Friday, June 29, 2007

Ready, Set, Go...

Today the first clue for Mystery Stole 3 was released. I was ready... yarn purchased, swatches knit, beads ordered, tools lined up.

New tools for this project include new Addi Lace Needles, a crochet hook with such a tiny hook that it is practically invisible, and highlighter tape.

The Addi lace needles have lovely sharp points, but they are not so slippery that the silk yarn slides off promiscuously. So far, they seem perfect for this project.

The #14 crochet hook looks like something you might find on the dentist's tray. The hook is so tiny that it is nearly impossible to see with the naked eye. It has to be that small to fit the holes in the beads. Fortunately, it is possible to do this by feel rather than by sight!

The other new item, which I had read about but could never find locally, is Highlighter Tape. It is wonderful for lace charts – just put a strip of tape above the line you are knitting, and move it up as you knit. It is far superior to my previous solutions: Post-It notes, strips of paper held with a paper clip, and even magnetic strips on an old metal document holder. The tape comes in several colors, and it is easy to move when you want to move it, but it sticks well when you don't want it to move. I had looked for it locally but never found it, and I finally ordered it online. Highly recommended!!

The beads are beautiful, but they are tiny (size 8/0), silver-lined clear glass. I haven't figured out how to handle them without dumping them all over the floor... it happened once, though fortunately I had put a few of them in a little plastic medicine cup, so I didn't lose too many. Maybe some kind of little mat would work better than grabbing them from the cup with the hook – this is my first experience with beads, and some experimentation may be in order.

I did swatch for this project, but I knit the swatches before the beads arrived. I chose these beads to create a subtle effect against the silver-gray silk, but I am now wondering if the effect is too subtle. (They don't show up well in the photo, but they don't show up well in real life either!) I also have some larger (6/0) beads that I ordered by mistake, and I am considering using those in the center section of the stole. More experimentation in order...

This stole, like Mystery Stole 2, promises to be a challenging project but extremely engaging. It is compelling to knit "just one more row" to see how the design is evolving, even when there are other things to be done.

The first few rows did not get off to a good start. I was having a lot of trouble maneuvering the two ends of the needle, the yarn, the crochet hook, and the bead without dropping any of them. O to be an octopus! It is getting easier, but another hand or two would still be helpful.

Thanks, Melanie, for the opportunity to be part of this community of over 3000 knitters from all over the world working on a project that will be interesting to knit and will result in learning new techniques... and will, undoubtedly, be beautiful when finished.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Shopping in Florence

Anyone who knows me knows that shopping ranks on my list of enjoyable activities down around cleaning and ironing. But occasionally shopping (or, more accurately, browsing) can actually be enjoyable – especially in a foreign country, when you don't actually have to buy anything.

As a knitter, I sought out the two yarn stores in Florence. One of them, Campolmi Roberto Filati (not far from the Duomo), is actually a manufacturer, with a large array of colors in several different fibers, mainly cottons, acrylics, and some wool, though the wool didn't feel especially soft. I may have been overtired and overheated by the time I got there, so I didn't find anything especially compelling, but it looked like there were some real bargains, and I would definitely check it out more carefully on another visit.

On the other hand, one of the highlights of my week was the visit to Beatrice Galli's shop in the Oltrarno area, right on the "other" side of the Ponte Vecchio. The charming Beatrice has run her shop for 40 years, and despite her claims of not speaking English, she has customers from all over the world. I got there just as she opened in the morning and was the only customer, and she patiently endured my primitive Italian for over half an hour as I looked, fondled, and lusted after her gorgeous skeins in wool, silk, and blends. I didn't buy anything, but I promised to return in October with some knitting friends and a clear idea of patterns and quantities – and a spare suitcase.

On another morning, I went to the Mercato Centrale, the large market near San Lorenzo, which is truly a feast for the eyes. This 19th century building houses a huge array of butcher shops, cheese shops, and stalls selling prepared foods, dried mushrooms, pasta, wine, and olive oil. The upper floor has stall after stall of fresh produce, with the aroma of basil wafting throughout. (Click on the picture for a brief slideshow.) It was hard not to be seduced by the beauty of the various displays and to walk out empty-handed. Of course, I didn't. After tasting several varieties of olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, I bought a bottle of each... but I did manage to leave behind the fresh black truffles at €25 each. And then the cheese – after tasting several samples of parmegian reggiano I bought a large wedge that weighed in at over 2 kilos. When the woman behind the counter asked which I wanted, I said "non troppo grande, non troppo piccolo," but when she weighed them I kept thinking that bigger would be better, since it keeps well, and I would be sorry later if we used it up too quickly.

Even the little markets on quiet side streets provided pleasant surprises. A close look at the purple flowers reveals that they are artichokes! Inside the little shop we succumbed to a basket of tiny fraises des bois, the intensely flavored wild strawberries that are almost impossible to find at home.

And then there were all the jewelry shops on and near the Ponte Vecchio. My favorite time there was in the morning, as the shops were just opening. Other times it was so crowded that there was no temptation to linger!

Walking around Florence is a treat. The markets, the amazing artwork, the huge centuries-old palazzos, the nice little shops in unexpected places on side streets... You can even see art in the making – sidewalk artists working hard to create copies of masterpieces for the pennies people throw into a basket as a donation. This artist was working all day. When we walked by in the morning, he had just finished the head, and in the evening he was still working on the almost finished picture – the same Leonardo da Vinci that was on the wall in our hotel room.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A week (almost) in Florence

It was really the Trip from Hell. A late departure from Newark, missed connections, cancelled flights, lost luggage. After 26 hours (and an unexpected 4 1/2 hour bus ride from Milan to Florence), we finally arrived at the hotel. I kept asking myself why I thought it was a good idea to accompany R on this trip. Art and history only get you so far!!!

After the nightmare of the trip, the taxi dropped us off on a dark little street close to the Duomo. There was a scary moment when we thought the hotel didn't really exist, but we found the buzzer and someone did open the huge door to let us in. Then we saw it... a little sign that said "Hotel Centrale on the second floor." Can you imagine anything I would like seeing LESS than a huge flight of stairs at that point? Not only stairs, but Florentine stairs. This is a former palazzo, and each flight of stairs is about a mile up. (And in Europe "second floor" means two flights up from the ground level.) Of course we had no suitcases to carry, so it could have been worse! I almost expected the hotel to say "You were so late that we cancelled your reservation" – but for once everything was in order, and we were shown to our room, which was simple but pretty and spotless, with a copy of a Leonardo da Vinci painting on the wall. By the way, I would recommend this hotel highly.

Despite the crowds (June already being peak tourist season), despite the heat, and despite the horrible time we had getting there, Florence is still a wonderful city. It is small enough that you can walk everywhere, though the cobblestone streets can be hard on the ankles. R was busy with the conference every day, and my job was to play tourist. It wasn't hard to do – it was just hard to narrow down the choices!

The conference seems to have been a big success for the participants, quite a few of whom R has known for decades, and some of whom (along with their wives) I met many, many years ago. One day I spent wandering around the city with three of the wives, one from Argentina who has lived in Italy for many years, one from Belgium who has lived in Switzerland with her Scottish husband for many years, and one Belgian. The common denominator, of course, was English, and all of them speak it fluently, so I felt linguistically inferior but enjoyed the fact that they could all communicate with me anyway. I tried to rejuvenate my somewhat pathetic Italian, and it was really a pleasure to hear the music of the language all around me, even when I can't understand what people are saying.

My obligatory visit to the Uffizi was, as expected, delightful. With a reservation I was able to walk right in at the appointed time and stroll leisurely through, though I was told that without a reservation there would be a 3-4 hour wait to get in. Unfortunately, the museum (like Florence in general) suffers from far too many tourists per square meter. There were some rooms where it was impossible to see the artwork, though patience paid off – usually after a wait of a few minutes the crowd would disperse and I could catch a glimpse before the next surge.

One night there was a lovely banquet at a restaurant in one of Florence's many, many converted palazzi, and the food was wonderful. The guest of honor, whose 65th birthday was the excuse for holding this conference, seemed truly touched by the very nice (and brief, and in one case extremely witty) speeches made about him. Another night, also as part of the conference, there was a concert of piano music for 4 hands. We met two professors from Florence for dinner first ("American style," a.k.a. unfashionably early) at a little out-of-the-way trattoria with wonderful authentic Florentine food. A day of fabulous art, food, and music... what could be better?

Our last three nights we had dinner in three different restaurants. Twice we went with Italians to little trattorias we would never have discovered on our own, and the food was excellent at both. The other night we went back to Acqua al Due and it was just as wonderful as we had remembered. We had "assaggio di primi" -- a tasting of 5 different kinds of pasta, and then shared bistecca fiorentina al aceto balsamico, a steak with balsamic vinegar. We then shared an "assaggio di dolci" -- tasting of 5 different desserts -- which we would have skipped except that the couple with us was an evil influence!

R was busy at the conference every day except Sunday, when we did a lot of walking and visited both the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (see the amazing choir loft by Della Robbia here) and the church of Santa Maria Novella, which has some phenomenal artwork by many of the Big Names in Italian Renaissance art like Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Filippino Lippi, Ghirlandaio, etc. Our favorite is the Lippi fresco of St. Phillip driving the dragon from a Roman temple. It is a stinky dragon, and you can see people holding their noses, and the king's son actually faints from the smell. You can see it here. The decision of what to do that day was made easier by the fact that most museums are closed on Sundays, and the churches are open to tourists only in the afternoons. In the late afternoon we walked over to the Piazza della Signoria to take a last look at the wonderful statues out in the open, including a copy of Michelangelo's David and my favorite, Giambologna's amazing Rape of the Sabine Women. Nearby is a Cellini bronze of Perseus holding the head of Medusa plus a variety of other really gory statues.

All in all, it was an interesting -- though far too short -- visit. The conference attendees all seemed to agree that it was an exceptionally good conference, and the spouses had no problem keeping ourselves entertained. It may be the City of Aching Ankles, but it is also a city that is imbued with the history of art, the history of science, and fabulous food. I can't wait to go back. (But maybe on a different airline next time. After all the trouble they gave us on the way to Italy, Continental/Alitalia also managed to lose one suitcase and damage another one on the way home.)