Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Of Timeless Villages, Thyme Honey and Tryingly Tenuous Technological Threads

It's no good, something's going to have to give around here. Can't possibly stretch the 24-hour day any wider. Life was busy enough before the Internet became an obsession. Then blogging made surfing the Net seem like the carefree hours of childhood. Then Ravelry started and the meaning of black holes became a lot clearer. Now we have online competitions, events and KALs, which occupy every waking moment and, on all too many occasions, eat into sleep time too.

Yep, housework is definitely going to have to go. It's a waste of time anyway, isn't it? I mean, you dust the house and sweep the floors and tomorrow it all has to be done again. Or next week. Whatever.

Got back from Crete more than a week ago but catching up with the backlog of work took some time. That, and Rounds 4 and 5 of Sock Madness which followed each other with breakneck speed. I'm out of the front line contest now, which is a relief, but still knitting happily along with each new pattern, discovering strange techniques and ideas every time and liking at least some of them.

Getting to Crete outside the official summer season isn't all that easy. Come the end of May through to September, any travel agent will find you a nice package holiday to an over-developed tourist resort. That, however, means the searing soaring temperatures that you get so far south, and the arid, exhausted landscape that goes with it. We wanted to see Crete in spring, with all the wild flowers, but it took some searching and finagling on the Internet before we finally managed to organise a flight via Amsterdam.

Which meant getting up very early indeed on the morning of departure. Fortunately not earlier than the release of Pattern 3 in Sock Madness which popped into my mailbox a whole eight minutes before we had to leave for the airport. Had already thought to pack the wooden circulars, so knitted all the way to Amsterdam -

knitted on those moving trackways...

- and took advantage of a brief wi-fi link to post the requisite progress pic.

Didn't realise that was the last we would see of modern technology for quite some time...

Knitted all the next day as we drove through the beautiful Cretan mountains, through timeless whitewashed villages, along twisty roads through olive groves, over hump-backed bridges -

- past ruined churches -

with fragments of ancient frescoes still to be glimpsed on their ceilings.

A lovely and totally unexpected thing happened as I sat on a grassy bank in the late afternoon knitting busily while DH photographed birds coming down to drink at a tiny stream. A man drove up in a dusty little truck and nodded to me as he passed up the lane on the way to his fields. Concentrating on the stitches I heard him opening his gate, the clang as it hit against the stone wall, then the truck starting up again and moving through. The silence returned, with only the murmuring of bees collecting pollen from the wild thyme as background. Then I heard returning footsteps. Oh heck, we were blocking his access in some way. I mentally rehearsed apologies in my rudimentary Greek as they came closer. They stopped. I looked up.

He was standing there with a bunch of freshly-picked roses in his tanned fist. He held them out. 'For you', he said simply. Then he bowed, smiled, and went back up the lane and into his fields, out of sight.

I was totally taken aback. What a lovely, lovely, courteous gesture from a complete stranger.

The northern coast of Crete is pretty well developed now, with extensive tourist resorts reaching out their neon and plastic claws towards each other, but once you head into the hills and down towards the south, you enter another, timeless world, where modern life doesn't seem to have intruded at all.

This old man, his tanned face creased into a thousand wrinkles, was peacefully riding back to his home somewhere in the hills, the plastic bag containing his few groceries slung on the antique pack saddle. It probably took him half the day to get down to the nearest village, and the other half to get back. That was all right. It was his day for going to town.

And in every village you saw the black-garbed women, dignified, expressionless, but bending their heads in acknowledgement of your wave, your smile, as you passed.

Or you saw them toiling along the roadside with bundles of freshly-cut green herbage which they were taking home as fodder for their animals.

I wondered about those women. Oh you saw the young ones too, in the larger villages - slim, dark-eyed girls with long hair and seductive glances at the Adonis-like young males who roared past on their motorcycles. But when, I wondered, did one become the other? Was it on marriage? Did a young vibrant girl, full of the joys of life and fond of fun, marry a man from an outlying village and thereafter have to dress in unrelieved black, take her place in the strict code of an older world? Did she ever look back longingly to a time when she wore bright light colours and danced for sheer exuberance?

In these villages, there are always cafes, tavernas, but you never see the women sitting at the tables. Always the men, the older men, brushed and combed, their moustaches perfectly arranged (they favour moustaches on Crete). They often spend the entire day and most of the night there. I asked the man of one house where we stayed why the women didn't go to the cafes or tavernas.

'They do not like to be seen there', he said firmly. 'They have their own meeting places.' His wife, busying herself around the kitchen while he sat and talked, didn't even look up. She didn't have time.

I worked on those Round 3 socks like fury, and by Sunday afternoon - a hot, breathless afternoon, with nothing stirring in the remote mountain valley where we had stopped under the shade of some olive trees - they were done, finished, toes grafted, the lot.

DH ceremoniously took the requisite picture amid wild orchids.

Then for the first time, I wondered just exactly how the picture was going to be sent. For Sock Madness you have to post the finished socks on Flickr, then email the moderators with a link to that. Time is of the essence. We didn't have a cable to use the mobile phone, and even if we had, there was absolutely no reception amid those mountains. So where was the nearest Internet cafe?

A very good question. And one which would be posed again at increasingly frantic intervals.

Evening was falling. We drove onwards, and finally found one of those typical Cretan villages with its traditional stone-built houses. One had a sign offering rooms to rent. The black-clad lady smiled, nodded, and showed us to a scrupulously clean, whitewashed little room with threadbare but spotlessly clean linen sheets. Diffidently I asked about Internet access. She looked puzzled. I showed her my laptop. She gave a bewildered smile. In desperation I asked about television (the word does come from the Greek after all). She beamed, bustled out, and returned with two saucers of thick Greek yoghurt with honey on top.

Well the yogurt was delectable. And by the time we went down to the local taverna for souvlaki grilled over charcoal with wild herbs sprinkled on top, I had almost recovered my sense of humour. Tomorrow, I said, I would post the picture. Who knows, perhaps my fellow-competitors were having a slow day. I might still make it through.

The next day we drove right to the south coast, to Plakias, which is a fairly thriving tourist resort in summer but now was shuttered and asleep. Certainly no Internet cafes. Too late to drive further, but next day (Tuesday at this point), got as far as -

- the delightful fishing village of Aghia Galini, near the ancient Minoan site of Phaistos.


Don't know if you can read those signs, but one of them says Internet. Information. Wireless Lan. Just what we needed! They were closed, of course, as it was the middle of the day, but we were assured by a woman shaking a carpet out of a window that they would open again in the evening. In jubilation, we found a marvellous little hotel built into the side of the steep cliffs, run by a gentle East German couple with a passion for Sixties music. As soon as dusk fell, rushed back to the Zanzibar clutching my laptop.

The bartender spread his hands in gentle apology. Ah if only they did have Internet access. It would be so good for business, so popular with visitors. Perhaps this year they would get the connection. It had been applied for some time ago, some years now. They even had the signs ready - perhaps we had noticed them outside, admired how well they looked? But alas, no connection. Not even a little one.

After three chilled Mythos beers, despite myself I started grinning, and by the fourth both DH and I were laughing like idiots. What did it matter after all, when the main course was pork grilled with honey and there was more of that delectable yoghurt for dessert?

The next morning, we actually found another Internet cafe, at the other side of the town, and one that really did appear to function as such.

Appear is the term advisedly used, since, despite the fact that they advertised breakfast from 7 am, they were not open at 10 am to eager Irish travellers bearing laptops. 'Perhaps later,' said the man selling wooden toys across the street. 'He was here very late last night, Christos was.'

Eventually Christos did turn up, I did get online, posted my picture, and found, as I had expected, that the divisions had closed long since. But I didn't mind. Well - not really. Not all that much. At least I could now go back to enjoying Crete.

And there was plenty to enjoy. The flowers - ah the wild flowers of Crete in spring.

Fields of poppies like a 19th century painting.

Delicate gladioli vying for space with brilliant white and yellow marguerites.

And the orchids - dear heaven, the orchids! Shy and retiring, they remained invisible until you actually walked across a stony little field, sat down on a rock to rest. Only then did you see the delicate little bloom right at your feet.

There were so many different kinds that we were hard put to identify them all.

Oh hang on - almost forgot. Would you like to see me modelling my Sock Madness Round 3s for a group of Cretan naked men?

Thought you might.

I had every intention of posting this picture on the Sock Madness site, and calling it Cavorting With Cretan Naked Men In My Round 3 Socks , but thought that the moderators might object.

That is the correct name of this orchid, though, The Naked Man.

DH thoughtfully took this closeup so you could see why it got that name.

One aspect of life, however, which I had very much hoped to find but which, sadly, was not in evidence, was yarncraft of any kind. Spinning, weaving, knitting - nowhere was anyone practising these age-old arts. I know they were doing them in the mid-20th century - Angeluna particularly warned me to look out for spindles and distaffs - but they appear to have gone forever.

The only spindles I saw were in a museum case. I saw another set displayed in the same way in another museum, which makes me conclude that all the old traditional implements were simply gathered up and preserved behind glass forever. Not the life any self-respecting spindle would want, do you think?

More worryingly, the waitress in one restaurant was fascinated by my knitting, to the extent of coming over and touching the fabric in puzzlement. She was about forty, I would say, and simply did not know what knitting was. She knew how to crochet - I gathered that much - 'but this, what is this?' I didn't expect that total lack of recognition. Didn't take long for the knowledge to disappear, did it?

But everything else was delightful, especially the cats, which of course were everywhere. Well fed and happy, too, and clearly much loved.

This marmalade mouser was fascinated by the Addi Turbos and felt sure he could do a pretty competent job on the heel of the Falling Rain socks if I would only let him.

There were nimble-footed goats on every cliff and ravine, and great flocks of sheep moving across the landscape wherever you looked.

The young man with this flock could have posed for any of the friezes on the Parthenon. (No, I deliberately didn't show you a close-up, I have to think of your blood pressure.)

It was rather endearing that this elderly shepherd, plying a timeless occupation in a timeless landscape, should have condescended to adopt at least one modern convenience. Maybe he was making arrangements for the get together at the taverna that evening.

Yes, we did leave enough time (just) to visit Crete's greatest archaeological treasure, last vestige of the fabulous Minoan culture.

It really is rather breathtaking. My own personal opinion is that Sir Arthur Evans did us a great service by recreating parts of it as he thought it must have looked in ancient Minoan times. It gives you a real feeling for the place.

Peering into these dim interiors, you wondered how many whispered assignations, how many intrigues, how many tiptoeing feet and gasps of terror are held within their memory. I felt like trying one of those dowsing techniques - you know, the one with a ring or an amulet on a fine hair which you let hang and see which way it describes a circle - just to see what I could pick up.

OK, here it is. This is the picture we had to take. It meant nipping over a few barriers and being quick about shedding the shoes before we were caught, but here, especially for you, fellow fibre fiends is -

What else?


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Socks With A View

I find it difficult to believe now that back in the early days of blogging I demanded severely what on earth was so interesting about knitting socks. I didn't get it, I said. What was the draw, the attraction that created such obsessive behaviour among my fellow-bloggers?

Ah well, we all grow and look back on our childish foibles with amusement.

This is by way of reassuring you that Sock Madness is still very much on the go. As I write, there are about three and half hours to go to the first possible time for release of Pattern 3. Back in those early foolish days I simply would not have believed that knitters all over the world - hi Snidknits in Bangalore, hi Linnakat in Kenya, hi Norway Kate! - could or would be poised at their computers, yarn wound, needles at the ready, waiting for the moment that the pattern dropped into their email boxes. But they are, we are, and the pressure and tension and excitement that the whole thing generates has to be experienced to be fully comprehended.

It's going to be laceweight this time round, and Celtic Memory is ready - well, as ready as she'll ever be.

Here are eight tiny balls of cobweb-weight yarn wound and eager for the start. It's going to be one of those multi-stranded patterns, we think, where you move gradually from one colourway to the next by changing one fine strand at a time. We think. We don't know until we SEE THAT PATTERN.

Which should be here any time from 3 hrs 20 minutes on.

Celtic Memory has to fly off somewhere tomorrow morning extremely early - so early in fact, that it is a matter of some conjecture whether the pattern will arrive in time. Extreme gloom will result if it does not, especially as it passeth man's knowledge when said pattern's and Celtic Memory's paths will cross again for a few days. Enough time for everybody else to have passed her out on the racetrack and crossed the finishing line in the meantime. Ah well, let's be philosophical. No, let's not. GIMME THAT PATTERN RIGHT NOW, Y'HEAR?

The weather has returned to winter here in West Cork with shockingly unseasonable ice, sleet and even, on one occasion, a veritable blizzard.

The dogs have been much disinclined to venture forth, preferring instead to watch the antics of birds and baby rabbits from the comfort of the rocking chair.

Oh I have to tell you something so exciting about the nesting birds! Don't have a picture of this one, because it really was so unexpected and to have picked up a camera would have shattered the moment, but just listen to this.

We had, as you know, put out lots of dog hair for the birds to take for lining their nests. This little coal tit - don't know what you'd call him in America, but he's one of the smaller chickadees - had come in to get a bundle. I noticed that he was taking ages tugging at the hair and wondered what he was doing. Do you know what he WAS doing? He was standing on a small pile of it, holding it firmly underneath one claw on the branch, while with the other claw he pulled out long fine strands. When he'd got a fine strand, he took it carefully in his beak, keeping it at full length, and went back to pulling out more. Eventually he had a whole light as air bundle of finely combed wool, and he flew busily off with it, well content with his work.

That coal tit was carding the wool! He was doing exactly what I do with my carding combs, only he was using the two claws nature gave him and making an excellent job of it. Why take home a big hard lump of fur when you could please your mate mightily by bringing soft lofty batting? I was so thrilled to have seen it, I had tears in my eyes. Of course the chance of seeing him doing it again is slight, but we're ready with cameras if he does.

Have you ever seen a bird doing that? If you have, tell me all about it. I love to see that instinctive behaviour which we had to learn painstakingly.

When the weather did improve slightly, took the in-progress Falling Rain socks out for a drive and thought I'd give you some Socks With A View.

Here is one of them sitting happily on the dashboard, looking down at Upper Lake, Killarney.

and here is the other reclining on the moss further down the road. I realise it's rather small in the picture but I thought you'd appreciate the background rather more.

You can't see them in this picture because they're in my hands. I was wandering back across the lane from admiring some lambs in a field, and saw this adorable little ruined cottage absolutely begging for a kind owner.

And here they are back home again, somewhat more progressed. Isn't this a lovely pattern?
Enough. Celtic Memory is off to bed, to rise again at the ungodly hour of 3.45 am. The email will be checked before she has to leave for the airport. Here's hoping that pattern is there. (If I got up at 2 am, it just might have arrived...)

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Long Dark Night Of The Garter-Stitch Sole

No you haven't heard from me in a while. Well what did you expect? Sock Madness is a pretty demanding taskmaster, you know. And for this second round we were all thrown into discombobulated confusion by an April Fool's joke played wittily on us by the moderators - they released the pattern a day early! There we all were, getting work out of the way, winding up yarns, peacefully discussing possibilities, when WHAM - the pattern dropped into our mailboxes.

Ah then was mounting in hot haste - the steed
The mustering squadron and the clattering car
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war!

Not a peep was heard out of anyone for hours.

It was a demanding pattern this time round - entitled Reversai, it was a particularly lovely and intricate Guernsey pattern from Janine le Cras, but with the added demands (for Celtic Memory at any rate) of a pretty high stitch count and a lot of garter stitch on heel, sole and toe. Working garter stitch in the round is a bit like walking across a ploughed field - you should be getting along quickly but instead you're trudging slower and slower and eventually stop in vexation to wonder what's taking you so long. These socks took FOREVER.

As you can see, they're a bit generously sized on me, but that will be sorted. Lovely pattern, isn't it? The reason for the title is that they are totally reversible, with the same patterning on both sides. Clever!

Took three days instead of two, but the relief of finishing was huge. How did Celtic Memory celebrate? How do you think? By immediately casting on for The Yarnarian's Falling Rain socks. You may recall I made her Leafy Greens in between the first and second round, to stop fidgeting hands, and this time didn't even hesitate, but went for the lovely new pattern.

(That's Yarnarian's pic, not mine, by the way. Thought she wouldn't mind my sharing its beauty with you.) Don't you love the way the raindrops trickle down the leg and end in tiny droplets on the foot?

And spring has sprung in West Cork! We've had three whole days of soft fine weather with a breeze blowing and that certain something in the air which makes you forget all deadlines and head for the garden with rake and shears. We're scheduled for a return to icy northern winds tonight or thereabouts, but right now it's spring and we are giving due thanks for it.

Very VERY good news! Remember that little cock wren who built a tiny home in a creeper outside the kitchen window, and then went out socialising to see if he could pick up a mate? Well he DID! The other morning we glanced out to see how the little bunches of combed dog fur were doing in the bushes by the pond (we always put them there at this time of year, as nesting material) and what did we see?

The little lady had inspected the mossy cottage, pronounced it just right, and immediately sallied forth to choose bedlinen and curtains.

She wasn't the only one rushing around the drapery department that morning.

This bluetit was yanking out great beaksful of fur and flying off with them like a mobile Father Christmas to an as yet secret destination. We usually find where most of the nests are once they start feeding young, but at this stage we don't like disturbing them too much in case it puts them off the location ('gosh, nosy neighbours, let's go somewhere else, shall we?') There is an early robin sitting on eggs in a pampas bush in the orchard, and a blackbird with more enthusiasm than sense in a dangerously open spot in the hedge, but that's all we've seen so far.

I am so happy Jenny Wren liked the nest. Now we can boast the By Royal Appointment logo, since the wren is the king of all birds. Pictures of eager young being fed in due course if all goes well (the nest is ideally placed for snapping from the car window). As always, loving thanks to DH for taking these shots - he possesses both more knowhow and more patience than ever I will.

Our neighbouring organic farmer clearly scented the spring too. He was up bright and early this morning, ploughing the field behind our house.

We're very lucky to have Patrick next door. Farmers who use chemical pesticides are no fun as neighbours.

Now that Round 2 of Sock Madness is out of the way for Celtic Memory at any rate (it's still progressing, though, and will be for a few days yet), it's about time some more hand-dyed yarns got listed on eBay. Simply didn't have the chance with the frantic knitting.

Couldn't do other than go for spring themes this time round: from left to right here, Irish Moss, Daffodil, Bluebell and Wild Rose. Going to list them as soon as I've posted this. For those who enquired, no, I don't have an eBay shop - that demands constant attention and presence, neither of which I can spare - but I will always tell you here when I'm going to list them. I'll come back and put in an ID number for one of them later maybe, since somebody said she couldn't find them, but in the meantime, if you go to the Handpainted Yarns category and put Celtic Memory into the search box, they'll pop up quickly enough.

Off to enjoy spring in West Cork!

UPDATE, some hours later...

OK, the yarns are up on eBay now. This is the item ID for Irish Moss:


and you should be able to track the others from there. All nice subtle semi-solids this time, nothing too ferociously contrasting. Ideal for complex patterning (like Reversia!)