Monday, May 28, 2007

Old Dogs, New Tricks

It was just over a year ago that I opened my online shop at I was convinced to do so at the urging of a wonderful friend who has played a huge role in pushing me in the right direction over the past few years. She had opened a store for her marvelous purses, and felt I would find a market for my jewelry there as well. While I've sold more jewelry since then outside of my etsy store than through it, I have no regrets. Opening that store has propelled me into the internet and its many wonders in ways I find astonishing.

My entire relationship with the internet was considerably delayed compared to other Americans. When Americans were just beginning to flex their "surfing" muscles, I was living in Burma, a country so repressed and dictatorial that, in one instance, mere possession of a fax machine led to the death in prison of a wonderful man we knew there. Rather than joining the large crowds whose morning ritual included a computerized voice insisting "You have mail" along with coffee and the paper, we moved to Cuba. Allowing connection to an unfettered source of information was too threatening to Fidel and his minions, so another two years passed before we moved to Peru, where connection was limited only by the vagaries of electrical power, and the internet's many wonders began to open for me like the petals of a flower.

Yet, for the following six years while I lived in Peru and Costa Rica, I was busy painting, mothering, befriending, exploring, entertaining, and the like, so I used it mainly for connecting with far flung friends and family, finding facts for my elementary school-aged child, researching medical symptoms, and the like. I was way behind the learning curve in chatroom lingo and other signs of internet competence.

After I opened the shop at etsy, I began reading the forums there, and was amazed at how computer-literate many people were, and I realized that I was not only behind the curve because of where I had lived, but there was also a generational thing going on. If there were a forum post involving computer code issues, for example, I found I couldn't understand a word people wrote, and there were many like me, "of a certain age", who felt completely lost in that world.

I'm the impatient, I-can-figure-it-out-on-my-own kind of person who ignores instructions while assembling furniture or operating equipment. That attitude, however, only gets you so far in terms of gaining internet knowledge. So, while researching what such things as ROFL, and IMO and the like meant, I also began learning about blogs, and realizing how they can assist in promoting one's etsy shop. So, one day recently, on the spur of the moment, I started this blog. I have learned about linking posts, cutting and pasting html code, pinging, and all sorts of things which wouldn't have made a bit of sense to me a year ago. So, for all of those internet-challenged or -fearful folks out there, I'm a perfect example of how old dogs can indeed learn new tricks! Woof woof! ROFL!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Finding Comfort in Camelids

It is probably safe to say that I was one of the few Americans who found solace after the 9/11 attacks by surrounding myself with camelids. I was living in Peru at the time and feeling very depressed and worried and far from family. I had heard there was a camelid fair that had just opened near Lima's seaside. Camelids, for those who are new to the term, are related to camels and, in the case of South America, include alpacas, llamas, vicunas, and guanacos (for a great example of what to do with an alpaca if you happen across one, visit I thought it would take my mind off the terrible tragedy America had just suffered, so I packed my camera gear in a fanny pack and went.....only to find that it didn't open until the afternoon, several hours off. Perhaps because I looked so woebegone, the guard took pity on me and let me in. Except for hundreds of wonderful camelid specimens, and a few herders and breeders, I had the place to myself.

There were llamas, with liquid eyes fringed by long eyelashes, long necks and erect ears, and their wonderful combination of immensely dignified bearing and silly expressions. I began to feel better, as it is impossible to remain sad around llamas. There were adorable alpacas as well, with their fluffy mantles and utterly cute faces, in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, all looking very huggable. There were a few vicuna, delicate wild creatures whose wool is said to be worth more by weight than gold, wool so soft and fine and tempting that they are perennially poached in the Peruvian altiplano, despite government efforts to protect them. And there were guanaco as well who, unlike their cousins, the alpaca and llama, were never tamed by the Inca or Spaniards.

After some time spent at this fair, I'm sure my expression gradually changed from sadness to amusement to bliss, which is a difficult feeling to avoid when surrounded by several hundred camelids. As I was nearing the end of the fairgrounds, I heard the sound of jingling and tinkling, and looked up to see some llamas dressed in their finest, rivalling their camel cousins in the Arabian deserts in festooned glory. Leading them was a llama herder, a man with a wild and distant look in his eyes, who was dressed from head to toe in clothes made of llama and alpaca wool, utterly oblivious of the hot sun heralding the beginnng of the Peruvian summer, or camera-toting foreigners. He had eyes only for his llamas. A breeder standing nearby told me that the llama herder had come down from the altiplano with his flock. I had travelled quite a bit through Peru's high mountains plateaus, and had noticed the occasional speckling of llama herds in the far off distance, surrounded by hundreds of miles of emptiness, where they would be herded into little corrals at night to protect them from attack by puma. Therefore, I understood, I thought, the look in this man's eyes. To spend one's life protecting these animals, sleeping with them for warmth, with little or no human contact for weeks, perhaps months, would be enough to drive anyone wild. And to think that, in the dead of night, with no sounds to break the immense stillness, the llamas would start to hum......for llamas do indeed hum.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Shopping in Lima

Most foreigners hate Lima. It is huge, crowded, and dangerous. The traffic is horrendous. The hills surrounding the city look like accumulations of vacuum cleaner dust. The sea is polluted. The winter consists of the "garua", a low-lying layer of clouds that spits and drools, trapping the smell of fish meal being produced in the seaside factories. What is there to like, they wonder, and scamper off for the greener pastures of Cusco and Machu Picchu, places filled with things tourists like.

What they miss are the hidden treasures. For me, Lima has more hidden treasures than any city I've lived in. I was lucky when I lived there to have a dear friend who, if anything, was even more ready and willing than I to hop in the car and drive to areas that even most inhabitants of Lima avoided. The two of us, equipped with determination and a sense of adventure, and shorn of purses, jewelry, and any other temptations, would dive into the city as if it were a sea and we were scuba divers in search of treasure. We invariably found it.

One of our favorite places to go was the wholesale flower market on the decidedly "wrong" side of town, near the colonial-era bullring and surrounded by impoverished shanty towns. We would drive there, leave our car in the care of some trustworthy -- we hoped -- individual eager to make some spare change, and enter another world, illuminated by rays of sunlight entering through holes in the roof high overhead. Row after row of cut flowers, of every variety and color one could want, heaps, and stacks, and mountains of flowers, watched over by women in traditional Peruvian dress. Men would wander through bearing baskets full of figs so ripe they oozed their honey, or home-made tools used to strip rose stems of their thorns. We would buy enough flowers to fill the car -- roses, sunflowers, freesias, peonies -- and laugh in wonder at how little we spent. My favorite memory of that market was a day when a minstrel group appeared with their ancient instruments, singing songs of beautiful flowers, and lovely women...

The food markets were marvelous as well. My favorite one had beautifully stacked displays of vegetables of an amazing variety. Four different colors and shapes of eggplants; more varieties of raddichio than I saw in four years in Sicily; purple beans; sacks filled with fresh artichoke hearts in acidulated water, strange Japanese and Chinese tubers and vegetables. One could also find small bodegas, or neighborhood grocers, that were filled with wonders from around the world. One day, browsing, I came across some strange-looking objects, looking like large brown fava bean pods covered in wax. Abudurajo, they were called. Could they be? I wondered. And they were! Bottarga, or pressed dried fish roe, which I'd grown to love in Sicily, grated over pasta or thinly sliced on toasted bread, a product one could find in the U.S. only at specialty markets at an exorbitant cost. Lima's position on the coast, near the Humboldt current and its famed schools of fish, her immigrants who came from every corner of the world, the geography that enfolds and supports infinite microclimates....all these elements lead to one of the richest cuisines in the world.

Handicrafts were another wonderful source of endless delight and discovery. There were the markets, of course, known as the "Indian" or "Incan" markets, filled with ceramics and textiles and mirrors and paintings and all manner of lovely things at good prices. Even better than the markets, though, and hidden off the tourist beat, were the little "talleres" that surrounded the city, mostly in the shanty towns clinging precariously to the dusty mountainsides. During the terrible years when terrorism had its claws in Peru, many people fled the killings in their home villages. Many of these villages were in the Ayacucho region, which happened to be one of the richest regions in terms of ceramic crafts. After arriving in Lima, the craftsmen set up shop and continued to practice the crafts and traditions passed down through the generations. Those with determination could uncover these treasures.

One day, stuck in a horrendous traffic jam in an old part of Lima, I happened to look over at a small building nearby. The front door was open in the heat of summer and inside, illuminated by a skylight, I saw an old man applying gold leaf to an elaborately carved frame. With a sense of adventure and with eyes wide open, one finds hidden treasures in the most unlikely places!

Stay tuned for more: bead shopping and the famed fabric district!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sunday Lunch

I love the custom in parts of Europe and Latin America (and probably elsewhere as well, although I haven't experienced it personally) of spending Sunday afternoons with friends, relaxing outside, eating, drinking, talking. This Sunday, my family and I went out to the beautiful, forested Virginia countryside to experience such a lunch in the new home of some dear friends. Those gathered included Americans, a lovely Thai woman, and an interesting man from Alsace. The food, as always, was excellent. My Thai friend excels in cooking everything from Thai food to Italian to, well, you name it and she can cook it.

She began cooking when she was a young girl growing up in the mountains of northern Thailand. Her parents had a small farm, and they needed someone to cook the daily meal provided to the laborers. Cooking the daily meal in Thailand is, of course, quite a different exercise than cooking here in the U.S. Every morning she would go to the market, buy what she needed, come home and start chopping and dicing and sauteing. In spite of what others would consider to be daily drudgery, she grew to love cooking because she had an instinctive talent for it and she loved making people happy. She still makes people happy with her cooking.

Recently, she underwent some hardships, with the loss of her 13-year-old boxer "baby", and then moving away from a large circle of close friends in another country. She was sad. Wanting to help her, I offered to show her how to make a necklace, and she agreed. Immediately, she took to it, went to a bead store and never looked back. I think it provides for her the same thing her cooking does: she has an instinctive talent for it, and she makes her friends happy with the lovely creations she gives to them.

The blue gill above was caught by my son in my Thai friend's pond.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Pearl Swirl Necklace and Costa Rica

I spent the morning editing the curriculum vitae of a lovely Colombian woman whom I got to know while living in Costa Rica. She was the director of a community-based environmental organization whose goal was to protect the nearby mountains and watershed area. I hiked those mountains every week with friends, and was utterly captivated by them.

So here I was, thinking back about my three years in Costa Rica. When I'm thinking about Costa Rica, my thoughts often stray from the beautiful mountains of the interior to the wonderful beaches on the Caribbean coast. Unlike the Atlantic side, which is filled with tourists, the Caribbean side has stayed more true to its roots, and life is less ruled by foreigners. Our favorite restaurant in Costa Rica was there -- Pecora Nera -- and our favorite beaches -- Punta Uva and Playa Chiquita. When I wasn't eating Italian food or floating in the warm waters of the Caribbean, I was walking the long length of the beach looking for interesting shells. It was thoughts of those shells that led me to create today's design, which I call my "Pearl Swirl Necklace". It would have been the perfect thing to wear, after a wonderful day at the beach, while drinking a glass of wine and waiting for Illario to bring out his magical food.

If you want to learn any more about the mountains of Costa Rica, and the wonderful plants and animals that inhabit them, you can do no better than to read the blog of another good friend of mine about her own piece of paradise

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Miracles of Modern Technology

A long time ago at the well-known Georgetown fleamarket here in Washington, D.C., I fell in love with an antique dress form with a bosomy shape and little cast iron claw feet. I wasn't that I was much of a seamstress, but I just had to have it. I used it over the years to hang interesting clothes and hats on, but then it sat in storage for more than thirteen years. When I retrieved it, I found that had it remained the same, but I had changed a lot, and I discovered a wonderful new use for it: photographing necklaces. To my mind, photographing a necklace on a flat surface, while perhaps giving useful information about the detail and the construction, is insufficient. One has to see how the necklace hangs. I suppose I could use myself as a photographer's dummy, but that seemed awkward, and this old dressmaker's form seemed just the thing.

And I was happy with it "as is" for quite a while. Then one day, a dear friend mentioned how she uses the "cloning" tool on her photo software to "disappear" the hooks upon which she hangs her bags in order to photograph them. The hooks, she felt, were distracting. A little lightbulb switched on over my head, as I realized how unsightly the division lines on the movable plates on the form were. Aha!, I thought, I can "disappear" them as well, and so I did. I find it to be a strangely enjoyable, almost meditative, and certainly miraculous process, as if I were "stitching" the plates on the form together. I thought about the women who had used the form in the past, and how utterly astonished they would be at all of this: online shops; digital photographs; cloning. It is good to keep in mind those small miracles of modern technology. Given the difference between the two photos, I think it is pretty amazing! if only I could use the cloning tool to "iron" the tshirt!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


I had lunch today with a friend I have known since I lived in Warsaw almost a quarter century ago. She once more lives not far from me now, but we haven't seen each other much as we are both busy with our lives. We talked about so many things, the way girlfriends do: our children; our husbands; our parents and siblings; ourselves.... It was lovely and rejuvenating for me to spend time with her.

An odd coincidence: the last time I was in my nearby beadshop, there was an attractive woman there who reminded me very much of this friend. I thought "coincidence" and went about my business, then went to pay. The attractive woman was in line ahead of me, and I realized she had some of the exact mannerisms of my friend as well, so I blurted out: "Do you have a sister named".... and she turned to me and said yes! How funny that two sisters not only look so much alike, but also have such similar mannerisms! My own dear sister and I look nothing alike!

In spite of taking time out for lunch, I managed to restring a necklace of rock crystal drums separated by glass beads. The crystal I bought when I was living in Peru, and I can't bear to part with them as I have so few left. I need to take a photo of it.

It's been a good day.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Half Century

On the eve of turning 50, I signed up for a basic metalworking class. I have been working with metal as I develop my skills as a jewelry artisan, but I want an expert to teach me things that otherwise might take a long time to learn on my own.

I have been a painter for many years, and am mostly self-taught. While I believe there is great merit in learning through trial and error -- especially if one is as stubborn as I am -- I also know that simple skills learned from an expert can save valuable time. Perhaps it is because I am nearing a half century that I am particularly aware of the passage of time.

One of the skills I have learned in the past year since I began selling my jewelry (as opposed to keeping it for myself or giving it away to friends and family members) is how to photograph jewelry and work with photo software to create the best images possible for my online store, The other skill is learning how to navigate the internet and use it as best as possible to promote my shop.

I love the fact that this past year has involved a lot of learning. With the new metalworking class, I hope my 50th year will involve even more growth, learning and development.