Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Antiquing in Lewes

"Antiquing" is an oddly specific word, but it's not quite the same as shopping for antiques.  It's more about the experience than the results -- at least in my experience.

A group of my AWC buddies and I took a day trip to the cute little town of Lewes to go antiquing.  The morning started out with a few sprinkles, but the sun came out and brightened up our day.
A sunny day!
It was an easy train ride from Victoria Station and a short walk to the town center, which is chock-a-block with antique stores. 
Lewes War Memorial
Many of the antique stores looked quite small from the street, but turned out to be a labyrinth of stalls and cabinets crammed full of potential treasures.

Beatrix Potter
Art Nouveau china
Cheesy American stuff
Fine china, with disco ball!
Even the local "Flea Market" had quite a lot to offer, as evidenced by the full suits of armor in the windows.
Nice digs for a flea market!
China and a lovely christening gown
"vintage" telephones
Biological specimens, including a horse skull
Colorful steak plates
While many of us, including myself, returned home empty-handed, we all had a wonderful time.  We were antiquing -- not shopping, after all --  The thrill of the hunt is just as fun as finding something you actually want (and can afford) to buy...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Bit of Soleil on a Snowy Day

Despite what you may see on TV or in movies, it rarely snows in London; so when it does, it's a pretty big deal.  Even a couple inches of snow can cause quite a bit of excitement, not to mention major travel issues.
A snowy day in the UK
 Fortunately, the District Line was running just fine, because we had tickets to see a show at the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington:  Cirque du Soleil's Kooza.
The Royal Albert Hall
We can always use some Soleil in London...
Prince Albert and Josh brave the snow
It was an entertaining and spectacular show, but nowhere near the best of the dozen or so of their productions that we've seen.  We took advantage of the 30-minute intermission to play in the snow in Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park across the street.
Josh risks his life by throwing a snowball at me
This little robin was not at all afraid of people
Lots of snowmen under construction
The snow stopped falling by the next morning, and everything was coated in white, as if someone had sprinkled a ton of powdered sugar all over London.  From our bedroom window, it was easy to trace the movements of a fox that had made its way through my back garden and those of our neighbors -- much like Billy in the Family Circus comics.
Fox tracks
As I made my way back to the Royal Albert Hall, the sun even made an appearance.
The Albert Hall in the sun
Prince Albert looks a little warmer
I met up with a large group of my AWC friends for a private, behind-the scenes tour.
The ladies wait for the tour to begin
There were so many of us they had to split us up into two groups!  We weren't allowed to take photos, but you can take a virtual tour of the auditorium.  We learned the history of how the hall came to be built in the 1860's, and how it was partially funded by wealthy families who purchased seats for the princely sum of £100 apiece.  Not only were they entitled to use those seats for every performance at the RAH, but their descendants are still afforded that pleasure today.  About 25% of the seats in the RAH are privately owned, and their owners can attend about 70% of the performances at the venue.  That's a pretty sweet deal!

We enjoyed a brief visit to the Royal Box as well as the private reception area used by the royal family.  Then we headed down to the backstage areas, which were packed floor-to-ceiling with equipment for Cirque du Soleil, including lighting, props, costumes, and even their own transformers, since all their equipment is Canadian and requires a different voltage.  We couldn't imagine how they transported everything around the world.  It must require several cargo planes and dozens of trucks!  It could not have been more perfectly timed for me, since I was able to recognize everything from the show I had seen less than 24 hours earlier.

Our fabulous tour was topped off with afternoon tea in the Cafe Consort on site, where we feasted on finger sandwiches, cake, and scones with jam and clotted cream.  Yum!  What a wonderful way to spend a snowy Monday afternoon!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Stoke-on-Trent, Take II

It's January, which means it's time for the AWC's annual pilgrimage to the pottery factory shops in Stoke-on-Trent to hit the sales.  This is one of the most popular and eagerly anticipated day trips of the year, and one of the few things that will get me out of bed at 5 am in the middle of winter.

Yes, it's a looong bus ride to Stoke-on-Trent, but time passes quickly when you are chatting with your friends -- and even more so on the ride home when everyone passes around snacks and drinks.  Our first stop: Emma Bridgewater
Emma Bridgewater
Emma's designs are super cute -- sometimes a little TOO cute -- and soon there was a long line of ladies waiting to pay for their finds.  After failing to come home with a teapot when I went on the trip last year, I decided to take advantage of the sale and bought a spotty pot (like the sign above) and two matching mugs.  You can't live in England and not own a teapot!
Marvellous finds!
 Next: Burleigh, with its colorful mix & match floral prints.  It's tempting to buy a whole set of pieces in the same color group, but I don't have the storage space for it here!  (That's probably a good thing...)
Blue & White mix & match
Last year, many of the shops had special commemorative items celebrating the Royal Wedding.  This year, it was the Queen's Jubilee.
Jubilee leftovers
Our next stop was the Wedgwood/Waterford/Royal Doulton megastore.  There were lots of great bargains to be had here.  For example, this Wedgwood ceramic urn was originally £5,617, but it was marked down to £1,404.  (In dollars, that would be $8,820 and $2,204.) 
75% off!
At the other end of the spectrum, these mugs were only £1.50 (about $2.35).  I already have too many mugs, so I forced myself to resist this great deal.
got mugs?
This gorgeous china was 50% off the outlet price, but I still didn't buy any.

I also managed to resist the Waterford crystal...
 And the Royal Doulton figurines of Will & Kate in their wedding finery.
Cake toppers?
My storage constraints (and budget) kept me from indulging in buying anything substantial -- like an entire set of formal china -- but some of the ladies had shopping carts full of stuff (much of which they had shipped directly to the States).  Meanwhile, I left the shop with a tiny bag containing two plate hangers (70p each) and a silver Wedgwood necklace with a blue ceramic disc that was marked down from £64 to £16.  It fit in my purse.

Our final stop of the day: Portmeirion/Spode/Royal Worcester, where several ladies stocked up on their famous Botanic Garden pattern.  They pretty much make EVERYTHING with this pattern on it, including tableware, cookware, place mats, oven mitts, glassware, cutlery, tea cosies, candlesticks, vases, and lotion dispensers.  In other words, there's always something more to buy...
Botanic Garden
All the Christmas dishes were an additional 30% off.  But if I don't have room for fine china, I certainly don't have space for dishes I'll only use once a year.
Christmas dishes
Then it was time to pile back on the bus and head back to London.  I ended up buying more than I had planned, but at least half of it was gifts for other people, so that's OK.  I won't need to find space for it in my kitchen!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Christmas in California

After running ourselves ragged last Christmas with a 3-week, bi-coastal, multi-city visit to the US, we decided to keep things simple this year.  We flew to San Francisco to spend two weeks in the Bay Area with family and friends.  Although Josh prefers to be knee-deep in snow at this time of year, he had little objection to some rest & relaxation in sunny California after a very hectic (not to mention, cold, dark, and rainy) autumn in London.
On the beach near Point Lobos in December
Our first stop: Palo Alto, where we spent a few days with Josh's Aunt Kris and had a wonderful family dinner with his cousins and their families and my mother and uncle.
 We brought along some Christmas crackers to make it a proper holiday celebration.
Next: Monterey!  We had rented a house in nearby Pacific Grove with my mom, sister, and uncle so we could all spend Christmas together in a beautiful place with lots of fun things to do.  We were a little surprised when we pulled up in front of the house.  How could this tiny place be the same house in the photos we saw online?
Our rental house
Like the Tardis, the house turned out to be much bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside.  The newly-remodeled, 3,000-square-foot house had 4 bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms, a huge gourmet kitchen, and two living rooms.  It was absolutely perfect!  Well, there was one, teeny, tiny little thing that seemed a bit odd.  The owners of the house appear to have a Winnie-the-Pooh fetish, which was mercifully contained in one large cabinet between the powder room and the laundry room.
The "Pooh Cabinet"
That's a lot of Pooh!
We didn't have a Christmas tree, so Santa left all our gifts under the strange monolithic floor lamp/sculpture in the corner of the living room.
It's no tree, but it has lights...
 And our stockings were hung by the chimney fireplace with care (and hooks).
Christmas stockings for each of us, plus a spare.
Despite everyone claiming they weren't going to give anyone gifts this year, we each ended up with a nice pile of presents to open, which we did right after a hearty breakfast of waffles, bacon, and fruit salad.
Armand, Karen, Josh, Naina, and Sonia
 Poor Josh was all tuckered out after opening his presents.  Or maybe it was the jet lag catching up with him.  That 8-hour time difference between California and London is a challenge to adjust to!

After all the excitement of our Christmas Eve whale-watching tour and Christmas Day, we were eager for another adventure.  We hopped in the car and took a scenic drive along the coast.

Josh gets all Indiana Jones with the kelp
And then went to see The Hobbit at the local movie theater.  In the evening, we met a family friend for dinner at a Mexican restaurant in "downtown" Pacific Grove.
Holiday lights in Pacific Grove
Our house also happened to be a block away from the local "Candy Cane Lane," where all the houses were festooned with lights and festive displays, so we made sure to take a detour on our way home.

On our last day, we took a quick trip to Carmel, where we spent a couple hours window shopping and eating lunch before heading north.
How Santa gets around in Carmel
None of us really wanted to leave, but someone else had the house rented for the rest of 2012, so it was time to go.  We made one last stop at the beach on our way back.
Josh stares forlornly out to sea, again
Next stop: Berkeley, where we stayed with my sister, Sonia.  She lives in a great neighborhood where you can walk to all sorts of shops and restaurants and there's a supermarket across the street, so she doesn't have a car.  Normally, that's not an issue, but she enlisted Josh's help to retrieve a beautiful rocking chair she had bought from a furniture store a couple blocks away.
Sherpa Josh
We took BART into San Francisco one day to check out the post-Christmas sales.  The Macy's in Union Square had their windows decorated with animatronic kids and their pet cats and dogs skating around a Christmas tree.
Macy's window
In the smaller windows, they had ACTUAL kittens and puppies that were up for adoption.  So cute!
Yes, even I am posting cat photos on the Internet.
Outside, volunteers from the ASPCA were collecting donations.  Brilliant!  Inside, Josh scored a nice winter coat that was originally $250 for $80 and I paid $35 for a $90 Ralph Lauren sweater - in a Petite size with sleeves just the right length!  Trust me, you can't find bargains like that in London, let alone Petite sizes for short people like me.

We also stopped by the Contemporary Jewish Museum to see an exhibit of artwork by Ezra Jack Keats, who wrote and illustrated several children's books back in the 1960's.  They were the first books to feature African American children as primary characters, and my sister and I fondly remember reading "The Snowy Day" over and over when we were children.  We were probably just as fascinated by the illustrations as by the concept of having a snowy day, since it never snowed in central California, where we grew up.

When we got back to Berkeley, we made a quick stop on swanky Fourth Street, which has even more shops and restaurants now than the last time I was in town.  I think they may have gone a little overboard with their Christmas lights...
Holiday light overload on Fourth St in Berkeley
Then we met my friends Kristen & Tom for dinner at a Mexican restaurant.  (Have I mentioned it's hard to get good Mexican food in London?) They had recently moved from DC to the East Bay, so it was nice to see them on the West Coast.

The weather was lovely the next day, so we went for a walk in the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden with Sonia and her friends Kirsten & Chuck.
Aloe in bloom
No partridge, just a pear tree
Fantastic view of the Golden Gate Bridge
Josh, Chuck, Kirsten, and Sonia strike a pose
Our final stop: Woodside (in the hills above Palo Alto), to ring in the New Year with our friends Esther & Karl.  Despite still being a bit jet-lagged, we managed to stay up until midnight, and had a nice dinner with Karl's family.  The next day we watched the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl, in which Stanford played the University of Wisconsin.  Since Esther and I went to Berkeley together (and elementary school, middle school, and high school!), we mainly watching to root against Stanford and to see if we could spot her younger sister in the crowd.  She went to Stanford as an undergrad and U. Wisconsin for grad school, so she managed to get tickets to watch her two schools battle it out in person.

Karl's 15-year-old nephew amused himself by trying to stump Esther and me with brain teasers, with very little success.  Strange kid.  I'm sure he'll go far... unless he's up against me and Esther.

On our last day in California, Esther invited us to come by her office for lunch on our way to SFO.  She works at Google, so we couldn't pass up that opportunity!
The Google campus (or "Googleplex") is like a fantasy workplace dreamed up by a group of college kids.  It consists of a collection of buildings scattered over several acres among small parks, fountains, sports fields, and even a swimming pool.  Brightly colored bicycles (like the one behind us in the photo above) can be used to get from one part of the campus to another.  More than a dozen cafeterias serve breakfast, lunch and dinner (free!) and office kitchens are stocked with soft drinks, snacks, fruit, and cereal.  There are laundry facilities and a gym, and Esther tells me you can get your hair cut or your dry cleaning done on site as well.  With the price of real estate in the Bay Area, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the employees just lived on campus.

We had lunch with Esther and her sister and brother-in-law (who had just flown back from LA after attending the Rose Bowl) in one of the larger cafeterias.  We had a variety of options, including Chinese, Mexican, sushi, burgers, a salad bar, and an assortment of desserts.  And the food was pretty good, too!
Yes, a lava-lamp Menorah in the cafeteria
We didn't have time for a proper tour, since we had to get to the airport, but I manged to snap a photo of one of the more unusual sights on campus as we were heading back to our car.
T rex vs lawn flamingos
Yes, that's a life-size sculpture of a T rex skeleton apparently under attack by a flock of lawn flamingos.  All I can say is the people who work at Google -- most of whom looked like they were straight out of college or grad school -- are in for a big shock if they ever leave the company to go work somewhere else!  The Discovery Channel always seemed like a really cool place to work -- we had a T rex in the lobby -- but perk-wise, it was nowhere near the level of Google.

We bid our reluctant farewells to Esther, fantasyland, and California, and headed to the San Francisco airport for our flight back to London.  We had a wonderful time visiting with family and friends, enjoying the beautiful weather and scenery, and eating all our favorite foods.  And while there was a part of me looking forward to being back in our own home, I think I left my heart in San Francisco yet again...