Mercury in the Bath

August, 2017: the sun is shining on the edge of North America, but the foghorn still cries its warning to the clouded sea. Two paired blasts per 60 seconds; a signature to identify location by sound. In the dark, you need to know which horn you’ve heard.

This is Cape Race lighthouse, which holds one of the last remaining hyper-radial Fresnel lenses ever made. Perched on the southern coast of Newfoundland, it offers the first sighting of land for ships crossing the Atlantic. Oh, and it’s got nearly 800 pounds of liquid mercury at the top.

Continue reading “Mercury in the Bath”

Grocery notes from the UK

Just a few quick things about groceries…

1) People in the UK are really into tomatoes. I don’t mind — I like tomatoes too — but I don’t require a boiled tomato for breakfast every morning, or tomato sauce (Ketchup) on everything. My favorite evidence of this near-obsession was when I was exploring the large M&S in Inverness. I went down aisle after aisle, and eventually came to the produce section. There was a ‘fruit’ aisle, and a ‘salads’ aisle, and a few general ‘vegetables’ aisle… and a ‘tomatoes’ aisle. Yep, an entire aisle dedicated purely to tomatoes — the only one, as far as I could tell, devoted exclusively to one thing. Impressive!

2) Alternate blog post title: Exploring World Culture Through the Lens of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Dear America, are you aware that no one else in the world recognizes ‘ranch’ as a flavor? It’s true. So last year in Norway I found ‘Cool American’ Doritos, and this year in Scotland I’ve discovered ‘Cool Original’ Doritos. Whatever works, I guess; they all taste pretty much the same.

UPDATE: on the way out in Belgium I discovered another variation: ‘Sweet Paprika’ Doritos, which is probably the most accurate description yet.

3) Can someone please explain to me why the mini grocery store in the Manchester airport stocks refrigerated raw meat? Like, what, I’m going to buy a couple of steaks and fry them up on my camp stove while I’m waiting at the gate?! Even IF it’s there as a convenience for the tired traveler who just wants to pick up some bacon for breakfast on their way home, I still find it questionable.

 

Continue reading “Grocery notes from the UK”

A WHAT tide?

Yesterday I woke up early and had a lovely home-cooked breakfast consisting of orange juice, tea, fruit salad with yogurt, cereal, brown toast with butter and homemade jam, black pudding, sunny-side-up egg, bacon, mushrooms, and a boiled tomato. About halfway through a lovely Spanish couple joined me — both architects from Barcelona — and we had a nice chat.

As soon as I finished breakfast I left, because I had to catch the low tide in order to explore Spar Cave, a sea cave on the southern part of Skye. Continue reading “A WHAT tide?”

WARNING! Something!

I pulled over to blog about this.

So, warning signs. On the road. There are lots! It’s super helpful [mostly]!
But.
So you have the obvious ones:
[exclamation point] [squiggly line] SLOW
Curves ahead, cool, got it.
[red sign with picture of a sheep]
Cool, watch for sheep, thanks.
You have the helpful ones with text:
[exclamation point] FERAL GOATS NEXT TWO MILES
Ah, ok, thanks for the heads up!
[white sign with arrow right] FREE CHURCH
Um, ok… I don’t know what I’d do with a remote Scottish church, maybe that’s why you’re trying to unload it for free, thanks anyway…
Some with text AND pictures:
[picture of couple with canes] ELDERLY PEOPLE
Not sure that’s totally PC, but I’ll try not to hit them, thanks!
And then you have the problems. Two, specifically.
1) HOW FAST AM I SUPPOSED TO BE GOING??? There are lots of speed zones with very clear signage to reduce speed to x, but then at the end there’s just the sign that I’ve learned means ‘restrictions no longer apply’. So…. what’s the ‘normal’ speed limit? Is it just whatever I want? This goes along with lots of signs when curves are coming up that just say ‘SLOW’. But HOW slow? Just slower than I’m going now? But how fast should I be going now? Aaaaaaaaah!
2) And my favorite:
[exclamation point] [arcane symbol] 1/2 MILE
….what? Ok, I’m supposed to watch out for… something… for a half mile. Or is that IN a half mile? But WHAT?!? Oh god… is it something natural? Is it an animal? Lightning strikes? Fallen trees? Tornadoes? Ghosts? AAAAAHHH!!!!
That’s all.

 

 

Left. Left. Left. Left.

When I told people with experience that I was going to rent a car (for the first time ever) in Scotland and drive a manual transmission around the country on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, I got some very nice advice, some of which is loosely paraphrased below:

“Nah, you’ll be fine. But every time you stop at an intersection, say ‘left. left. left. left.’ over and over to yourself until you’re going again. Maybe say it out loud. And look both ways, multiple times. And try not to hit anything.”
“Yeah, it seems pretty easy. I mean, the cars and roads are all designed that way, so just do what everyone else is doing and pay attention so you don’t fuck it up.”
“Do you know how to drive a manual transmission? Yeah? Well then you’ll be fine. Just be sure to pass on the proper side. And do note that people drive very slowly in the rural areas, so allow a lot of time!”
So today I took the morning train back from Golspie to Inverness. I wandered around Inverness for a half hour or so — I had planned to go directly to Marks & Spencer for lunch, but got distracted by a sign for the ‘Victorian Market’ which sounded exciting but turned out to be an old (sorry, ‘historic’) shopping mall. Then I went to find the castle (and found the ‘American Candy World’ which was naturally next to the ‘Miami Night Club’ on the way). The castle was fine, took a picture, didn’t go in. Then went to M&S for my favorite sandwich (Ploughman’s cheddar with tomato and pickle [‘pickle’ means something different here, it’s brown and good] on malted bread), sour cream & chili lentil crisps (new favorite snack), and of course trifle.
Then I went on a walk to find the hotel where I was to pick up my rental car, which turned out to be MUCH farther out of town than I expected, along a main road and past what felt like miles of used car lots and construction sites. Eventually I found it, and checked out my car from the typical car-rental clerk (doughy mouth-breathing early twenties high school grad who lives in his mom’s basement and works primarily to support his Magic card habit — this may be my first time renting a car myself, but I’ve been involved with the process enough through various jobs to know the type):
“Ok, I’ll just glance at your driver’s license, take a deposit on your credit card, and sign here, here, here and here and I’ll give you the keys.”
*sign* *sign* *sign* …
“And here.”
“…but… that’s the part that says there’s no exisiting damage.”
“Right. We’ve already checked it.”
“…right, but I haven’t. I need to look at it before I can sign the section that says I accept it in perfect condition.”
“Well, I can’t give you the keys until you sign it.”
“But what if I get out there and it’s a wreck?”
“Well, you could come back in.”
“And then what would happen?”
“Well… I guess I’d take a look and then if it was like you said, we could amend this.”
“I see.”
 
So then, after getting the keys, doing a thorough check, making several trips back inside with questions:
 
“Excuse me, how do I open the boot?”
“Oh, you’ll see an S thingy on the back, just push on that and then pull up.”
“Ah. Ok, thanks!”
 
“Excuse me, but there’s no owner’s manual…”
“No.”
“Oh.”
 
“Excuse me, sorry to bother you again… so I’ve got the back open now, thanks, but there’s no jack, or spare tire, or warning triangle?”
“No. It’s alright, we know.”
“But aren’t I required to have that? Like, by law or something? What if I get a flat?”
“Nah, you’ll be alright.”
“But…”
“Well, we haven’t got any, anyway.”
“Ok…”
 
So anyway, I think the moral of that story is that I won’t rent from Europcar again… fingers crossed that I won’t need any of those things!
 
So after getting in on the wrong side and sitting there for a confused minute, then getting out and going around, I started it up, examined all the dials and levers and lights, and I was off! …off around the parking lot, that is, for approx 20 laps and several encounters with the curb and some bushes, to the amusement of a hotel guest having a smoke out front, before I finally felt brave enough to venture out on the main road…
 
…where I made it approx 300 feet before encountering a traffic circle and promptly making a wrong turn. But then I found another traffic circle and managed to get myself heading back to the first one, where this time I took Rick Steves’ advice and just got cozy there, and went around it a few times until I felt fairly confident and then went winging off in the proper direction. 
 
Then I continued driving, for miles and miles, muttering a mantra out loud over and over and gripping the steering wheel so hard my hands started to cramp up:
“Left, left, left. Just keep to the left. NOT TOO FAR TO THE LEFT! And try not to hit anything. Left, left, left…”
 
It was SO STRESSFUL. For the first 20 miles or so, anyway… then I started to relax a bit and feel a little better about my decision.
 
That day I drove 220 miles in about 6.5 hours (lots of single-track roads and I had to stop a few times for sheep and a hedgehog to cross). I saw lots of lovely scenery, pulled over frequently, and had a great time. I went from Inverness to the Isle of Skye via a northerly route, checked in to a B&B near the bridge, and then drove around the north coast of the island. It was SO PRETTY! But it also took longer than expected, so after a quick stop for haggis, neeps and tatties, it was fully dark by the time I got back. Luckily I made it before the 11pm noise and running water curfew (the B&B hosts were very nice, but it was also like staying with your grandparents — all dark wood paneling and lots of rules), so I was able to have a quick shower before falling into bed, ready for an early start the next morning.

 

 

 

"Would you care for some beans on toast?"

Yesterday I left Edinburgh and took a six-hour train journey north, through Inverness to the tiny town of Golspie on the North Sea. Last summer I stayed in a little inn in a little seaside village in Scotland as well. That village (Stonehaven) had a population of 11,000. Golspie has a population of 1,650. So.

It’s main (only?) draw is a golf course. It’s got a main street (one), no traffic lights except for one crossing signal near the school, a coffee shop, two tiny grocery stores, one chippy, four small inns, a payphone, and one bus stop. Well, two I suppose — one in each direction. The train station has a slightly covered bus shelter for the rain, and, as I learned on my last day when I arrived early to be sure of finding the correct platform on the correct side of the track, only one platform to choose from. The station one stop down the line is even smaller, and has a red spigot with two small red buckets hanging beside it labeled “FIRE”. Yep, I believe that’s the fire extinguisher and fire hose all in one.
Everyone I’ve encountered who isn’t from here is between 60-80 years old, and the one tiny gift shop sells mostly scarves, china plates, aprons, and flowery greeting cards.
AND I LOVE IT.
I checked in to my tiny seaside inn (the Golf Links Hotel, which I wholeheartedly recommend) as soon as I arrived, around 8:30pm. It’s run by a lovely couple from Yorkshire, Linda and Richard. It has I think 9 rooms, a formal dining room (used for both breakfast, which is included and cooked to your request, and dinner, which is cooked by Linda and served by Richard), a bar with over 200 varieties of whisky to choose between, and a lounge/sitting area with big comfy chairs and couches overlooking the front garden and the North Sea.
I stayed in a spotlessly-clean, beautifully-decorated, utterly cozy room with a sea view. It came with bottled water, tea and cookies at no extra charge. It had two twin beds with electric blankets on the mattress under the seat, so you could warm up the bed before getting in. It was PERFECT.
Richard gave me a tour of the property before showing me to my room and giving me my old-fashioned key. Dinner service had stopped at 8pm, I learned later from a sign, but he asked me if I’d eaten and when I said no, told me to settle in and then come down for supper if I liked. So I did, and had a solo home-cooked meal in the formal dining room before retiring to the sitting room with a book and a glass of whisky, while the wind howled and the waves crashed outside.
The next day I had breakfast in the dining room (cooked and served by Linda). I had tea, orange juice, cereal, brown toast with butter and jam, scrambled eggs and suasage. It was delicious. I got to see the other four(?) hotel guests too, which was fun. Then I took a bus to my chosen stables, and visited with horses and the stablehands for awhile, groomed my horse for the day (Eli), and had a seven-mile private trail ride along the beach, past a castle, up through fields of heather into the woods to the top of the hills overlooking the ocean, through fields of cattle, and more. Then I unsaddled and groomed Eli and turned him out to the pasture, and then walked four miles home (along the beach, through fields of cattle, past a castle, etc). It was SO GREAT.
I explored the town on my way back, which took approx 10 minutes because there’s really only one street. I was hungry. The restaurant options were:
1 Chinese takeaway (closed)
2 tiny grocery stores (pre-made sandwiches and such available)
3(?) hotels that serve meals (only the hotel guests seem to partake)
1 coffee shop (closed)
1 chippy (PACKED with a line out the door).
I had dinner in the formal dining room of my hotel again. It was just as lovely. Toward the very end of my meal another solo hotel guest came in, but otherwise it was just me. By this point I’d heard the dining room CD about five times, and was able to predict which track was next. It skipped throughout most of one track, but it was a highland reel and the skipping was such that it made the song in double-time, which was actually fairly pleasant.
Then I read for awhile in the lounge and went up to bed, to catch an early train back to Inverness where I’ve hired a car and am going to drive across the country on the left. Wish me luck!

 

 

Haggis, black pudding and Irn Bru

Edinburgh! Hurrah!

Last night went to a great pub tucked away from the main street down some stone stairs on a Close (which seems to mean sort of a pedestrian-only alleyway into the warren of stone buildings) called Devil’s Advocate – great big stone cave-like space. I had a traditional Scottish cider, battered and fried balls of haggis in a mustard mash, and a burger that was, from the ground up:
Bun
Mayo (my substitute for quince aioli)
Shredded lettuce
Beetroot
Tomato
Thick flame-cooked beef/pork burger
Slab of black pudding
Slab of blue cheese
Mayo
Bun
Oh, and chips (thick fries).
It was all AMAZING. But also huge and I couldn’t quite finish. The waitress kept coming to make sure I liked it, since I was eating slowly, and looked a little sad when she took the last bit away. Then she brought the check and said “I’m sorry, I think maybe you didn’t like it and you’re just so nice that you didn’t want to say, and I thought maybe the burger looked a little too pink, so I’ve talked to my manager and I’ve given your drinks free and I hope that’s alright!” Awwwww!
This morning I’ve gone for breakfast at Mum’s, where I had eggs benedict, a side of mash, and an Irn Bru (‘iron brew’ made in Glasgow). Now the question: what, exactly, is ‘mash’? I’ve had it now more than once, and I’m still not sure. It looks like potatoes but it doesn’t quite taste like them. Ah well.
Irn Bru – not a fan. It’s bright orange and super sweet and vaguely citrusy, but mostly sweet.
Now I’m off to shows! Hurrah!

 

 

 

Aberdeen and Stavanger

I woke up early in my room at the inn, and spent a little while convincing myself to get out of bed and partake of the included ‘full Scottish breakfast,’ which I eventually talked myself into. I went down to the restaurant adjoining the pub, and had:
Grapefruit (canned, I think)
Orange juice
Tea
Yoghurt
Brown toast with butter and jam (“Yes, I’d love some toast, thank you!” “White toast or brown?”)
Black pudding (a.k.a. blood sausage)
Scrambled eggs
Mushrooms
…it was delicious, aside from the grapefruit. Black pudding is crazy good! Earthy and hearty and warming and so, so tasty. Although according to my Scottish taxi driver later in the day, the type matters — he recommended a specific kind but his accent was thick and I couldn’t quite catch it. If you get the wrong kind, he says it’ll be “fulla fat ‘n gristle” and not as good. You want the nice lean kind. He also recommended white pudding but I couldn’t quite figure out what type of dish that was…
So I ate a nice hearty breakfast, and then walked the 40-ish minutes to the train station. I took a train to Aberdeen and wandered around until I found a nice Scottish cabby (whose dream is to ride a Harley Davidson motorcycle on Route 66), and got a ride to the airport along with some truly lovely conversation. I actually found two taxis at once at the train station taxi stand, but wasn’t sure if they were available so I stood around for a few minutes awkwardly, and then the one in back hopped out and said “Sweetheart, do you need a taxi?” and I said yes and he knocked on the window of the cab in front, so then that driver got out and took my backpack and opened the door for me. He was so kind and pleasant and concerned to know if I’d enjoyed Scotland and if I’d found the people to be very friendly. I told him I had, and he was glad to hear it.
Then I took a tiny little plane to Stavanger, on the west coast of Norway. Once there I took a bus into the center of town and wandered about for awhile, since it was too early to check in to my homestay. I found luggage lockers at the ferry terminal (super expensive) and the train station (still quite expensive), and then remembered an idea I’d had in Paris — I went to a museum nearby that was open until 7pm and took advantage of their very cheap lockers, and dropped off my backpack for the afternoon. Then I walked around the town a couple times to explore, wandered through an old cathedral, read a book by the sea, and had a very nice afternoon.
I also stopped at a deli, on the assumption that it would be cheapish, and had a chai latte and a slice of the most un-cheesecake-like cheesecake I’ve ever encountered. After I ordered my chai latte and paid, there was a fairly long, awkward pause while the ‘barista’ and I stared at each other; then he gently directed me over to the side where there was a giant latte-and-espresso-dispensing machine that I was to use. After some guesswork and pressing a few buttons, it filled my cup with decidedly sub-par chai latte. That and the slice of cheesecake only cost me about $16, though, so cheapish… for Norway.
I picked up my backpack and used my compass to find my way 20-ish minutes out of town to my homestay, and met my hosts. They were absolutely wonderful people and they had the most adorable little kitten! His favorite trick was to scoop a piece of dry food out of his bowl, chase it around the kitchen for five minutes or so, corner it, eat it, and repeat. And he had that awesome unmodulated kitten purr that shakes their whole body. ADORABLE.

 

After I had settled in and visited with my super-nice hosts for awhile, I ventured back into town to hunt down some dinner. My hosts were concerned, and kept trying to remind me that Norway is very expensive… they offered me some bread but it was my last night out so I wanted a real dinner. I asked about grocery stores but they replied that it was Sunday… I was like “oh, so they close early?” and they explained that it is against the law to trade on Sunday. WHAT.
So I walked into town and found a nice-looking restaurant, planning to splurge a bit on dinner, and sat down in the sidewalk area. The next table over was a lonely older British businessman, who spent most of the evening making calls home… I kept thinking maybe we would chat and bond since I felt that we were kindred spirits, but I didn’t want to initiate a conversation and seem too forward (or give him the wrong idea) so we never did. I still felt that we had a nice, comradely meal together, though. Now THAT’S classic, eh? Seattle reserve meets English reserve: “Oh yeah, I had dinner in Norway with an Englishman — we sat at separate tables and never spoke; it was great.”
Anyway, so I found this decent, mid-range restaurant, sat down, looked at the menu… did some math, looked again, and ordered the cheapest option: a cider and an appetizer plate that was watermelon, olives, goat cheese and a little basil. It was quite good…. but the bill, excluding tip, was $37. Holy shit, Norway is expensive, y’all…
After my meal I went back and settled in for the night, to rest up for my last full day.