Wednesday, December 28, 2011

eBook Readers for Children: Kindles for Lars and Anders, 6 Months Later...

8 year old Anders reading his Kindle
UPDATED 9/4/2013: If you're looking for information about the All-New Kindle Paperwhite coming out this month, you can find an updated post on the new features and enhancements here.

A little over a year ago, I posted here about my search for an electronic reader that would be appropriate for my two sons.  I looked at the Sony e-Reader, the Barnes & Noble Nook (it had just come out in the color version), and the Amazon Kindle.  I was disappointed that none of the major players in the e-Reader field seemed to be thinking of children, and I was ticked off beyond belief that Barnes & Noble was marketing their color Nook device with Dr. Seuss picture books, yet they had not incorporated any parental controls for the Nook (which is wide open to the Internet, with no way for parents to even filter out porn.  Just what you want for a preschooler, right?!).

Based on the traffic I'm still seeing for those posts a year later, many other parents out there are still searching for an acceptable e-Reader for children, so I thought it was time for a follow up post to tell you about what we ended up doing for our boys and how it's working out.  I bought two of the Kindle 3G 6" screen devices with Wi-Fi at the beginning of last summer, for about $189 each.  I could have gotten the same devices for $139 each with "Special Offers" -- that is, instead of famous author portraits for screen savers, the Special Offers Kindles would have paid advertisements as screen savers.  Because I feel that children are assaulted by way too many advertisements already, I paid more for the ad-free versions.  Our Kindles also have the free 3-G wireless built in (no additional contract or monthly fee required) because I wanted to be able to download new content for the boys to read when we're out to dinner, driving in the car, out shopping, etc. 

Kindle 3G Wi-Fi in Charcoal, just like Lars's
Here's what I love about these Kindles for my boys, now that they've been using them for six months:
  1. My kids love their Kindles and use them every day.  I definitely got my money's worth.  Children in general are so much more comfortable with technology than adults.  They don't have the same biases and preferences for "real" paper books; in fact, they seem to prefer reading on the Kindles to paperback books (and these are kids who were reading a ton of books to begin with). 
  2. The boys are using the built-in dictionary to instantly get definitions for unfamiliar words.  They would never stop reading in the midst of a good action story to go find a traditional dictionary and look up a word, but the Kindle makes it so easy to just select the word, read the definition, and go back to the story.  They are also using the highlighting and annotating features, mostly to leave little notes for each other in books they are both reading at the same time.  Which brings me to...
  3. Every eBook I purchase is available on all of our Kindles, all at the same time.  My boys are good at lots of things; unfortunately, sharing books is not one of them.  Since both Kindles are registered to my Amazon account, all of my Kindle content shows up on both Kindles at the same time.  You have no idea how many fights we've had because this one is reading the book that belongs to the other one, or reading the other one's birthday present book before the birthday boy has a chance to read it, etc.  With the Kindle, it's like getting two copies of every book for the price of one.  My husband and I also use the Kindle app on our iPads, and we can access any of our Kindle books that way, as well.  When you open a book that someone else is reading on another device, the Kindle will ask whether you want to sync to the furthest page read on all your devices, so if you don't want it to jump ahead to where your brother has his bookmark, you just select "no."
  4. I was able to get two different color kindles, one white and one charcoal.  Some day, one little boy is bound to drop his Kindle in the toilet, and that little boy will not be able to secretly swap his soggy Kindle for his brother's!
  5. For kids, the limited functionality of the Plain Kindle (not the Fire!) is ideal!  I don't want them on the Internet, or playing a bunch of games on their Kindles -- I wanted an e-Reader that I could allow relatively unlimited access to, just like with traditional books.  Multifunctional electronic devices with email, video and web browsing are great for adults, but the Kindle only has chess, sudoku and a couple of other brainy, low-tech games.  It's mostly a reading platform, and that's the main reason I purchased Kindles rather than something else.
  6. The battery life of the Kindle is phenomenal.  Unlike their Nintendo DS game devices, which need to be plugged in to charge after just about every play session, we have never had a child unable to use his Kindle because the battery was dead.  With the wireless connection turned off, the battery life is something like 30 days.  There's no advantage to having the wireless on all the time anyway; you just need it while you're actively downloading content to the device.
However -- Isn't there always a however?! -- the Kindle still isn't a perfect solution.  If the head honchos of Amazon ever asked my opinion, here's what I'd ask them to change to make the Kindle into a perfect child-friendly e-Reader that no parent could resist:

1. Password protection only works to lock and unlock the device, with no separate password requirement when purchasing in the Amazon Kindle store directly from the Kindle.  For adults, this is convenient and makes sense -- you key in your password when you pick up your Kindle, and you aren't bothered with having to type it in again each time you download a new book.  One of my sons is great about following my rules -- no purchasing new books on your own, only with Mom's permission.  My other son has repeatedly been caught downloading all kinds of books without  permission, sometimes even when he's sitting right behind me in the car.  I find out shortly thereafter, because I get a string of emails from Amazon thanking me for all of the Kindle purchases that he has instantly downloaded (and effortlessly charged to my American Express account).  I was even getting these emails while I was in Paris in September, until I called Grampa and instructed him to confiscate the offending son's Kindle.  Every time Mr. Impulsive goes on a wild shopping spree in the Kindle Store I have to take away his Kindle for a couple of days -- and I didn't want to have to do that.  For parents of kids who don't have trouble with impulsivity, this won't be a big deal, but for me, it's a huge annoyance that Amazon could easily resolve by giving me the option of password-protecting the Kindle Store functionality on the Kindle device.

2. I wish there was more juvenile and young adult fiction content available for purchase on the Kindle.  It's getting better, but there are still a lot of books that I can't download for them.  For instance, none of the Harry Potter books were available for Kindle download the last time I checked.  However, the Percy Jackson series is on Kindle, and it was wonderful to have it preordered and then just instantly download on both Kindles the day the latest book was released.

3. Somehow, supposedly, there is a way to borrow digital books on a Kindle for free from the public library, but I haven't figured out how to do it yet -- or whether there are many children's books available this way.  This is definitely an area of growth opportunity for child users.  I am pretty sure I would have to use my computer to log in to the library web site with my library card number and password, and then I could browse the digital lending library and presumably borrow books by downloading them temporarily to my PC.  What I would love to see is a way for my kids' Kindles to connect directly to the public library database the way they connect to my Amazon account through the Kindle store, so that Mr. Consequences-Schmonsequences-As-Long-As-I-Can-Read could impulsively borrow library books instead of running up my credit cards.  An added bonus would be having the borrowed library books instantly disappear from the Kindle on the due date -- no more library fines for Mom to pay!

Charlotte Mecklenburg's Digital Lending Library Site
UPDATE 12/31/2011: I finally had a chance to figure out how to borrow Kindle content from the public library last night!  Here's how it works.  If you have a Charlotte Mecklenburg County library card, you access this website from your computer, not from your Kindle (if you aren't in Charlotte Mecklenburg, check your own public library web site for a digital e-Books link, or ask your librarian to help you).  Our library is using a service called Overdrive for digital lending.  Once you're on the digital lending web site you can browse for all kinds of goodies including e-Books, videos, and audiobooks.  There is content for all kinds of mobile devices, not just Kindles -- the audiobooks would be great for the iPhone or iPod in the car.  I found the site to be very easy to navigate. 

You can search by title, author, or keyword, or if you click on Advanced Search you can search by format (Kindle Book), language (English), and subject (Juvenile Fiction) to browse the entire Kindle lending collection for children.  Then when you're ready to "check out," you're redirected to Amazon to download the content to your Kindle devices free of charge.  So, good news, it's easy!  Bad news?  Guess how many books came up when I searched for all Juvenile Fiction Kindle content at my library?  35!  What's worse is that those 35 titles included everything from Dr. Seuss to teen romances and the Twilight Series.  There were four or five short Phineas & Ferb titles that Lars and Anders were interested in, and several novels we've already read, but the dearth of digital lending content for children was ultimately pretty depressing.

However, Kindle lending through the public library is relatively new, and I'm sure more titles will be added in time as more and more library patrons take advantage of the digital lending service.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Happy 11th Birthday, Lars-of-Ours!

Lars-of-Ours, Lord of the Legos, Birthday #11
'Twas the night after Christmas 2000, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring because we were at the hospital -- impatiently awaiting Lars's Grand Entrance to the World!  Happy Birthday, Lars!  Lars is spending his 11th birthday putting together the Lego sets he got for Christmas.  He'll open birthday gifts later this afternoon, when Grammy and Grampa come over.  The birthday boy has requested pizza for dinner, and I haven't even thought about the cake yet (not feeling enthusiastic about baking one, either, after last year's fiasco with Lars's birthday cake!).  I may resort to cupcakes to play it safe...

Lars at 9 months old
How time flies!  It doesn't seem like all that long ago that Lars was content to bounce up and down in this doorway contraption, sucking on a frozen baby washcloth. 

Lars's First Birthday Party, 2001
Here he is at his first birthday in 2001, eating a chocolate peppermint cake that I made (successfully, this time!) from a Bon Appetit recipe.  He has since decided that he does not like chocolate, but he wasn't such a fussy eater back when he was small, bald, and pudgy. 

Happy Birthday, Little One Lars!  We love you!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Onslaught of the Christmas Cookies, 2011: Attack of the Ninjabread Men

Christmas Cookies 2011
The baking frenzy began innocently enough, with a batch of our family's favorite Crackled Molasses Sugar Cookies.  Those cookies vaporized within a day or two, and then we had to bake more crackled molasses along with a batch of Norwegian krumkake for the boys' internationally-themed classroom holiday parties. 

Krumkake filled with Strawberry Ice Cream
For those of you who do not have Norwegian heritage, krumkake are thin, crispy cookies that are made one at a time with a special iron that imprints a lacy design on each cookie.  After baking the cookie for about 20 seconds, you peel the piping hot cookie off the krumkake iron and wrap it immediately around a little wooden cone to shape the cookie.  Thanks to the krumkake baking session, I no longer have fingerprints, so it's a good thing they taste good! 
My mom never filled our krumkake with anything that I can remember, but all of the recipes suggest filling with whipped cream, fresh berries, or ice cream.  We discovered that krumkake make the best tiny ice cream cones, filled with strawberry Breyer's ice cream.  Yummy!
Lars Sucking Ice Cream out of his Krumkake

My krumkake were not as crispy as I would have liked, but my internet research suggests that the mild North Carolina weather was to blame.  I found an ex-Minnesotan/Norwegian baker in Texas online who claims that crispy krumkake perfection requires baking on a cold, dry day (and when they talk about a cold winter day in Minnesota, they mean zero temperatures or below) yet it was a balmy 68 degrees in Charlotte the day I was baking mine.  My cookies came out somewhere in between crisp and al dente, like pasta that isn't quite done yet, but doesn't break your teeth.  Not terrible, but not sublime either.  I'll have to try another batch of krumkake in January or February, when we get a cold snap.  Although I've always thought of krumkake as a Christmas and New Year's cookie, it would be perfect for Valentine's Day with the strawberry ice cream.  Also, nothing says I Love You like burning off your fingerprints on blistering-hot cookies, don't you think?

Christmas Cookie Decorating, Wayzata, MN, 1981
Now, to understand the craziness that followed, you need to understand that my mom made double or even triple batches of rolled sugar cookies for us to decorate every year for Christmas, going back as far as I can remember.  See evidence above.  I'm the one in the red dress whose hair is hanging into the frosting.  Susan always made the most beautiful cookies (she's the one in the foreground at left) and the younger ones, Janice and Donnie, would dump a quantity of frosting and red hots on their cookies in inverse proportion to their ages.  (In fairness, I must say that Janice the Manice's cookie decorating prowess improved with age, but she's 5 in this picture and I am pretty sure she was still a frosting dumper at that time).

When I have attempted to perpetuate this family tradition with my sons in prior years, we've been frustrated by the difficulty of squeezing the thick tubes of frosting from the grocery store.  Looking at the old picture, I see that the store-bought frosting used to come in a different container that was probably easier for little hands to use.  I also have a terrible time whenever I attempt to roll out any kind of dough, whether it's for pie crust or cookies.  The rolling pins and I are not the best of friends.  Finally, after so much effort is put into these shaped and decorated cookies, most of them are pretty ugly and I never really liked the taste.  Not making any cookies to decorate would be sacrilege, because it's a Family Christmas Tradition and I can't have my children growing up frosting deprived!

The Package from King Arthur Flour has Arrived
I was determined to improve the Cookie Decorating Experience this year, so I ordered LOTS of decorating goodies from King Arthur Flour a couple of weeks ago.  I got every color of sprinkling sugar you could imagine, edible glitter stars, chocolate jimmies, Fiori di Sicilia to flavor the cookies instead of the Almond Extract we'd used in the past.  I planned to try my hand at Royal Icing for the first time, because I'd be able to control the consistency and I hoped it would taste better than the stuff from the grocery store since homemade icing wouldn't have the chemical preservatives.  So I bought meringue powder to make the icing (instead of raw egg whites) and a variety of contraptions for piping the frosting onto the cookies, certain that at least ONE of them would be easy enough for the kids to use.  As a last resort, I even got some edible foodcoloring markers for drawing directly on the cookies or on hardened icing (Anders really loved these).

Anders drew a tuxedo on a gingerbread man with FooDoodler markers

Then I spent a bit too much time trolling the internet for decorating inspiration -- you can see my favorite OPC (Other People's Cookies) here on my Pinterest board.  I got a couple of new cookie cutters this year, a large tree with a star on top, and a set of three Ninjabread men.  Lars and Anders were very excited about the Ninjabread men.  It would be impossible to exaggerate their level of Ninjabread men excitement, in fact.  They were downright giddy about the Ninjabread men.  If you have little boys in your kitchen, I strongly recommend the Ninjabread men -- and you can get the cookie cutters right here
Lars Cutting Out Ninjabread Cookies
So, how did it all turn out?  My mom had to come to the rescue when it was time to roll out the dough, and her tried-and-true pastry cloth and little knit rolling pin sock won hands-down over my fancy Williams Sonoma silicone rolling pin and silicone pastry mat.  My gingerbread dough needed more flour because it was too sticky, and my sugar cookie dough needed a little milk because it was so dry that it was crumbling apart when I tried to roll it.  Once the doughs were the right consistency they were pretty easy to handle. 

Royal Icing, tinted Yellow with AmeriColor Gel Food Coloring
The Royal Icing was an adventure, but it came out okay.  I had a tough time getting a true red color until I read this baking blogger's instructions and discovered that the frosting will darken gradually as it dries.  I was also grateful that I'd ordered the AmeriColor gel food colors to tint my frosting, so I was able to get a nice, deep black for Santa boots and snowman details, as well as a medium brown for my Christmas tree stumps. 

Frosting Tubes Filled & Ready to Go
Another challenge was getting the icing into the little bottles and tube contraptions once I'd mixed it up.  My solution was to spoon the frosting into plastic Ziplock sandwich bags, squeeze the air out and seal the baggie, then snip off a corner so I could "pipe" the frosting into the various containers.  However, I made the mistake of mixing up and tinting most of the frosting the night before I planned for the kids to decorate, so I could get my "trials and errors" out of the way ahead of time.  Unfortunately, the icing really needs to be used right away.  The frostings from the night before were too runny the next day. 

Anders and Grammy Rolling Out Sugar Cookie Dough
There's a wonderful tutorial on decorating with Royal Icing on the King Arthur Flour blog here, and an even better updated tutorial by the same author that I just found right here (wish I'd seen these pictures of what the icing consistency should be before I made mine).  I decided that the cookie shapes we most enjoy decorating are the simplest ones, like snowflakes, bells, candy canes, and stars.  I liked the reindeer in gingerbread because they only needed a red nose, a black eye, and a white tail and then they were perfect.  Next year I'm going to get a mitten and an ornament cookie cutter, because I enjoyed making patterns on cookies more than fussing with multicolored Santas and angels that seldom come out looking as good as the cookies you envisioned in your mind.  Oh, and I think I'll limit frosting to two or three colors at a time next year, so I can do a thick and thin (for flooding) version of each frosting color.  This year I mixed up red, white, green, blue, yellow, orange, black, and brown, all at once, in an in-between consistency.  The frosting went on too thickly in large areas that we were trying to fill in, but was still too runny to get really sharp detail.

My Best Efforts: Rebecca's Christmas Cookies
Oh, and all those sugars and sprinkles I bought?  We hardly made a dent in them.  My favorite was the white sugar that I sprinkled on the edges of my snowman.  I also flocked a blue snowman scarf with glitter.  And I love how my Ninja Santa came out. 

Grammy and Bernie Decorating Cookies

Well, you'd think that by noon on Christmas Eve, I'd be done baking cookies.  You'd be wrong.  I have a whole batch of crackled molasses sugar cookie dough in the fridge, ready to be shaped into balls and rolled in sugar for baking.  I am also in my bathrobe, and -- horror of horrors! -- I have been so obsessed with cookie baking that I am NOT DONE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING YET!!!  I have to hop in the shower, get dressed, and then go to the mall, yes, the MALL on CHRISTMAS EVE, to get a couple of last-minute gifts for a certain difficult-to-shop-for husband of mine. 
Merry Christmas, everyone!  Wish me luck at the mall!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Three Men Quilting: A Father and Sons Quilting Bee!

Anders, Bernie and Lars laying out blocks for Lars's quilt
With all 150 blocks completed for Lars's Drunken Dragons quilt, I enlisted the whole family to help me determine a layout last night.  We crawled around on the floor in the foyer and everyone pitched in to arange the blocks into a 10 x 15 rectangle, trying not to place blocks with the same fabrics adjacent to one another, and making sure none of our dragons or lizards were placed upside down or sideways. 
Scrappy Drunkard's Path quilt, c. 1910, Michigan, Wonkyworld
Before I recruited the assistance of my menfolk, I played around with a couple of alternate layout ideas.  I considered doing the traditional staggering path layout that gives the Drunkard's Path block its name, as in this vintage quilt at left (featured on the WonkyWorld blog here).  However, when I laid out a few of my own blocks in this pattern, I quickly realized that the success of this layout depends on your fabric having enough contrast in values (each block should combine one "light" fabric with one "dark" fabric so the "path" will stand out in the finished quilt). 

See what happened when I tried this layout with my blocks, made of similar-valued fabrics?  The pathway design disappears and it just looks like a mess.  So, circles it is!  Just as an aside, I should point out that the pathway design would have been a little easier because there aren't as many seams to match when you sew the blocks together, but hopefully my piecing was precise enough that everything will match up nicely for me. 

Here's the final layout for this quilt (drumroll, please...):
Final Layout for our Drunken Dragons quilt
My exuberant puppy dogs were outside while all this was going on, or I'm sure they would have loved to have helped...  :-)

Before I let the dogs in, I carefully picked the blocks up row by row, left to right, and labeled them with sticky notes so I that (hopefully) I won't mess up when I sew all the blocks together.  I also printed out an 8" x 10" picture of the layout that I can use as a map, and I'll be checking that frequently throughout the process to make sure I don't get confused.  If this was a smaller project, like a lap quilt or baby blanket, I would have laid the blocks out on a flannel sheet on a vertical surface in my studio and then I could have taken the blocks down as I needed them -- easier on my knees, and easier to stay organized, but unfortunately impractical this time around.  

I can't wait to get these blocks sewn together so I can move on to layering (yuck), basting (double yuck), and machine quilting (scary-but-exciting, like a roller coaster) this quilt so it can snuggle around my little Lars at night!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Merry Christmas 2011: The Christmas Card Post

Last year I indulged in misty-eyed nostalgia for what I consider to be an endangered species, the vintage Christmas card that is actually a card rather than a photo postcard, and which actually wishes the recipient a Merry Christmas rather than a bland, politically-correct Happy Holiday.  If you're so young that you don't remember what real Christmas cards are supposed to look like, you can read last year's Christmas card post and see some beautiful examples of vintage Christmas cards here

Christmas Past, at least the way we remember or imagine it from the present, was simpler, less commercialized, more personal and more family and community oriented than it is today.  It was A Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, and It's A Wonderful Life.  This year, however, I'm sharing this 1952 Ronald Reagan Christmas ad for Chesterfield cigarettes as a reminder that, then as now, Hollywood is in the dream business, and films are magical mirrors that show audiences an idealized reflection of their society.  I mean, seriously?!  When I romanticized those magical 1950s era Christmases from The Good Old Days, I wasn't thinking about cartons of "Christmas card" cigarettes under the tree!!

Yes, I still miss real Christmas cards and I still feel annoyed rather than touched by the cards I receive from the HV/AC company and the dry cleaner (wishing me prosperity so I can continue to shop with them). If you are one of my few remaining family or friends who sends me a Christmas card with a pretty Christmas picture on the front, please know that I am absolutely delighted to receive it, even if you just signed your name and didn't have time to write a Christmas letter.  Perhaps the newer tradition of Christmas photocards is one that our children and grandchildren may look back on fondly as what Christmas cards "should" be.  With families and friends as spread out across the globe as they are today, there are some smiling faces we only get to see on Facebook and Christmas cards anymore.  I also realize that it takes a lot of effort and advance planning for families to get that perfect holiday photo and have the cards printed up on time for Christmas (is that what you people were working on while I was obsessing over turkey and side dishes last month?).

Christmas Card Ornament, photo courtesy of ScoutyGirl
If I do get any old-style Christmas cards this year, I'm saving every single one of them.  My little sister reminded me the other day that we used to recycle Christmas cards for an ornament craft project at my grandmother's house, and I found a tutorial that refreshed my memory on how to do it right here at ScoutyGirl.  In fact, I just had a flash of inspiration for this project -- if I don't have enough Christmas cards to cut up, why not print my own?  All those images of vintage Christmas cards that I tracked down and posted about last year right here could be printed on heavy card stock and used to supplement the cards that come in the mail.  There are loads of images on the internet that would be perfect for this.  I can't wait to do this with my kids over Christmas break -- thanks for the idea, Janice the Manice!

By the way, if you haven't done your Christmas cards yet, there's still time.  I just ordered mine online; with express shipping I should have them by the middle of next week.  (My favorite online sources for Christmas cards are the museum shops at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago).  I'll probably be watching those old Christmas movies while I sign and address my Christmas cards, but I'll try to remember that the best Christmas is always THIS Christmas, this gift of time off from work, school, and other obligations when we can relax with our loved ones and be reminded of what really matters.  Yesterday we had The Santa Claus 2 on while I was mixing up cookie dough, the one where Tim Allen has to get married by Christmas Eve or else he can't be Santa anymore.  When they got to the proposal scene and Santa said that Christmas would end if the lady didn't say yes, Anders piped up, "No it wouldn't!  Jesus would still come without Santa!"  Yay, Anders!

Whether your family celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah, or another holiday at this time of year, may God bless you with his gifts of love, forgiveness, and salvation and keep you safe and healthy.  Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Drunken Dragons Quilt Progress: Backing, Binding & Batting Selected

Backing Fabric from
Now that the 150 Drunkard's Path blocks are nearly finished (I'll be sewing the last 10 blocks later today), I started thinking ahead to the next steps in this project.  Although I have started to accumulate a staggering quantity of quilting fabric, I usually don't buy more than half a yard of anything.  The only way I could use fabric from my stash for the quilt backing was if I pieced it somehow, and I didn't want to overcomplicate the project -- so I went shopping instead!  I chose a blue fabric with swirly spirals and what reminds me of little orange fireflies all over it for my backing fabric.  Since I ordered it online, I hope the colors are pretty true to what I see on my monitor, but this is for the backing after all, so I'm sure it will be fine.

Binding Fabric from
For the binding, I selected this vivid orange batik with blue ears of corn.  My binding will be narrow, and you won't be able to see any vegetables -- it will just look like random blue lines here and there.  At least that's the idea.

My batting is going to be Hobbs Tuscany Collection 90/10 Silk/Poly.  Wendy Sheppard uses this batting and she says it's easy to work with on domestic machines and it quilts up very soft and cuddly, even when it's quilted very densely.  I've never tried it before, so I'm looking forward to it.  You can read what Wendy has to say about this batting in her Thread Talk article here on her Ivory Spring blog.

As of this writing I have 130 blocks completed and only 20 remaining to be sewn.  Then I have to figure out how I'm going to lay the blocks out and sew them together.  According to UPS, I'll have my backing fabric and batting in my hot little hands by the end of the day on Thursday the 15th, but I doubt I'll be ready to do anything with it other than prewash the backing fabric.  We have a busy week, with Night of the Notables at the boys' school on Tuesday evening, then a community theatre production of A Christmas Carol on Thursday night, and classroom holiday parties for which I've promised to bake.  Bernie and I have to do some Christmas shopping this week, too, while the boys are still in school. 

I hope you are all enjoying a beautiful holiday season with your loved ones!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Rainy Saturday at the Paris Flea Market: Les Puces de Saint-Ouen

Random Cute Strangers at Les Puces de Saint-Ouen
I was looking through photos yesterday and came across all these fabulous pictures from the Paris flea markets in September that I never got around to showing you.  First, a disclaimer: I am by no means any kind of expert on the fleas.  This was my first time going, and since I was in Paris for a trade show and was squeezing in as much sight-seeing as possible, I didn't allow nearly enough time to fully explore all that the Paris flea markets have to offer.  In fact, I was only there a couple of hours and then we raced off to Versailles, which I was determined not to miss out on again.  If you're headed to Paris for some serious shopping, I highly recommend that you download Claudia Strasser of The Paris Apartment's iPhone app "Keys to the Fleas." 

Why had I never been to the flea markets on previous trips to Paris?  Well, for one thing, when I hear "flea market" I instantly think of the Englishtown Auction where I had my very first job in a breakfast stand in the Red Building, serving Canadian bacon and egg sandwiches to the bargain hunters of New Jersey at the crack of dawn.  As my olfactory memory is overcome by greasy breakfast smells, I remember the Englishtown Auction (billed as one of the largest open air flea markets in the United States) as an enormous and overwhelming yard sale full of a mixture of junk and brand-new clothing with tags, recently shoplifted from the nearby malls.  You can get in some interesting people-watching at the Englishtown Auction, but did I really need to go to a giant French yard sale and look through French people's junk while I was in Paris?

The answer is oui, oui, OUI!!   I can tell you most emphatically that the Parisian flea markets are MUCH more elegant than Les Puces de New Jersey! ;-) 

Ventriloquist's Dummy and Vintage, Antique Doll Parts

Another quick disclaimer, before we get started: There are two main flea markets in Paris, Les Puces de Saint-Ouen (where I went) and Clignancourt (where I did not go, although I heard it's more affordable).  Then there are all kinds of smaller, less permanent flea markets going on in different places at different times.  Again, if you're looking for something specific, check out Claudia's Keys to the Fleas before you head out.  My goal was just to get a taste of what the flea markets had to offer in the few hours I was there.  I saw much that I loved but bought nothing -- everything I liked seemed to cost at least 3,000 euros and the exchange rate was lousy.

Françoise Schuler, Marché Vernaison, Saint-Ouen

This was one of my favorite stalls.  This antique textile dealer had the most amazing things, everything from embroidered table linens to silk damask window treatments (I was tempted to buy the valance in the photo above to hang in my office, but she would only sell it as part of a set with several other matching valances and drapery tiebacks that I wouldn't be able to use).  There were also some beautiful 18th century aristocratic garments, embellished with some of the most exquisite hand embroidery I've ever seen in person.

Can't you just imagine Mozart scampering around in this outfit?
Detail of Hand-Embroidered Floral Motif

This vendor also had museum-worthy religious vestments (see above), antique quilts, and tapestries.  I feel terrible for drooling all over her lovely things.

Tapestries from Françoise Schuler
All that was just from one stall no bigger than a two-car garage.  I was beginning to wish I'd alotted more of our day to the flea market at this point!

This was another fun booth.  I think our fearless leader Deb Barrett may have gone back and purchased the vintage Draperies sign later in the day.  The vendor at this stall asked me not to take pictures (after I'd already taken this one -- oops!), but then she relented and gave us permission to photograph a fascinating antique window blind that she'd already sold to another customer:

Antique Window Blind; Love the Metal Cornice!
By the way, in the flea market, as elsewhere in Paris, I found that Parisians were friendly, helpful, and very gracious when we were courteous and attempted to speak a little French.  Most flea market vendors spoke some English, but not as fluently as the sales staff at the Galleries Lafayette or the cafes.  I was happily surprised that I remembered enough French to converse with a couple of vendors in a mixture of French and English that my high school French teacher would have scorned as "franglais!"

Fit for the Queen of the Universe?
This next stall specialized in vintage costume jewelry.  Aren't these crowns fabulous?  In my house, when I ask my children to do something and they start whining about why, I often reply "Because I said so, and I'm the Queen of the Universe."  I got away with this when they were in preschool, but since then they've wised up and now Anders will retort, "Yeah?  If you're the Queen of the Universe, then where's your crown?"  I think the crown at bottom left with the stars would be perfect for the Queen of the Universe, don't you?

The same stall had a great collection of vintage Chanel costume jewelry as well.

Vintage Chanel Costume Jewelry

Taxidermy Tarantula
Of course there were plenty of odd things for sale at the flea market, like this taxidermied tarantula.  I almost bought this for my son Lars because he would think it was unbelievably cool, but then I considered the potential for customs hassels if I tried to bring a dead spider back to the States in my luggage.  I don't recall there being a box to check on the customs form to declare deceased arachnids specifically, but I decided to let it go anyway. 

Another stall that demanded our attention was Les Perlés d’Antan, where vendor Flora Barlan is selling off the inventory of her family's now defunct trim company. 

 Look at the hand embroidery and beadwork on this piece!  This definitely gives me some ideas.  A little bead bling embellishment (with restraint) added to an embroidered drapery fabric could be amazing on a drapery cornice or pillow.  Pearl beads, small rhinestones and seed beads could also be added to machine embroidered designs to give them a more unique, three-dimensional flair.  The piece in the photo here is an embroidered collar, and Mme. Barlan explained that it would have been used as a sample in a shop where clients could order custom embroidered garments.  What would I do with something like this if I had purchased it?  Well, it would be stunning framed as textile art.  It might be possible to adapt the collar pieces for use as drapery tiebacks, but it would be an absolute shame to destroy any of the embroidery and I would worry about UV damage -- you'd definitely want to invest in UV film for your window before you used a vintage textile for a window treatment.

Embroidered and Beaded Sample Collar

Cutwork and Beaded Sample Collar

Antique Crocheted Lace Trim Samples

By the way, after I returned from Paris, I came across a wonderful idea for these small pieces of antique crocheted lace trims.  Of course, now I can't remember where I saw it -- Pinterest, maybe?  Someone had framed a piece of fabric stretched over a board, with horizontal "stripes" of different laces, and was using it as a place to organize and display her collection of earrings.  These bits of lace would be perfect for a project like that, and they could also be sewn into one of those fabric jewelry travel pouches for the same purpose.
Vintage Crystal Pagoda Chandelier

By the time we came to this lovely courtyard of shops, it was almost time to head back for lunch and our afternoon trip to Versailles.  We really only got a glimpse of the treasures to be found at Les Puces de Saint-Ouen.  Next time I'm in Paris, I plan to spend a whole day at the flea markets, and I'll be bringing back more than memories and pretty pictures!