Scottish Rhapsody

Scottish thistle... symbol of Scotland.

Scottish thistle. It’s an ancient symbol of Scotland– some say because a Norse invader’s yelp after stepping barefoot on one of these thistles alerted a party of Scottish warriors of an imminent attack.

“Gosh, look at those cobwebs!  Here, let me just knock those down and do a quick sweep up.  Claire?  Would you please wipe off the table, honey?  And Quinny, prop that door open, will you?  It smells a little musty in here.”

“That’s better.  Now.  I’ll just rinse out the basket and we can make ourselves some coffee.  Cappuccino?  Latte?  Or was it double espresso macchiato?  It’s been so long…”

I would apologize for going AWOL for six months, but that seems a little conceited– as if you were all hanging around waiting for my words and my figment-blend espresso (yes, figment of my imagination…)  But I did miss writing to you over the last several months.  You may not realize it, but when I write this blog, there’s a dialogue in my head between us– the author and the theoretical reader.  (If you think that’s creepy, then maybe you could leave a real comment so the conversation is not all imaginary!)  In any case, I do hope we can wash up the coffee mugs, clean the big window in front– so the sun shines in on the old round table again– and get back to meeting here to catch up every week or two.

Last weekend was a school holiday here– fall break for the American School kids– and we’ve just come back from a long weekend in Scotland.  I know that sounds exotic, but from here it’s really not… just four hours on a train from King’s Cross, it’s a comparatively easy out-of-the-city getaway.

Croquet on the lawn at the Roxburghe Hotel.

Croquet on the lawn at the Roxburghe Hotel.

We were meant to be fishing and doing archery and such.  But the country hotel had to drain the trout lake on account of some algae thing, so while Clay still did his salmon fishing on the river Tweed with the ghillie (Scottish fishing guide), the kids and I did not fish.  This fly fishing on the river is actually kind of a big deal– the number and location of fishermen are regulated, with each fishable river having a certain number of “beats,” or stretches of river from which a person or a small party can fish.  There are reservation systems for the various beats, and the Roxburghe sporting estate owns four beats on two rivers.  The ghillie Clay worked with has an international reputation as one of the best, and he kind of reminded me of a Scottish Steve Irwin (you know, the Crocodile Hunter?).

The archery also fell through– for the simple logistical reason that it turned out to be 40 miles from the hotel rather than onsite.  So we took long walks around the grounds, learned to play croquet on the front lawn (which the kids totally loved), and Clay and I got to try clay pigeon shooting (which we both loved!).  And who knew? The clay pigeons do not look at all like pigeons!  They are just clay discs that get shot up like frisbees from behind a little rise.  I have to say that I did really well and hit the first several attempts, with the great coaching of the shooting instructor, Alastair, whom I could mostly understand (when I leaned back too far, he said, “dinna dae agin!” and then translated, ‘don’t do that again.’)  My triumph only lessened ever so slightly when I realized that I was shooting buckshot rather than single small bullets.  So my fantasy that I was a sharpshooter was maybe a little overblown, but still…

Anyway, on the more cultivated side of things, inside the house, Claire enjoyed having tea in the drawing room each afternoon; and the grownups enjoyed sampling a different whisky (or two) in the library before dinner each night.  It was really like being in a grand country house for the weekend– all Downton Abbey-esque!  We even got to know the staff by name; and if there was any drama going on there, we were as oblivious as the Lord and Lady Grantham.

IMG_1734

Contemplating the sheep.

On one of our walks, the kids and I met a really nice local lady and her dog, who was so like our Gus in the face and in his manner… I hardly know whether it was more pleasant or painful.  He played with the kids, and then he came over and laid his head against my leg, and just like that my heart felt like a drippy little squeeze toy.  After we said goodbye and walked back toward the house, the sound of bagpipes suddenly rose up from somewhere on grounds.  Seriously– does everyone find that sound so stirring, or do I have more Scots blood in me veins than I thought?  Turns out the piper was for a wedding taking place at the house, so the kids and I sat on a bench a ways out front by the croquet lawn and watched the gowns and kilts go in.  Unfortunately, the hotel also forgot to communicate that they were not serving Saturday lunch because of the wedding.  So we found ourselves in a cab headed for the village after Clay came in from the fishing.

IMG_1686

Floors Castle, seat of the Duke of Roxburghe

That’s how we wound up at Floors Castle, which is the home of the Duke of Roxburghe (our hotel was one of his houses, too).  It was the first time, I think, we’d been through a castle where people actually reside.  Very strange to see all the modern family photographs sitting around on the shelves, right alongside fairly priceless antiques and art by the likes of Matisse.  Apparently, when tourist season is over, they simply remove the ropes from the walk thru area and the family settles back in to the whole castle (after a summer of confinement in just one wing– quite a hardship, as you can see in the photo above).  Incidently, a turn-of-the-century Duke of Roxburghe married an American heiress from New York, whose immense fortune and personal attention oversaw the refurbishment of the castle (and undoubtedly the topping up of the family coffers).  More Downton Abbey, anyone?

IMG_1690

Secret Gardens?

After a quick tour, we walked across the grounds to the garden cafe for a late lunch.  I insisted then on walking through the castle gardens, and we were rewarded with a gorgeous stroll and a really fun playground for the kids.  Inside the walled garden, which led to other walled gardens, I really could put myself in one of my favorite childhood stories, The Secret Garden.  Clay sat in the sun near the playground, while the kids played on the zip line and the climbing structure.  I walked along the paths, taking pictures and imagining a little girl with her skipping rope, watching the robin near the ivy-covered wall… and fitting the key she found into the rusty door lock.  Loved it!

IMG_1726

It was also the weekend of the Kelso Horse Races in the local village, so we cabbed back in on Sunday for a really nice gastropub lunch and then to watch some races on the big turf track– steeplechase, like in Mary Poppins!  It was neat that the jockeys and horses were right in among the crowds at times.  And the Scots, like all Brits do fancy a flutter (like to place a bet, that is) when given the chance!

IMG_1729

Quinn picked himself a cracking new Scottish tweed cap at the races, which is quite a change from the one he sported around Edinburgh and throughout the Highlands on our last trip to Scotland, back in May.  That older hat, in fact, has acquired its own name and personality as my-other-son-Hamish (see photo below)!  He travels with us sometimes– went to Ohio this summer, actually, and we left him behind… er, I mean, he got to stay a couple extra weeks with Grandma and Grandpa, eventually catching up with us via first-class on the US Postal Service.  Quite the posh life that Hamish is living– none of us got to fly first-class!

Meet my other son, "Hamish!"

Meet my other son, “Hamish!”

In fact, I really must dredge up a few old pictures from the earlier trip to Scotland– the Highlands are so beautiful.  Here is where the blog differs from real coffee with friends in an actual cafe:  I would never carry on so long and show you all these pictures in person.  But then again, the advantage of the blog for you is that, if you get bored and walk away, I will never know!  My cappuccino has gone cold, and it’s time to load the dishwasher and get a few things accomplished.  Have a wonderful day, friends.  Meet you back here soon?

Roman Holidays, Part I

St. Peter's at sunset from the Borghese Gardens.

St. Peter’s at sunset from the Borghese Gardens.

IMG_4108So you’ve heard about the Pope stepping down, and the Vatican subsequently being struck by lightning?  Super weird, huh?

No lightning when we were there in December.  It was business as usual, except that they were setting up St. Peter’s Square for New Year’s Mass.  Sorry, by the way, for the trite blog title.  Such a toss-up:  use the obvious and be a cliche? or skip it and wonder if people think it didn’t occur to you?

I snapped this when I noticed the sun illuminating the fountain-- I love that the Sister walked through as I snapped.

I snapped this with my iPhone when I noticed the sun illuminating the fountain– I love that the Sister walked through as I snapped.

It should have been obvious to us that the Vatican would draw a crowd at Christmas.  It was certainly obvious the minute we stepped into the Vatican Museums.  It was a little less magical than the first time we went there, when we went through with a guide who skillfully led us through ahead of the crowds and landed us in the Sistine Chapel before anyone else got there.  Twenty minutes alone with Michaelangelo… that was something.  This time we went on our own and, consequently, had to contend with the huge tour groups and the swell of people all pressing on to the same destination: that amazing painted chapel.  It’s 500 years old now, and I’ve read that they may have to start limiting the number of viewers, as all our breath and sweat are beginning to ruin the frescoes.

IMG_4092As we left the museum, we found ourselves exiting via a spiral staircase we hadn’t seen on our previous visit (because that fancy guide took us round by some private staircase used by people who have an audience with the Pope!).  My family patiently allowed me to send them ahead and make them pose for a photo on the spirals across from me.  They even stayed still long enough for me to zoom in so you can actually see them (but not the staircase– funny how that works– and I chose the picture that shows the staircase better).  But they weren’t patient enough to wait around while I tried to get a good shot of the tall Christmas tree in the center of the spiral.  I never did manage a great shot, but I did get a couple of angles to help me remember what struck me about the scene.  With my lack of technical skills in photography, that is usually what I have to aim for!

IMG_4095IMG_4098

There are just a few other things to see in Rome, of course…

IMG_4115

I think this photo credit actually goes to Clay.

IMG_4142We did hook into a tour for the Coliseum this time, because waiting in line on our own would have taken hours.  We listened and learned for a bit, and then went our own way after a while on the inside.  What a pleasure it was to turn our pasty winter faces to the sun for a few moments.  I could claim that we were imagining the scenes of old.  IMG_4141

But I might as well admit we were mostly soaking in some Vitamin D.  Although, I’m not sure what Quinn is doing in the picture– possibly shining Will’s Timberlands?  The littles were pretty into the Coliseum.  We read up on it– even the gory parts– in the “Not for Parents” Rome book they got for Christmas, and Quinn brought home one of those mini models.  I confess, one of us taught the 7-year-old to deliver the line, “Are you not entertained?” with exactly the right inflection while we were in the Coliseum.  I fear I will insult your cultural intelligence, but I can’t resist throwing out the question… Can you name the movie?

A favorite view from within the Coliseum.

A favorite view from within the Coliseum.

A favorite view into the Coliseum.

A favorite view into the Coliseum.

And then there is the Forum.

And then there is the Forum.

There’s so much more of Rome to tell.  Come back for another if you have the patience, and I’ll share some stories and photos of just being out and about in the city.  In the meantime, Arrivederci!

Cafe Cortado: A Valentine

Breakfast in Spain.  Sometimes you have to make the tough choices, like whether to have the coffee or the sangria... (note how they're both so ready at hand!).

Breakfast in Spain. Sometimes you have to make the tough choices:  like whether to have the coffee or the sangria… (note how they’re both so ready at hand in the Mercado in the morning!).

Cafe Cortado: two words to make a coffee lover’s heart leap.  Clay and I discovered this perfect, perfect little espresso drink for ourselves many years ago in a hotel on the coast of Spain.  It was love at first encounter.  We had the room service waiter bring us a second round, and then a third!  (And then we ran caffeine-induced laps around the marble lobby… no, not really).

November 28 marked a milestone wedding anniversary for us.  The age-old question has a little twist in our family:  Instead of “What do you get for the man who has everything?” it’s “Where do you take the guy who travels everywhere?”  Somewhere with good coffee, of course!  But, hmmm.  Italy has good coffee.  So does France, and Spain, as I’ve just said.  And Scandinavia and Belgium and Turkey– and Ireland, if you count Irish Coffee.  So maybe coffee isn’t such a good way to decide.  Just a thought.  Though I do much of the actual travel planning for us, I never decide all on my own where we are staying, much less where we are going.

Here’s how it normally works.  We talk about three or four places we might go on the next break, then I jump online and start looking for places to stay and deals to be had in each.  I look and look.  And I look.  And then, when I’ve narrowed it down to a list of something like forty-three possible accommodations in half a dozen different cities, I start asking Clay (or anyone else who will listen) for their opinions.  I do this for as long as they will listen, and then when they walk away, I start looking at new ones.  By this time, they are all blending together anyway.  Now, Clay hates dithering, and I’m pretty sure he also hates looking at lodgings online– though it could just be that, with me, looking at anything online tends to turn into dithering.  Maybe I am sort of obsessive about reading the reviews.  But, we always get to a decision.  Eventually.

This time I was on my own, though.  It was relatively easy to settle on Madrid, because– well, cafe cortado!  No, not really.  Actually, it was one place Clay hadn’t been yet in all his work travels.  Also, I wanted to surprise him with tickets to a Real Madrid football (soccer) game.  At the time I booked, tickets weren’t available yet, nor was the time of the game definite– in fact, they had not yet determined if the game would be Saturday or Sunday that weekend!  And it’s not like I was planning months in advance– haven’t I already conveyed that I’m not that organized?  But I think those La Liga people are even worse:  three weeks ahead of time, they don’t even know what day the game will be played!  I booked our return flight for as late as possible on Sunday, hoping I would be able to pull off the surprise– but in the end the game was set for Sunday night and we weren’t able to make it.

Looking over the Gran Via-- busy shopping street in Madrid.

Looking over the Gran Via– busy shopping street in Madrid.

Never mind.  We consoled ourselves quite well with food and drink.  Oh, the tapas!  Fried artichokes to die for… and the Iberico ham!… and manchego… and I can’t even remember it all!  I wish I had taken pictures of the food, as Will likes to do (before and after pics, in his case!).  We were given a lovely room with two balconies looking out over the Gran Via.  We could just cross the street and be instantly in the warren of little streets that make up part of the centro and huertas barrios– which is where people go for everything from protest marches (some big one about hospital workers was going on while we were there) to live music at night (the jazz kind more than the dance kind).  We spent a lot of time walking those streets, soaking up the vibe, trying restaurants and tapas bars, and simply crossing through on our way to the museums and the royal palace.

One of the peaceful streets curving off of a busy plaza.

One of the peaceful streets curving off of a busy plaza.

One moment you could be in a pretty, peaceful looking street with lots of old world character, and the next moment you stepped out into a Plaza, where vendors were hawking their cheap souvenirs and  street performers– the kind who try to get you to pay to take your picture with them– were using their little voice changing toy to make themselves sound like crying babies.  Yes, it could be an assault on the senses!  The most famous plaza, the Plaza Mayor, was half taken over by a Christmas market.  This was disappointing, as the #1 must-do in the Madrid book we bought was to “watch the passing parade in Plaza Mayor.”  The accompanying picture in the book shows cafe seating all around the Plaza and people strolling along in the sun.  Oh well, next time! This time we got to see market stalls full of crazy hats and cheap toys– which I suppose is just another part of the parade, right?  And there wasn’t a lot of sun, but then it didn’t rain too terribly much either.

Part of the Plaza Mayor.

Part of the Plaza Mayor under Christmas siege.

Sometimes we saw things we didn’t really understand– small wonder, I guess, since neither of us really speaks Spanish.  We were walking along a pedestrian street one morning when this band of singers and strummers in their Zorro-esque dress came by.  By the time I fished my phone out for the picture, there was no time to film the musical part– I could only snap a photo.  It seems like there is always a procession of one sort or another going through the streets in Spain.  I really ought to learn Spanish…

IMG_0845

Along these same lines of misunderstanding, we found ourselves speaking French with a palace security guard who was trying to explain to us that our ticket did not allow us to be in the rooms we were walking through.  She was very kind and all, it was just a little surreal to find that we could communicate in French, though she didn’t speak English and we didn’t have enough Spanish.

I could be misidentifying this, but I think it is a view from the side of the Royal Palace.

I could be misidentifying this, but I think it is a view from the side of the Royal Palace.

This conversation with the security guard came about because we had skipped by the ‘weird’ miniature grotto or nativity that people were queuing to see in an anteroom to the Palace tour.  It was enormous, and people seemed to think it was wonderful– but we skated by so we could see the Palace rooms we’d queued to view.  Ironic then, that the free ticket the lady had handed us as we filed in the palace after patiently waiting in line for some time, was really only for the grotto!  How surprised was I to later read in the in-flight magazine on our way home that this grotto was an amazing, not-to-be-missed Madrid at Christmas experience.  Oops.

We did go to Museo del Prado to see the Goya and Velazquez paintings and a host of others.  El Greco blew us away, though.  Room after room of stiff, subdued, medieval and renaissance religious art, and you walk into a room filled with El Greco, and it’s so vibrant and different you think you’ve hit the modern wing of the museum, and then you look at the inscriptions and realize that he, too, painted in the 16th century!  And you wonder how some people can be so visionary that they see beyond, and dare beyond, all conventions of their time.  What must that be like?  Could you walk around in a cloud of inspiration, or would it just become incredibly frustrating to deal with a world that can’t see what you see?

On that note of high culture, I’m going to segue to haute couture.  How could I NOT take a picture of the Manolo Blahnik shop– for Chloe if nothing else!

A museum of beautiful (possibly not wearable) shoes!

A museum of beautiful (possibly not wearable) shoes!  Look at the pom-pons in the lower left front…

And I’ll close with just a few more shots from the streets of Madrid…

Giant gecko made entirely of CDs!

Giant gecko made entirely of CDs!

Inside the Mercado San Miguel.

Inside the Mercado San Miguel.

Pretty sure this store has one of everything... in the world!  Question is, does he know where to find it?

Pretty sure this store has one of everything… in the world! Question is, does he know where to find it?

Universal!

Universal!

A little snack at the Mercado.  Are those olives gorgeous?

A little snack at the Mercado. Are those olives gorgeous?

Lest I forget to say it, we had a wonderful weekend exploring Madrid together.

The cafe cortados were marvelous, but the company was even better!

Having a Look About

Covent Garden gets its Christmas on!

Covent Garden gets its Christmas on!

It’s Day Two of the “Five Months in Five Days” series, and we’ve arrived at… drumroll…November!

What’s that?  No suspense?  No surprise?  You guessed that was coming?  Hmmm.  Why was there no spoiler alert??

One of my favorite kinds of street entertainment!

One of my favorite kinds of street entertainment!

Jump Start the Holidays

One Saturday night early in November, we took a little outing down to Covent Garden.  What a nice surprise to find the halls all decked and the crowds feeling festive!  I usually hate it when any season starts before its time.  Don’t show me Easter candy before Valentine’s Day; and please keep the red foil hearts in the warehouse until after New Year’s Eve!  But then, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.K., so what’s to keep us from starting the Christmas season in early November here?  In any case, the early Christmas vibe at Covent Garden that night was working.   A string ensemble entertained on the lower level– dancing around, spinning their cellos, and rocking the garden with the rockin-est of classical music– while a crowd watched from the tables nearby and the steps and balconies above.

IMG_0796This year’s decor featured spinning disco balls that cast snowflake lights all around the halls.  It was like some well done mashup of a party and a stage production– I kept feeling that tickle of anticipation I always feel when the Nutcracker Overture starts and the curtain comes up to all the people going to Clara’s family Christmas party.  (Does anyone else love that scene and get that same feeling??)  I snapped a thousand pictures on my iPhone– very few of which actually turned out at all.  We peeked at the macarons in Laduree, I ogled the soaps carved so beautifully into flowers at one of the stalls, and Clay let the kids pick candy at the ‘penny candy’ stall.  I think we even went upstairs in Pollock’s Toy Shop to see the puppet theatres and other old-fashioned toys.  When we’d soaked in the atmosphere for a while, we stopped for mulled wine and hot chocolate at one of the outdoor cafes with those tableside heaters that look like torches inside glass tubes?  It was too cozy!  (In fact, it was  probably was a little too cozy for the 20-somethings on a date at the table approximately 30 millimeters from ours… but it didn’t bother us!)

About Town

The Horseshoe pub is always on the list of stops.

The Horseshoe pub is always on the list of stops.

We had a full house for Thanksgiving, with Will and Chloe home for the holiday.  Since they had already traveled several time zones to be with us for a few days, we decided to stay in London.  We managed to procure a nice, farm-raised turkey– for something like an elbow and an ankle, if not an arm and a leg, as most of the British turkeys were apparently not on the market until December.   But we celebrated a proper American Thanksgiving, right down to the pumpkin pie.  And we had American guests– two of Chloe’s friends (one ASL, one Marblehead) who were in London without their families.  I was so grateful to have the whole family together this year.  We packed a lot into those days.  Here’s a look…

View across the courtyard at The British Museum.

View across the courtyard at The British Museum.

I love this bookshop across the street from the British Museum.  Can anyone place the name Jarndyce?  Leave your response in the comments! (no fair googling it!)

I love this bookshop across the street from the British Museum. Can anyone place the name Jarndyce? Leave your response in the comments! (no fair googling it!)

My favorite umbrella shop.

My favorite umbrella shop.  Yes, they have whole shops devoted to umbrellas in London.

Quinn was so happy to have the Bigs home.

Quinn was so happy to have the Bigs home… we ALL were!

Before Will went back to the U.S., Quinn decided he really wanted a #4 buzz cut like his big brother.

Before Will went back to the U.S., Quinn decided he really wanted a #4 buzz cut like his big brother.

And a Few Other Things

Also in November?  Mudlarking– digging around in the muddy banks of the Thames at low tide for whatever you can find!  It’s a time-honored tradition– and a way that some folks made their living back in Victorian times.  Claire’s class had a field trip to see what it was like, as well as to study the ecology of the Thames.   One kid dug up the sole of a hob-nailed boot– perhaps not valuable, but certainly old and interesting.  But mostly we did a lot of fishing around in tidal pools for freshwater shrimp and other “treasures” of the biological kind.  The group I was chaperoning collected a great Chinese Mitten Crab specimen– the guide looked it over and was excited to show the kids because he was obviously a ‘warrior’ who had survived a lot as he was missing some of his limbs.  Trouble is, while the children were mucking in pools down the way from our bucket, our little crab became a seagull’s lunch.  We’d left the poor old warrior out like a buffet for the birds!  Yes.  I felt bad about that.  What?  You think I should have let the kids go play near the river while I stayed close to the crab?  Still, it was fun to be down on the Thames, and the kids loved it, which is always so great to watch.  Coincidently, not long after the trip I picked up a book called DODGER, by Terry Pratchett.  It was a treat to read, with all kinds of Victorian characters– real and fictional– springing to life.  And yes, there was mudlarking in it.

We closed out the month with another bit of Christmas: a carol singalong at the church of St Martin in the Fields.  It’s one of my very favorite places in London to hear live performances, and it was really special to hear all those English carols we’ve listened to from the Chieftains for many years.  Last year Clay and I went to hear the Messiah by candlelight there.  This year we went to the sing along with the Littles instead (because they were begging me to take them out caroling, and I simply had to find a different way to scratch that itch!)  The church is in Trafalgar Square, so it’s also a great place to go for a nice little hit of London spirit– what with the National Gallery, the Nelson column, the fountains and the lion statues, all the theaters and all the diverse London people.  It’s also a beautiful, beautiful place.  I love the window behind the altar (look closely and pick out the cross and the Light in the center).  It was created and installed after the old, traditional stained glass window was shattered during the Blitz.

The sanctuary of St Martin in the Fields during a Christmas concert.

The sanctuary of St Martin in the Fields during a Christmas concert.

The older I get, the more I want to pause at this time and breathe.  And call it cultural conditioning if you want, but most of all I want to be thankful.  November seems like a very good time for that.