Sunday, January 29, 2006

Greenwich, V&A, and Almost Germany! (Almost)

On Sunday, Matt, GP, Kate, John, Anna, Steph, Max and I went to Greenwich again. We really wanted Mexican food. It was excellent, yet again. Although, we had to wait for GP because he and Max actually got off at Greenwich rather than Cutty Sark. Confusing, I know. After we’d had dinner and talked and laughed and generally acted very European sitting at the table for over 30 minutes after we’d had it cleared… I love that. I really think it is the best feeling. I love to sit long after the table has been cleared, the drinks are gone, and they’ve even wiped the table off. In America the server would return every few minutes and try to get you out of the place, but in Europe, that table is yours until you leave, no one will rush you out. I love it. After we’d eaten we sat for a long time just talking and laughing… what a great life.

Afterward we headed to the prime meridian to show all of those who haven’t seen it, but we found a huge laser. It was amazing! The laser was shooting out over the buildings and the park was closed so we walked down a street and followed the gates of the park till we were right under the green unnatural light shooting off over the city toward south London. We laughed and talked and joked about the buildings cut in half by the meridian. Max and I clicked right away and we ended up doing a jig over the line and GP and I gave high fives. It was a great time.

On Monday we headed to the Clifton with all of our group plus a few others. Steph invited a friend of hers who brought two other girls (Laura?, Michelle, and Charlotte) and we all sat around and talked for a while just enjoying each others company as usual. After some time we eventually decided it was time for bed. This week was pretty slow so far…

Next, on Tuesday I headed out to the Prince Albert Museum with Ross, Amanda, Steph, Andy, then to Bayswater and chilled for a bit with Amanda, Ross and Steph (who was going to move in with Amanda and Morgan soon after) afterward we hung out at a pub in Bayswater where Morgan joined us after he work party. It was pretty funny because she was pretty drunk so she didn’t last long before heading home.

I didn’t really enjoy the V&A too much because it was poorly laid out and a museum full of just stuff. Chairs, tables, silverware, plates, wallpaper, electronics, it was a museum of material history. Not that it’s not important to keep those things around for posterity, but it was kind of boring that’s all. It would have been better to show progression of the styles, but sometimes it was just rooms of stuff… oh well.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Last Week's Greenwich Adventure

Post Beginning: Sunday, 08 January 2006

Thursday I had work again, but now that Anne was back you’d think I have more to do… you’d be moderately right. Not for most of the day, but the last few hours were filled with Anne related tasks! After work I went home to try and clean up and get my journal typed up, as that it is now Sunday I obviously failed at getting that done, so instead I went out to the Clifton after watching some of Anchorman and making pasta for dinner. The Clifton is a great place to chill. I even plugged in the Christmas lights outside of the glassed in sitting area in the back. It was classy. Amanda and Ross showed up way later, and Kate and John left, Steph went with them. Andy, Ross, Amanda, and I hung out for a while but they had just stopped serving so we chatted and then everyone went home.

Friday was another work day, but I chatted with my co-workers for a while and they informed me of a potential tube strike on Monday (update it’s going down tomorrow) therefore I will have to take a bus to work if my station is closed and I will get to be a patient in the nursing tests for the future of the British medical establishment. If it is anything like the bank system I’ll probably go in for routine tests and be dead before they get to me.

Emily and I declared Friday, ‘Falafel Day,’ and therefore for lunch we (accompanied by Andy, Sarah (Emily’s sister) and another girl who works with Sarah to Borough Market. I love Borough Market, it is wonderful. I have never seen such a plethora of good foods in one place. I even found (and purchased) a bottle of Sleemans!! Yea, it was awesome. Andy was very excited and went around taking pictures of everything. After work Sarah came over to Erlang House and Emily did her eye makeup and I talked to my Dad on the mobile for a while. I bought him some software that he can’t buy in the states and he got all excited when it worked, and then admitted that he didn’t know what he would use it for exactly, but thought it sounded cool… my dad is so silly.

After the makeup was done, Emily went home to get gussied up and left me with her sister, with whom I have never spent time without Emily present. I was determined to continue a conversation, and we did really well! We walked to the White Horse pub on Carnaby Street to meet some of her friends. We were the first there, but soon after we met Jenny and then Jeff and then Mike and … I forget her name showed up as well. We all drank, they bought the rounds and now I owe them all beer, which I am fine with because they were cool and it is an excellent excuse to see them again. They were all Canadian (mostly from Ottawa) and were absolutely fun. It was a good night. I left at 9 to go to the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese to meet Steph, GP, Kate, John and this new girl named Kathryn. She was nice, talkative which was good. John, Kate and I talked about books and had a really good conversation. I really had a great night. Friday was fun.

The next morning we met at Portobello Road market, Ross Jenn and I left WG by bus because the tube was down do to ‘weather related issues’ it was almost snowing. The market was great, I went to the Travel Book Shop, yes the one from the Notting Hill movie (since Portobello is in Notting Hill). I’ve been there before, but it is such a great bookshop I can’t resist. Afterward we ate at this really cheap place called Mike’s Café, and then wandered the market. Ross and Amanda left, but Anna, Jenn, Morgan, and I stayed. I bought a bugle. I wouldn’t have except that it says 23 on it and it is really pretty. It was only £13, I probably could have bargained for it, but I don’t really know how, and I am not really confident in it… maybe next time. I was ultimately looking for shoes, a task which I largely failed. After wandering the market for hours we decided we were going to go to a movie and had to head back to Bayswater first.

Amanda and Ross were going to meet up at the movie after they’d checked out a flat for Ross; so the other four of us headed to Whiteley’s down the street for a movie time check. The next movie was not until 5:40p so we decided to shop! I saw a number of things that I could have bought, and I might still, I would like a new pair of jeans to add to the two that I have. I could get some from FCUK for like £20 but I didn’t feel like spending money. I went into the bookstore Books Etc. (a renamed Borders) and Steph called while I was debating buying paperback British versions of the HP series… it was a raging debate… She asked if I wanted to come with GP and her to see Brokeback Mountain! I informed her of our plans to see it in Bayswater at 5:40 and she said she’d head that way and join us. Around 4:30 we could NOT shop anymore, and Morgan and I wanted sushi so we went to Yo! Sushi.

You may have heard of, or seen Yo! Sushi on TV or in film. It consists of a breakfast-bar-like countertop surrounding the sushi-makers. You can order things, but the gimmick is: they make sushi and put it on different coloured plates. They place these plates on a moving conveyor that goes in a loop around the whole place. As the plates you want come by you take them off of the conveyor and the colour-coded plates are associated with the prices. I had a few plates and Morgan and I bonded over the sushi. It was really good and I goto eat wasabi… omg…

Finally, Steph arrived and we all headed into the cinema. The movie was excellent I give it 3 out of 4 stars. Amanda and Ross came in just after we sat down, and GP arrived 45 seconds after the movie started but we didn’t see him until after. Some of the people didn’t like the movie exactly. They liked it OK but they didn’t want to see gay cowboys. At least one of them thought it was far-fetched. We had a couple of casual discussions about whether they were actually “gay.” I thought that Jake’s character was, but not Heath’s. Heath’s was just not able of providing affection, and had never known how…except with Jack Twist… it was a complicated movie, and I was interested in the reactions of those present. Many of them gave predictable reactions… if it had been a gay cowgirl movie it would have been a completely different reaction. I like that it was two guys that are considered attractive to women too… Morgan said she was upset that they were both cute and gay. We all asked her if she’d met any gay men…

We then headed to The Sport’s Café and enjoyed a night of Basketball (Go Pistons!) American football (redskins and buccaneers) and a the end of the Ottawa/Montreal hockey game. I explained to Jenn the lack of hockey in the states (more people watch tennis, golf, and even cricket, individually, then hockey in the USA) and we got some really good nachos. Around midnight we headed for the tube and made it home for bed.
Sunday was a great trip to Greenwich! We got to ride the Dockland Light Rail and (on the way back) the East London Line. This means I have now ridden every Transport for London line, I think… I might have to double check with the Waterloo & City line… so I’ll ride that in the next day or so and have them all! Greenwich was excellent! For those of you that don’t know Greenwich is the centre of the Earth, longitude 0°00’00”. We arrived and it was rainy and crappy, but it was nice to be abele to take the tube. The high road was amazingly clean and the buildings had really pretty façades, we walked to the Royal Observatory Museum (the real observatory is in Cambridge now because of light pollution). It was really a beautiful area. The observatory was behind the National Maritime Museum and in the middle of Greenwich Park, which was VERY green and filled with people for a rainy Sunday…
We hiked up to the Observatory (which was located on a steep hill in the middle of the park and at the top we got our free tickets and went through the fence into the main yard. On the ground there was a line… that line was the Prime Meridian, an imaginary line that has been considered the standard for all maps in the world since 1884 or something… Steph, Morgan and I straddled it and got pictures, and Morgan took shots as Steph and I jumped back and forth saying, “Now I’m east!” “Now I’m west!” It was good dork fun.

Afterward we explored the observatory and looked at a bunch of very cool old telescopes and saw the actual telescope used to pick the divider of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres… it was in a part of the building that actually was a primitive observatory with doors on the roof that could be hand-cranked open. It was really interesting. At noon we synchronised our watches to the Atomic clock and headed back down the hill. We went into the Greenwich market (full of little nick-knacks and cool do-dads) before discovering the most amazing Mexican place we’ve seen yet. We walked over and were reading the menu when a young woman opened the door and said (with some heavy accent that was not Mexican or Spanish) “This is my family’s business, you should come in! It’s good food! Come on in!” I guess we looked apprehensive because she quickly said, “First round of Sangria on the house!” With a quick look among the three we followed her in the door. It was excellent Sangria, we ordered chimichangas and enchiladas and enjoyed them thoroughly. We didn’t speak much during the meal; the silence was only broken by the strange ‘Mexican-ish’ music and the occasional moans of delight from the food we were eating.

After the Mexican orgasm Steph and I headed to a tall ship dry-docked nearby and explored while Morgan headed back home. The ship was cool, but not very restored. After the exploring we headed back to the DLR for home and commented that we would really like to return to Greenwich.

A nearly normal post...

An explanation of this picture is in order. Andy got a game, called pin the melons on the babe or something... and Kara on her last ngiht in town decided they belonged in her shirt. So there they are. I had to get a picture. We all laughed pretty heartily.

Wednesday, 04 January 2006
Tuesday was easy enough to remember… as that it was yesterday… well I haven’t slept yet. Its 130am… Kara leaves in the morning. It’s going to be weird to not have to think about what she is doing. Tonight was fun, during the day was boring. I was back at work today, while Kara headed around town and went to the Tower of London etc. I could have gone with her I figure because Anne is out sick till Thursday. Wednesday will be equally boring I surmise. Tonight Steph, Kara and I went to see a musical, perhaps you’ve heard of it… Les Miserables; IT WAS FANTASTIC. I had seen it before, but never at a real venue, just the travelling show that came to Miller, and that was crap. I didn’t really want to see Les Mis yesterday when we’d originally planned to go, but overnight I became more optimistic.
I got out of work early and headed to Tower Hill to walk with Kara and together (after she left the Tower of London) we headed to Covent Garden to look for the Maple Leaf (a Canadian bar that I will be watching Hockey at sometime soon), but failed. We met with Steph outside the tube station and bought our tickets (£17.50 for the topmost row) and found a restaurant right near the theatre, a little Italian place that was really delicious, I even paid the £4.50 for the home made tiramisu (so worth it).
The show was just incredible. I was so impressed with the cast, and even though I was so high up, I could see fine, and for 50p I rented little plastic opera glasses to see better, they were really great help. After the show I came home and fixed the wireless internet for good. I am amazing, I know. Kara is in bed… I should go to bed too.
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Saturday, January 14, 2006

The first days of the New Year

We were up and out by 11… heading to a pub with our backpacks. The streets were empty because some people had inevitably partied late into the morning. We found a place called Deacon Brodie, a man I had never heard of, but had apparently done some serious shit. We read about him on the menu and he was a Deacon who was corrupt, but in a good way sometimes. He had a sad story which you can read on Wikipedia here. I’d found a place near our hotel, but it wasn’t open. That was disappointing because they’d had French toast! This place didn’t, and our backpackes were too big to fit comfortably anywhere so it was crowded and a bit awkward, but tasty. I got the traditional breakfast and ate all the haggis again, it was so good!

Afterward we headed for the train station, ending up waiting for about 30-40 minutes for the late train. We boarded and headed back to London, noticing all of the empty Edinburgh to London reserved seats, talking about how they were probably wasted and sleeping it off. We had a good laugh, not regretting for a second our cheaper option.

Five or so hours later we were back in London as King’s Cross, having to wait in line to renew my oyster card and then making it an early night and heading home. All in all Scotland was amazing. Great people, good pictures, and a helluva lot of blogging… today is 15th of January and I have just finished typing about it, what a great week it was, and one I will never forget. I want to go back.

2nd January 2006

On the second of the new year I was back with Steph and Kara going shoe shopping. Kara had discovered holes in her shoes while in Scotland which made hiking and walking in the rain (not a rare thing in Scotland) very unpleasant. We shopped most of the day and didn’t find anything. We all needed new shoes, my Merrells (while still comfortable) are starting to fall apart… it’s really sad…

We also decided to go to St. Paul’s and actually pay to get in… we wanted to cross some of the things off Kara’s list of: Things to Do in London. St. Paul’s has a tour and you can walk all the way to the very top of the dome. It was a great view of London and also eye opening… if there had been a fire though we all would have died because the stairs in some places on the way up are hardly wide enough for me and not nearly tall enough. It was quite an experience. I got some pictures though…

Next, we went to the British museum and was able to see part of the Egyptian room before it closed. Kara was excited and I am always happy to be at the British Museum, a great museum and funny because nothing in it is British. Britain is very obsessed with the idea of it’s own Empire… and this museum is just one of many that illustrates that they loved it, and miss it… very strange mentality to think of a modern country that misses owning the other countries that it had wrongfully stolen… strange indeed.

Then, we headed back to St. John’s Wood and watched A Few Good Men at Steph’s place before I headed home.

Finally it's New Years Eve 2005!

I woke up at 1030 or so… the other two were already up. 5 hours of sleep was going to have to do me good I decided. A little after 11 we walked up the large hill and stairs to Edinburgh castle… By the way, Edinburgh (for those of you that don’t know nuthin’) is pronounced Edin-borough not Edin-burg. The caste was really cool, with great views of the city, the water, and the ridges of the mountains that all ringed the sides of the city; I reiterate: Scotland is amazing. We walked around the castle for a few hours, taking everything in, shooting some pictures, and even waiting in a very long line to see the Honours of Scotland (the crown jewels) that had been buried, hidden, nearly stolen, some taken (the stone of destiny) and even stashed away in a massive chest in the basement of the castle for hundreds of years. They were impressive, but definitely had seen better days.

We walked the town, and went over to the train station to get our train tickets back to London, when we randomly ran into Kate and John! How messed up is that?! We talked to them for a while about the trip thus far and about their plans. We parted ways and headed up onto a hill on the other side of the city to take pictures, it had started raining (which commenced until late into the night) and the pictures that I took didn’t turn out very well… Afterward we went shopping and enjoyed the tourist spots. For lunch we went to a Scottish pub called the Jolly Judge, and the trio agreed that not many judges are jolly in the way this one seemed to be portrayed on the sign. We continued our tour for a short while and then headed back to the hotel, thankfully, cloak and daggering our way through the lobby, for a nap before the festivities of the evening.

Hogmanay was frickin’ crazy! We obviously got there early, be cause we could actually walk down Princes Street; something we discovered later, proved to be impossible. We wandered around, kind of bored, and then decided to go into the Hogmanay Club area, where only the £45 ticket holders could go called: Ceilidh in the Gardens. We did not regret it.

First, we stood by this bouncy area, with a dome over it so people could be attached to the dome by little bungee cords. We felt that it would be much more entertaining as people got drunker to have them bounce high in the air and do flips… As that we’d been pretty drunk the night before (and had spent a good amount of money on the ticket) we decided to stay sober on New Year to enjoy every minute of our ticket. While standing by this bouncy dome and enjoying watching the drunks we started a conversation with this American guy standing near us, Joe Alexander. He asked us where we were from (“Michigan”), “Wow me too!” Small world we all agreed, and after inquiring further we discovered he was from Mackinac City!!

We all began to regale each other with stories from the Straits area. Turned out that Joe was a helicopter pilot (a wannabe actually according to his two friends) who was stationed in Germany but visiting Edinburgh for the Hogmanay. We talked to him for about an hour, before exchanging numbers and moving on, his two friends had (in my opinion upon discovering that neither Steph nor Kara were going to put out) moved on to ‘fresher’ meat… some girls who were going on the bouncy dome… they weren’t doing so well though, they seemed to have offended them somehow as they were getting some stern responses; I chuckled to myself. Gotta’ love those military boys.

After we left Joe we headed down to the Ceilidh in the Gardens: Traditional Scottish dancing. The dancing was held on a large open area that we immediately recognised as an ice rink that had been covered with thick rubber. There was a caller who (like the square dance at St. Anne’s on the island) first explained/walked us through the dance, and then started the music and we were supposed to do the whole thing. It was a lot of fun, but due to the rain that was coming down the entire night and the slippery rubber I did end up falling once. Steph looked all around for me and found me on the ground; we had a hearty laugh over it. The best part was that Kara was taking a video of the whole thing on my camera, so it is immortalised for all time. After we’d done a bunch of dancing we decided to go out of the Ceilidh in the Gardens and try to get to one of the many stages outside the fence. There were 6 stages in all and we wanted to check out this band that was playing. Leaving the fence turned out to be the worst idea of the night. The crowd of people that had amassed outside of the Ceilidh area was two or three people per square foot throughout the street, many of the pretty far along with their drinking. We had fun doing a Ferris Bueller (holding hands like the in museum scene) and eventually taking out our frustration by pushing forcibly through the groups that were just milling around in the sea of people. Randomly we saw Nick and a couple other people I’d met the night before at the party!! He joined up with us and we all forced our way toward where Hard-Fi was playing (the band we wanted to see) and just as we were getting close we came to a dead end of people. Nothing, no movement at all; we turned back after 10 minutes of dirty looks and pushing and testing. Steph, Kara and I headed (after some trouble) back into the Ceilidh in the Gardens. There were police everywhere by the fences keeping the £17 tickets out and only letting in those with both the Gold bracelet and the paper ticket; it felt like we were running into the US Embassy for safety in those movies like The Saint.

Once inside we decided not to leave until Hogmanay was over. We headed over to find a place for the fireworks and discovered that we could see/hear Hard-Fi from the promenade overlooking the Traditional Dancing, so we listened, watched, and decided we were better off. Talking and waiting for the fireworks we looked at our watches; it would still be an hour and we had a more music to see. We went to stage number 6 (the special Ceilidh in the Gardens stage) and watched this AMAZING Scottish band called Shooglenifty (who we talked to on Kara’s request after the set, to find out about a CD purchase) One of the guitarists looked a lot like Dennis Havlena, which was strange, but they were really amazing musicians. We enjoyed them until 11:55 and then headed back toward our spot, but stopped long before that.

The countdown was odd in that there were actually 3 different ones. First one from some stage, and then one from the Traditional Dancing crowd and then finally the real one from the mass of humanity confined to the fences. We all counted with them and at zero the Edinburgh castle, situated on cliffs above the centre of the city erupted. The fireworks were thick with colour and the display went on for about 15-20 minutes… the music resumed and we rocked out to a band populated with guys our own age!! Croft No. 5 was excellent and we rocked out to their whole set and then talked to them afterward to and asked about CDs. One of the guys was from Shetland (which we got really excited about because we’d been to Orkney) and he said we could get CDs on their website.

Finally around 2-3 we made it back to the hotel and hit the sack. A long day on the train was to follow…

Friday, January 13, 2006

December 30th (a.k.a. the Loss of the Magster)

The next morning I awoke slightly later than the other two and we headed down to borrow the internet so I could call Liesl before we headed to Edinburgh. We decided we couldn’t just run away from rainy Inverness without looking around. It was a nice city, the largest one we’d visited since Glasgow, and after some discussion we parked and looked for a shop to buy jumpers (sweaters) in. Stephanie found a cable knit wool sweater in a traditional Scottish store. It was strange because it the store looked like a Holden-Reid in Lansing, but with kilts instead of suits; it was a little funny. They didn’t have the jumper I wanted there, but they did have Scotland patches for my backpack, so I made a £2 purchase and Steph bought her jumper and we headed back into the rain.

“It’s good Scottish weather,” I stated matter of factly with a horribly think scottish accent.

“t’s barely rainin’,” said Steph or Kara… I can’t recall which, but we all laughed.

We found another couple of little shops and eventually I discovered a jumper sale; a whole wall of 2 for 1! I was excited and about ½ hour later I walked out with two Scottish jumpers. Kara found one in the same store, and our jobs being done we went to a Pastry Shoppe across the street and then back to the car to eat our goodies before leaving for Loch Ness.
After a short drive we came upon the ancient home of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster. No sightings by us that grey and foggy day, but we did stop for some pictures of the Loch itself. It was very cool and mysterious. I liked it, and learned from Wikipedia via Kara’s LiveJournal that you could submerge the entirety of the BT Tower in Loch Ness (and that thing is huge! I was impressed. We drove about halfway down the loch until we arrived at Urquhart Castle on the edge of murky Loch Ness. We didn’t have the £ to actually go in the castle, which was too bad because it would have been really cool, but we had to get Maggie back to Enterprise in Edinburgh and it was a long drive, so after we took a few pictures we headed back up the Loch and then to Edinburgh.

* * * *

Our first views of Edinburgh came from the airport, where we said our goodbyes to Maggie. It was a sad moment, but we had to move on. We left her and got on a bus. I knew she’d be jealous, but the bus meant nothing, I swear to you, I didn’t even know it. I was just using it… it was a rebound… I feel horrible…

Anyway, we took a bus into the Town Centre and I joked with Kara about getting a return ticket, she gave me a dirty look (those of you that remember the Stansted Express fiasco, see: Boxing Day entry). Arriving in downtown Edinburgh we had a short walk to the hotel to check in and call Liesl, Kara and I played it cloak & dagger outside and across the street as Steph checked in and texted us the room number. We entered non-chalantly and 5 minutes apart, Kara entering first. My first impressions were that I’d walked into one of the more minimalist art pieces at the Tate Modern… I was a little creeped out… I headed to the 4th floor in the lift, and the door opened to an open white room with black doors opening into the rooms. Down a side hallway that was painted yellow there was a sign that read, ‘Penthouse’ and opposite it was another hallway lit only by a tight grouping of four, wall-mounted, fuchsia fluorescent bulbs. It was by far the oddest hotel I’d ever been in. The cloak & dagger was because we’d told them only two people in the room, and thus had only gotten a king bed, that the three of us shared. Yes, I got middle… *break for noises of jealousy* Okay, back to the narrative.

I found out that day that Liesl, an ex-visitor to Fort Mackinac, and a current resident of Boston, visiting Scotland for Hogmanay, was leaving for London for a flight in the wee hours of the 1st of January, 2006! I was upset, we were supposed to actually hang out over Hogmanay, but he job was being dumb, so instead we hung out from dinner that night until her friend Nick and I put her in a cab at 5am. We met in a square in front of Usher Hall, she was with her friend Nick (another guy she’d randomly met while travelling who happened to live in Edinburgh) and we headed to a pub to meet Steph and Kara. It was dark by now (so like 4pm) and I wasn’t hungry yet so I just had a Tenants. Nick was wearing a kilt and was a really cool kid from Seattle living and studying abroad in Scotland.
After we’d had a jar we headed to a party of one of Nick’s friends where we remained talking, drinking Strongbow out of little plastic cups, eating snacks, and meeting new people from all over the UK studying in Scotland. It was a really cool party. Liesl and I caught up from the last 6 months and we were soon all chatting away, jovially listening to the Keiser Chiefs (they roxor). After an undisclosed number of little cups of cider I moved on to some concoction in a bowl that I am sure had a strong hard liquor in it, and tasted like it for the first glass. After that I couldn’t tell anyway. Steph and Kara left around 1am and around 3am Liesl and I left and walked the streets of Edinburgh talking and enjoying the views and the cobblestone streets. Eventually we headed back and Nick met us downstairs and we went walking again in the direction of Nick’s housing so Liesl could get her bags. His dorm was clean, but the rooms were very small… not unlike everything in Europe.

Finally, with a kiss goodbye and a final wave the cab pulled away and Nick gave me directions back to my hotel. I set off at a fast pace after our goodbyes. We said we’d call, we knew we wouldn’t, we only talked because she’d been there. He was cool, but noticeably younger than me, not just in looks but in deeds and attitudes. I headed home and crawled into bed between Kara and Steph to sleep for a few hours before we had to get up for our tour of Edinburgh

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

29 December (Brocks Birthday +1)

We awoke on Orkney, dressed and headed down to the main dining room for breakfast. There was a table set for three and food on a small table with an older woman waiting by a counter. We were talking and joking and saw the table and said, perfect! Three of us three places…

“You’re the only ones in the hotel,” said the woman.

We were confused, and she repeated herself. We were the only ones in the whole hotel yet our room was on the top floor down a random hallway. How strange. This was moderately exciting, all of this breakfast and these people were all here because we were there; it’s an odd feeling. We got cereal and sat down figuring that was the complimentary breakfast and the older woman bustled around, looking fairly busy for someone who had her entire occupancy sitting at one small half-moon table. A few minutes into our cereal she came over and asked us what we wanted for breakfast. I asked what they had and she listed a few things, but we all ordered the traditional Scottish breakfast. It arrived shortly and it included haggis and black pudding! Actually the haggis was quite good! I enjoyed it a great deal (after adding a bit of ketchup of course). We ate slowly and left the hotel and wandered into the rain and took some pictures of Orkney.

We meandered around the city of Kirkwall, going to the bank, a few shops and eventually making it to the tourist information centre. There we bought postcards and got a free map from the Orkney man (who was VERY helpful). We also got a few free posters and some advice on what to see and where to go. We left very excited to see the island. We walked down the street into a red and gold cathedral made of special stones. St Magnus Cathedral dominates the skyline of Kirkwall, and was definitely worth the trip inside (plus it was warm and out of the wind). It is Britain's most northerly cathedral, a fine example of Norman architecture built when the islands were ruled by the Norwegian Vikings. Uniquely in Britain, it is owned not by the church but by the city of Kirkwall as a result of an act of King James III of Scotland when Orkney was annexed by Scotland in 1468. St Magnus is also the only cathedral in Britain to have its own dungeon, and was built in 1137.

The weather was cold, windy and rainy and we started driving around the island. Orkney is shaped like a banana (sort of) and we drove a whole bunch of it. There was a lot to see… most of Orkney is famous for standing stones and ancient settlements, the oldest dating back to 5000BC, it was pretty cool. We started by heading north through the centre of the island and soon reached the Standing Stones of something or other… Stromness maybe… either way there are standing stones everywhere, even in people’s lawns, just chillin’ for over a thousand years. We wandered around the stones, but they wouldn’t be as cool as the next grouping so we moved on.

** I can’t remember exactly when during this day she said it, but today was the creation of Kara’s Quote of the trip, “Fuckin’ Scaahtlaahnd!” I can’t really explain it, but it was today. If you don’t get it, ask Kara. **

The Ring of Brodgar according to Wikipedia is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in The Mainland Orkney, Scotland, somewhat similar to Stonehenge in England. The ring of stones stands on a small isthmus between the Lochs of Stenness and Harray. The centre of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists and scientifically dated, but it is thought that the stone circle was constructed around 2500 BC, pre-dating Stonehenge and many other ancient sites in the British Isles and Europe.[1]

Just to illustrate that the stones are all over

The circle is 104 m in diameter, and one of the largest to be found in the United Kingdom. The henge was comprised of 60 stones, of which only 27 remained standing at the end of the 20th century. The stones are set within a circular ditch up to 3 meters deep and 9 meters wide that was carved out of the solid bedrock by the ancient residents.
The ring was really cool, and I took a lot of pictures. There was a lot of mud around though, and the wind and the biting cold of the island grasslands made it very uncomfortable so we did not overstay our welcome. One of my favourite stones was the one that was struck by lightning in 1997 or something… it was really cool and had been shore in half. I even got a picture of Kara hugging one of the ancient stones. How
happy! We drove on…

A panoramic I put together of the Ring

From the standing stones we continued north until we found the northern coast… When we’d seen the cliffs on Skye I thought I was looking at some of the most beautiful natural formations of my life. Then we found the north cliffs of Orkney. We stood there marvelling at the ocean, and trying to spot an Orca (a whale that is more commonly known as a killer whale). Orcas are said to be commonly found by the coasts this time of year, but we had no luck when it came to wildlife. These cliffs were topped with soft green grass that went right to the edge for the hundred foot drop to the foam covered rocks. I was later reminded of a piece of cake with green frosting, but at the time was too busy taking the pictures and being awestruck. The rocks on our section of the cliffs were this very strange shade of yellow and the whole cliff-face was a combination of layer after layer of yellow shaded stone. It looked magnificent in the late afternoon sunlight.

We tore ourselves away from the cliffs and headed to Skara Brae. Skara Brae is a large stone-built Neolithic settlement, located in the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of mainland Orkney. The level of preservation is such that it has gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The site at Skara Brae is believed to have been occupied from about 3100 BC, for about six hundred years. Around 2500 BC, after the climate changed, turning much colder and wet, the settlement was abandoned by its inhabitants.

There was a cool pathway leading from the visitors centre to a reconstruction of what the lodging would have looked like in 3100BC, it was really interesting. After leaving the dwelling the pathway wound down toward the coastline to the site, going back through history. We had a good laugh about it as we passed plaques that said, “1969: Men walk on the Moon,” all the way to, “0: Birth of Christ,” and eventually, “2000BC: The Great Pyramid constructed.” There were about a dozen plaques, each with a little fact and a date, and then finally, “3100BC Skara Brae.” The site was so well preserved; you could see the little dwellings and the pathways to get to them. There was a naturalist out there in a nice warm coat talking about the site and willing to answer questions. Steph and I had a few, because there was very limited on the placards by the site. It was well organised and the sun definitely helped keep us warm, but after about 30 minutes we were all frozen so we headed back to Maggie for the quick drive up the coast to another settlement (after an obligatory sojourn in the gift shop).

Up the coast was a ruined castle, a small village, and up on the cliff above them, a car park. The car park overlooked a landscape of exposed rocks that jutted off the ocean floor and severed the connection to a small island 200 metres away. This island was only accessible during low tide, and the guy at the tourist info centre in Kirkwall said that was somewhere around 2 or 3… it was just before 1. We started the trek using a path of cement slabs that formed a path. The slabs were coated with bright green algae and as I turned around to take a picture I stepped into a very large puddle completely soaking my right foot. We all laughed. The island on the other side, small as it was, still had a fence to keep visitors from leaving the area immediately surrounding a number of low stone foundations. These were the remnants of a Viking settlement that was there thousands of years before! It was really cool, but we were still cold, and now -thanks to that puddle- my right foot was really wet. Steph was really worried about the tide coming in, so she headed back and Kara and I hopped the fence and ran up the island to see what was on the other side. It was a worthwhile adventure; we found more cliffs, lots of seagulls, and a cute little lighthouse. 20 minutes later we were back down on the cement slabs heading back to Maggie so we could catch our 4:40pm ferry off of Orkney.

We stopped at our last historic site on the way back to Stromness, but the tour would cut it too close to the next ferry so we had to pass it up. It was a large Neolithic tomb that Stephanie was really interested in seeing, but instead we wandered the gift shop and had a short conversation with the nice Scottish woman working the counter.

After another 90 minute ferry adventure with a short nap and some iPod-age and book reading we drove Mags back onto the mainland of Scotland and headed off into the dark away from the port of Scrabster. I was sad to leave Orkney, but we had a date with Lybster. Hours later, worried we’d missed it in the darkness, or that we were completely lost, but we came around a bend and saw it! Lybster! Home of Patrick Sinclair! The founder of Fort Mackinac! The sign even said right on it: Twinned with Fort Mackinac, USA! Aside from the fact that there really is no such city, it was pretty damn cool. We tried to get pictures in front of the sign, but to no avail and then drove around the city in the pitch black moonless night looking for a turn off to see his grave. No such luck. We even asked, but the man I asked said we couldn’t get there at night, so we settled for the war memorial that basically said the same thing on it. It was still cool. We left Lybster with much more energy and headed to Inverness to find a place for the night.

* * * *

A couple of hours later we entered Inverness and were all hungry. It was not too late and we found a hostel after an exhaustive and frustrating search through the winding streets of the small city. The hostel was cheap, clean, and the guy behind the desk liked me because I had Spanish blood (he was from Spain). We went to look for eats while the guy cleaned a room for us, and the hunger and irritation from the long drive ended up making me leave the two of them and go to a pub. I was hungry, but I didn’t eat. Instead a bought a pint of bitter feeling that it would be as good as a couple pieces of bread with all that yeast and stood to enjoy the traditional Scottish music being played by a 30-something Scot with the treble way too high. I was watching the Scots all enjoying the music until I heard the beginnings of 500 Miles by the Proclaimers…

At this point the man I happened to be looking at as the pounding acoustic sounds blared into the room immediately perked up and started stomping his leg on the floor. I glanced around and the mayhem was everywhere, from that guy to the kilt wearing bunch of uni students to the guy twirling a (hopefully unused) condom around his head like a stripper with a pair of pants. I laughed and sang along loudly with everyone, unafraid of anyone hearing my horrible American accent in the depths of this display of Scottish pride. I enjoyed the whole experience a great deal and eventually got another pint and sat down until the place closed. I went home and to sleep explaining in the dark where I’d been to the girls (who’d apparently reckoned that’s where I’d gone). What a day… and there were still more!

Oh any by the way... I saw this sign all over Scotland, sometimes accompanied by another sign below it reading: Elderly People. We busted out laughing every time!

[1] Wikipedia, w00t!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

28 December (Brock’s Birthday)

We awoke nice and early and complained of the extreme cold. I don’t think our heat worked at all… it was frickin’ cold! After some prep time and shower time for the girls we all went down to breakfast in the hostel’s gi-normous kitchen! It was huge! But it only had tea, some Wheetabix and as much toast as we wanted with interesting jams. You can guess what I went for. I love toast… only one of the toasters worked… and it wasn’t the four-slicer, it was the two… sad. After a nice breakfast overlooking a mountain and the water out the kitchen panoramic windows we left to explore the island. We’d heard from the worker the night before that the HP&GoF dragon scenes were filmed on Skye north of Portree so we were excited to get on the road, but first we wanted to explore the city. We drove around, taking pictures of the really pretty views and the colourful buildings. There was a whole row of inns and businesses in pastels, a fairly famous view of Portree, and a number of little shops, but we only went in a couple of them.

Finally we felt we’d better getting going and I drove Maggie (we’d actually named her that day, not right away) north, out of town. We were enveloped in mountains and fields of the moors (MOOURRHHS!) almost immediately. The road was a one lane-r the barely the width of Maggie (who was quite trim) with ‘passing points’ which were little spaces (like bumps of asphalt) on one side or the other where you were supposed to pull over for the oncoming traffic to pass. Fun! We found a waterfall and stopped to take pictures for about 25 minutes. We drove to the Old Man stones, which is a huge and famous mountain on the moors, and then continued to some cliffs. We stopped often and didn’t really rush because we wanted to really enjoy the views. There were sheep all over, just wandering around... We saw much and it’s not really explicable… I’ll try to capture it with photo’s… we even saw cliffs that were made entirely of pillars of stone. These pillars (I remember from my geology lessons in 9th grade science, thanks Mr. Z!) are naturally forming stone that organize into a molecular structure that is very rigid and geometric, so when they connect together they form regular pillars. They were beautiful and had another waterfall (right side) cascading down into the ocean... sometime in the past it seems that some of the pillars had fallen down too... how cool would that be to experience.

We didn’t see any wildlife… you see the travel books say there might be seals and puffins, but I hadn’t met a Scot that had admitted to seeing a puffin, and the seals were going to be tough either way. We weren’t disappointed though, the scenery was amazing enough. At one point we had to stop and wait because there were highland cows in the road! They were just wandering around and had blocked the road! There was a guy in a truck trying to heard them off, and he waved at me and my little VW to go ahead, I squeezed in between a couple of cows and drove away, we all were laughing.

On the way off of Skye we got a bit confuddled… we drove off the island (which is really big, I just minimize the amount of time driving) over the Skye Bridge and were looking for a road. This was when we discovered that our maps were accurate… but there were more roads then were on our map, and none of the roads anywhere were well marked. And sometimes they weren’t marked at all. There was just nothing around. It was very crazy. We went the wrong way for about 10 miles, past the Eilean Donan castle again (thought it was pretty still) and then after a while we didn’t see our road… it was supposed to be right after the bridge… we stopped at a gas station, I asked for directions… we’d missed it… we headed back toward the bridge… past Eilean Donan again… nice… all the way back to the bridge, we see nothing… Now we are getting flustered, but I’m still positive. I pick a road that might be it, but got discouraged when it turned to dirt… and then started winding along a coast of a loch and had really small passing places. It was kind of a scary road because you couldn’t see around the bends and on one side was water, inches from your tyres, and the other side was a hill or rocks… scary. Needless to say it dead ended at a field and a house. We 180ed and headed back to the main road… back past Eilean Donan again… (does it just sit there?!) and then back toward the bridge… Lets try this road… It was it!! We’d found it! It was already getting dark by this time (so it was like 2:00pm) and we had a 5 hour drive ahead of us to Orkney (or to the port of Scrabster) and then to Orkney.

It had been dark for a while and we’d bought a couple of CDs when we left Skye because the radio pickup sucked (Maggie was missing her antenna). The drive was fairly uneventful except when my headlights spilled out onto a large field and apparently there was a hill by the road going down to this field… because the HUGE PROPELLERS OF A FRICKIN’ WIND POWER GENERATOR were reflecting my headlights out of the foggy darkness and I freaked out! My heart was literally going a mile a minute for a second! I didn’t know what it was but it scared the shit out of me in the ½ second it took me to figure it out. We made it to the Scrabster after driving through a number of cool little towns (they don’t have highways their roads are all like state highways, two lanes; or just the one lane passways). The last ferry was at 740 and it was going to be £48 each… that was a lot more than we’d planned… but we said, “What the hell, we are only here once in a lifetime!” We got on the ferry, parked Maggie and explored the boat. It was a 90 minute ride so we ate some dinner while figuring out what we wanted to do when we got there.

Arriving on Orkney around 9 we drove Mags off the ferry and across the island (about 15 miles) from Stromness to Kirkwall. Many times on the drive it was just black all around us except for the road, I felt that meant that the road was surrounded by water… only inches from both tyres… crazy… I am kind of glad it was dark… In Kirkwall we spent the better part of 30 minutes trying to find a hostel. We saw a number of hotels and eventually asked where the hostel was. To ask I walked into a local ale house; I was greeted by traditional music coming from a band and the place was no bigger than four average bedrooms! It was packed and hot, but it was wonderful… They said the only one they knew was out of town. We drove over, and it was a heap, and closed until April… I was silently relieved.

Finally we settled on a hotel for £23 each for the night including breakfast and it was a really nice place (three stars!) We had a double bed and a single and our own bathroom, it was nice… Orkney is perhaps one of the coolest places I have ever been. If not just for this fact: Every window in Orkney had a plank of wood bolted across it at around stomach level to me, so maybe 4 feet off the ground. I was hypothesising the use of the wood for the entire time we were wandering the streets looking for a hostel and finally I asked the woman at our front desk. Here is a transcript of the tale of these mysterious planks of wood…

“Excuse me I have to ask. What are all of those planks of wood for?!”

“Oh,” a quiet chuckle, “those are for the Ball Game!”

“A ball game?”

“Yea, every year we have a ball game on Christmas Day and New Years Day.”

“What kind of ball game?”

“Well, we split the town into two teams, and divide it in two. There is one ball, and the goal is to get the ball to the other end of town. Other than that there are no rules.”

“Holy wa! That’s amazing!”

She laughs again and nods her head. Kara and Steph are in equal awe.

“I would have never guessed that was the use. They are there to keep the windows protected then?”

“Well, it’s essentially a giant scrum!”

I was very impressed… after settling for a bit we headed back to the Auld Motor Hoose (the place we’d asked for directions) and stayed there till 11pm. I was enjoying it immensely. The band’s name was Shoot the Piper, and they were really good, they even played a couple of songs I knew. The featured a Bodhrán, bass, acoustic, accordion, and a piper. It was rally great. Kara and Steph got bored around 11 and we were all tired so we headed back to the hotel which was around the corner and passed out for the night… what a great and adventurous day.

Boxing Day +1 (a.k.a. Another Stupid Bank Holiday)

The next morning we had a traditional Scottish breakfast in our little dining room (which is similar to the Brit’s counterpart in many ways). We met a couple from Wisconson that were visiting Scotlant and were heading in the same direction as we would be; it's crazy who you meet... then we traversed the downtown of Glasgow trying to soak in what we could on the way to the bus station to catch a bus to the downtown airport to pick up the car. Whew.

After the paperwork and the playing with the credit card we eventually had it all to ourselves. It was a silver VW Polo that we quickly named Maggie… what a great little car.

Maggie was covered in frost so we played with the things inside while I attempted to get used to being on the ‘wrong’ side. Eventually we drove out and I was excited to be driving a manual again (even if I had to shift with my left hand). The driving was similar and a great feeling to be transporting under my own volition. I was so freaked out by the oncoming traffic though… so freaked out that after having the car for about 20 minutes I cut it too close to the cars parked on the side of the road and I heard a loud CRACK as I dealt a glancing blow with my passenger side mirror to a parked car’s drivers side mirror… I was mortified. But there was no damage. You don’t get any closer than that. I felt it was the fates telling me to lay off and relax… so I did and the driving was much more enjoyable.

We soon realized that Scotland is frickin’ amazingly beautiful. We kept stopping to take pictures, including at a restaurant/hotel when we needed to use the loo… finally we started to get some semblance of control with the scope of how far we had to go and just kept driving. We arrived at the bridge to the Isle of Skye before dark, and drove by (and stopped to take photos of) Eilean Donan castle; little did we know that we would get to know this spot quite well later…

We drove to the main city on Skye, Portree, parked and looked for an Inn or hostel for the night. We went to a few places and settled on a backpacker’s place that was only £11 per night and we’d have a room to ourselves because it was so slow. We went and had a good dinner and enjoyed a pint or two of Tenets of Scotland (the national brew) and I had another Scottish beer called 80pence or something… it was tasty.

We were beat from the day of travel and we went back to the hostel around 9:30 and had nothing to do, so we raided the place’s movie collection, which included Braveheart, much to the dismay of all the Scottish people around when I read that name off; we all had a good laugh at that. We settled on Batman and Monsters Inc. We chatted during most of Batman with the boy behind the counter who came to sit with us instead of working. It was quite entertaining and he talked a lot. But we hit the hay around 1230, we had the little sheet-bags instead of provided linen, and a duvet and pillow on each bed (all pink!).

This is probably one of the best pictures I have ever taken.

I just stopped and pulled off by the side of the road at this point for a minute and all three of us just stared at the view. Scotland is amazing.

Boxing Day

“I fucking hate boxing day,” I said to Kara, she nodded her agreement vigorously. This pretty much sums up Boxing Day for the two of us. We were having all sorts of problems getting to WG for the final prep before leaving for Scotland; we wanted to see the city a while before we left… but most everything was closed because it was a bank holiday. We’d eaten shwarmas for lunch while I finished packing (so good!) and then hefted the packs while wandering the city. I am getting much more comfortable with my pack on; which is good because I really like my pack and will need to be used to it before exploring Europe in three months.

** An aside for a mo. **

I am half done with my London experience. It seems like I just got here. This is very disconcerting. I miss everyone at home, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to explore here more, I am starting to find that I am running out of time to see things and have to prioritize more… see less… It’s quite sad. I will just have to come back. Though today (8 Jan) Steph informed me of an option (probably in November) of living at a villa in Tuscany for a month for US$250… that would be incredible… We’d just need a couple of people to come with…

After we’d seen most of downtown London we decided to get to the airport, but since it was Fucking Boxing Day the bus we were going to take to Stansted airport wasn’t running! Fucking Boxing Day!! So we ran (well sort of waddled quickly wearing big backpacks, can you picture it?) and headed to Liverpool St. for the more expensive, but much faster, Stansted Express train, which was also NOT RUNNING! GRR BOXING DAY!! But there was bus replacement service… we were so upset because now we might not actually make out flight if the bus took the 100 minutes promised by the other buses. So when buying our tickets (“Return please… thank you…”) we got on the bus quickly and were SO relieved to hear about the 50 minute trip… we’d have plenty of time… whew. What a relief. It wasn’t until we were actually on the plane that we realized that we’d bought return tickets (I blame myself) when we weren’t flying back… we were taking the train from Edinburgh. I’m such a dumass. *sigh*

We made our flight no problem, though Steph didn’t arrive till just before the flight due to Boxing Day issues of her own. The flight was uneventful, and cheap, huzzah for RyanAir’s £20 tickets! We arrived in Scotland late at night and took a bus to the town centre where we walked to the ‘hotel’ that we were staying at. It was really spacious room for the £18 per person that it cost! Kara and I were hungry so we left Steph watch a late 60s early 70s British film called Mutiny on the Buses which was a quite funny comedy about bus drivers in Britain and their crazy shenanigans! We went to the high road and found a pizza place… a 14” for £5.50 with spicy chicken! The chicken was actually a red that I have never seen in nature but being surrounded by Scottish people ) was cool (including the guys running the place who were from the middle east somewhere so had a Mid-east/Scottish accent). We went back to the hotel and ate while watching the crazy shenanigans and eventually slept.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Corn Dog Wisdom

I feel like a corn dog. Like... eating one. I want one. I am sitting here in London, wanting a frickin'corn dog. They don't have corn dogs here; they don't even know what they are!! It's crazy. I was talking to Ned the other day, just shootin'-the-shit as it were... Anyway, the subject got onto food, as it does when to guys are sitting around bored and hungry. We started to talk about foods from Australia (like vegemite -- nasty!) and then I had a revelation! Corn Dogs?! Had he had them? No! He didn't even know what they were! Fish sticks?! Nope. Tater tots?! Not by that name... but he'd had potato cakes and things... it seems like half of my childhood was spent eating hamburger helper, tater tots, fish sticks with applesauce, or corn dogs. They were all very excellent, and looking back very, very American. Crazy. Kind of a stupid post, but just thoughts I was having...

This might make it more meaningful... I actually do have a written journal which I write in when not near the computer and about 4 weeks or so ago when I was waiting to meet Stephanie in Trafalger Square I met a man. I was just wandering the square, Steph and I were slated to go and purchase tickets for Patrick Stewart in a Christmas Carol (amazing!) and while I was aimlessly traversing the square, people watching, enjoying the fountains and the anonminity I wandered near the monument...

There was a man standing there. He had a long white beard, a white turban, dark skin, and smiling eyes. I looked him over from a distance, he had a puffy black coat on with white pants proturding from the bottom and was holding a single candle in a clear class ball with both hands. I walked around to the side of the monument and got closer; he was singing softly, repeating the same phrasing in what I assumed was his native language.

I stood nearby listening and watching this man standing in this vey public place, with a candle, watching the other tourists eyeing him as they passed in the darkness. After several minutes of listening I managed to catch his eye and he smiled at me. I took the opportunity to walk closer and engage him in coversation, hoping to discover the meaning of his singing... I asked what he was doing in the least invasive and culturally ignorant way I could muster.

"Singing of love, peace, and god," he said with a smile.
"Excellent," I managed, not knowing exactly what to say but smiling back at him.
"Today is the birthday of my master- my holy teacher."
"So you're celebrating his teachings?"
"All of us are one," he started, smiling again, "allah, god, all are different names for the same, divide outselves, but we are all one."
I agreed with him verbally, and told him that I hope he keeps up what he is doing; he said he was there on the birthday of his holy teacher because he's been assassinated. His smile faded then...
"People who did not belive the same; did not like what he said,"
I was speechless, who could assassinate someone who spoke of peace, love, and god?
"I am singing for peace, love, and god [to remember him]," he coninuted.
I told him it was good to remember someone who meant a lot to him.
"Are you American," he questioned with a grin.
"Yes," he must have liked the answer because he found a larger grin.
He started to tell me that he was from India, but had lived in England for 30 years. At this point the conversation seemed like it was heading for an end. I wanted to shake his hand but he was still holding the candle-in-a-bowl with both hands.

After I walked away I felt really strange. I'd never had a conversation like that, and it was really creating all sorts of a fireworks in my head. The thoughts were flying around like clay pidgeons. I walked to the oher side of the square and wrote down the whole thing. What a strange and wonderful conversation. It really made me think.

So this post was not about anything, but I thought it would be worthwhile!