friends last weekend as we'd agreed at our last dinner (they served us marinated roast turkey leg and it was delicious, also some salted salmon they had made themselves from a whole fish).  They had just returned from a week's cross country skiing in Austria, which they highly recommend.  Then again they speak fluent German.  Anyhow, we'd mentioned having discovered the Fish Quay and they were wildly interested in knowing how it all worked.  So, while Bill was out volunteering at Park Run and running for the club at the cross country, I took Alexei and Svetlana around the fish quay. 

They were annoyed that they were so familiar with the car park and the promenade, but had never realised the row of shops selling raw fish, shellfish and fish & chips.  Someone had told them they had to arrive around 5 am on a Saturday morning to shop at the fish quay so they never investigated.  I think I'd heard something similar.  In showing them around we discovered yet another shop that had pretty good prices and would be worth going back, though I know Bill doesn't care for mussels and I had to look up crevettes.  They were stunned at the prices compared to the supermarket.

I've never eaten a whelk or a cockle...not sure I ever will...

They were practically slapping their foreheads, having lived in this part of the work for 16 years and not known about the fish quay.  I pointed out that I lived even closer and hadn't investigated until recently.  In Britain, and in much of Europe, nothing beats walking around for finding out things.  Cars can get most places, but it can be a headache to figure out how, so walking is the best way to see things and learn.   This is different of course in the States.  The last time Bill and I tried to jog 1 mile to the park at Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City, we gave it up as a bad job:  no crossing lanes, no pedestrian lights at corners, no sidewalks, everything made it difficult and even unsafe to go on foot.  However, in the downtown or riverside areas, a person will miss most of the interesting bits if they aren't on foot.  I much prefer the pedestrian life for most days.  It's healthier, cheaper, environmentally friendly and a far more intimate way to know an area.

This made me think about how London taxicab drivers have to learn 'The Knowledge'.  In order to obtain their license, they have to know about 320 main routes through London, without using GPS!  According to Wikipedia it takes an average of 34 months' training and 12 attempts at passing the test.  And to think I got upset at having to take a second driving test over here...

Are there places you prefer to walk to find out about?

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Slashing Your Grocery Bill - Part I

This was a title of a Tightwad Gazette article in the January 1991 issue.  I'm aware that our food bill has crept up to around £132 per month (the average for 2011) and after re-reading this article I can see some reasons why, in addition of course to the fact that food prices have actually increased a bit.  Amy recommended no fewer than 17 strategies, some of which we are quite good at, but not all.  I think we're pretty good at:

Buying Store/Generic Brands - Our main supermarket source has recently changed its generic packaging scheme (for who knows what reason), but until they did I would have said I had about the 'yellowest' shopping trolley in the store.  I've read and heard from too many sources that the packaging plants change the label, not necessarily the contents.  I always buy generic unless my experience tells me otherwise.  Recently Morrisons have started to stock only a limited amount of their generic brands, some of which are nearly half the price of the next best offer.  I will have to start shopping earlier in the day if I want the best crack at these bargains.

Free Food - We graciously gratefully accept all offers of free food and routinely pick blackberries when they are in season.   We did go pick some sloes, but I confess that they remain in the freezer until I get around to buying gin and figuring out which recipe to use.  (Suggestions welcomed!)  This gives us a crack at green beans, rhubarb, apples and, once, even gooseberries.

Preparing Foods from Scratch - On the rare occasion when we have custard, we make it from power not scratch and our Christmas puddings (sort of a fruit cake - Brits use the word 'pudding' like Yanks say 'dessert') come in a box.  I know it's also possible to make hot chocolate from cocoa, but I find the mix is cheaper than the ingredients.  Other than these exceptions I can't think of anything we don't make from scratch, e.g. if the recipe calls for a tin of cream of something soup, I make white sauce and add the something (or a substitute I have on hand).

Eat Fewer Meat and Potato Meals - We eat meat perhaps a couple of times a month at home, but usually order a meat entre on the odd occasion we're eating out.  When we have meat it is usually as part of a stir fry or casserole or used to flavour beans.  We both love our roast beef or ham, but meat does no favours for one's pocketbook or one's health.

Vegetarianism - Looking at our evening menu for about a two month period, we ate vegetarian 47% of the time.  This is quite inexpensive.  However, 45% of the time we eat fish or poultry, and these don't tend to be as cheap.  The other 5-7%  probably involve meat.  Lunches - particularly in cold weather - tend to be soup made from whatever leftovers are on hand.

Elimination of Convenience Foods - Of course this relates closely to Preparing Foods from Scratch, but one of Amy's pet peeves had to do with individually packaged single servings.  I must admit that we routinely buy four packs of a generic fruit yoghurts because by weight they are cheaper than a larger container of fruit yoghurt.  However, I can't claim to have done the math recently for whether they are cheaper than plain yoghurt with fruit, jam or honey added.

Next week, I shall be making my confessions about what we don't do so well...

Do you use any of these strategies to reduce your food costs?

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

February's Happiness

For the month of February, Gretchen Rubin (author of the Happiness Project, which I'm re-reading) writes about love.  She focuses specifically on her marriage, but also describes throwing an elaborate birthday party for her mother-in-law.  It amused me that she referred to her pre-party nerves as 'hostess neurosis'. 

She says she wondered whether being so focused on her own happiness was selfish, but then research shows that happy people are more forgiving, helpful, charitable, tolerant and have better self-control.  So, I gather a happy person is easier to live with than one who is unhappy.   Another quote I loved (her book is full of research findings and quotations) came from Oscar Wilde: 

One is not always happy when one is good; but one is always good when one is happy.

Her weekly goals included
- Quit nagging
- Don't expect praise or appreciation
- Fight right
- No dumping
- Give proofs of love

I know I nag Bill when I find that the 'clean' dishes aren't really clean, but I sometimes miss spots, too (so he nags me back!)  I'm beginning to wonder if we 'need' an automatic dishwasher, or just a special light over the sink?  It would be nice to have more compliments on my cooking, but if he doesn't say something I really liked was good then I'm happy to say so myself.  I'm just grateful that he eats 99% of things without complaint.   As Gretchen discovered was important, most of what I do around this house I do for my own benefit, because I want to or believe it is my responsibility.   If I discover that I resent doing something very much and I can't find a way to change my attitude, I generally just stop doing it!

We never have fought very much.  I truly believe life is too short for such nonsense.  However, we are still getting adjusted to both being retired and sharing the same space virtually 24/7.  Well, eight rooms including the kitchen and garage but not the bathroom (cause we don't share it).  I'm looking at the size of this house and asking 'How hard can it be?'  I did a bit of internet research about adjusting to retirement and found a women's support group that had me in stitches, also counting my blessings; Bill is nothing like any of these men (which is why he is still alive, because I'm not like most of those women either!).  It did me a world of good to put things into a better perspective.  I think we've always been able to 'fight right', ie about a specific issue, not every grievance that ever occurred all at the same time, and without 'You always/never' accusations.  In my view those are teenage tactics; grown ups have discussions.

Regrettably, I did practically nothing but dump on Bill (about my problems at work) for years.  It is testament to his character that he didn't just murder me and tell God I died.  I might have in his place.  It was really Bill's request for this not to continue that caused me to make the leap from work to retirement.  It didn't seem sane to keep at a job that not only made me miserable but him as well.  Best decision I ever made.

As for giving proofs of love, I think we're pretty good about that, though not generally in the way of wildly dramatic and romantic gestures.  I bought him a Valentine's card and he took me out to dinner, which was lovely, as we seldom go out.

Did you do anything special for Valentine's with your sweetie?

Monday, 13 February 2012

Lucy, Meet Trixie

I've made a lovely new friend at the sewing group, Lucy.  She and her family have returned to Britain after living abroad for several years.  She's really good company in spite of the fact that she has stolen my status as Youngest Member of the sewing group.  Lucy was pleased to hear that I knew about one of the local Women's Institute groups and we arranged for her to join Vivien and me for the next meeting. 

I didn't let on to Lucy what we'd be doing except that I said we did tend to do a lot of different things not necessarily related to knitting tea cozies (which Lucy does great already) or making jam (at which Vivien excels), neither of which I can do.  I just told her to wear clothes she could move around in.  I didn't know Lucy, mother of boys aged 9 and 15, well enough to be certain she wouldn't shy away if I told her our next WI meeting was going to be about learning how to do burlesque.

Having survived zumba, pilates and wine tasting, I figured the burlesque wouldn't be too risque.  We do meet in the parish church hall, after all.  Kristi, who's nickname is Trixie - professional name Trixie Blue - was lovely and friendly, a good representative of Etrois.   She gave us a brief lecture - consulting her laptop computer - on the history of burlesque from the Victorian era and explained that it was very much about caricature and making fun. 

We were taken through some dance steps.  She started out with various walks.  For example, "Titter-titter-titter-boo!" has one's arms straight at the sides, hands spread parallel to the floor.  Take quickly mincing steps to the beat of the first three words followed by kicking one foot behind on BOO!).  Then we did some arm movements.  The Venus move:  beginning a hip level, rub the backs of the hands up the sides of the body, while wiggling hips slowly.  Finish with extending one's arms up in a V.   After we learned 'Bite My Finger' Lucy remarked that she'd never look at a pair of gloves in the same way again.  

Trixie stressed that facial expressions, whether leering (she called it a 'cheeky face'), big winks, or sultry stares were very important for pulling off the burlesque.  Another approach is to look all wide-eyed and innocent, for example - (all at once!) pop up on tippy toe,  make very wide eyes and a round mouth, bring the fingers of both hands (elbows out) to cover the mouth and say OOOH!  Imagine a room of forty-some women aged mid-20s to maybe early 60s all engaged in looking and sounding shocked and astonished.   We laughed a lot during our lesson.

Then we all did a mini-routine in which I felt quite wooden (I think I'd need HRT to take up burlesque style dancing).  After our lesson and routine, we were treated to a very graceful demonstration of her art.  She explained that she normally stripped down to tassels, but for this occasion she was wearing a bra.  

I thought the comparison of her and the WI girl on the poster was too good to miss:  spot the hand on the hip, the sexy up-do hair, the made up wide eyes!  She might just be about to bite that spoon...  Naturally my photos of the early part of Trixie's dance didn't turn out well, but you can see her perform here

And to think I thought if I joined the Women's Institute,  I might learn a bit more about flower arranging, quilting and the like!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Quayside Walk

Vivien and I met for another walk this week.  I showed her a darling little terrace of houses with separate gardens across a nearly private road (it goes only to these houses) and views of a golf course beyond.    I'm sure I'd make a great estate agent around these parts, though I'd not care the for unsociable hours and they only get 1% here in Britain (as opposed to 6% in the US); then again the general opinion is they only earn .0001%.  It's probably not their fault, it's just how things are done here (You show your own house; they just do the listing and make an appointment for you).

Then we walked along a path that took us up to the boating lake.  Half the lake was taken up with miniature remote-controlled sail boats, but I think the name actually comes from some paddle boats that can be rented in warmer weather. 

Tynemouth Boating Lake

The other half of the lake was frozen solid - I poked it with a stick, risking a headlong dive! - and the various gulls and such were walking on top of the ice.  The large swans approached us looking expectant, but we had no food to offer.   It was cold, so I wasn't thinking of hanging about taking photos (though I have these from last May when Bill showed me this path.)  

So odd to see flowers!  Yep, this is what happens in May...roll on May!!!

As long as we kept moving we were warm enough, but warmer once we retreated from the seafront (it is the North Sea, after all).

We made our way along to the Fish Quay and by then I was ready for a pit stop and a cup of coffee.  We'd gone looking for the River Cafe.  Vivien won a prize at the WI Christmas party that was dinner for two and a bottle of wine from David Kennedy's at The Biscuit Factory (an art gallery) in Newcastle.  Someone told her that Kennedy had another restaurant called the River Cafe.  We found it opened at 5pm but just next door was The Quay Taphouse.  We found ourselves perched on very comfortable high chairs at a window ledge overlooking all sorts of boats on the river with our knees tucked up against a nice warm radiator, sipping a latte and an Americano.  I couldn't help but notice that this very song was playing and we were sitting just about where the video (which I linked to here) would have been shot.  It was heaven, but we had more walking to do.

We took a round about way that Bill had also shown me (and I've shown you) and found ourselves again on the cliff above the Fish Quay.  We watched the MV Clonlee on her way out to sea, but couldn't make out her registration, so I snapped a photo for later investigation.  Turns out she's a Manx ship and even had I been able to make out 'Douglas' I wouldn't have recognised it as the capital of the Isle of Man.

With that excitement behind us we noticed the sun was beginning its descent.  Vivien remarked on the beauty of the light.  I must agree that the sun is at its best around the horizon.

Do you get out and watch the sun set?

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Brown Stuff

My clothing colour for February is brown.  As I pulled out all of my brown clothing I noticed two potential problems:  a) I had only one brown (black & purple print) skirt and no brown trousers and b) most of my brown tops were short sleeved or very light weight, so not great for winter.  I chose brown for February (when was it? one or two years ago when I started this game) mainly because it is a dark colour in keeping with cold weather. 

This shortage is interesting as in the past I've always had a fair supply of brown clothes right back to childhood days.  I liked the colour because it was unobtrusive and I was very brown-mouse-like as a youngster.  Brown looked OK as a contrast to my blonde hair.  Brown doesn't show dirt so much as other colours; in fact, the first wall-to-wall carpet I chose and paid for was the closest shade I could find to the ground outside (as opposed to the off-white someone else was proposing we buy). 

Sixteen-year-old trousers

Fortunately, I have a couple of tops that combine brown and black (one is a tiger print) and so I could use black skirts and jeans for a while and of course I could always give up the idea of 'creating a column' and just wear jeans and brown tops and sweaters.

So, the first week of this month I did several things.  I finally sat down and turned under the sleeve-ends of my brown wool cardigan from Edinburgh Woollen Mill.  I think of it as an old-lady shop, but it sells excellent, if a bit dowdy, wool sweaters at reasonable prices.  I think I paid all of £25 for this and each of the two other (navy and plum) cardis I have from there.  I get eight to ten years of wear from them by early attention to any snags or pulls, turning under worn edges and by hand washing and line drying.   I also stitched a small area where the patch pocket had come loose.  While I had needle and thread in hand I examined the buttons and judged they were doing OK.  So of course I lost one a week later, and though I have a large jar of brown buttons (courtesy of Mom and Aunt Rita, plus a few of my own) I don't have six of the correct size.  I shall investigate the large button collection at the sewing group next week; fortunately I spent several sessions last year sorting buttons into general colour categories.

Another thing I did was to take my beloved flat brown boots to the cobblers for new soles and heels.  I paid about £100 for those boots six or seven years ago and the soles were almost gone.  However, for only £11.25 I should get another seven years' wear if not more.  While I was waiting for the shoes to be done I visited a couple of thrift shops looking for a long-sleeved brown t-shirt.  I bought two new white ones back in December from Marks & Spencer, but they had no brown t-shirts in that price range.  I found an M&S brand tee for £1.99, but I made the foolish mistake of not trying it on.  The charity shop tag said it was the right size, but it's at least two sizes too large. 

Cutting away worn fabric

Another thing I did was to pick up a project I started several months ago.  I had a brown suit (slacks, skirt, jacket) that I bought at a US department store on one of my first visits back after moving to the UK in 1995.  The pieces were lined and well made in a lovely brown wool.  I decided the skirt was a bit shorter than I liked, but the jacket and trousers served me well for over ten years when I decided they were showing their wear.  After I retired I decided the jacket didn't suit my casual lifestyle and sent it to a charity shop.  However, I wanted to play with the fabric of the trousers, which were a dated style and the cloth at the inside thighs was worn and pilled.

I made a paper pattern based on an A-line skirt I liked with an elastic waist.  Then I unpicked the zipper, hems, waist band,  pockets and inside leg seam of the trousers and turned them upside down, pinning the outer seams to the edge of the pattern.  The triangular bit missing at the hem on each side is where the pockets used to be (remember when women's clothing had pockets?)  Then I cut away the damaged fabric and left a rather free-style asymmetric gap to be filled with patches from my brown fabric stash. 

Ironing is an important step in sewing well
(and all that stuff is waiting to return to the landing)

This has been tricky, as I wanted it to hang right and so I cut, pinned and basted each patch individually , working with the garment hanging up.  I'm rather clumsy at this so it is slow going.  I have now finished the front patchwork and am using bits of the plain brown wool to make an unobtrusive backside.  After reading all about jeans with large pockets being more flattering than jeans with small or no pockets, I may decide to add some (large) patch pockets, but that can be done last.

I may have to do some patchwork sort of towards the bottom if I run out of plain wool, but I plan to make the hem all plain brown wool because I don't want the skirt to call attention to my legs (it's also going to be a mid-calf length) even though I'll be wearing this with my brown flat boots.   I've done my best to make it non-bulky around the waist, but if the elastic plan doesn't work well, I can always add a zipper and some darts.  It's been great fun, and very absorbing, to play with this project and to try to use my limited understanding of design factors, not to mention undeveloped sewing skills.  I realise that it will look handmade because of the patchwork, but this is part of the goal.  My worry is not whether it will look handmade, but whether it will look well made.  Given this is my first attempt that this sort of thing, I realise the odds are stacked against me, but I have to start somewhere.

I'd hoped to have finished this all before showing it to you, but other things have intervened including that I lost the use of the doors for a while (they were being painted) and haven't got back to the skirt yet. When it's done, I might even model it for you...maybe.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Crossing Paths with Butch Cassidy

One finds the oddest bits of information in the oddest places.   We were looking for a couple of friends from the running club - who were not to be found - when Bill noticed this poster on the pub wall.  I didn't really have time to read it, so I took a couple of quick photos for later perusal.  (I see I should have cleaned the finger prints off the glass first.)

Robert LeRoy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, 1894

For most of my adult life I've never given a great deal of thought to any of the historical figures famous for rustling cattle or robbing banks and trains.  Beyond the fact that Redford and Newman were in a movie about this man I never took much notice that he had anything to do with Utah.  I sort of knew it, but then a lot of films about the Wild West have been shot in that state so I never was sure if this was how I associated him with Utah, the state in which I resided before coming to England.

However, the pub poster told the story that his mother, Ann Sinclair Gillies, was born in Newcastle in 1849.  She spent her early years living in Brandling Village, near Jesmond (now a posh part of central Newcastle); I often run past Brandling Park.  In 1856 the Gillies family packed up their belongings and emigrated to New York.

In time they moved to Utah where Ann met her future husband, Maximilian Parker (apparently from Lancashire).  The first of their thirteen children, Robert, was born on 15 April 1866.  He grew up to become one of the most notorious outlaws of the Wild West.

Robert left the family's Circleville ranch (in Utah) when he was a teenager.  He soon hooked up with cattle rustler Mike Cassidy, whose surname Robert added to the nickname he acquired during a stint as a butcher (hence Robert Parker became Butch Cassidy).

In 1896, he formed the 'Wild Bunch', a ruthless gang that targeted banks and the Union Pacific railroad for the next five years.  Following a train robbery in 1901, Butch and Harry Longabaugh, alias 'The Sundance Kid' fled to South America.

It is believed that the men died in a shoot-out near San Vincente, Bolivia in 1908.  The Bolivian army claimed to have buried their bodies in unmarked graves, but no remains have ever been found.

"The Wild Bunch" December 1890
You probably already knew most of this.  However, there is information given here that says not only did  (alias) Cassidy come from a Mormon family, he was also related to none other than Charles Dickens.  

I may have to have a look around Brandling Village for a blue plaque just in case the Gillies' old home is still around...

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Sleeping Beauty

There is a post I've not yet finished about reaching financial goals.  It's a difficult one to write but I'll get there eventually.  In any case, I am slowly coming to the point of 'spending out', having reached a particular goal.  Aside from travel, I've held myself in relatively tight rein since retiring four years ago and now I'm considering things on which I would quite enjoy spending money. 

One of them was this very occasional opportunity of seeing a ballet.  Bill wasn't fussed about seeing the Scottish Ballet perform Sleeping Beauty.  He found another dance company he wouldn't mind seeing and I bought tickets for that instead.  However, I came to realise (it was the purple velvet in the advert above and reading about the costumes) that I'd given in to him when I still really wanted to see that ballet. 

The picture on the screen looks down Grey Street with the Theatre Royal on the left.

 The only ballets that normally come to Newcastle are The Nutcracker and Swan Lake and I've seen them plenty, thank you (I've actually danced to the music of Swan Lake, though I have NO talent whatsoever).  Bill and I once saw the Northern Ballet company do Dracula and it was so stunning it pretty much had a cult following.  We'd also seen a Russian ballet that was well danced, but the poverty of the troupe was evident:  the costumes weren't well matched, the sound system played a tinny recording, the male lead was (I kid you not, he had belly) built like a ballet-dancing truck driver.  One had to feel for them.

I had an idea and I almost left it too late, but providence was with us.  When on our day out (Monday) Vivien and I stopped for a cup of tea I floated the question of whether she might like to go to the ballet with me.  I knew that like me, she'd taken ballet lessons as a child.  Haste doesn't begin to describe her reaction as we made a bee-line for the box office at the Theatre Royal.  As it happened, there were only two seats available at the Thursday matinee (my preferred time) and they were in the centre of the back row of the Grand Circle (about as good as you could want).    They had just been returned.  We snapped them up!

Vivien was fizzing with excitement and so was I!  We couldn't wait to tell our respective partners the news.  She, having read the fine print, later emailed me to point out that our tickets would cover our Metro travel into town for two hours pre- and post-performance, so we met for lunch and had a coffee after.

The Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne

It was beautiful and perfect.  I brought binoculars and looked through them once.  The costumes were just as dazzling and luscious up close as one might hope, but I couldn't follow the story, so I put the binocs away.  The dancers started out in long Victorian looking gowns, top coats and tails in the beginning, but in the latter half the ladies switched to sort of 1940's cocktail dresses for the wedding scene, and the set included a rather art deco light suspended (or was it a lighting effect?) from the ceiling.  The faeries were decked out in feathered skirts.  The evil faery's bodice looked nearly as though she was topless and her two henchfaeries had Martian-like heads. 

About half way down Grey Street.

We were introduced to the Prince on a hunt in the forest.  He was wearing a purple (the colour of royalty) and green (associated with the country and upper classes) plaid velvet tail coat with green socks that imitated green Wellington's (I'm given to understand that black Wellies are working class).  In any case, only the upper classes hunt (well, they did before it was banned).  He did a rather odd dance I thought with the (male) Blue Bird (with blue hair) who showed him Sleeping Beauty's castle, but never mind.  Maybe the bird had to drag him towards the castle?  The dance just after The Kiss, when she wore a lovely knee-length floaty gown was completely exquisite.

Theatre Royal at night

I loved that the cast was so large, we counted about 34, half men.  I loved that all the toe shoes matched the dresses:  black, red, green, turquoise, mustard, lavender you name it (I only ever had pale pink shoes; it won't surprise you at all to read that I still have them).  I loved that there was an orchestra tucked under the stage playing Tchaikovsky's score.  I loved that they could do the hand-holding turns (my ballet terms are long forgotten) in spite of the large disc of a hat worn by the 'mother of the bride'.  I loved it that the father of Sleeping Beauty was a black man and that at least two of the other dancers were Asian.  I loved that they all seemed to have parts (perhaps even lines) when they weren't dancing, as they clearly stayed in character and formed an important part of the scenery.  I loved it that Vivien sat in a chair donated by Lady Irving and I turned out to have the one labelled Sir Miles Irving.  We both loved the lush red velvet and gold braid, ivory walls and and sweet cherubs of the newly refurbished Theatre (for its 175th birthday this year).  Sadly, most of my inside photos are rubbish.  However, I found a couple of external snaps of the Theatre Royal and Grey Street (as pictured on the stage screen) that I took in 2009.  

Grey Street at night.

If you hurry, you might be able to watch a trailer of Sleeping Beauty.

Do you love the ballet?

Friday, 3 February 2012

The Ration Book Diet

Occasionally I check a book out of the library that I find I don't want to return.  I re-check it to the limit allowed and then reluctantly return it, sometimes even paying fines.  The Ration Book Diet was one of those.  Not that I'm on a diet or that we're rationing food around here.  I love it more for the history than the recipes, though they are good, too.  The wartime menus and their modern revisions are grouped by season.  I think I'm unlikely to use many of the recipes as they are in general highly calorific, designed to keep people well fed, full of energy and in good spirits.

This book is very much along the lines of Make Do and Mend, which I got for my birthday a while back.  I did my best at the time to make the information about clothes rationing into a strategy for a capsule wardrobe.  However, what one might end up with was too variable to characterise.  Even starting from scratch, the resulting wardrobe was entirely dependent on how clever a person was at knitting, sewing and re-fashioning garments.  There was a lot of wisdom to take away from the exercise even though I didn't come out with the answer I was seeking.

I love books about Britain's experience of WWII, not that I expect it was a very pleasant time. Nancy Mitford's letters (in, strangly enough, The Letters of Nancy Mitford) to friends and family provide me with a more chilling picture of the bombing horrors than movies ever have.   I think I like these rationing books because they make Britain seem more like my homeland, not that I ever experienced rationing, but certainly my Mom used all her skills to make our food budget go as far as possible.  I might add that I would be very sad if Britain were to be more like the US (and it does seem to be going in that direction, rather than towards Europe).  I would prefer that each culture managed to retain its own unique aspects, else what would be the fun in travel?

The Ration Book Diet makes the point that although Britain enjoys far more affluence than it did 60 years ago, this wealth has not resulted in better health.  This is largely true throughout the developed world.  (What on earth does that say about us?)  The British government learned some lessons from the first World War when many potential soldiers failed their physical due to conditions caused by malnutrition. Also, during that war the price of food rose by 60% and people with lower incomes went without; news about food riots was suppressed. The government plans rolled out during WWII were even more important with her capacity to import food and fuel under threat and so rationing and price controls were all put into place. My parents met and married during the war and Mom and my grandparents sometimes talked about their experiences of rationing in the US: sugar, meat and gasoline were things I heard about.   I have Grandma & Grandpa's old ration book around here somewhere. 

The captions read:  Do you remember what John Bull used to look like --  before he was invited to dig for victory and so forth -- and conserve petrol and all that -- and become a fitter Briton, etcetera, etcetera -- and go easy at meals times and that sort of thing -- and join the Home Guard and all -- and help with the harvest and this and that -- and do spare-time work on munitions and these and those -- and lend a hand with defence works and the like -- and be a good neighbour and so on -- and go to it and everything?  Well, just look at him now! 

When I first arrived here in 1995, it seemed to me that people couldn't spend their money fast enough.  I'd never lived in a society that went out to eat, to pubs, to plays or shopped and travelled quite so much.  When the nurses I worked with complained that they never knew where all their paycheques went, I kept my mouth shut.  I didn't know if I was stacking up my savings because I made that much more or because I didn't spend money on facials, convenience foods, a roaring night life or leg waxing (ouch!).    It was an alien culture to me on several levels and whilst I was fascinated, I didn't admire  all of it.  I've come to understand since that rationing here continued far beyond the end of the war and that there were economic hardships throughout the 1960s and into the 70's.  One could understand why people would take the view that 'make do and mend' was full of four-letter words they didn't want to know.  
However, when I read about the ingenuity of how Brits coped with the shortages during the war, it seems very much like the pioneer spirit that Americans are raised to appreciate, only moreso given the war here in Europe.  

We have food experiments at our house all the time!
I can't speak for the southern part of Britain, but from where I stand I wouldn't say there is a great deal of patriotism over here.   The world is changing and the old ideas of patriotism may not be as useful as they once were, but there is a lot to be said for having a sense of community.   

Given that Britain was fighting for its very survival as a nation, I imagine the sense of community was immense. 

I don't want to experience a war in the way that Britain did (or in any other way for that matter) and I'd prefer not to have enforced rationing, but I must say that I like a good challenge far more than I do having none at all.   Any one can spend money, but it takes a bit of creative imagination to solve problems in a different way.

I expect that's one of my definitions of frugality.