Tag Archives: Shopping

Adieu, not Good-Bye

Heidi and I worked our way through the first and second floors of F&M (remember, what Americans call the first floor is the ground floor, and so on).

F&M doesn’t carry clothing or accessories; its focus is on food and home goods.  One of their signature items is picnic baskets, or hampers as they call them.  I hate that buzz word “signature,” but in this instance it fits.

I don’t recall how much this hamper cost, but this is one of those cases where if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.

“But how heavy it would be?” I remarked to Heidi.

“Oh dahling!  You wouldn’t carry it yourself!  You would have your man carry it!”  And by “man” she didn’t mean my lover but my manservant.

There were many hampers of varying sizes and with different contents, all with the signature F&M bluey-green colors.

“You buy these as a wedding gift?” Heidi suggested in her Aussie upspeak.

“Yes.  And then the happy couple use it once, put it in a closet, and every time they move they say, ‘Oh this heavy old thing—why don’t we get rid of it?’”

“But they can’t because Cousin Harriet gave it to them as a wedding gift,” Heidi finished my thought.

“That’s right.”

“Maybe some people use them all the time,” Heidi suggested.

“Maybe.  Maybe if you live in the country and your man only has to drive the Bentley a short way down the lane to get to the picnic spot near the river.  Not if you live in London and have to transport this on the tube.”

“Oh darling, no cousins of Harriet’s would ever be seen dead on the tube!”

We eventually staggered out of the store.  This is the entrance, with a couple of customers Kath Kidston’d to the max.

F&M had lovely window displays which I wasn’t able to capture due to the glare.  Since it was still raining, I’m not sure where the glare was from.

There were also windows featuring trains, a boat, and a bicycle, all incorporating the Signature Hamper.  I guess the message was, “Go explore the world with a 300-pound basket of china and cutlery!”

We stood on the pavement in the rain under our umbrellas.  It had been a long day.  First the Churchill War Rooms, then Victoria Park and the flashback of seeing my dad standing on that same spot, the unexpected Jewel Tower, Houses of Parliament, the Red Lion, then Fortnum and Mason.  My bags of accumulated trinkets were feeling heavy.  All I had had to eat was a bag of crisps and a pint in the Red Lion. It was 9:00ish and beginning to get dark.  Suddenly I felt tired to the bone and wished I had access to a Star Trek transporter machine so I could be home instantly.

“Now let’s see … what shall we do next?” Heidi mused.

I paused, because Heidi would leave in a few days to go back to Australia and who knew when we would see each other again?

But I am no longer willing to force myself to keep going. I simply said I was tired and needed to start getting home.  I started to apologize.

“No drama!” responded Heidi. This is her Signature Phrase and I love it.

“Where will we see each other next?” she asked rhetorically.  Since meeting through Sam in 2006, we had met up in Berlin, the south of France, London, and St. Paul.

“I would love to come to Aus, but it’s so expensive and I would need a ton of time off work.”

“It would be great to see you there—but I know, it’s sooooo far.  Well, think about it.  I should be there at least through New Year.”

We said our good-byes, I dropped down into the tube tunnel, and Heidi walked off toward Green Park station where she would catch the Jubilee Line to Swiss Cottage, the station closest to her flat. Her flat with the room she lets out when she isn’t in Aus.

A tube, a train, and a walk and I was back in the flat running a bath an hour and a half later.

At Liberty

I can always count on Heidi to show me something new in London that I wouldn’t have read about in a guide book.  She lived there for 15 years, maintains her claim on her rented room, and will return to work there—that’s the plan—after her sojourn in Australia.

From Parliament Hill, she led me on to Fortnum and Mason, in Picadilly.  I look at a map now and wonder, did we pass Banqueting House?  What is Banqueting House?  Did we pass Scotland Yard?  Surely I would remember walking through Trafalgar Square and along Pall Mall.  I love that name because my grandparents smoked Pall Mall cigarettes.  So sophisticated.  And then they died of cancer, emphysema, and strokes.

Maybe we cut through Horse Guards and walked up Waterloo?

Regardless, F&M is one of those fancy schmancy brands with a royal warrant:

F&M is a department store founded 300 years ago and in the same stratosphere as Harrods’s or Liberty.  I rarely step foot in places that have $$$$ next to their listing in a guide, but on a rainy day it’s fun have a look and take pictures, especially with a friend to whom I can exclaim, “Oooh, look at this!” to which she replies, “Aaahhh…so beautiful!  How much?” and when I flip over the price tag we both suck in our breath in a combination of pleasure and pain.

The last time I was in London, Heidi and I spent a whole day doing this in Harrods and Liberty.  I prefer Liberty to Harrods because the building itself is so beautiful; it’s reminiscent of something out of a Harry Potter movie.

They say you will know you have found your passion when you discover the thing that makes you lose all track of time and your surroundings.  I just spent 20 minutes looking at photos I took at Liberty.  I forgot it was -10F outside.  I wasn’t worried that my laptop battery was about to die, or that friends were coming over and I needed to tidy up my place.

This happens frequently when I blog.  Not just about going to posh places like Liberty, but during the process of coming up with words like posh … lush … luxuriant … sumptuous.  Focusing on stringing the right words together and complementing them with just the right photos—it transports me to another world.

And we all want to go to another world once in a while, don’t we?

As I said, I had visited Harrods and Liberty a few years ago with Heidi, and I returned to Liberty right before I left London for Scotland this summer.  I’ll give you a quick bad-photo tour of Liberty, then return to Fortnum and Mason.

The exterior.  Note the golden ship on top, undoubtedly an originally-proud way of proclaiming, “Come and see all the beautiful things we have plundered from around the empire!”

The atriums, from bottom to top.

Carved wild things on the railings.

It’s just fabulous.  If you are not fabulously rich, there are some signs that you don’t belong there.  First, rooms with precious few items.  This is not Walmart.  It’s about price, not volume here.

There are sales, but.

Five hundred pounds is $678.  But it’s all so beautiful.  The William Morris fabrics and wallpaper.  Persian carpets.  I pretend I’m in a museum.


A green-velvet love seat!  My inner gay man was ecstatic.

Some of it went too far.  These faux mounted heads were £695 ($943).  If you want a hand-crafted fake deer head, buy one on Etsy for one tenth the price.

Some smaller items were affordable but not easily portable, like the wrapping paper.

Buttons.  This woman appeared to be in a trance.

The conservatory. You could probably buy these plants at Tesco for £14.99.

I had had enough of being dazzled and felt almost nauseous from all the colors, textures, and other stimulation.  I made my way down, down, down one of the wooden staircases and encountered this on the ground floor.

As always in Britain, you can count on being reminded of all the men who gave their lives so we can buy green velvet love seats.


Knock Offs and Knick Knacks

I went shopping the day after my meeting debacle.  The UK is not a cheap place to live.  The Sales were on for the summer holidays, but things were still “very dear”, as they say.  For instance, a pair of black leather ballet flats cost £80—on sale.  When I worked for Oxfam years ago I was paid in pounds, which helped.  But now I had an American job that paid in dollars, so those shoes would have cost me $105.

My usual shopping strategy is: Go to every store in town, look at every item in every store, buy nothing, go home. Sometimes I buy things but then for one reason or another most of them have to be returned.  It was going to be extra hard to make decisions here.

Also, it seemed like English women must have smaller feet than me, because my size shoes were in the section that, in America, very large tall transvestites would have shopped.  Bras were the opposite problem.  The bra cups on offer were big enough to fit over my head.  Not that I did that.  At least not when anyone was looking.

I looked in Cath Kidston, almost as a joke.  I love her stuff but a little goes a long way and as I already knew, country flowers weren’t a good work look.


I bought a phone case and some pajama bottoms patterned with guinea pigs having birthday parties.  I resisted the flouncy guinea pig skirt.

Next I went to TK Maxx, which is called TJ Maxx in the US.  Still expensive and hard to find anything that worked.  Then I hit rock bottom and bravely walked into Primark, which is dirt cheap with quality to match.  Because it was the sales, the store was packed with teenagers and their mothers and clothes were strewn all over.  The clothing was adorable but if I even had to ask myself, “Would this lacy, skin-tight, fuchsia, sequined, leopard patterned hoodie be appropriate for my next work meeting?” I had my answer.  I bought a pair of pink satin ballet flats for £6.  Not exactly work attire but I couldn’t resist.

The queue was 25 people deep and Justin Bieber was bleating at an ear-shattering volume on the overhead speakers.  I ran out of Primark like I was being chased by a velociraptor and started to hit the thrift stores, which they call charity shops because well, they are all run by and for charities.

Oxfam has 650 shops in the UK. They stock second hand clothes but also new stuff from around the world like beaded bracelets made by Kenyan orphans, organic Palestinian olive oil, and cards designed by blind tribal elders in Nepal.  It’s all beautiful stuff, and I bought some cards and a pair of socks knit in Bolivia that were guaranteed not to fall down.

I hit Age Concern, British Heart, Save the Children, and Mind, which is a mental health charity.  Second hand clothes in the UK are really rubbish. I don’t know if someone skims off the cream and sells it on EBay before it reaches the charity shops, but they are full of sweaters with stretched out sleeves and 1980s jungle print dresses.

The Thames Hospice shop specializes in vintage. I spent an hour in there and left with a pair of vintage shoes that were too small, a pair of shoe stretchers, and horse brass, which is useless but I like how it looks on my wall.

I bought the ship, which has a useful hook, in Amalfi, Italy.

None of this was going to impress in my next work meeting except maybe the shoes, if I could stretch them out a couple sizes.  Once I inspected closely, however, I discovered they were not vintage at all but in fact made of plastic.  They would have to go back to the shop, along with the shoe stretchers.

Eventually I discovered Daniel, a department store with only beautiful, high-quality things.

I went in several times to fondle the cashmere sweaters, drool over the shoes, and try on hats.  Eventually I bought some things, using the time-tested rationale, “I deserve it.” And ya know, maybe I did.