Category Archives: Blather

DATING DILEMMA

Sorry folks.  This has nothing to do with anyone’s search for companionship.  Be warned, it’s all about embroidery, and this is a post that only a stitching geek will love.

As I fill out the last few pages of The Second Carolingian Modelbook, I’ve decided to take a stab at a design that seems to be everywhere.  Except modelbooks, that is.  I call it “Pelican with Harpies and an Urn.”  It is one of a set of patterns that crops up again and again  in museum holdings worldwide, most often as a fragment.  It’s clear that unlike many other snippets, these all came from different works, often executed in different styles or stitching media. I’ve posted about this before, but my collection of examples continues to grow, and with it, the general confusion level.

The dilemma comes in because (to my knowledge) there is no existing printed pattern to establish a point of temporal or geographic origin.  But there are lots of examples and they all express the details of the design slightly differently.  Now if there was an authoritative point source that became unavailable, one would expect later iterations to be less detailed, or details to become blurred, through succeeding generations of copyist errors.  We can see that with the oft-studied “boxers” sampler motif in Colonial American samplers – which probably started out as a cherub bearing a flower, but over time became less specific and more stylized, until what remained was a barely discernable chubby humanoid with a club fist. But I can’t arrange the Pelican/Harpy/Urn designs in an ironclad continuum of graduated detail.

Here’s the parade.  The thumbnails are not clickable, please visit the links to see the museums’ higher resolution images.

CH-1.  First is this example from the Cooper-Hewitt’s collection (Accession 1931-66-144).  They date it as being a 17th century work, but do not offer a provenance.  It’s done in silk on linen, with a characteristic tightly drawn background that produces the appearance of mesh, but does not involve withdrawn threads.   Details are rendered in straight stitches, and may include double running or back stitch (it’s hard to tell without seeing the reverse).  The museum acquired it in 1931, as a gift from Sarah Cooper Hewitt.

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CH-2.  The Cooper-Hewitt has another example (Accession 1931-66-142).  This one is specifically called out as being Italian, and is also dated to the 17th century.  It’s a particularly prime piece because it is a full span cut across the end of the towel, cover or cloth it came from. We see the orientation, the top and bottom borders, and how the slightly different side borders framed the work. The museum acquired it in 1931, also as a gift from Sarah Cooper Hewitt.

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HERM-1.  The Hermitage Museum has two examples.  This one is entitled “Valence Embroidered with a Grotesque Motif (fragment),” but the on line page has no accession number.  The full description calls out the linear stitching as being double running (Holbein), and the background as being drawn thread.  They attribute it to Italy, and the 16th century.  The museum got this piece in 1923, via the Stieglitz School, and ultimately from D. Flandin, an antiquarian dealer in Paris.

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MET-1.  Yet another example in the same style.  This one is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Accession 14.134.16a).  The MET cites it as being Italian, and 17th century.  Although this one is at a different museum, and is clearly not a separate piece of either artifact, there’s a connection with the two above. It was acquired in 1914, via the Frederick C. Hewitt Fund.

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HERM-2.  On to another stitching style.  “Valence Embroidered with a Grotesque Motif” from the Hermitage also has no listed accession number. This piece is lacis (darned filet net).  It’s dated 16th century and placed in Italy.  Although filet work doesn’t allow for the linear details of the red examples above, it’s amazing how much fidelity to the design can be included. Like the other Hermitage piece, it entered their collection via the Stieglitz School Museum in 1923, but came from the collection of J. Kraut, in Frankfurt-am-Main.

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MET-2.  More stitched net, and not another piece of the one above.  This one is also from the MET (Accession 06.582).  It’s cited as being Spanish, from the 17th century.  This piece was acquired in 1906, via the Rogers Fund.

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My Opinions

First of all, I’d agree that the source for these was probably Italian, regardless of where the final objects were collected from.  I’d also agree that very late 16th century, but more probably the early 17th century is reasonable for the whole pattern family based on the style, usages, media, and iconography, plus parallels to other contemporary designs.

On to the motifs themselves.  The version with the most minutely rendered detail is CH-1. Here are close-ups of the birds/urns and harpies from the five, presented in the same order as aboveCH-1-birdCH-1-harpy

CH-1 presents the most detailed urn and pelican of the set. Both are encrusted with small linear features, although the placement of those features is not always symmetrical, nor is it identical from repeat to repeat.  Feathers on the harpy’s body are shown in neat rows, but her wing feathers are very stylized, using right angles rather than diagonals. I’m unsure what she’s holding – a cup or panpipes (perhaps a fancy on my part, to think of that flower as the music of the pipes).  From the patterning, it’s clear that the thing across her middle is her tail, wrapped up from between her legs.

CH-2-birdimage

It’s hard to see clearly, but there are lots of differences between the urns and pelicans in CH-1 and CH-2 (blurry pix above).  It’s clear that both have less detail.  But one of Mother Pelican’s chicks has moved up near her bent head, and another now floats over her back.  The nest detail seen in CH-1 is now symmetrical right and left at the top of the urn, instead of looking like leaves on one side, and scrolls on the other.  The sprouts on either side of the urn’s bulbous body have changed attachment points, and now hang down, instead of growing up as pomegranates.

CH-2’s harpy has retained her hairdo, but her wings are a bit more gracefully rendered, employing 45-degree angles to round off some of the shapes.  Her feathers are more evenly spaced, but her tail is less pronounced, and whatever small markings covered her haunches have been lost in favor of more, smaller feathers.  The thing she’s holding has lost its hatching, and now looks more like a cup than panpipes. She has also inherited another wayward pelican chick.

MET-1-birdMET-1-harpy

MET-1’s urn is in between the other two in terms of detail.  The nest/scroll unit at the top underneath the big pelican has transformed into a chick.  The stitcher chose not to fill in the background in the loop defined by the pelican’s neck.  There is something unidentifiable between the pelican’s legs, and her fathers are somewhat simplified compared to CH-1.  The lower ornament is again descending from the bowl of the urn as leaves, rather than rising from the base.

The harpy too has changed a bit.  In this case, I’d say the sipped/sounded thing has parted company from the hand, and now looks more like panpipes, vaguely supported rather than held.  She’s gotten a bit more balloon-like, and her breast feathers now march row by row.  Her wings however have gotten a bit stunted, and return to a stepwise rendering similar to CH-1, but slightly more clumsy.  The tail is suggested, and the haunches have been returned to stippling rather than feathers.

HERM-1-birdHERM-1-harpy

OK.  It’s clear that detail is going to be lost when you move from ornamented surface stitching to the negative/positive lacy mesh look of the all-white technique.  But even so, a tremendous amount has been preserved.  We see the plumage of Mother Pelican, and even some details on her brood (she’s managed to gather three of them together on top of the urn).  Her nest is symmetrical.  The urn preserves the shapes and proportions of the red stitched pieces, and has grown back the two small pomegranates that grow from the base.

The harpy too preserves a lot of detail, down to the proportions and shapes of its flight feathers, and a bit of the detail inside of the wing.  She’s lost some weight, although her hairdo is less detailed. Breast feathers are present, as is a pretty clearly defined tail.  Stippling on the haunches looks different from the breast plumage, and her feet are now nicely shaped lion paws.

MET-2-birdMET-2-harpy

The final example, MET-2, the Spanish piece, is a bit simplified.  The harpy is less prominent, and the largest space is given over to the urn and pelican, and to the foliate ornament between the repeats.  Mother Pelican’s brood is more suggested than rendered, although her feathers are nicely done.  The urn has the two upward growing pomegranates emerging from the base.

The harpy’s cup/instrument has become less detailed.  It’s unclear what it might be.  Her feathers have given way to geometric ornament, and her tail is suggested in shadow rather than being clearly defined.  Her wings are somewhat like the Hermitage example’s, though.  It’s worth noting that her proportions and body shape are more like CH-1 than the other examples.

One other thing that’s of interest is the presence of the little filled boxes that bead the motif’s edges.  You can see them along the curve of the pelican’s neck, along the harpy’s breast, and lower legs.  They give a lacier appearance to the composition.  I also find little protrusions like this to be extremely valuable as I stitch my motifs because they help me confirm counts and stay true to the design.  Note that they are absent in the other renditions.

 

Now, having our fill of urns and harpies, what can we say about them?

It’s obvious that there is an as-yet unidentified but unifying source for this design.  I posit that there might originally have been a broadside or model sheet that showed the composition.  I guess that it may have been on the count, and that its broad outlines were used to establish the placement of the main design elements.  But I don’t believe that it was followed exactly.  Instead I think each stitcher used it to establish the first iteration of the design, filling in the details and roughly eyeballing their placement, taking inspiration rather than ironclad direction from the model.  Once the first repeat was worked, subsequent repeats and mirrorings were copied from that, with no more call to look at the original.  That’s why the baby birds wander around, while the relatively easy to place urn decoration remains more stable.

Because of the different media and slightly different interpretations of the pattern (especially the pomegranates on the urn, and some differences I didn’t detail in the filler between the main motifs), my guess is that the same design branched into two slightly different but recognizable pattern “traditions,” which in turn spawned child works of their own.  One of those traditions (marked by the upward pomegranates) made the leap from surface work to darned net.

Now.  Which came first?  I can’t say.  On intuition alone I’d go with the fat, balloon-bodied harpy (MET-1) being later than CH-1, and the two white filet pieces belonging to the same “tradition” as CH-1.  That leaves MET-1 and CH-2 as child works of the other branch.

Which came first?  What chronological order can be used for these pieces?  Aside from these idle thoughts, your guess is as good as mine.  If you’ve managed to make it this far, please feel free to differ.  Without detailed analysis or forensic investigations into fiber and dye, we’re all just speculating, anyway.

IN WHICH WE BUY FURNITURE

On Saturday past, for something to do, we wandered out to visit several antique and decorative item shops nearby.  We’ve been looking for smaller items to bring back home:

chair

We’ve been looking for a second chair for our living room for a very long time. 

We found this in Just Antiques, on North Main Road here in Pune.  They specialize in pieces made from repurposed wood.  This piece is aged teak.  The back is a recycled piece of interior paneling or carved window screening.  The origin of the legs and seat platform are less discernable. 

When we get home we’ll lose the egregious purple foam cushion.  I’m now on the lookout for a length of embroidery, a small weaving or lightweight rug that can be used to cover a sprung cushion.  I think that a very thick knife-edge piece with a center button would look far better than the slab of purple cheese that’s there right now.  Perhaps next week’s trip to Kerala and the beach will turn up something appropriate.

We also got a small shelf/coat rack at Ra in Kalyani Nagar.  That is destined to go behind our front door, also in the living room.  It’s a simple wood shelf, with antique cast iron side brackets sporting pierced ornamentation, and a wrought crossbar below the shelf to which is attached four large wrought coat hooks. We have no front or reception closet, and it will be nice to have a place to hang guests’ coats when they visit.  I do not show pix today because it is securely wrapped for shipment, and I don’t want to undo its bubble-wrap cocoon.

KASHMIRI TAMBOUR-EMBROIDERED CARPET

Mary Corbet over at Needle n’ Thread has just posted an interesting piece contrasting tambour needle produced chain stitch with the same stitch produced by a traditional threaded needle.  She notes the speed, density and coverage factor of tambour stitching.  I present a truly huge sample to corroborate her observations. 

I have an entire room-size floor carpet done in tambour work. 

For those of you who don’t know what tambour is, it’s a method of producing an even embroidery stitch with a chained appearance, by plunging a hook through a base fabric, catching a loop of decorative thread, then repeating the process to create a line.  The hook used (called arhi, here) looks a bit like a fine crochet hook, but the end of the hook is a bit more pointed, to make piercing the ground fabric easier.  Mary offers up some excellent discussions of the technique, so I’ll skip doing so.

In any case, Mary’s piece made me think about the rug we recently purchased:

Rug-2

This piece is roughly 6’ x 9’ (1.8 x 2.7 meters).  Everything  you see here is stitching.  The white cotton ground is totally covered by vibrant, dense-pack chain stitch in jewel colored cotton:

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By getting close up with my gauge square, I can see that the stitch count varies between 10 and 12 stitches per inch, with the longer stitches being in the plain areas like the simple straight pink and brown runs at the bottom of the detail, above.  For width, about three rows of stitching equals 1/3 of an inch, with the longer stitch areas being a bit narrower in addition to leggier.  Perhaps the less skilled stitchers were assigned the boring border areas, and the more skilled artisans did the intricate motifs. In any case, because of the variability of stitch length and some small mistakes here and there, I am pretty confident that this rug was done by hand and not with a sewing machine.

If I flex the heavy canvas ground cloth, I can see some pencil lines behind the stitching that mark off major design areas, but not every area or motif is indicated.  Finally, the entire piece is backed with another layer of cotton sheeting, slightly thinner than the natural color ground cloth.

Our rug came from the Kashmiri area further north, the source of so many of the handcrafts available here in Pune.  It’s a bit unusual because this type of stitching is more commonly done in wool.  Namdas for example, are tambour stitched rugs worked in wool (or sometimes today, wool/acrylic blend or even cotton) on a felted wool ground cloth.  I’ve seen them both here, and occasionally in import stores in the US.

Back to our carpet – how long did it take to make?  Tambour is speedy, but 6’ x 9’ is a huge amount of handwork.  The crafts merchant who sold it to us said that these pieces were the product of family manufacture.  It typically takes several people (I’m thinking four to six, more can’t easily fit around the cloth to work) about two weeks to make one this size.  I base this on the fact that he says one family can produce between two and four big pieces per month.  Ours was one of the largest.  Most of the other samples of cotton tambour were about half this size.  To my stitcher’s eye, ours was also the most accomplished of the four available cotton rugs.  It was the most evenly and densely stitched, with the best color balance and patterning.

The stitched surface is holding up nicely to moderate traffic, although we are careful with it. We do not wear shoes in the house, and I do not subject this piece to the vacuum. Instead I light surface sweep with a soft plastic broom, and supplement that with occasional shake-outs. Thankfully, nothing has spilled on it. Yet.

We bought this piece because we fell in love with the brilliant color, intricate patterning; and because I appreciated the skill that it took to produce, and the magnitude of labor it represents.  It’s time and care, rendered in cotton, and will be one of my favorite keepsakes, long after we return home.

UNTIL THE COWS COME HOME

We’ve all heard the expression “You’ll be doing that until the cows come home.” 

But when exactly is that? 

It turns out that on this street there’s a small herd of Indian Urban Cows.  They commute each day to local grazing, much like the businessmen in the surrounding high rise buildings go back and forth to work.  Our street’s five cows amble out and back, shepherded by a guy on a bicycle (or occasionally on foot).

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Having tracked the data, I can now say exactly what time they come home. 

Roughly at around 4:30pm.

Here’s the data for October:

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Amusingly, you can see that the trendline correlates with the slowly shortening days, as the sun rises later and sets earlier as the month progresses.

So if someone says that a task won’t be finished “Until the cows come home,” you can pipe up and say, “I’ll be back at 4:30 to pick it up.”

Another mystery of the ages, put to bed by scientific observation.

THANK YOU, FLIGHT ENGINEER NYBERG

I can’t get over how cool this is:

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Credit:  This is a NASA photo, of the stuffed dinosaur Karen Nyberg sewed on the International Space Station.  This little T-Rex is floating weightless now, but by mid-November when the crew returns, will be a present for Nyberg’s 3-year old son.  There’s more on this here.

I said on Facebook that this was cooler than Alan Shepherd’s golf shot on the moon.  That was certainly neat, but it was a one-off – almost performance art. This is tangible, and more meaningful on so many levels.

First, this little toy, made by a parent far away from children presents an immediate and personal connection to far-flung families working through voluntary or enforced separation.

As a product of a traditional female craft floating in a world of shiny engineering, it makes a statement to millions of women and girls, who are often told that they have to choose between hard science or the softer pursuits.  It’s not an either/or world out there.  You CAN be an astronaut and sew for fun.

It’s entertainment – doing the familiar in an unfamiliar environment for stress abatement. That’s something I can certainly identify with, having taken a mini-stash of stitching and knitting supplies with me here to India.

It’s creativity and the boundless urge to make something out of what little is at hand.  The ingenuity of making a toy from the unlikeliest of scrounged discards is admirable.

It’s whimsical, and adorable (and very nicely stitched).  It speaks of a charming sense of humor, and of a very happy little boy.  And for all I know, it may be a sly nod to the Dr. Who episode “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”.

It’s a tangible that will come home with Flight Engineer Nyberg, and (as long as it lasts) be a reminder of where she was able to go.  It’s an heirloom of her house now, a priceless and totally unique souvenir of her achievements.

Finally Mr. Saurus is a statement that space is a new normal – a place where people will increasingly commute to work, and come home again.  “I’m from Iowa, I only work in space” – brought to life off the movie screen.

So thank you Ms. Nyberg!  You’ve made my day!

PACKING ADVICE FOR EXPATS-TO-BE

OK, I’ve gotten a request from someone who doesn’t wish her name or tag posted.  She is looking at an extended family stay in India in support of her expat husband and wanted recommendations on what to pack.  I’ll attempt to answer, but with the caveat that each person’s experience, expectations, housing situation, and comfort level is different; and what I see here in Pune may not be typical of the rest of the country.  

As to our housing, we are three people: two adults and a teenager.  We opted for a sparsely furnished high-end apartment and what we brought is specific to that situation.  Others who rent unfurnished apartments or stand-alone villas, or who have small kids, will have different needs.

Our apartment complex has a 24-hour guarded gate, a secure parking area, a building generator that bridges electrical outages and brown-outs (albeit with a minute or two gap before it kicks in); filtered water; piped in gas for our four-burner cooktop (instead of having to buy and lug our own propane cylinders) and an elevator.  Our apartment has hot water heaters in the bathrooms and kitchens (push a button and in 20 min there’s hot water); a dishwasher, washing machine, small microwave, and a refrigerator.  There is no conventional oven, although we could buy a small convection one if we really want to (we don’t).  Our furnishings are minimal but functional – dining table and chairs, sofa and coffee table, TV stand, beds and built-in closets/drawers in the bedrooms, curtains, student desks in the kid bedrooms, and a big desk in the bedroom set aside as my husband’s office.  It’s common for upscale apartments to have one bathroom for each bedroom.  We also have a maid’s room, but with no maid, it’s dedicated to laundry. 

Note that India’s electricity is 240V, and the plug configuration is different than in the US, so most US appliances and electronics won’t work here unless they are clearly marked for 240v.  Most computer and high tech gear is multi-voltage (100-240V) though.

I’ll break this down by categories.

Kitchen and Food

We are cooking a lot of Indian style food because maintaining a familiar Western menu is prohibitively expensive and difficult to source.

Recommend to bring – any cooking implements that are vital to you.  We brought a set of good knives, pots, pans, a heavy iron skillet, my hand-grater, a chopping bowl and chopping knife, stainless tableware, metal cooking tongs, vegetable parer, a couple of funnels, and some silicon spatulas.  We brought some disposable plastic storage containers (I should have brought more of these), measuring cups and spoons, and plastic wrap.  We also brought a heavy plastic cutting board for meat and good refillable water bottles that are easy to clean. 

Recommended to buy here – Strainers or colanders, glassware, inexpensive unbreakable Corian type dishes, plastic or steel mixing bowls, steel cooking spoons and flippers.  Plastic storage containers, canisters, and bins for spices, flour, lentils, coffee, etc.  Gas service is low pressure/low flow, so the following have been indispensible: rice cooker, electric kettle, inexpensive low-tech pressure cooker.  Coffee maker, toaster.  Wooden cutting board for vegetables, small wooden rolling pin for making Indian flatbreads.  Blender/grinder if you plan on doing a lot of Indian cooking.  Cheap cotton dishtowels. Thermos bottle for coffee or tea.  All of the small electrics can be resold when you leave.

Recommended to leave home – Baking dishes and pans, unless you plan on buying a convection oven. Anything that would be a pain to wash or care for because even with a dishwasher, you’ll end up doing a lot more hand washing than you are used to.  Or if you are engaging household help, avoid bringing anything that you’d cringe to see broken in their well meaning but occasionally ungentle care. 

Cleaning and Maintenance

It’s quite grimy here from the prevalence of diesel exhaust, plus for most of the year there are no rains, and the dust flies.  You will be dry-mopping floors and dusting almost every day.

Recommended to bring – A dry Swiffer holder (the least expensive one disassembles neatly for easy packing).  Don’t bother bringing the disposable pads.  Go to a fabric store and buy one yard of the cheapest microfleece flannel they have in stock.  Take a Swiffer pad and measure it out on the fleece, then cut the yard of fleece into rectangles of that size.  You’ll get about 16.  No need to hem, just use them in place of the disposable, then shake them out and when you’ve got a pile of dirty ones, toss them in the washing machine.  Bring a small vacuum if you have or plan to have rugs. I brought my Roomba, for which a 240v adapter is available on the iRobot website.  A small tool kit (hammer, wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, etc.) is very useful.  Bring cheap brown packing tape and duct tape.  We had windows that didn’t close completely, and needed to tape plastic bags over the gaps in order to exclude mosquitoes.

Recommended to buy – Mops, buckets, brooms.  You’ll need them all.  If you have a balcony, get a broom just for outside, because it will quickly get too filthy to use indoors.  An iron and ironing board, unless you plan on sending everything out for laundering and pressing.  (If you do, be warned, it’s hard to find a place that does this gently, and we haven’t yet found a satisfactory dry cleaner.)  Clothes drying racks – dryers can be had here, but electricity is very expensive.  You’ll want to dry things on a rack or line, either indoors (cleaner, if you have the space), or outdoors (quicker, but only if you have a secure place to do it, and don’t mind dust-dingy clothing).  Laundry detergents, all fabric bleach, and other cleaning consumables are all available.

Recommended to leave home – Unfortunately, you can’t ship most cleaning products because they are caustic, this includes scouring powder (like Comet or Ajax).  This is a shame because on the whole, the stuff available in the US is more effective than what’s on the shelf here. But what’s here is good enough if you apply extra elbow grease and determination.

Tech and Entertainment

Recommended to bring – Dual voltage flat screen TV that has a hook-up to use with a laptop computer in order to watch pre-recorded material.  A small hard drive loaded with the same (we have a DVR at home, and on it we brought five years worth of laagered favorite movies and shows with us).  Laptops for each person (schoolkids need their own to bring with them, the working spouse will need one, and the accompanying spouse will need one to maintain sanity, too).  You’ll appreciate Skype to keep in touch with the folks at home.  Tablets, iPads, or other readers – books and games are bulky; readers allow you to subscribe to the home newspapers or magazines on line, plus read all you want, wherever you want, without accumulating a weighty and expensive pile to ship back home, plus they can hold your music, too.  iPod/iPad or music player speaker/amplifier/stand/recharger.  “Jailbroken” phones or phones that can accept an international SIM chip.  You can get phones here, but they are 2-3x more expensive than similar models in the US.  Hand held game units for the kids, with lots of games. Hobby supplies.  If you knit, stitch, paint, or do any sort of craft as an outlet, bring your supplies.  Stuff can be had here, but availability and selection are extremely limited, and there is a lot of down time and isolation, especially for an accompanying spouse.  Allow yourself a generous bit of space for such things, if that’s what’s needed to keep you happy.

Recommended to buy – an uninterrupted power supply (UPS).  We bought one locally (they’re prohibitively heavy to ship) and have our router attached to it.  When the power goes down and up as it does up to six or seven times a day, the UPS bridges the minute or two between the municipal power disappearing and the building’s generator power kicking in, which otherwise is long enough to reset the house router and lose connectivity. The router or switch itself (usually obtained through your ISP as part of their package).  Omni-plug accepting power strips, which are widely available here.  These provide a modicum of surge protection, plus they accept US-format wall plugs.  Provided the item connected is dual voltage (like a computer or phone charger), they eliminate the need for individual adapter plugs.  Note that replacement earphones and other accessories for the leading makes of phones, iPods, and MP3 players are widely available.

Recommended to leave at home – Bicycles, Razor scooters, and the like.  Indian traffic has its own internal chaotic rule set.  I wouldn’t suggest any but the most intrepid adults to ride in the streets.  And that goes quadruple for kids.  There are no places for them to ride at all, even in this gated community tooling around the parking lot will get old, very quickly.  Sports equipment – again the “place to play” problem, plus most stuff – swim goggles, soccer balls, and the like are available here.

Personal Care

Recommended to bring – Personal care and cosmetic brands you can’t live without.  That being said, Olay, Gilette, Garnier and Colgate brands have significant presence here, although most Americans would not be thrilled by cumin-flavored toothpaste instead of mint.  If you like unscented products, bring them  from home, because unscented isn’t popular here either.  Q-tips, hair gel.  If you need acne ointment with salicylic acid in it, bring that too.  Definitely bring mosquito repellent containing DEET, preferably pump spray for economy, even if you are usually opposed to better living through chemistry.  Mosquito-borne illnesses are a huge problem, and dengue is far worse than temporary exposure to the repellent. Bring high SPF sun block.  They have sunblock here but it’s often mixed with harsh “whitening agents” because the local aesthetic values fairness to an extent that will make most North Americans of any race cringe at the personal care product commercials.  I can’t speak to hair dye yet, although in another couple of months I may.  Razors, again if electric – dual voltage.  If manual, you may want to stock up rather than buy local.  Bring any prescription medicines, in original containers, plus any non-prescription stuff you need, including non-Aspirin pain relievers, plus maintenance medicines like enteric Aspirin or vitamins.  I’d strongly suggest going to a travel medicine clinic to get needed vaccinations and prescriptions for “just in case” medications, then filling them before you leave home. Bring a fever thermometer, band-aids, anti-itch crème, and antibacterial ointment. All can be found here, but only after much searching, which you may not have time for if need for them presents itself. 

Recommended to buy – Hair dryer, the ones bought here tend to be more forgiving of the iffy voltage than even the US-purchased “international” dual voltage models.  Mosquito killer wall sprays – in the US you can buy little plug in units that dispense air fresheners or fragrances.  Here the same technology is used for insecticides.  Again, remember that the illnesses are worse than short term chemical exposure, and use them.

Recommended to Leave at Home – Think of streamlining your daily routine and kit.  Personal care items are bulky.  Although brand availability is limited, adequate shampoo and conditioner can be found.  Moisturizers are available.  Soaps, especially hand-made soaps are excellent.  Bring the absolute minimum.

Household Items

Recommended to bring – Towels and sheets.  Make sure you know the size of the beds before hand.  Most in high-end buildings are king size, but don’t make any assumptions.  For kids,  those bed-sitting pillows with arms on them.  They will be spending lots of time in their rooms, and a dorm-style sitting pillow makes their bed a comfy place to read, listen to music, or study.

Recommended to buy – Bed Pillows.  They’re bulky.  Unless you have specific sleeping needs, you’ll find what’s here adequate.  Furnished apartment furniture is very generic – you’ll probably want to liven the place up a bit with purchased rugs and pillows.  Textile choices here for decorative items are better than choices for standard domestics.  Small supplemental floor or table lamps.  Wastebaskets and garbage cans, laundry baskets and hampers.

Recommended to Leave at Home – Heavy bedding, including quilts and comforters.  A lightweight cotton blanket (or maybe even just a top sheet) is all that’s needed, even with air conditioning.

Clothing

Pune’s climate (for India) is mild, with only a month or two of intense heat.  Daytime for the rest of the year is in the 80s-90s, and nightimes are in the 60s-70s.  During monsoon (June-September) it can be very humid, and rains at least a little bit four days out of five, some of those days quite intensively.  During the other months, it’s extremely sunny and parchingly dry.  Even here, you are not going to need jackets, sweaters, or warm pants.

Clothing here is sized small by US standards.  My daughter is about 5’6 1/2” and depending on length wears a  US 11, somewhere between a size medium and large.  Here if she’s lucky to fit into anything off the rack it’s a women’s extra large, or a men’s large.  Shoe stores seem to stock up to US women’s size 9 (Euro 40).  I’ve been told you can get things larger, but it’s all special order.

Remember, male or female, you are going to be stared at.  If you’re female and of any age you are going to be stared at twice as much.  And if you are young and attractive, you are going to be openly leered at, catcalled, and if unescorted, even jostled.  Be aware of this as you are planning clothing choices. 

Recommended to Bring – underwear, sneakers (trainers), walking shoes, sandals.  Jeans and light weight pants.  Short sleeve cotton shirts or tunic style tops.  Nothing sleeveless unless it’s intended for layering under stuff with sleeves (which is highly recommended).  Shorts should not be shorter than your fingertips when you stand with arms at your sides, over the knee cropped pants are better.  “Breathable” but modest exercise clothing if you plan on going to a gym (by modest for women I mean short sleeve rather baggy t-shirts, Capri length or over the knee exercise pants, nothing midriff bearing and no exercise bras worn as shirts).  Bring one outfit that’s appropriate for attending an afternoon church wedding (modest dress or skirt/suit set).  If you’ll be here for monsoon, bring a folding Totes type umbrella – a rain jacket is too hot during the day. If you’re going to be out in the sun, bring a sun hat.

Recommended to Buy – Accessories, scarves, bags, etc.  Both costume and real jewelry especially if you like ornamentation.  No one does bling quite as well as here in India.  I am not brave enough to try wearing a sari  yet, but others have more grace than I do enjoy them immensely.  I will be buying kameeze or kurti style tops in the near future.

Leave at Home – This is not the place to seek attention, flaunt or prance.  Think “clothing suitable for visiting an elderly maiden aunt,” not clothing that shouts “I’m hot!” to the world.  Think clean and neat, and a bit on the preppy side.  Avoid Statement Clothing, unless you are prepared to endure the attention.  Also, remember maintainability.  Leave stuff that needs to be dry cleaned at home.

Office and School Supplies

Recommended to Bring – Schools differ in what they require, but I’d suggest a couple of large spiral bound notebooks.  The only ones I’ve seen here are very small and saddle stapled, like exam books.  Student calculator, if you’ve got a kid in middle school or higher.  They have them here but they are quite expensive.  Same thing for combination locks for school lockers.  Sharpies and paper scissors come to mind.  Spare power cords or USB cables for your devices.  You can find USB thumb drives here quite cheaply though.   Batteries if you have a lot of battery powered items, and if you’ve got a household shipment allowance because they are expensive here, too.  A good student backpack (we each have one and use it for work/school or day trips).  Scotch tape, school glue, and crazy glue for small repairs.  A LED flashlight or two.  Crayons or colored pencils for the kids (if any).  Photo printing paper.  Small stapler and staples.  Envelopes.  Stationary for writing thank you notes. 

Recommended to Buy – Cheap printer/scanner.  You’d be amazed how many documents need to be copied, and how many duplicates of passport type photos you will need.  Being able to manufacture these at home is a lifesaver. 

Recommended to Leave at Home – Printer paper.  Everything here is A4, not US Letter or Legal size.

 

I’ve gone on long enough.  Please feel free to leave additions or suggestions, or ask questions in the comments.  Hope this helps someone.

BACK TO PUNE WITH THE RAIN

I can report that our Great Migration was successful.  We’re now re-installed in our Pune flat, having arrived mid-monsoon.  We’ll be here until next summer.  I was astounded at how the arrival of the rains has changed everything.  The region is now green.  Very, very green. 

First, on the car trip from Mumbai to Pune, inland and up the ridge that marks the edge of the Deccan Plateau (Pune is at about 1800 feet above sea level), the dry and scrubby hills were transformed.  Where before there was dust, some sprigs of tenacious, prickly looking shrubs and cacti, are now pillows of lush vegetation and soft grasses.  Rocky ledges are now waterfalls, with greater and lesser cascades threading down the slopes, joining to make fast-moving creeks. Dry stream beds that were little more than stagnant puddles and sand shoals are now broad brown rivers, filling their channels bank to bank, and running fast enough to make rapids. We saw newly sprouted fields, and families out planting rice in flooded paddies in village areas. In the cities I saw older people tending the vegetable patches and potted plants which have appeared everywhere a scrap of space can be found.  Unfortunately, all of our attempts to take photos showing the waterfalls and green fields were unsuccessful.  Here’s the best of the lot:

Rain-1

Through the heavy but intermittent rain people were going about their business as usual, but wetter.  The scooter riders were still out in force, but soaked to the skin.  Likewise the pedestrians.  So were the cars, but on waterlogged, slippery roads.  Reduced visibility, road construction pothole puddles, and wet pavement make driving here even more hazardous than usual.  I was very thankful that Mr. Rupesh was at the wheel.  We did see many accidents and breakdowns on the road, mostly mini-cars  that had bottomed out when their tiny wheels tried to swim through deep puddles, or heavy lorries with flats or broken axles from encountering potholes at speed.  Sad to say, we did pass a couple of serious accidents with injuries, where two-wheelers and larger vehicles collided.

In spite of the rain, people here are happy to see it.  They don’t seem to be all that inconvenienced.  In the US, if it rains on our vacation, we’re sad and annoyed.  Here the rain is seen as a blessing. Families plan vacations and outdoor activities FOR the rainy season, and TV commercials are full of happy children, frolicking with family in downpours.  However embracing the rainy season does occasionally end up in tragedy.  Monsoon is also a season of thanksgiving and religious devotion.  Earlier this month thousands of unfortunate pilgrims were swept away or stranded by floodwaters in the northern provinces. But in even in the face of terrible loss, the rains are the lifeblood of the land, and are very welcome here.

Finally, here’s the view from our balcony.  The shot of the sports festival on the left was taken back in late April, just before the rains.  The one on the right, not ten minutes ago:

Rain-BeforeRain-After

LOST MY MARBLES

My modular blanket in Marble continues to grow.  Of course, there are the two glaring missing squares, but I can knit them separately, then sew them in:

marble-mod-2

The floor is tiled in 1-foot squares, so you have an idea of the size so far.  This is as large as the outside is going to get.  I’m on the third of my five big balls of Marble.  After I finish out the corner (and the missing blocks), I’ll do the triangles to make the thing into a nice, even rectangle.  Then I’ll do some sort of banding around the edge, possibly an adaptation of one of the bias scarves so often done in long repeat variegated yarns.  I’ll probably miter the corners.  After that, if I have enough yarn, possibly an edging, although a simple band of I-Cord or double I-Cord may be just the ticket.

In other news, Younger Daughter is back from an early stay at Roads End Farm – heaven on earth for horse-mad girls. 

REF-013-1REF-013-2

This year in addition to the fun of riding and friendships, the thrice-clever Margaret taught the kids how to do needle felting.  Younger Daughter has found her fiber calling:

needlefelting-1

Yesterday’s production:  Stumpy pony, small dino with coffee mug, evil kitten, stubby squid, bird perched in mug handle, and tiny stegosaurus.  All were done with remnants of rustic wool yarns from my stash, snipped into short lengths, and combed out somewhat using two old wire hairbrushes. 

Other than that, we’re in the final throes of preparation for migration back to Pune, India.

WORLD IN AN ONION

So, I’ve been back in the US now for roughly four weeks, with several more to go before returning to India for a year.  I’m seeing things differently, with the new perspective afforded by the five month stay just completed.

Take the humble onion.  Onions are everywhere, and just about every really tasty recipe in just about every food tradition starts out with “take an onion…”

Onions in Pune are small and red-skinned, with white flesh. If you find one the size of a billiard ball, you’ve found a giant. They’re neither as sharp nor as sweet as selected varieties here. But they’re very tasty.  And it doesn’t matter where you shop for onions.  The same variety is available everywhere, from the most exclusive supermarkets catering to the well-heeled elite, to the smallest street vendor’s basket.  I’ve also seen the same variety, picked when the bulbs are barely there (but larger than scallions here), and sold as spring onions. Now to be fair, there may be more available after monsoon season, and what I saw may be just the tail end of the agricultural year.

In contrast, I counted the variety of onions available in our local supermarket here in Arlington, Massachusetts.  It’s a plain old supermarket in a standard suburban area, and not a fancy gourmet store.  There are plain yellow keeper onions, big white Spanish onions, huge red sweet onions, Vidalias, tiny white boiling onions, the small, ovoid yellow Cipollinis, Bermuda onions, ordinary white onions, scallions/spring onions, shallots, and leeks.  Plus several of these varieties are also available as “organically grown.”  Counting the organics, that’s about 15 separate and distinct onion types, for sale side by side.

One or two of these might be considered local.  The Pine Island area of New York near Hudson Valley is still considered a major onion growing area, but by and large – this embarrassment of onion riches is trucked here from all over the country, and some of it is even imported from Mexico, or even flown in from South America or Europe.  That means there’s a huge perishable-goods transport and storage network, enabled by cheap shipping, and established distribution channels.

India is evolving very rapidly, but it still has a long way to go before it can match the infrastructure required to support this variety.  Produce there is local.  Intercity roads and trains exist, but what’s there isn’t sufficient for major distance transport of perishables.  Even the sturdy onion.

For example, Mumbai and Pune are major cities, about 95 miles apart – about six miles closer together than Boston and Hartford, CT.  Googlemaps shows the travel time between Boston and Hartford as being about 1 hour, 45 min.  Having done this trek many times, I know it’s 4-6 lane interstate highways all the way, and (unless it’s rush hour) most folk exceed the mostly 65mph speed limit where they can.

The road from Pune to Mumbai is well traveled, and is considered a major toll highway.  It’s 2-4 lanes throughout, with some interchange areas a bit wider, and for India is pretty uniformly paved.  It twists and winds a good bit, ascending up steep hills, and goes through several rock-cut tunnels.  However, traffic moves extremely slowly, even on this best-of-roads. Traffic moves slowly, winding around lumbering trucks, three-wheeled goods transporters (Tempos), and a sea of two-wheeled vehicles.  On parts there are even local three wheeled taxis and animal carts, although other parts of the highway are restricted. Googlemaps says that it should take about 2 hours and 25 minutes.  However cars even in uncrowded times would be lucky to 80kph (about 50mph), tops, and that only on the few straight sections with good visibility, if no slowly lumbering trucks are around.  The trip rarely takes less than three hours, and often significantly longer, with mammoth multi-mile traffic jams of the type seen in the US mostly on holiday weekends being the daily norm.

Now, if travel on this best of highways is “twice as far” in terms of travel time compared to US roads, you can begin to see the logistics challenge.  Add to that the high cost of fuel, the lack of refrigerated trucks, the average size of a farm’s plot being something smaller than a third of a football field, lack of distribution centers, and the challenges really pile up.  For a supermarket just to obtain onions in a quantity sufficient for its sales, it would have to deal with a middleman who collected produce from several smallhold farmers.  Then the goods would have to make their way over land to the city.  Slowly.  So it’s no wonder that eating in India is a localvore’s experience, that produce is only available in season, and that varieties are limited.

I’m sure that there are other cross-cultural lessons to be learned by peeling back the layers of this onion – land ownership and transfer, relationships between agricultural and urban areas, the economics of small vs. large scale farming, how limited transportation on the part of consumers shapes retail buying, and the like.  But for now, I look at the wealth of onions and marvel at the profligacy and indulgence, and have a First-World Guilt moment as I mince my way through some while cooking dinner.

SADNESS

It’s true that when one travels, one expects to come home to find everything as it was.  But life marches on, and nothing ever stays the same.  For example, in my little corner of Massachusetts, several destination or iconic, cherished local businesses have shuttered, or are about to:

Johnnie’s, Arlington – An old school supermarket, not chic, not trendy, and with a limited selection.  BUT they did have the only store-made corned beef in the area, and still had in-store butchers who knew how to cut meat, without the fancy gourmet counter prices.  Johnnie’s shuttered over the winter months.  We’ll eventually be getting a small Whole Foods in the same location, but it won’t be the same.

Nicola’s Pizza, Arlington – Yes, you can’t swing a pepperoni in town without hitting a pizzeria, but Nicola’s was special – hand made as opposed to institutional dough; rich family-recipe sauces; real cheese; excellent quality toppings, all cooked to bready/crispy perfection.  Word is murky, that the site, store, and recipes have been sold, and a new owner will continue the Nicola’s tradition; or that the site will continue to be a take-out and sit-down eatery, but with a new menu.  In any case, the old family’s ownership and touch will be sorely missed.

Higgins Museum, Worcester – A private museum of arms and armor, endowed by a steel magnate about a hundred years ago, and housed in unique building, set up to feel like a castle.  The Higgins will be open until the end of the year, but after that the collection will (in part) be housed by the Worcester Art Museum.  Go now, because you’ll never see all of those artifacts in one place in such an atmosphere again. 

Wild & Woolly, Lexington – This is the hardest and most personal blow of all.  W&W is a specialty yarn shop.  It had the biggest selection of yarn in Eastern, Massachusetts, along with the personal touch that only experienced help can give.  I counted W&W as more than just a store.  It was a “home away from home” – the first place I visited when we moved up from Maryland, and the first folk who befriended me here.  Over the years I’ve taught classes there, and helped out during inventories and big sales, or when I was between jobs. I’ve put in a little bit of time helping them prepare for their final clearance sale, which is going on now.  Eventually I’ll find other places to buy interesting knitting supplies  (especially the non-commodity yarns that need to be assessed in hand for drape, texture and color); but I’ll never replace the “store family” who will now scatter to the winds.

 

So in summary, you blink and things change.  Nothing is forever, so appreciate even the small things, places, friends and services that surround you, because everything is impermanent.