Vintage London

I had a mild case of the expat blues just before the weekend so The Mister decided to surprise me with a man-planned day out to cheer me up.  Knowing my obsession with all things vintage (vintage jewelry, dresses, houses (especially falling-down houses), maps, etc.) he did a little internet surfing and found the Primrose Hill Vintage Fashion Fair at the Cecil Sharp House.

This isn’t necessarily the largest vintage fair in London, but it is very well-curated.  No plowing through piles of musty 1980s shoes and moth-eaten jumpers to find the one treasure at the bottom of the pile.  I managed to find a bespoke 1940’s party dress (perfect for the Gin Palace!) and a gorgeous leather handbag for a song and mourned my inability to stuff my big feet into a pair of tiny, fabulous designer shoes.  I also had a painful epiphany…some of the things I used to wear are now considered vintage.  Ouch.

This vintage fair comes to the Cecil Sharp house again on 11 November and 2 December.  If you can’t catch them here, you can try and catch them on the 3rd Saturday of every month at Spitalfields Market .  If you are fortunate enough to have any money left over after paying for your vintage treasures, make sure you stop in to the downstairs cafe.

The Nice Green Cafe offers simple, comfort food and a cozy atmosphere all for a very reasonable price.  We chose a table tucked into the corner, adjacent to the dance studios (lunch and a show!). I felt like I was sitting in my Nana’s kitchen on a rainy, Sunday afternoon.

We enjoyed a bowl of homemade vegetable soup, bread and tea, while the ladies next to us enjoyed coffees and gargantuan slices of cake.  Delicious.  This was a great introduction to the myriad of vintage options in London.  I can’t wait to explore the options around Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Clerkenwell.  If you have a favorite vintage haunt, please let me know!

Lions and Tigers and Bears…and Holly Golightly


A brightly lit marquee and a giant screen playing a montage of epic Hollywood films immediately draws you into a larger-than-life Hollywood experience.  Central to the V & A’s Hollywood Costume Exhibit  is the critical role of the costume designer in creating memorable characters and telling a believable story. The design of the exhibit allows visitors to slowly walk by and view not only the costume, but the story behind it, how it was made and why it was chosen.  The curators brilliantly added actual movie scenes and small screens projecting the actors faces over the costumes, giving context to each display.

photo courtesy of V & A images

The continuous gasps and excited whispers from the crowd when they recognized a scene or a costume from a favourite film reinforced my initial impression that this was much more than a costume exhibit. It was interesting to see how many of the costumes evoked powerful memories and emotions.  The Hans Solo costume prompted a conversation from a group…”Remember when we used to play Star Wars as kids?  You were always Solo. I always had to be the Wookie…”

photo courtesy of V&A images

The costume worn by Kate Winslet in Titanic prompted one woman to remember her first date with her future husband. More than one man stopped and took a moment in front of the suit worn by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

There were quite a few little ones dressed as Dorothy complete with sparkly red shoes à la Wizard of Oz trailing past Spiderman, Superman and a few other childhood favorites.  I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of  Daniel Craig’s costume from Casino Royale.  It was hard not to touch.

There was absolutely something for everyone, regardless of your age, gender or movie genre preference. Sadly, no photography allowed  (and you know I’m such a rule follower…ha!) so I listed some of my favorites costumes as they appear via movie clips.  Seems appropriate, yes?

 Matt Damon’s costume (Jason Bourne) in Bourne Ultimatum

The Oceans Eleven  costume display includes a storyboard of sorts, explaining the research and design that went into the creation of each character’s style.

 Harrison Ford’s costume (Indiana Jones) in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Whip, hat and jacket included.

The Darth Vader (Star Wars, Episode V) costume was a huge draw.  The original started with a black leather motorcycle suit, a nazi helmet, a gas mask and a cloak borrowed from the middle ages costume department.  The rest is history.

Daniel Craig’s (Bond. James Bond) costume from Casino Royale. No touching.

Keanu Reeves’ costume (Neo, aka the One) from The Matrix

Daniel Radcliffe’s (Harry Potter) cape from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The infamous/famous dress from Gone With The Wind, worn by Vivien Leigh. (This one is for you, Norma)

And yes…THAT dress…from Breakfast at Tiffany’s

 Marilyn Monroe’s iconic dress from The Seven Year Itch

And the most anticipated costume of all…Dorothy’s blue checked dress and ruby slippers.

There are so many more (Austin Powers, Independence Day, Blue’s Brothers), but I have work to do and so do you…Put this on your must-see-once-in-a-lifetime list, book tickets online  and plan on visiting for at least two hours. The exhibit is on until 27 January.

Thank you, Harry Winston.

An Afternoon at the Barbican

Despite the mixed feelings people have about the Barbican’s aesthetics (it was voted London’s ugliest building in a 2003 poll), it is the largest performing arts center in Europe and is home to the London and BBC Symphonies, numerous theater venues, a public library and an art gallery.

My destination today was the art gallery, currently showing Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s.   The exhibition offers an international perspective of the social and political upheaval of the 60s and 70s through the work of a dozen photographers.  I am not an art critic and reducing this exhibit to a few words on a blog seemed an injustice, so I posted a few of my favourites below…

by David Goldblatt

by Bruce Davidson

by Earnest Cole

by Larry Burrows

by Raghubir Singh

by Shomei Tomatsu

by Li Zhensheng

as well as works from William Eggleston, Graciela Iturbide, Boris Mikhallov, Sigmar Polke, and Malick Sildbe.   Everything Was Moving is on at the Barbican until 20 January 2013.  It really is a “don’t miss.”

I was anxious to experience Random International’s Rain Room at the Curve, so I ran downstairs, grabbed a coffee and queued up for an hour (plus a bit). Come prepared with the morning paper, a friend and a coffee…it’ll help pass the time while you wait.

Once in the Rain room, you are enveloped by a torrential rain storm, yet you remain completely dry.   I enjoyed walking through the pouring rain taking photos as much as I enjoyed  watching other people “playing in the rain.”  If you go, make sure you put your arms out wide and spin slowly in a circle.  It’s surreal. And fun.

What is it about art that makes you hungry and tired?  Luckily, the Barbican has a lovely food hall on the terrace level where you can enjoy lunch inside at one of the long tables or outside, on the sunny terrace next to the lake.  I chose a seat by the window and a salad, perfect for people watching on a sunny, London afternoon.

Henry James Was Right…..High Tea at Brown’s

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”Henry James

Ever have one of those weekends?  A weekend where you plan grandiose “lets-do” agendas in your head which promptly go to hell in 20 minutes? The Girls were home for the weekend, the London Frieze Art Fair was on in Regent’s Park  and I managed a last  minute booking at Brown’s Hotel for afternoon tea.  A trifecta of goodness. What could possibly go wrong?

1. Appliances. The British appliances are giving me rage attacks.  I can’t figure out the heat, the hot water OR the damn washing machine.  I left the house with wet trousers (I’ve learned not to say pants) and a new shirt  now 3 sizes too small.  Wet trousers and tiny t-shirt delay the day’s plan by approximately 1 hour.

2.Tube closures.  Tube closures are a London weekend certainty and require a little advanced planning. After considering a few convoluted tube/bus combinations, we decide to walk from Green Park to Regents Park.  It was a gorgeous day, so why not?  Transportation issues delay plan by one hour.

3.Queues. Queues an hour long at the Art Fair for those who didn’t print out tickets in advance leave only 3 hours to see the exhibits before heading to tea.  At £27 a pop for admittance and a tight timeline, my plan is derailed permanently.

The Girls and The Mister gamely tried to rescue my plan and my mood by suggesting a walk through the Frieze garden, a free exhibit for the masses.

I enjoy renaming works of modern art.  This one, I call Broken Twig, No Berries

Redux on a Crate

We enjoyed our usual level of immaturity, hysterical laughter and a great game of “name the modern art”  on our walk through the exhibit. My apologies to the artists.

I didn’t know this was art…


I was actually beginning to enjoy myself until the black clouds rolled in and we were caught umbrella-less and raincoat-less  in a mid-afternoon rainstorm.  This,of course,was a sign we should go home immediately and ready ourselves for the great, soul-restoring tradition of  afternoon tea. We can credit Anna, Duchess of Bedford, for the concept of afternoon tea.  The Duchess ordered tea and cakes served mid-afternoon to tide her over until the traditionally late European dinner hour.  Everyone thought this was a grand idea and “Tea” became a daily social event. Friends were invited to put on their best gowns, gloves and hats to socialize throughout the afternoon. Today, afternoon tea is an occasion.  You dress up (or should) and plan on spending hours absorbing atmosphere, cakes and company.

I love Brown’s Hotel and its cozy, traditional tea room off Abermarle Street.   I took Youngest Girl and her friend to Brown’s this summer and fell in love with the ritual and elegance of afternoon tea and the traditional vibe of Brown’s. An important factor in the ceremony of afternoon tea (for me) is the setting, and Brown’s Hotel has it in spades.

I am partial to the first of Brown’s two tea rooms.  I love the dark wood paneling, the piano and overstuffed setees underneath the window.  Both rooms are lovely, in all honesty, and we were escorted to the second room which was bright, elegant and comfortable.  We were fortunate to have a corner table where I could observe the goings on in the tea room and on the street. The tables were as they should be, low and laden with crisp heavy linen, lovely tea cups and  heavy silver pots.  I plopped myself onto the overstuffed setee, propped myself up on the pillows and prepared myself for an afternoon of tea and cakes with The Mister and The Girls.

Brown’s offers a number of menu selections, including the traditional or champagne teas.  I vaguely remember the waiter offering a “healthy” tea option. Seriously?  I didn’t care to know, so I didn’t ask what that might entail.  I’m sure you could call and ask.  We ordered the more exotic teas from the tea list, while The Mister ordered the Browns Afternoon Tea Blend.  He is not amused by exotic choices.

Our server poured the first cups of tea and delivered an elaborate 3-tiered stand laden with tiny chocolate desserts, scones still warm from the oven and a variety of crustless sandwiches.  Most importantly, they brought a crock of fresh clotted cream and another crock of homemade strawberry preserves.

The Mister started on the bottom tray of sandwiches. We started on the top tray of pastries and all met in the middle for the tiny scones and clotted cream.  Dear. God.  The most dangerous part of afternoon tea at Brown’s is the willingness of the staff to refill your trays as soon as they are empty.  We managed to polish off 2 trays each of  lovely chocolate pastries, scones and sandwiches.  Actually, we left two egg salad sandwiches behind on the final tray.  Egg salad offends me and we spent a few minutes trying to decide what should be done with them in order to get a refill of the most desired sandwiches….wrap them in a napkin and tuck them under a plate?  Stuff them into a handbag?  Feed them to the nearest potted plant?  The Mister eventually took one for the team and ate the remaining eggy things so the rest of us could enjoy another tray of the lovely roast beef , salmon and chicken sandwiches.  We had to order a refill of the clotted cream as well to ensure the proper balance of cream and jam on every scone.

Soon after finishing our last pastry, the staff rolled by with the cake trolley and offered a slice of traditional English sponge or fruitcake.  I just couldn’t. Everyone else did.   I was content to sit back on the sofa and soak up the atmosphere. Fading afternoon light, rain falling outside the window, a cup of  tea, my laughing girls and all is right with the world again.

Pavel and Pilsner in Prague

For some bizarre reason I planned our first day in Prague to begin promptly at 9am. Early,really, after factoring in how long it takes for me to look presentable, sample everything on the breakfast buffet and chug 3 or 4 cups of coffee.  The Mister and I wandered down to breakfast and took a cozy table near the bar.  While waiting for our coffee, I was distracted by a loud honking voice from across the room. I knew it had to be….an American. Before you get your panties in a wad (knickers in a twist) I’m American, so I am entitled to make comments about my fellow countrymen.  We are a nation of loud people.  It isn’t intentional. We aren’t purposely loud, but We.. Are. Loud.

As we tucked into breakfast, we were treated to an in depth discussion of American Lady’s bladder infection.  The words bladder, pee, painful ureter and chafe were fired across the room much to the dismay of the staff and fellow diners.  Not to be outdone, American Man added his personal experiences with an enlarged prostrate and something about a neutered dog.  Hopefully, the two weren’t related.

We finished breakfast quickly and went to meet Pavel, from Personal Prague Guides. I usually do most  of the travel planning myself  but I don’t speak a word of Czech and wanted the perspective of a Prague native as we toured the city.  I did try to study a few necessary words from the guidebook but resigned myself to the fact I am linguistically retarded. I tried.  I really did.

We booked Pavel from 9 – 1 on Saturday and Sunday and left the afternoons free  to explore Prague on our own. Pavel met us in the lobby and spent about an hour going over our expectations for the tour, reviewing maps and highlighting some important sites on our list. He also gave us a timeline of Czech history which gave us a much better sense of the city and the people.

Anticipating bad weather on Sunday, Pavel advised we do most of the outside/walking on Saturday and leave the inside venues for Sunday. We set out from our hotel and wandered the ancient streets, past the castle to the Loreto.  Along the way, Pavel shared significant and fascinating bits of Czech history and culture which added context to the experience.

He told us the story of the 27 nobles who lost their heads at the hands of the Habsburgs, now represented by a row of modern sculpture…

and the heartbreaking story of the WWII airmen and the bells of the beautiful Loreto.  At this point, you may be asking yourself…why did this woman take some pictures in black and white and some in color?  I assure you it wasn’t intentional.  I have the photography skills of my 85 year old Nana with a polaroid and a few flash bulbs. After a few glasses of champagne at dinner, I ended up twisting a few too many dials on the camera.

We walked from the ministry building where KGB agents pushed Jan Masaryk from a window in 1948 (see?  good stories) to the Břevnov monastery, brewing excellent Czech beer once again.

We worked our way to Prague castle and through gates to the Cathedral.  It is possible to just view the front entrance of the cathedral by follow the herd of tourists into the viewing area, but it is well worth spending a few extra crowns to see the whole cathedral.

We left the rest of the castle tour until Sunday and headed out to explore the gardens beneath the castle walls.

We left Pavel at the gates and wandered off to find lunch and explore the city a bit on our own.  We found a small cafe adjacent to our hotel, stuffed our faces and walked over the Charles Bridge.

The bridge itself is beautiful but heavily trafficked and lined with craft dealers and vendors dealing in various forms of questionable “art.”   I shouldn’t judge.  The sculptures along the bridge and the views over the city made it picture postcard perfect.

We crossed the bridge and wandered along the water to the National Theatre, the “television building” and back over the bridge near Strelecky Ostrov park.  There was so much to see but, to be honest, we didn’t want to miss afternoon tea at the hotel.  It’s a weak excuse for not doing more tourist things, but one has to prioritize.  And we did take beautiful pictures and wandered the lovely cobbled streets of  Mala Strana.  Prague is truly a fairy tale city. From Romanesque to Renaissance to Art Nouveau and Post Modern, there is architectural eye candy for everyone.

Our second day in Prague was as promised, 10 degrees and pouring rain.  Pavel felt sorry for us and brought his car to keep us dry for at least part of the day.  He also brought some homemade cakes from his lovely wife.  Private tour+cake = perfection. We started our day in Old Town, parking near the University buildings and walking to the bridge beneath the castle.  It is a injustice to call Prague Castle a castle as it is really a number of buildings within castle walls that date back to the 9th century and is the largest castle complex in the world.

The Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace is a stunning room that dates back to the 16th century.  It is also the place where I embarrassed myself.   There are signs throughout the palace that say no pictures unless you have a “photo+license.”  I assumed this was for security reasons as the Palace is still used for state events.  I was happily snapping away when I was approached by a terrifying woman who asked to see my photo license.  Patting myself on the back for remembering to bring my photo id, I pulled out my driver’s license.  She snorted, rolled her eyes and had a short discussion with Pavel about my transgression. It seems you have to purchase a license to take photos in the castle.  Oops.  I promised to pay the additional 50 crowns on the way out. Maybe.

In the lower part of the Palace is The Story of Prague Castle (where I didn’t take pictures).  It holds a stunning collection of items and artifacts from one thousand years of castle history.  I could easily spend hours with this collection, but The Mister wasn’t as enamored with ancient walls and burial garments stripped off decaying 9th century bodies as I am.  I have to come back here without him or leave him in a pub with a pint of Pilsner.

A sculptural commentary on the Czech Republic/Slovakia split and are pissing into the outline of the Czech Republic.  Update:  A kind note from a reader made some corrections re: my understanding of the sculpture “Piss.”  “Jaroslav” informed me that the statues actually have nothing to do with the split of Czechoslovakia!  He also said that if you text a message to a number next to the statues, the statues will move around and spell the text out in urine.  Now I really do have to go back.  Thank you, Jaroslav!  Do you want to be my guide for an art walk when I return?!

Our time with Pavel was running out and we wanted to see part of the Old Town and Jewish Quarter before the end of the day.  We walked over the Charles Bridge and through the Old Town square precisely at noon (well done, Pavel) to see the astronomical clock…

and continued through the square and the surrounding streets to the Jewish Quarter.  We said our goodbyes to Pavel after purchasing our tickets to the synagogue, cemetery and museum and set off to find some lunch.

 The Mister saw a sign promising Pilsner beer across from the Spanish synagogue and the choice was made.  The restaurant was called Kolkovna and served traditional Czech dishes.  The Mister and I ordered the goulash and pretzel as a starter and then ordered something that translated as a meat platter for 2.  I ordered the mulled wine and The Mister ordered a few Pilsners.  The servings were enormous, delicious and perfect for a cold autumn afternoon.

We finished our afternoon in the Jewish Quarter touring the many synangogues, the museum (an absolute heartbreaker) and the cemetery.  It was getting dark, things were starting to close and it was time to head back to the hotel.

As we talked about our time in Prague over dinner, we concluded the following:

Prague is under-rated by the traveling community.  It has incredible architecture and art, music and beer, a complex and interesting history and wonderful people.  What more could you ask?

Having a private guide added significantly to our experience. There is something special about seeing a city through the eyes of a native.  Pavel’s personal, cultural and historical narrative helped us understand and appreciate the Czech culture and history.

We didn’t have enough time to see everything we wanted to see. I would like to see more art and experience the music scene…and of course spend more time in the castle.  The Mister would like to have more Pilsner and learn more about the transition from communism to republic.

We absolutely loved our time in Prague and plan on a return trip in the near future.  Maybe we’ll bring the kids this time.