Monday, February 26, 2007

My Bachelorette Weekend

Floyd was off to a "stag weekend" down in Cork so I was on my own for the weekend. Friday afternoon through Sunday evening. This wouldn't be such a big deal for lots of couples but Floyd and I are joined at the hip. We enjoy spending time together and our continuing infatuation with each other tends to annoy people (I think it might have something to do with the monosyllabic, pre-hominid babytalk involved...mbeb).

So being away from Floyd and having the weekend to myself was a big deal. The world was my oyster. I could do anything I wanted...literally. I could've done some traveling, done some great cultural things in Dublin, gone bird-watching down near Waterford. Anything. So what did I do? Nothing. Big, fat nothing. If it weren't for the family that I drove to the airport on Saturday afternoon, I wouldn't have bathed or bothered to put on clean clothes. As soon as I dropped Floyd at the train station I went to the video store, then the library, then the grocery store. As soon as I walked in our door I baked myself a single batch of chocolate chip cookies (I don't even think I took my coat off). I just couldn't think of anything that I wanted to do this weekend that didn't involve having chocolate chip cookie crumbs on my chin.

So I watched movies (The Stepford Wives and Breakfast on Pluto - both chick flicks but otherwise in very different categories), watched one episode of My Name is Earl (borrowed Season One on DVD...brilliance), finished a book ("A Lesson Before Dying" - wonderful book, read it), started another book ("The Kid" by Dan Savage of Savage Love fame - a gay couple's experience with open adoption - I'm laughing hysterically and learning some things too), talked on the phone until 2am (I'm 8 hours ahead of all of my friends and family), had cookies and stout for dinner (not breakfast...but tempting), worked on kitchen/house design (this effort is consuming me), traded sweet little text messages with Floyd (awww...) and talked to my cat.

I think it's also notable that, aside from the ~4.5 hours that the television was on, our house was completely silent. I chose not to listen to any music, which is a choice I often make living out here. I think it's because it's absolutely, perfectly, pin-drop silent at the end of our little road. During the day you might hear a tractor off in the distance or a horse whinnying. If you step outside you can hear the birds singing (Spring!!) or the distant train to Cork. But that's it. It's really really quiet and I know that this may be the only time, for a really really long time, that I will be able to enjoy this kind of peace and quiet. So I relish it. I celebrate it. I wallow in it.

The silence was broken when I went to the grocery store (on a Sunday afternoon, what in G0d's name was I thinking?) and picked the lads up at the train station in Dublin. Suddenly, there I was with a car load of men slightly wounded by their debaucherous weekend. It was as quiet as a car full of Irish lads could be...which, actually, isn't quiet at all. For what it's worth, I think they had a good enough time to justify their ashen complexions and their curdling smell.

And, actually, so did I.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Edinburgh - Top Five Fave

Floyd and I were in Edinburgh over the weekend with our good friend Pamela Anderson. Yes, THE Pamela Anderson. Floyd knows her from graduate school. Did you know she has a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry. Well she does, and she’s fun to boot! Vivacious, witty, smart...always got career advice for Floyd. You’d never imagine it would you? One more reason to never judge a book by its cover. So we were kicking it in Edinburgh this weekend and these are just five things that lifted my kilt...

1. It’s in Scotland. Let’s get something straight right off the bat. I LOVE Scotland. If somebody asked, “Hey, do you want to live in this tiny shack on this windswept highland hill in the midst of all these sheep?”...I think I’d say yes. I love the people (even dullards seem to have a sparkle in their eye), the landscape (breathtaking at almost every turn), the attitude (somber yes, but you’ll still get smiles on a cloudy day). I realize that these things are all part of the tiresome Scottish branding, but there’s a reason for that. They're true. And then there’s the little things that can make such a difference (this is the part where you need to remember where I currently live). Scotland has an infrastructure that you can depend on, they have rubbish bins at logical locations (oh, here she goes...), they have roads that you can drive on, as well as safe pedestrian areas, they have signs (yes, I know, actual street’s heavenly) and, in general, people appear to care about the environment that they live in...and...and...(the veins in my temple are becoming engorged and are pulsating rapidly). I could go on but it would just lead to dangerous and passionate territory. Suffice it to say that Ireland and Scotland are quite different and I can appreciate those differences.

2. The people have Scottish accents. Some have described it as “thick-tongued” but I disagree wholeheartedly. Sure, there’s the drunk gal from the tenements that could make you tilt your head a bit, but that's the exception. I find it lilting and full of character. They actually do say “wee”. (Overheard while walking down the street...a couple of young lads passed a gal in a VERY short skirt. As they turned to watch her go, one of them said, “That was a wee one...”)

3. Men in kilts. I must have a thing for knees because I’m very appreciative of the kilt. I certainly appreciate its regional significance and all that but, frankly, that’s not what makes me smile. I don’t even care what they’re wearing underneath. Floyd would undoubtedly rock a kilt (the mans got gams) and I’d love to get him into one of those utilikilts, but no. Not gonna happen. I can understand though, because some of the dudes that wear them...look really stupid. It certainly requires a certain “je ne sais quoi” that not everybody possesses. I think Floyd's got it, but maybe he's just not ready for that much...freedom. So I appreciate the kilt from afar.

4. The sound of bagpipes. I know, I’m just listing off all the highlights from a Scotland brochure but, I’m telling you, there’s a reason why these things are used to lure people here. They’ve certainly got my number. I have a sad affinity to the sound of the bagpipe. It always makes me cry. I don’t know when it started because it’s just always been this way. I was once sitting at a great British pub in Portland and a parade of bagpipers began to make their way through the place. I remember being overcome with emotion at the first notes. It hits me like that. Very suddenly. So, I'm at this bar and I hear that unmistakable high-pitched drone and I feel a pang in my heart. Then all sorts of forgotten sadness starts welling up and bubbling out. And then I’m a crying mess. I’ve learned to control it a little better but I always have to fight back the tears when I hear a bagpipe. My Mom just recently told me that she cries at the sound of bagpipes too. What’s up with that?

5. OK, you can all guess what No. 5 is. What’s the only thing I haven't mentioned from the Scotland brochure? That’s right. Haggis. This was our 3rd trip to Scotland and I’ve managed to avoid it thus far, but Floyd felt the inspiration and suddenly there was a pile of it sitting on our table (along with neeps and tatties of course). You have to remember that this is the guy that was a vegetarian up until 18 months ago. I admire him for it. He still respects the animal enough to believe that, if you’re going to eat it, you should eat the whole thing. Don’t let anything go to waste. I believe that too...intellectually. However, when faced with an unusual animal bit, I generally pass. So here’s Floyd swooning over his haggis. It’s his first and he’s LOVing it. So I do a dainty dive with the tip of my fork and...down the hatch. Hm. Tasty. Surprisingly tasty actually. And it didn’t even feel gross in my mouth like I thought it would. Kind of like a spicy bulgar/oatmeal thing. I just educated myself about what it’s actually made out of and, you know what? I’d still eat it again.

Of course Pamela thought it was all quite disgusting and immediately began strategizing her anti-haggis campaign.

So that was my brain dump of the kilt-lifting, top-five fave for Edinburgh. What did you learn about Edinburgh? Nothing I’m afraid, which is a shame because it’s really a great city. One of the best we’ve been to in Europe. Cool castle, well-preserved and amazing architecture, photo ops galore, friendly folks, monuments to cute little dogs, some amazing food. Lots of old world charm without the shit-shit and kitsch. Really a great place. Go there and see for yourself.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Mind the Gap I

There’s a squirrel that lives in the trees outside of our house. These trees are all deciduous but there are some evergreen ones that keep their leaves all winter. I can sit in my usual spot on the couch and look out the window and, in the winter, the view is both leafy and limby. When we moved in, the owners of the place cleared an opening in this patch of trees because they thought we might want to garden back there. As usual, the effort wasn’t well planned. It turns out it’s a dark swamp back there. Clearing the trees also had the added benefit of affording us a great view of their enormous collection of tires (we live on a farm and, as we all know, farmers save tires). To their credit, I think they did try to maintain the trees around the edge of the clearing but the backhoe needed a way to get in and out. So now’s there’s a gap. Where the trees were once continuous, there is now a space between them. This is nice in some ways because it probably lets in more light than we would otherwise get back here in our little hollow. Without the gap I wouldn’t be able to see the sky from the couch (which is important on those non-ambulatory days). We look west through the gap and last night we watched the most amazing, purple and orange, post-apocalyptic sunset ever...over the pile of tires.

So, this squirrel. He lives in the trees around the clearing and, in making his way from one end of the trees to the other, he has to pass the gap and, in the winter, I can see his passing of the gap really well. My eyes are drawn outside when I catch a glimpse of him popping out of the dense foliage onto the bare branches. He's a little grey squirrel with a long, bushy tail. He quickly skitters out to the end of a limb and flings himself across the gap. All without hesitation. He falls a little in elevation but the tips of the other branches are within his reach so he grabs one of them, hangs upside down for a moment (he always winds up upside down), waits for the bouncing to slow, then pulls himself up onto the branch and skitters off into the leaves on the other side of the gap.

I see this at least once per day and it makes me very happy. Even though he never misses, my heart skips a beat when he flings himself off that branch. Just enough fear that my heart feels lighter when he’s snatched the branch on the other side and made his way to safety. And I smile when he’s bouncing up and down on the tip of the limb because he looks like a monkey. We have squirrels where I come from, but I never get to look out of my window and see this. Never. So I’ll miss this when we leave.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Riga - Top Five Fave

Let me start out by saying that I generally don’t do research while I’m writing these little travelogs. In fact, these days I don’t even research a place before we get on the plane. For example, I made our hostel reservations two days before we left on this trip and we didn’t even look at "the book” until we were on the plane. I realize that this goes without saying once you have read anything that I have written, but it must be stated nonetheless....I don't really know anything about any of the places that we visit or the people that inhabit them. I learn as I go. So these are what this stupid tourist picked as her Top Five Fave of Riga....

Black Balsam. Like to travel but want to avoid the crowds? Go to Riga in the dead of winter. You’ll have the place to yourself! Our first morning there I began to question our decision. Within an hour of leaving the hostel I had lost the use of my fingers. Taking photographs became prohibitively difficult at that point. After about two hours the stiffness in my joints made me feel like the tinman and my face was frozen. Fortunately we were close to a Balsam Bar, which are scattered across town, and now I know why. Black Balsam is a syrupy black liqueur brewed with approximately 42 secret herbs and animal bits and tastes quite lovely when heated up and diluted beyond all perception by fruit juices and other sweeties. It warmed me right up, from the inside out. Like oil to the tinman. And then winter wasn’t so bad anymore.

Grey Peas n’ Pork Rolled in a Delicate Layer of Pork (with apologies to vegetarians). Latvian food hasn’t really progressed much beyond the medieval fare of yore (save for the potato) and that was just fine by us. Floyd gave up his vegetarian ways when we moved over here and he really hasn’t looked back. I’ve always been a heathen. Note the dish in the photo. In the background you have your pork cutlet wrapped in a crispy, yet fatty layer of bacon. Succulent. In the foreground you have what’s called “grey peas”. Now tell me that doesn’t sound appetizing. They were actually wonderful. The peas, which are bigger than the peas you might be used to and are not really grey at all, are served slightly al dente with a side of a warm, cream sauce just littered with chunks of bacon (and we’re not talking baco’ bits here). This is then poured over and mixed in with the peas. And off to the side is a glass of kefir, a sour, cultured-milk that didn’t seem to belong to any one dish but was tasty nonetheless. Pork is also commonly served as a filet that has been beaten beyond all recognition, dipped in a flour/herb mixture, and maybe in beer, then fried up. Dill and cardamom are used on/in everything and hemp butter is served with the black bread (sadly, no relation to the black balsam). Perfect food for a wintry visit but a tough diet for a hot summer day.

Art Nouveau Architecture. This must be why they call Riga the Paris of the North. Yet, despite my two visits to Paris so far, I have yet to notice architecture like this. Maybe it’s because in Paris there is so much more to look at. So many other sights to pack into your itinerary that the art nouveau architecture gets stuck at the bottom of the list. Or maybe I’m just a dummy and I’m the only one that’s never noticed before. Regardless, these buildings are incredible. Floyd read in our guide book that one of the tenets of art nouveau design is the “fear of the vacuum”. Our cat Jezebel also has a fear of the vacuum but I think they’re talking about something different here. They’re talking about the need to decorate all of the spaces and it’s just thrilling to look at. I’m a nature girl and I’ve always poo-pooed the whole “going to the city to look at the architecture” aspect of travel but when you see buildings like this it can make a building rival a tree or a mountain in terms of beauty and interest. And I can’t believe I just wrote that...but it’s true.

Museum of the Occupation. The modern history of Latvia is pretty simple. Latvia won it’s independence in 1918 and Russia promised to relinquish authority over Latvian territory FOREVER. So much for that promise. In 1939 the bear was back and he was pretty nasty this time. Not only did the Latvians lose their freedom but thousands were sent to Siberia.... or met with quicker fates. And then came the Nazis. I don’t need to tell you what happened then. But then the Russians came back...even nastier. This is the period when hundreds of thousands of Latvians were systematically rounded up and sent to the GULAG, or Russian concentration camps. It was all incredibly dismal until Latvia regained their independence in 1991. The Museum of the Occupation does a great job of explaining to the visitor, through photos, letters, objects, and stories what this bleak period was like for Latvians and, importantly, how they maintained their dignity and their culture. In a way, it wasn’t just about the Latvian people, or the Baltic people, but, for me, it was a story of oppressed people everywhere and the psychological torture that their oppressors use to keep them down. It felt very relevant.

Embracing the Frump. Latvians are a stylish people. Even in the winter. The cobblestone streets are clumped with snow and coated with ice and I stood aghast at these women strutting along in their stiletto boots and long, elegant coats. They were not picking their way along. They were, without a doubt, strutting. Hair flowing, makeup perfect, nails groomed....strutting. I, of course, was in my logging boots, long johns, baggy jeans, fleece coat and gore-tex outer layer....with, the coup de grace, a grey ski-cap that read “Yosemite” on it. Now I may not own a pair of stiletto boots but I’ve done my share of strutting. I can strut. But not in February. So I embraced the frump. Behold....the frump.