Saturday, September 22, 2012

of madeleines, bread, and Beethoven

Today's soundtrack:
"Aberdeen" by Cage the Elephant
"Welcome" by Hey Rosetta!
Ninth Symphony by Beethoven, performed by London Symphony Orchestra

Now, I write this having never read any Proust.  Yes, I know this is to my great shame, but I have been rather busy with the 18th century for the past 6 years, and Proust isn't going anywhere fast... although, for that matter, neither is the 18th century.  Anyway, all I know about Proust is that the entire Remembrance of Things Past collection is the result of biting into a madeleine and being suddenly transported back in time.  The sensation of involuntary memory isn't uncommon, but the memories are utterly unique to each of us.  Some memories are small and simple.  For example, Beethoven's Ninth sends me directly back to that sunny, August day in Nanaimo, driving home along Hammond Bay Road in my parents' old green Caravan, getting to that hairpin corner when you can see out over Piper's Lagoon and over to the Coast Mountains on the mainland.  But it's not just the warm sun and beautiful chorus I remember - it's that feeling of complete contentment.  In the midst of getting ready to move two provinces away and starting grad school, and all the emotions that get caught up when leaving adolescence completely behind, there was this moment where everything stopped and it was just me, Beethoven's Ninth, and the Strait of Georgia.

This brings us to my current bread-making extravaganza.  Sort of.

I don't know if Mom or Dad ever made bread at home.  Cookies and loaves, sure, but I have no memories of homemade bread.  And even though my great-grandfather was a baker, I don't remember anyone in the extended family making bread either.  Not that they can't all cook other things.  Mom makes a mean turkey dinner, and Uncle Don's Kraft Dinner (complete with hotdogs) puts us all to shame, but the first time I remember eating a slice of homemade bread was at my friend's grandmother's house during that brief, miserable period that we lived on the mainland.

It goes without saying that for as socially awkward as I am now, I was ten times worse as a child.  Stating that I was a difficult child is putting it lightly.  I had - and still have - a very rich inner life, which can be problematic when having to, you know, talk to other people.  Most of my time was spent either reading or imagining I was a character in the books I was reading.  So when we moved to the mainland, making friends was near impossible.  Of course, it didn't help that I argued with the Aryan poster-child in my grade four class about whether or not women could go to university (she believed that we could only get married and have babies, though not necessarily in that order), thereby alienating myself to the ranks of the freaks and geeks.

But while I didn't have friends at school, there were some girls in my grade that were fine being friends outside of school.  So I took what I could get and ended up spending a fair bit of time with the other Kate in my grade.  Kate's grandparents lived nearby, and one afternoon, we spent a few hours there.

Her grandparents were from somewhere in Scandinavia, possibly Norway, so like my grandmother, they spoke with accents.  But unlike when we went to visit my Nana*, her grandmother had a freshly made loaf of bread sitting on the counter, alongside a jar of Nutella.

Now, I remember asking Mom to buy Nutella at Claytons (although it's possible that I had only asked her in my mind.  Rich inner life, you see) and her scoffing at the notion (again, possibly only in my mind) of something so sweet for bread (this from the woman who taught me pumpkin pie is a complete and healthy breakfast, provided there's whipped cream on top).  Nutella was an extravagance, and foreign, and a foreign extravagance.  We were peanut butter and jam people.  So when Katie's grandmother sliced the still-warm bread, spread on the Nutella, and passed me the plate, it was the first time I remember eating something markedly other.

And I don't even remember how it tasted.

All I remember is that feeling of stepping into something new, something different, and not being bothered or anxious.  Just like with Beethoven all those years later, everything stopped and became an endless, sunny summer's day.  So now, as I sit with my freshly made sourdough bread with Nutella, I don't remember the miserable, isolated years on the Sunshine Coast.  All that comes flooding back is that bright, warm day in Katie's grandmother's kitchen and having, at least for the afternoon, a good friend to share it all with.

* I should note that in lieu of bread, Nana has an endless supply of pecan rolls, date cake, and waffles - all homemade.  I'm not complaining at all.  In fact, now I'm a little homesick for Nana's pecan rolls, date cake, and waffles.. preferably all at once, please!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

more things to do around the east neuk

Today's soundtrack:
"Little Man" by King Creosote and Gummi Bako
"Marry the Sea" by Imaginary Cities
"Since When" by 54-40
"All You Good Good People" by Embrace
"Why Does It Always Rain On Me?" by Travis
"Sigourney Weaver" by John Grant

Still wondering what there is to do around the East Neuk?  We here at the Spaniard and the Edwardian are on the case!  Well, more like the Edwardian is on the case.  The Spaniard is currently hunting for a Tardis in a desperate bid to get more hours into his day.  Regardless, here are a few more tidbits (mmm... Timbits...):

Kellie Castle

We finally made it out to Kellie Castle while we had our friends up from Spain.  After renting bikes for the visitors from East Neuk Outdoors in Cellardyke, we rode the few miles out past Pittenweem, bombing down country roads and climbing mercifully few hills.  As for the castle, the oldest part of the castle dates back to the 14th century, the newest to the 19th century.

There are volunteers who wander about the castle and will happily tell you all about it.  I learned a lot about ceiling decoration, for example, from one particularly enthusiastic volunteer, and was pointed towards a letter from Robert Louis Stevenson in the office by another.

Outside the castle are the gardens, which were just about finished for the year when we arrived.  Fine by me, as these onions made for my favourite photo of the day.

The garden produce is available to buy in the castle's gift shop, naturally.

House Parties

If you have any luck at all, you'll find yourself at a house party sometime during your stay in the East Neuk.  In fact, if you're staying with us, the odds of this are pretty good.  Now that we know a few more people (including more Canadians in Cellardyke), we seem to either be throwing a party or attending one.  And be forewarned: folks here seem as fond of kitchen parties as you, my dear Canadians.  As a result, I know now that my kitchen can hold 40 people.  Not comfortably, but still.  

I'd post photos of a typical house party here at the Ivory Tower, but that'd just be incriminating for everyone involved.  Especially once that bison grass Polish vodka showed up...

Leuchars Air Show

Only a few of these left now, as the RAF is being moved to a different base and the army is moving into Leuchars.  The Air Show regularly attracts around 35 000 people, which makes it a touch bigger than that time the B14 (12? 18?  I should be clear - I know nothing about planes) and ME109 were on display at Cassidy Airport.  We saw a SE5a (WWI),

the Gloster Meteor (WWII and the UK's first jet fighter),

and the Red Arrows.

We also spotted a Spanish plane,

and a float plane, complete with extra flotation devices.

There were many more planes, including Spitfires (which I failed to get a picture of.  Sorry, Mom!), but it's hard to get photos when you're covering your ears on account of the deafening plane engines.

Go for a run

In lieu of wild house parties and wandering about airstrips, why not go for a run around the village?  Get out of the car, off the bike, and go exploring with your feet for a bit.  A decent run of a 5 miles or so will get you from one town to another.  Just make sure you bring enough change for the bus trip back home!

Bakehouse Tea Room

Ah, high tea.  This is concept I didn't quite understand before.  I thought, huh, high tea - that's tea and goodies stacked high up?  People sipping tea from teacups, with their little fingers pointing out?  Pretentious twits at the Empress?

Yup, not even close.  

High tea, or as I prefer to call it, the Gut-Buster 2000, is a full meal of fish and chips, or mac and cheese, or whatever else is on the menu, with toast (for some inexplicable reason.  I mean, they do beans at breakfast and toast with high tea.  Madness, folks.  Sheer madness.), and then (and then!) a tray of crumpets, cakes, pastries, and who the hell knows what else.  And you're expected to eat it all!  

Believe me, gentle travellers:  after a high tea, you'll need that 5-mile run to the next village.

Friday, August 24, 2012

climb every mountain

Today's soundtrack:
The King is Dead by The Decemberists
Kiss Each Other Clean by Iron & Wine
Temporary Resident by Imaginary Cities

Staying at the Ivory Tower right now are some more friends from Spain, one of which has never been to Scotland before.  So on Monday, we jumped on an early train from Dundee and made our way up to Aviemore.  The town itself is inside Cairngorm National Park and is filled with skiing and hiking clothing stores.  In a way, it's a less touristy, less mountains right in town, less uptight version of Banff, Canada.

After some directions from the Tourist Information by the station, we dropped our kit off at the Cairngorm Guest House (which I highly recommend, by the by), jumped on the next bus heading into the park and set off to climb Cairn Gorm.

Cairn Gorm is the peak on the left of centre
To climb Cairn Gorm, you essentially walk the cat track that goes up Coire Cas before turning off onto the stone staircase that takes you up to the top of Cairn Gorm.  It's not the prettiest of paths, but it is a far cry from the goat paths I've walked in the past.  And it's rather steep in parts, which made the descent a little painful for our knees, but my word, the view is worth it.

On a very clear day, you can see clear over to Ben Nevis, which keen readers will remember that Miguel climbed last year.  Even with the clouds, we could see over towards Inverness (I was amazed to discovered we were this far north).

After a good rest, we got up the next morning, stuffed as much breakfast in us as humanly possible, and set off for Loch an Eilein in Rothiemurchus Forest and a less hilly hike.  It's a 15km roundtrip from Aviemore, which made for another long day (all part of our not-so-secret plan to tucker out our houseguests).  After walking alongside the River Druie and passing through Inverdruie, we reached Lochan Mor, also known as the Lily Loch (for obvious reasons).

Before reaching Loch an Eilein (pronouned Loch 'nyellin), which means Lake of the Island.

In the middle of the lake is the island, which has the ruins of a 15th-century castle.  The sun crept out just long enough to allow for some pretty lovely photos.

Look at all those shades of green!
As we were finishing the loop around Loch an Eilein, the rain started in earnest.  By the time we reached Inverdruie, our visitors had learned a new Scottish word: droukit.  Well and truly soaked.  But the sun came out quick enough and by the time we'd got the train in Aviemore, we had more or less dried off.  And after a long day of hiking and travelling, we picked up fish suppers in Anstruther and collapsed at in a heap at home.

This was my second trip up to the Highlands this summer, but unlike the west side of Scotland, Speyside reminds me more of Western Canada.  Maybe it was the pine-covered path around Loch an Eilein, or maybe it was the absence of industrial development, or possibly the pelting rain, but something about Cairngorm National Park made me feel incredibly at home.  Either I've found a bit of Canada in Scotland, or I'm finally starting to feel a bit more like Scotland is now home.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

tortellini amatriciana... sort of

Today's soundtrack:
that annoying wasp that refuses to find it's way out of the kitchen, even though I've left the door wide open.  Just follow the fly out, you wee eejit!

Have I mentioned the Simple Spanish Food blog?  I came across it awhile back when I was searching for roscón de reyes recipes.  Amazing, authentic food.  If you have a real yen for Spanish cuisine, it's a great starting place.

But enough about Spanish food (and more about it tomorrow).  Last night was Italian night and I made tortellini amatriciana, which I based on another recipe found on the BBC's Good Food site.  Well, I say made, but the tortellini was fresh pasta from the Coop.  So really, I just made the sauce.  And how!

a good dollop of olive oil (always extra virgin, by the by)
1 onion, peeled and grated
1 garlic clove, finely diced
3 thicker slices of proscuitto (or pancetta, or bacon), cut into thin strips about 3" long
5-6 tomatoes, roughly diced
1/8 - 1/4 tsp chilli flakes, depending on how much of a kick you like
parsley and Parmesan to serve

Using a frying pan over low-medium heat (although this depends completely on your stovetop - you want a decent sizzle), heat the olive oil for about a minute before adding the onion, garlic, and proscuitto.  Cook at a good sizzle until the onion is softened (about 5 minutes).  Then add the tomatoes and chilli flakes, and gently simmer for 15 minutes.

Whilst the sauce is simmering away, prepare the pasta.  Throw a bay leaf and a splash of olive oil in with the noodles and water (full disclosure, this was Miguel's idea).  When pasta is just done, and the sauce has finished simmering for 15 minutes, drain the pasta and add to the sauce.  Sprinkle on some parsley.

Serve up, with a bit of Parmesan on top.

Mouth-watering or what?  On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the furthest departure from Kraft Dinner with ketchup), this only rates a 4, whereas the haddock from the other day rates a 7.  After all, it's still a pasta... and a pasta I didn't make.  Granted, it takes more time to make than Kraft Dinner (12 minutes vs. 30 minutes), and it lacks the florescent orange "cheese", and least this pasta doesn't leave me with a pit of self-loathing.  So there's that. 

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

a fish i know

Today's soundtrack:
"Wrong Side of the Country" by Old Man Luedecke

Continuing my not so secret plan to use food to convince each and every one of you to come and visit, I give you last night's dinner.  Or supper.  Possibly tea.  Even after reading this article in the Guardian the other day, I still have no idea what I just ate.  Anyway, here's my take on the haddock, spinach and cheese melt I found on BBC's Good Food website.

So rather than using two rather processed looking supermarket haddock fillets (going by the Good Food photo), I used fresh haddock fillets from St. Monan's (courtesy of Le Petit Epicerie).  Usually I go up to Doig's for fish, but I forgot they're closed on Monday afternoons.  

Tangential aside, if you're coming to Anstruther for a self-catered visit, you simply must go to Doig's on East Forth Street (just up from the Cellardyke harbour) for your fish.  Not only are the fish fresh (unlike the frozen fish sold in the grocery stores), the fish is from local fishers and expertly cut up by two rather dashing fellows with great Scottish accents.  So not only does the fish from Doig's taste better than that from the local grocery stores, it's generally a bit cheaper as well.  Plus, the fellows up there are incredibly friendly and full of suggestions.*

Anyway, I used much more than two tablespoons of grated Parmesan.  More like a good 1/4 cup.  I have justification other than I love cheese about as much as I love potatoes.  And chocolate.  Also beer.  There's just a lot of love.

Some things not covered in the Good Food recipe (but should be):  
- Season the fish with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, and don't be stingy with the tomatoes.  Or cheese.  
- I don't know if you North Americans can even get haddock, because I don't remember ever seeing it at Thrifty's in Nanaimo.  You might have to use cod instead.  Whatever you do use, just make sure it's fresh.  
- Also, use a bit of olive oil when wilting the spinach down... but don't wilt it down too much.  Remember, it'll be in the oven for 15-20 minutes.

Take that, Kraft Dinner with ketchup!

* All of this is, of course, if you're unlucky enough not to have neighbours like ours, who dropped off two beautiful mackerel the other day (along with Louis Jr for Miguel).

Sunday, August 05, 2012

in which mastery is still a ways away

Today's soundtrack:
The Olympics, of course.  Go Canada!

For my birthday and in a fit of post-Parisian afterglow, Miguel gave me Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking*.  Even a quick flick through is intimidating.  The lists of various crockery, the different kinds of sauces, and instructions on how to properly hold a knife all left me rather overwhelmed.  After about three months of working up my nerve, I decided to tackle a basic soup.  

Let us pause on the glory that is soupe au pistou, a Provençal vegetable soup made (almost completely) with seasonally fresh, UK ingredients.  I couldn't find fresh broad beans in the Cooperative, so I settled for the canned variety.  Nor did I have any fruity olive oil, so I used the Olea Cazorla olive oil that Miguel's mom had brought from Spain.  That being said, I don't really know enough about olive oil to know how a fruity olive oil should taste.  

The potatoes traveled the shortest distance, given to us by our neighbours in exchange for some homemade shortbread, and were fresh out of the ground.  If you know me, you know my love of the almighty spud, and these potatoes are amazing.  They beat by miles even the freshest potatoes available up at the Coop.  I must find some way of convincing Miguel that now is the perfect time to make a tortilla española...

Anyway, today was the last day of the soupe au pistou, and not having much left, I made a lovely toastie to go alongside - a mature cheddar, tomatoes, and homemade wholemeal bread beauty that rivals Calories of Saskatoon.  And as I'm just a little bit proud of myself that I managed to cook an (albeit simple) Julia Child recipe, I simply had to share it with all of you.  Sure, I'm not an executive chef with a knack for some amazing canapés (congrats Brock!), but I can make a mean veggie soup!

And just think - not long ago I subsisted on Quaker Instant Oatmeal (Maple and Brown Sugar only) and Kraft Dinner.  Fresh veg and fruit?  Perish the thought!  I don't know if any words can describe Miguel's joy at my foodie experimentation.  Like fried eggs.  I'd never eaten a fried egg until over a month ago, mainly because I was convinced they tasted rubbery and not at all like a scrambled egg.  I think this was a holdover from childhood and those plastic foods we used to play with in our Fisher-Price kitchen.  Plus, I didn't trust that wobbly yellow yolk.  But now, scrambled eggs are a distant and distasteful memory, much like the Sunshine Breakfasts on the BC Ferries.  Years!  Years I have wasted on scrambled eggs!  All hail the fried egg and it's wobbly yolk!

But I draw the line at snails.  And Louis.

* No, I haven't seen Julie & Julia.  My idea of a foodie movie is - and always will be - Chocolat.  I don't think that really needs explaining.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

so you're going to visit anstruther

Today's soundtrack:
"Unicorn Loves Deer" by Alamo Race Track

I may have mentioned that we get a fair few guests here in the Ivory Tower.  At last count we've had 18 or 20 people visit in just over one year.  Some of those visits were short one- or two-nighters, while others felt too damned short at a mere 2 1/2 weeks (BFF!).  Most folks, when they come to stay with us, have plans to head for the highlands as soon as humanly possible.  And why not?  The highlands are beautiful, stunning, and everything you ever thought they were, but with way more sheep than you imagined.

But there's an undeniable charm to this little corner of Fife, a corner often passed through on the way to somewhere more interesting.  Well, if you're lucky and/or clever enough to spend more than just a few hours driving in and around Anstruther, your own transplanted Canadian has compiled a list of places you should visit.  NB: copious amounts of ale were consumed during the research of this blog.  All part of the superior service you've come to expect from the folks here at The Spaniard and the Edwardian.

1) The Anstruther Fish Bar.

Now, the Spaniard prefers The Wee Chippy, but in my opinion the best fish and chips to be had are at the Anstruther Fish Bar.  But be warned, when you order a fish supper, they give you the entire fish.  And a haddock is not a particularly tiny fish.  So, if you're anything like me, order the children's fish supper.  It's half a haddock and chips, which is still a lot, but leaves enough room for Brattesani Ice Cream (also served at the restaurant).  Priorities, people.

2) The Dreel Tavern.

In Anster Wester, this pub has some of the best atmosphere in town (a close runner-up being the Ship Tavern in Anster Easter) as well as the best ales.  There's a new addition out back, but the main part of the pub is still in the same 17th-century building its been in... well... since the 17th century.  Skip beer with dinner at the Anstruther Fish Bar.  Instead, pop over for a pint of the Flying Scotsman.  Or Ossian.  Or any real ale on tap.

3) The Isle of May.

Okay, it's not exactly in the East Neuk, but it's only accessible from here so it goes on the list.  The May Princess (if you're a student, show your ID and get the concession rate) runs a tour out to the Isle of May, which is a National Nature Reserve.  Just make sure to email a day or two in advance to reserve a spot on the boat.  While we tourists can only pop onto the island of a few hours at a time, the researchers that live there during the spring and summer keep a great blog full of all the comings and goings of the various flora and fauna.  Just keep an eye out for ornery terns.  And wear a hat.

4) The Coastal Path.

Also not exactly in Anstruther, but accessible from it.  In fact, the path runs right through the town.. and every other town on the East Neuk.  From Cellardyke, it's a lovely 3 mile walk to Crail, past pigs (and piglets!), sheep, goats, and a few rather crotchety cows.  Once in Crail, stop off at Maggies on High Street for some good, non-touristy fare.  A walk from Anster Wester leaves you in Pittenweem after about a mile, which is just long enough to justify stopping at the Cocoa Tree for a hot chocolate.  If it's your first time at the Cocoa Tree, try either the white chocolate hot chocolate or the caliente hot chocolate.  Remember, you just walked a mile, and it's a mile back to Anstruther, so you might as well have that slice of chocolate cake, too.

If you walk this with the Spaniard, be forewarned:  there are snails and Miguel waxes very nostalgic about his Tía Carmina's caracoles in spicy hot sauce.  He's even threatened to go out snail-hunting (is it really a hunt, though?  They don't move very fast and no weapons are needed.  More like snail-picking, really), but I've already told him there's no way I'm eating caracoles.  Never going to happen.

5) The Haven.

I cannot forget to mention the local.  Good food, good beer, and lovely people.  I cannot yet vouch for their chowder (a smoked haddock and leek concoction), which isn't a true cullen skink as I understand it, but everything else I've ever eaten there has been pretty tasty.

6) Cambo Gardens.

Something the Lady J would love.  There's a stunning walled garden with a little bit of everything and more varieties of roses than I ever thought possible.  There's even a lovely little stream (or a wee burn), a bridge, and a weeping willow.  Or birch.  See, I clearly needed Lady J to help me out.  Stop off in the little cafe for some decent soup and sandwiches.  True, it's a bit of a jaunt from Anstruther by bike, but it's easily accessible on the 95 bus.

7) Kingdom Route #2.

Yes, it's a dead sexy name for a 19 mile cycling route that travels inland from Anstruther, looping around the Secret Bunker, before returning back to Cellardyke and the coast.  Comprised almost completely of relatively empty country roads, the route takes you past highland cows, Kellie Castle, fields of canola, a sleeply little hamlet or two, the odd pheasant, and miles of gorse and broom (sorry Mom!).  While there's not a lot of traffic, the cars on the road do seem determined to break some sort of landspeed record, so use your better judgement.

8) Fence Collective.

While not usually publicized on their website, there's usually some sort of Fence thing happening in and around the East Neuk.  Keep an eye on the local bulletin board - a set of doors near the Anstruther Fish Bar, plastered with posters of events.  Last week, King Creosote played over at the Ship Tavern.  This week, there's another Fence-related gig over at the Anster Wester Hall.  On August 9th, it's the Anster Mustered right in the harbour (well, not in the harbour, as that would pose a serious electrical risk, but on the middle pier).  There's open-mic nights all over town, including at the Haven, and, if you time it right, you can sometimes hear some of the Collective practicing from their rehearsal flat/office on Dove Street in Cellardyke.

9) La Petite Epicerie.

It's easy to forget the longstanding links of the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.  After all, Mary Queen of Scots spent a fair bit of her life over there, and her mother - Marie de Guise - was French.  And there are more than a few French loanwords present in Scots (garde l'eau - the warning when something liquid is about to get flung out the window - became gardyloo)  And what better pretext do you need to stock up on cheeses, hams, pates, and quiches?  The shop is run by a kind and very patient couple who clearly have a real passion for good food.  If you ask them, they'll even help you do up a picnic basket.  Then simply jump on your bike, find a nice secluded bit of a farmland overlooking the sea and enjoy your bit of France in Scotland.  Watch out for greedy seagulls.  They have no shame.

There's a number of things not on this list simply because we've not done them yet.  Kellie Castle, the Scottish Fisheries Museum, St. Andrews Cheese Company, and high tea at the Bakehouse have all been highly recommended, but we've just not had the chance to visit yet.

If you have any suggestions as to what the Spaniard and I should visit here in the East Neuk, let us know!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

suspiciously quiet

Today's soundtrack:
Unicorn Loves Deer by Alamo Race Track
What I Learned From the Gaels by King Creosote
Kiss Each Other Clean by Iron & Wine

Even though the East Neuk is full of tourists, it's suspiciously quiet at this end of Cellardyke.  For the first time in about a month, the Spaniard and I are guestless.  Being not the most morning of people, I'm relishing the ability to sleep in a little later and to not have to share the pot of coffee, but I do miss having other people to talk to.  After all, talking to yourself gets boring after an hour or two and I think my neighbours could do without me singing along to Alamo Race Track's "Unicorn Loves Deer" ("Deer loves unicorn!").  So when I noticed that local-musician-that-you-should-have-heard-of-by-now King Creosote was due to play at the Ship Tavern on Friday night, I corralled Miguel, told him to find grab the other Canadian on the street (yes, we're taking over.  Slowly, and politely, but still) and I tracked down Ian-formerly-of-Crail-now-of-Cellardyke-once-again for a night out.

Three days earlier I'd been feeling a bit sorry for myself.  A little isolated and probably more than a little homesick for Canada.  Not that I wanted to be back in Canada, but to have that feeling of effortless belonging to a place.  No matter how much I love living in the East Neuk, as soon as I open my mouth I'm marked as from away.  Not that our neighbours aren't fantastic, because they are simply wonderful.  But they have their own lives, jobs, families and you can't just hijack that.  Must make your own way.  Add to that a near epic degree of social awkwardness and it becomes rather difficult to break into the community in any meaningful way. 

Or so I thought.

But Friday night at the Ship Tavern I ran into a few now familiar faces.  A few pints, one traditional (albeit vegetarian) pie for the new Canadian (beats getting screeched in), and a frankly amazing set later, all that self-pitying ridiculousness disappeared.  I didn't take any photos because I was a little bit too busy bopping about (there may have also been some drinking), but there were I don't know how many of us crammed into the back room of the Ship and King Creosote et al did not disappoint (also, Guido, great cover of "Running to Stand Still").  I am, at least temporarily, reconciled to being clearly from away.

Saturday morning was, predictably, suspiciously quiet again.  A greasy breakfast fry-up and a healthy dose of tea was not enough to stop the crabbit.  Thank the gods we're visitor-free this weekend.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

over the sea to skye

Today's soundtrack:
Queen of Denmark by John Grant

Last week, BFF Lindsay and I traveled up to the Isle of Skye.  While I'm keen to see anything and everything in Scotland, Skye was a particular interest for Lindsay because the wee peninsula of Sleat was home to her ancestors.  So we rented a car, booked a B&B, and drove west.  Mostly.  

Diversions were inevitable, if not predictable.  Being an avowed Monty Python fan, convincing her to take a detour down to Doune Castle didn't take too much work.  

Re-enactments were also inevitable.

Doune Castle, aside from having a lovely 14th-century courtyard,...

... gave us an excellent chance to measure the airspeed of an unladen swallow.  Not sure if it's African or not.

After Doune Castle, we looped around Loch Lomond.  Apparently, this is the part of Argyll that my grandmother's family originally hailed from... although I don't know how recently any of her MacArthurs' lived in and around these lochs.

Very similar to Vancouver Island, no?  Down to the rain even.  Talk about six of one, half dozen of the other.

After a quick stop on the appropriately misty Rannoch Moor (no sight of Castle MacDuck),...

... we arrived - exhausted - on Skye.  Still, we dragged ourselves down the road to the Red Skye Restaurant in Breakish where I tried cullen skink.

Let us pause for a moment on the miracle that is cullen skink.  It's a soup.  With smoked haddock.  And cream.  And potatoes.  And my gods, it was the greatest thing I'd ever eaten.  Words cannot express my love for this soup, or at least the way the Red Skye made it, but for some perspective - my cullen skink face now rivals Miguel's ham face.  I'd've taken a photo, but I'd've had to put my spoon down.  It was that good.

But no rest for the wicked as the next day we were up the east coast of Skye to hike up to the Old Man of Storr, which we hoped we could see through the ever-present mist and fog.  Or foggy mist.  There might be a Scottish classification that I'm not aware of.  Halfway through our hike and we couldn't see the destination for all the fog.

And then I spotted something above the ridge..

As the fog drifted off, I had a complete weak-in-the-knees-Duomo moment mixed with the world is just awesome gigglefest.  Could not believe what I was seeing, although I knew that this is what the Romantics referred to as sublime.

There was nothing else to do but scramble up the hill as fast as possible.  We wandered in and around the Old Man of Storr, watched the sheep, and soaked in as much as we possibly could.

The whole of Storr and the Trotternish range was created by a landslip, which makes this area far more jagged and ragged than the rounded Red Cuillins we'd been staying near in Breakish.

After a few hours wandering and stumbling about, we headed back down and into Portree, which is the largest settlement on Skye.  The harbour has a rather familiar feel about it.

No wonder so many Scots traveled over to Canada.

The next day it was down south to Sleat to the Clan Donald centre.  Sleat is much more cultivated than where we were in Trotternish the day before, and far less rugged.  There were some lovely gardens,

an abandoned castle,

and just the right amount of rain.

After the museum, we drove down the peninsula...

... and spotted Rumm off of the coast.  Or possibly Eigg.  Not to be confused with Uig.

We noticed that the fog/mist/misty fog/foggy mist had finally lifted enough to make the Cuillins visible.

With a few hours of daylight left, we drove out to Tallisker.  Although the distillery was closed, there was still a chance to take photos of this western part of Skye and (I think) the more jagged Black Cuillins. 

That night we decided to try somewhere different for dinner, having eaten at Red Skye the previous two nights.  Big mistake.  We headed to Claymore in Broadford for overcooked gnocchi, substandard sticky toffee pudding, and generic tourist fare.  We're still kicking ourselves that we didn't just go back to Red Skye for a third night.  But, I still have the wonderful memory of that cullen skink...

We discovered that two days is not near long enough to see all of Skye, but that's all the time we had.  So the next day we made our meandering way home, stopping off at Glen Affric...

... and Loch Ness...

... before getting caught in the rain in Glen Coe.

A few hours, one desperate search for a petrol station, and a confusing Perth roundabout (seriously Perth, what's up with the A9?), we arrived back home in Cellardyke.  After a few days on Skye, I can once again appreciate the difference between the highlands and lowlands.  History feels much more present on the highlands, and that's not only because of the Gaelic signage.  The Clearances, the Jacobite Risings, the croft houses... it's not such distant history.  Down here in Fife, I don't feel that same depth of history.  Perhaps depth isn't the right word.  Immediacy.  The Reformation and the effects on St. Andrews is distant history.  I've not heard any Gaelic spoken, although there's a fair bit of Scots.  Then again, maybe it's more of an apples-oranges comparison.  After all, British Columbia is fair different from Nova Scotia, and I'd imagine history has an immediacy for the Acadians.

Also, did I mention the cullen skink?


Right.  So there is a photo of cullen skink face thanks to BFF Lindsay.  

Cullen skink face looks remarkably like Deranged Chipmunk Face, which I somehow manage to pull in almost every photo I'm in.  Friends with the Spaniard on Facebook?  You've undoubtedly seen Deranged Chipmunk peering out from behind Miguel.  Yup, he's a lucky, lucky man.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

kate and miguel march on paris

Today's soundtrack:
"I Hate Work" by Shred Kelly
"You Know?" by Harvest Breed
"Dirty Windshields" by Leeroy Stagger
"Running on a Wire" by Del Barber
"Boo Hoo Hoo" by No Sinner
"Big Men Go Fast on the Water" by Bidiniband

So, where was I?  Ah yes, Paris.  This was quite the adventure.  We start in sunny Madrid, which is where everything started to go wrong.

Miguel had joked that in Paris there's always a strike on Friday, so it was a good thing we were arriving midweek.  Not long after, a loud groan reverberated down the corridor in Barajas.  Apparently, no one told the French air traffic controllers about the Friday rule, who decided to go on strike and effectively cancelling all the flights until ours.  Instead, our flight simply stated the optimistic "delayed".  Delayed with no idea if we'd be able to take off today, tomorrow, or at all.  Eventually, they corralled us onto the plane, with no guarantee that we'd take off in 15 minutes or 5 hours.  All we knew is that as soon as the air traffic controllers said we could land, we had to get in the air as quick as possible so they couldn't change their minds.

With dangerously low blood sugar, we finally took off for Paris in the evening.  Flying into Charles de Gaulle was lovely, as we flew over the city and it was all lit up.  Of course, it was nearly midnight and we just wanted to get to the trains and our friends' house to sleep.

Of course, it was nearly midnight and even a large city like Paris allows the trains to take a few hours off.  By the time we'd bought tickets and forgotten all the French we'd ever learned, a rather surly attendant told us that all the trains for Paris had gone.  No trains until the morning.  Miguel looked around at the airport and thought we'd crash on some chairs.  

Did I mention my dangerously low blood sugar?

So we found a hotel with reasonable rates and, as seemed customary, a surly attendant.  Miguel's convinced still that he was lying about room availability.  Perhaps Miguel's blood sugar was low as well.  Either way, after a trip that lasted twice as long as it was supposed to, we crashed in our hotel room.

The next morning we caught an early train to La Hacquinière.  I hoped.  I followed Petra's expert directions and caught the train for St. Remy, but not being local I wasn't completely convinced we were headed in the right direction.  Luckily, the train was full and I thought I'd ask the lady sitting across from us.  I mustered up all my French.

"Perdonaz-moi, madam?"


"Perdonaz-moi, madam?"

She looks right at me, sees I have a question, and blanks me.  For the rest of the trip, she refuses to look at me.  

Well, my opinion of the French is plummeting.  So far, every bad stereotype has been confirmed.  Snotty, rude, and intolerant of anyone who doesn't speak fluent French.  I'm beginning to think this trip to Paris is a massive mistake.

Once we arrive in La Hacquinière, Petra and Floh made us feel a little better about it all and gave us some advice about what to see in Paris.  So we dropped off our bags and walked back to the train station to return to Paris.  

Dread, understandably, filled my gut as we approached the ticket kiosk.  And oh gods now a station attendant is coming towards us.  Crap, we're going to get all snottied-at again.

"Tourists?" he asked.  We say yes.  "Where from?" "Canada."

"Oh," he smiles, "I have a cousin in Toronto!"

And with that he helps us get our tickets, fills our hands with maps of Paris and all kinds of information, and sends us on our way.  The single friendliest station attendant I've ever met.  Things are looking up. 

By the time we arrived in Paris, the sun was shining and blood sugar was stable.  We got off at St-Michel-Notre-Dame.  Whilst Notre Dame might be fascinating for most people, for those of us who put that puzzle together year and year, seeing Notre-Dame was beyond anything I could have expected.

Sure, there weren't any angels, devils, nuns or priests, but the detail was stunning.

Okay, I did find a devil or two..

Plus, I got to say "flying buttresses".  Repeatedly.

Miguel had been to Paris before, so he had a plan.  After Notre Dame, we walked over to the inside-out wonder that is the Pompidou.  

Before continuing on to the Louvre, 

where Miguel snapped this fantastic photo.  

We didn't go into either the Louvre or the Pompidou because we had 20 km to walk and only one day.  Besides, who would want to be inside on such a beautiful day?  After a lunch at Le Véro Dodat in a charming covered walkway, we hiked up to Montmartre.  

The stairs and lawn up to the Sacré Coeur was full of people taking advantage of the beautiful April day.  The Basilica is late 19th-century and looks like a combination of Greek Orthodox and Islamic architecture, mixed with a healthy dose of Romanesque.  A stark contrast to the Gothic design of Notre Dame.

By the time we reached the top of the hill, we needed to duck inside for a quick break from the heat and sun.  But as we still had miles to go before we could rest, we started out again, this time towards the Arc de Triomphe.

So, I didn't really understand the whole Arc de Triomphe before.  I thought, oh it's a big arch in the middle of the city.  The "de Triomphe" bit apparently escaped my notice.  Not anymore.  In fact, both Miguel and I took a little bit of an issue with what was considered a "triomphe".

See, I think my ancestors might have disputed that a bit.

And Miguel disputed that a lot.  "We kicked you out!" he shouted, waving his fist in the air. Both of us sat there, a little perturbed, but the Lonely Planet Paris: City Guide description cheered us up:
The Triumphal Arch is 2km northwest of place de la Concorde in the middle of place Charles de Gaulle (aka place de l'Étoile), the world's largest traffic roundabout and the meeting point of 12 avenues (and three arrondissements).  It was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon to commemorate his imperial victories but remained unfinished when he started losing - at first battles and then whole wars.  It was finally completed under Louis-Philippe in 1836.  Among the armies to march triumphantly through the Arc de Triomphe were the Germans in 1871, the Allies in 1919, the Germans again in 1940 and the Allies again in 1944. (124-125)
I love that the most important feature about the Arc de Triomphe is that it's a traffic roundabout... as well as the fact that the French army isn't mentioned as ever marching through the arch.  The relief work is spectacular, however.  What the French lack in conquering or even triumphant armies, they make up for with beautiful sculptures.

So that's a trade off... of sorts...

Next, we walked over to the Eiffel Tower, which is much more impressive in person than in photos.  The sheer beauty of the ironwork is worth the cost of a trip to Paris.  Although no amount of money on Earth could convince me to go up the Eiffel Tower.

But it was getting late and threatening rain, so we walked back to near Denfert-Rochereau to meet up with friends of dinner at this great Basque-French restaurant, before returning back to La Hacquinière for the night to rest our weary bones and well-earned blisters.

NB:  While I'm thrilled our evening in Paris ended with a bit of drizzle, I will happily concede that had it rained all day our trip would've been quite miserable.

The next day we flew back to Scotland where it struck me how much I stick out here.  I couldn't pass for Spanish in Spain, nor Scottish in Scotland, but I felt my most blended-in whilst in Paris.  Not that I'm nearly as fashionably dressed or even able to speak French, but I felt like I stuck out less.  I was just as nondescript as every other person on the street.  For 24 hours, it was a bit like being back in Canada.