Sunday, December 7, 2014

Everything (or at least a lot of stuff) tastes better in Scotland

When you tell people you've been to France, or Italy, or probably even Argentina, there's a good chance that one of the first things they'll ask about is the food--what you ate, what restaurants you went to, whether you have any pictures of the gorgeous pastries or platters of pasta or hunks of meat or whatever. When you go to Scotland, and I would assume anywhere in the UK, the food is not a hot topic. In fact, if food comes up at all in any conversation about my trips to Scotland, it's usually something like, "So I guess the food wasn't too exciting, huh?" And I'll admit, if you're going on a trip specifically for the gourmet cuisine, perhaps Scotland shouldn't be on the top of your list of destinations. During my five trips, there were definitely meals that were memorable due to their mediocrity or worse--the "I would have been happier eating the left-over peanut butter crackers that I bought in the airport gift shop" meals. However, I also have plenty of very pleasant food memories. I'm sure that to a certain extent, this has to do with the circumstances surrounding the meal, rather than the food itself, but nevertheless, I do think back fondly on certain things I ate in Scotland.

By the way, let me say right now that I do not like haggis. I've tried to like haggis. I've had it four or five times, and each time I've told myself that THIS will be the one that converts me to a haggis-lover. Guess what? I still don't like haggis. Also I don't like Irn Bru. I'm sorry. I've tried to like it. I just don't. Remember baby aspirin, from when you could still give aspirin to kids and not worry about giving them Reye's syndrome? Well, that's what Irn Bru tastes like.

The food I associate most with my first trip to Scotland is paninis. Yes, paninis. The pressed sandwiches. I know they're not Scottish, but I don't think I had ever had one prior to the summer of 2006, when I went to Scoland the first time. They were all over the place there. Anywhere you could get a sandwich, you could get a panini. I particularly liked the brie and cranberry panini I had for lunch one day. And by the way, speaking of sandwich-like foods, pretty much any time you order a sandwich/filled roll/toastie/panini in Scotland, it comes with a little salad on the side--generally an overly-mayonnaisey cole slaw, a couple of cucumber slices, a piece or two of tomato, and some greens. No dressing except what's on the cole slaw. It's ubiquitous, that little salad. Oh, and speaking of sandwiches, here's a thing. Bread is not white or wheat. It's white or brown, which I suppose is more accurate. After all, white bread is made from wheat.

There were a couple of times during the tours that I've been on when we had a picnic lunch somewhere. We would have a chance to go to a grocery store and grab something quick to bring with us, then at lunchtime we'd all, in theory, sit outside and eat. One time, we were at Fyvie Castle and it was cold and windy and drizzly, and we had been rushed through the tour of the castle because it had been rented out for a wedding and even though the wedding wasn't due to start for another hour or more, the docents were quite anxious to get us out the door because the wedding guests were arriving. Because of the weather most of our group decided to eat in the tour bus. I, however, decided that if we were supposed to have a picnic on the castle grounds, then I was going to have an honest-to-god picnic, on a picnic table, outside, not sitting on the bus. So, I ate my packaged egg-and-cress (egg salad and watercress) sandwich, a Braeburn apple, and a Kit Kat, and listened to a bagpiper playing The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie, and I swear it was one of the most delicious lunches I've had. The apple, in particular, was excellent, and I'm pretty picky about my apples. For another picnic, I hadn't had time to go to the grocery store, so I grabbed some stuff off the breakfast buffet--sliced ham, cheese, bread, a yogurt, a banana--and figured I'd have that for lunch. I hadn't wrapped it up too well, and by the time lunchtime came around the bread was kind of stale and the yogurt was a bit warmer than was ideal--but again, sitting outside (I forget exactly where--somewhere on the Isle of Lewis) and chatting with new friends I met on the tour, it was surprisingly tasty.

There are other things that just taste better in Scotland, even though you can get the exact same thing in the States. Nutella, for one. I don't know why, but the Nutella that I had at breakfast at various hotels in Scotland, in little individual packages, tasted better and had a different texture than what you get in jars over here. Also, tea tastes better in Scotland. I don't mean loose-leaf, brewed tea--although that's good too. I'm talking about plain old teabags. It must be the water.

Certainly not everything tastes better in Scotland. I discovered that, at least in the places I was, the concept of medium-rare or even medium beef was completely foreign. Medium-well or well-done was pretty much all there was, even if you asked. Eggs were hit or miss--I really like poached eggs, and some places did them absolutely perfectly, but others--not so much. If the white of the egg is loose, that's not good. But again, for not really having any expectations of particularly great food, I was often pleasantly surprised.

The ridiculously delicious scallops at The Plockton Inn need their own post. I don't have time to do them justice in this one. Also, now I'm really hungry. Until next time...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

I recently returned from my fifth (count 'em, five) Folksong Tour of Scotland and had an incredible time. We went to an area of Scotland I'd never been to before, the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, as well as returning to some old favorites, including Plockton, home of the most phenomenal scallops you have ever tasted. But before the tour even started, I had a couple of days in Glasgow by myself. It was supposed to be three days, not two--"mechanical trouble" caused my flight to be canceled and I spent the first day of my vacation in Philadelphia. But I digress. Anyway, I had to cram all the things I wanted to do in Glasgow into a pretty short time. One of those things was going to see Grit: The Martyn Bennett Story.  I had met Martyn's mother, Margaret Bennett, several times before on Ed Miller's tours, and for that reason, as well as the fact that it just sounded like an interesting show, I wanted to see it.

The show was a matinee, so I figured I would go to a couple of museums first and then make my way to the Tramway, the venue where Grit was being performed.  When you go to the Tramway's web site, they tell you pretty clearly that it's hard to get to unless you either drive (and it seemed sort of silly to take a cab) or take a train. There's not a bus stop close by, and they specifically say that it's a long walk from the nearest subway station.  However, the other places I was going first, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Scotland Street School Museum, were both easily accessible by subway (and coincidentally the stop for Scotland Street School Museum is the closest stop for the Tramway as well), so I figured the subway would be my mode of transportation and I'd just get my exercise for the day hoofing it to the Tramway.

Except for some weird anxiety about me or someone else falling off the platform onto the subway tracks (seriously, I had to keep telling myself that millions of people ride subways every day and almost never does anyone fall onto the track), the first two stops were uneventful. I enjoyed the exhibit about Glasgow at the Kelvingrove, and had a brief but interesting look around Scotland Street School. That's when things started to get a bit dicey.  I asked the lady at the desk at Scotland Street School how to get to the Tramway, because I had looked it up and thought I had a pretty good idea, but since I have a notoriously terrible sense of direction, I wanted to be sure.  She said it was fairly complicated, what with streets not connecting and having to make multiple turns, and drew me what was possibly the least helpful map in the world.  (She also said she herself has a pretty bad sense of direction.)  I decided to just give it a try and figured it was an adventure.  So, off I went in search of the Tramway.

What I didn't realize was that not only is it a long walk, and a somewhat twisty-turny walk, but it also takes you through a less than salubrious part of Glasgow. Like a "they might not find the body for a while" part of Glasgow. Boarded up windows, overflowing trash cans, practically no people in sight even though it was Saturday afternoon--like that. Oh, and it was starting to rain, which made it all the more fun.  I considered giving up and just going back, but I really wanted to see the show, and also by this point it had sort of turned into a quest--Alison and the Holy Grail, if you will. The problem (well, one of the problems) was that I wasn't entirely sure I was even going in the right direction.  I finally saw a storefront that had signs of life, so I went in to ask for directions.  It turned out to be a place where people go to place bets, which wasn't what I expected (it looked like a little newspaper shop or something.) I went up to the lady at the window and asked for directions. She had no idea what I was talking about, but one of the customers ("punters", I think they're called) overheard me and told me how to get there. I thanked him and headed out into the (now heavier) rain.

So I was trekking along in the rain (with an umbrella--don't feel too sorry for me) when a car honked and slowed down, and lo and behold it was my new friend from the betting shop. He rolled down the window and said, "I'm going that way. Would you like a lift?" Now, I figured that a) he was probably just being nice but b) getting into a car with a stranger in a scuzzy part of Glasgow would guarantee they'd never find the body, so I thanked him and said I appreciated the offer but I was fine walking. Some more walking (uphill, by the way) and I was finally in sight of the Tramway.  When I was pretty much there, the same guy popped out of a doorway, waved at me, got into his car, and drove away.

When I finally got there and bought a ticket (I actually hadn't checked to see if there were any tickets left before I went, but luckily there were), I had about half an hour before the show started, and I was hungry, so I went to the little cafe in the Tramway. It was packed and the line was moving slowly, so I decided to get soup since that seemed like the fastest thing. By the time I actually got it and found a table, I had maybe five minutes before the show. That's when I learned a life lesson: No matter how much of a rush you're in, it is physically impossible to wolf down hot soup. 

The day's other life lesson is that, while the stereotype that I'd heard about Glaswegians being friendly and helpful and chatty is apparently true, and I'm pretty sure that the betting shop guy wasn't actually stalking me, or at least not in a creepy way, you still don't want to get into a car with a stranger, no matter how kind and/or Glaswegian he may be!

By the way, the show was amazing.

I took a cab back to the hotel--one adventure a day was enough for me.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


I'm back, after a little blogging hiatus--and apparently my computer, or the Blogger site, or something, is punishing me for going so long without posting. It now won't let me post (it won't let me type, even--no cursor!) the normal way. This is in HTML format, so it probably won't look that nice, but at least I can publish a post. I hope.

So, moving on...

I am resistant to change. Like, a lot. Like, when my college roommate wanted to move the furniture around in our dorm room I almost had a panic attack. Like, when my parents decided to have prime rib for Thanksgiving one year instead of turkey, I pretty much threw a temper tantrum (I was 35 at the time.) You get the idea. And, I guess the flip side of that is that when I find something I like, I really like it and tend to not want to stray from it. I read certain books over and over. I watch movies or particular episodes of TV shows again and again. I own the same shoes in multiple colors. I always order fajitas at Mexican restaurants. If it ain't broke don't fix it and all that.

So, given that, you might understand why, when people suggest that if I like Scotland I would also enjoy Ireland or England or Wales, my immediate reaction is to say no, I like SCOTLAND, as though liking Scotland and liking anywhere else are mutually exclusive. I have been on an alternate-year schedule (not originally planned, but it's worked out that way and it seems like a reasonable time period between trips) of going to Scotland, and each time I've gone it's been on Ed Miller's Folksong Tour. Knowing that 2014 was my year, I asked a friend, who's been on the tour twice with me (that's how we met) if she wanted to go too. Her response? "How about going to Ireland instead?" Her thinking was that there's a whole big world out there and so many fantastic places to travel to, so why would you want to keep going to the same place, particularly on the same tour, over and over again? I must admit she has a point. However, I have enjoyed my four previous tours so much that it seems kind of obvious that I'd keep going back for more. Scotland, specifically Ed's tour, is my drug of choice, I guess, and I don't want to muddle things up by trying something new. I thought about the Ireland idea for a while, and came to the conclusion that there were two things stopping me from going--what if I didn't like it as much as Scotland/Ed's tour, and therefore "wasted" my vacation and came home with regrets, or, even worse, what if I DID like it as much as (or more than) my previous tours? Would I somehow be disloyal to Scotland by liking Ireland? And yes, I do realize how insane that sounds.

This is where a monkey wrench gets thrown into things. The itinerary for the 2014 tour is significantly different from previous years. The prior years haven't been identical to each other, but there's been a good amount of overlap. The majority of the 2014 tour will involve the northwest part of Scotland, known as the "highlands and islands." The places I've liked the least on the previous tours were the highlands and islands. This is not to say that I disliked them, but they weren't my favorite parts of the trip. So, I've got the competing thoughts of "I love Scotland and want to go back as often as possible, and this particular tour is always fantastic" and "Maybe I won't get a chance to experience the things I love most about Scotland and the tour, this time, so do I even want to go? What if it's not as good? What if I end up wishing I'd gone to Ireland (or Nova Scotia, where I'd also really like to go someday--phenomenal fiddle music there)?" And in case you're wondering, yes, I do recognize that this is the epitome of "first world problems."

I'm attempting to embrace the concept that change can be a good thing. I had no pre-conceptions the first time I went on the Folksong Tour, and obviously loved it, so I'm looking at the 2014 tour kind of like that--I don't know much about the northwest of Scotland, and I'll get to experience it all through fresh eyes. I'm branching out. I'm getting different shoes. I'm ordering the enchiladas. You get the idea.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The torrential rain didn't surprise me. Getting hit on by a 22 year old was unexpected, though.

There's an interesting grammatical construct that I've only ever heard Scots use.  Instead of saying "he left", for example, they'll say "that's him away."  So, in that spirit: That's the Houston Celtic Festival and Highland Games finished.

This year's Houston Celtic Festival and Highland Games held a lot of meaning for me.  I mentioned in a previous post that the 2005 Houston Highland Games, as it was called then, was the reason that I got interested in all this Scottish folk music stuff in the first place.  The 2005 festival was the start of it all, then I went to Scotland in 2006, and started going to festivals in earnest in 2007.  But like any first love, the Houston Highland Games (or its "rebranded" incarnation, the Houston Celtic Festival and Highland Games) will always be special to me.  I was sad when it took a two year hiatus due to lack of volunteers and lack of funding, and was really excited when it returned this year.  I was even more excited when I learned that the main stage would be in the same location as it was that first year, which is in the only totally enclosed, and, significantly, the only air conditioned part of the venue.

The festival lived up to my expectations--the music was great, and there seemed to be a reasonable number of people attending, especially considering this was the first year back after a two year break.  Unfortunately, one thing I should have expected, based on prior experience with this festival, was that the weather would be horrible for at least part of the weekend, and it was.  We're in a drought.  Prior to the weekend of the festival, we hadn't had any significant rain in at least a couple of months.  So, of course, Saturday afternoon/evening was when we had the most horrendous rain storm we've had in a long time.  Houston, for anyone who might not know, has significant "drainage" (or lack of drainage) issues, which means that if it rains hard for even a short time, various places around town will start to flood.  The parking lot of the venue had about ankle deep water, but the festival itself was mostly under cover and amazingly did not flood.  And, not only did it rain hard for several hours, there was also a lot of lightning.  At one point, they stopped running the sound system, I guess for fear there would be a lighting strike and the whole thing would get fried or blow up or something.  So, we had an acoustic set with various musicians joining in, kind of like a pub session.  The storm actually increased the size of the audience at the main stage, because most of the other activities had to stop because of the rain, so everyone came into this nice comfortable enclosed room for the last few hours of the festival.  That was Saturday.  Sunday was actually gorgeous and sunny, although unfortunately not as well-attended.

Unexpectedly, during one of the sets when Jiggernaut was playing, I was asked out on a date by a nice but extremely young guy.  It was kind of a weird conversation anyway, because for the beginning of it I had earplugs in my ears (where else would you put earplugs?)--think bagpipes in a smallish room, and you'll understand why.  Anyway, even after I took out the earplugs, there was a lot of "what?" and "excuse me?" because, you know, trying to talk over bagpipes (even when both parties actually want to talk, which I didn't especially) doesn't work that well.  He finally cut to the chase and asked me out.  I told him I was a lot older than he probably thought I was (I'm 42; he had mentioned earlier that he was 22) and that while I was flattered, it wouldn't work since I was old enough to be his mother.  He shook my hand, said "Nice to meet you, ma'am", and went on his way.  I've been to a lot of Celtic festivals where strange things have happened, but this was a first.

The one disappointment related to the festival is that practically since he was born, I have been waiting for my five year old nephew to be old enough to go to a Scottish festival with me, and this would have been the year...and he had no interest whatsoever in going.  Oh well.  I'll keep working on him and maybe I'll break him down by next year's Houston Celtic Festival and Highland Games.  I really really really hope there is a next year!

I'm off to the Texas Scottish Festival this weekend.  Given my track record, there's a good likelihood something blog-worthy will happen.  If so, you'll know soon enough.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A simple shopping trip? Not if I'm involved.

In my last post, I mentioned going to a place called Heathergems, which is a jewelry factory/store in Pitlochry, Scotland.  The 2012 visit to Heathergems was a long-awaited return for me.  I had gone in 2006 and had, shall I say, more of an adventure than I counted on--but I loved their jewelry and really wanted to go back at some point under slightly calmer circumstances. 

Here's what happened the first time.  I was on Ed Miller's Folksong Tour, and it was a day that we had a choice of things to do.  It was a Sunday, and some people were going hiking (I know, right?  Exercise on a vacation?  What's that about?) and if you didn't want to hike, the same bus that was dropping the hikers off would take people to the nearby town of Pitlochry, where there were lots of little shops and things.  I decided to go with the shopping group, of course.  We were dropped off in Pitlochry and told, quite firmly, that we had to be back at the bus parking lot at a particular time--since there were two groups of people doing different things in different places, the drop-off and pick-up arrangements were somewhat complicated, but the gist was, if you're not here at 4:00 or whatever it was, we're leaving you and you'll have to find your own way back.  I think our guide even stressed that since it was Sunday, public transportation ran on a reduced schedule and we would have difficulty getting back to Blair Atholl, where our hotel was, if we missed the tour bus.  OK, OK, I got it.  I had no intention of being late.

So Pitlochry on a Sunday is kind of slow.  I suspect that Pitlochry any day of the week is kind of slow.  I had gone off by myself, not with the rest of our sub-group of shoppers, and there wasn't a whole lot to do.  I went to a bookstore and bought a few books, then I had lunch at a tea room, then I just kind of wandered aimlessly, until I completely accidentally stumbled upon Heathergems.  It's a terrific place.  It has beautiful jewelry, and the story of how it's made is really interesting.  It's basically compressed dyed stems of heather (a purple wildflower that is ubiquitous in Scotland, to the extent that it is sort of a national symbol) that are cut and lacquered and then used in pendants and earrings and pins and things.  Anyway, I was in heaven in this place.  I wanted to bring gifts back for people, and this seemed perfect since it was a product that was unique to Scotland, and really pretty to boot.  I also had been tasked by a patient of mine with buying her some jewelry--she had given me money and told me very generally what she wanted, and it seemed like this was the ideal place to find some stuff for her, too.  It was getting kind of late, so I knew I wouldn't be able to browse as much as I would have liked, and I would still have to hustle to make the bus.  But, it would have all been OK--that is, until I got up to the counter. 

Something to know about Scotland (maybe about the entire UK?) is that there is this tax, called VAT.  If you are not a resident of Scotland, when you leave you can claim some of your VAT back, assuming you meet certain criteria.  You have to have spent a certain amount of money at one time in one store, and you have to have a special kind of receipt and form from the merchant.  Then, on your way out of the country, you give this paperwork to a customs officer and you supposedly get the VAT credited back on a credit card.  I say supposedly because of the two times I have tried this, I have gotten money back a total of zero times.  Whatever.  The point is, at the time I was at Heathergems, I didn't know that the system apparently doesn't work.  All I knew was I was spending more than 40 pounds or whatever it had to be, so I wanted to get the receipt and form that I needed.  The form had to be filled out by the merchant, with the details of what I bought, not just the total amount, and, at least at Heathergems, it was done by hand.  So, it was taking forever.  I was getting a little nervous about the bus situation, but I thought, it's OK, I'll just have to jog.  I also wasn't entirely sure how to get to the bus from where I was, but I chose not to think about that yet.  So finally, everything was totaled up and it was time to pay.  There were actually two clerks helping me--one checking me out and the other filling out the VAT forms--and there was a growing line of people behind me, so I was starting to feel a little self-conscious.  Pretty soon I started to feel a lot more self-conscious, because MY FLIPPIN' CREDIT CARD WOULDN'T GO THROUGH.  The credit card terminal was displaying some sort of code that neither of the clerks recognized, so they just kept re-swiping it, and it kept being declined.  Finally on like the third or fourth try, they figured out that the code meant they had to phone someone to get authorization, and they were ultimately told that I had to get on the phone with a Bank of America rep.  So, they handed me the phone (I was completely stunned--and pretty mortified at this point) and I talked to a very nice lady at Bank of America, who asked me the whole series of mother's maiden name questions, and then asked me to confirm my last two transactions.  Remember the bookstore and the tea room?  Yep, paid for them both with my Visa card.  Apparently, the fact that they were in, you know, SCOTLAND, got flagged, and the next transaction, at Heathergems, was therefore declined until they determined that my card had not been stolen.  Something I (obviously) did not know until this incident, but that apparently everyone else in the entire world knows, is that when you're going to be traveling outside the U.S., you're supposed to notify your credit card company (and your bank if you plan to use an ATM card) so that what happened to me doesn't happen.  Lesson learned.

At this point there had to have been fifteen people in line behind me, none of whom were being helped because I was monopolizing both clerks.  Right then is when I knew that I loved Scotland and Scottish people, because while I was standing there feeling terrible about inconveniencing all those people, and feeling stupid because it was my own fault, an older gentleman behind me in line said, "Och, I hope this disnae ruin your trip."  He felt bad for me and wanted to make sure I didn't have a bad impression of Scotland because of the situation!  (And he said it using some Scots dialect, which I totally loved.)  Seriously, some of the nicest people anywhere.

By the time everything was finished, it was like a minute or two before I was supposed to be at the bus, which I still didn't know how to get to.  Oh, and it was raining.  I figured at that point there was no possible way I was going to make it, so there was no point in running.  Once I figured out how to get to the bus lot, I decided I would go there anyway, and maybe I'd be able to get a public bus that left from the same lot, or close to it.  So, I was strolling along in the rain, when it occurred to me that if the bus hadn't already left, that it might leave in the time it was taking me to leisurely stroll to the bus lot, and if it didn't, it wouldn't look good for my fellow tour members to see me just casually walking and looking like I didn't care that I was making them wait for me.  So, I broke into a full-out run.  And of course, the bus was still there, and no one was upset with me (the fact that I was all wet and out of breath probably helped), and I had fodder for the talent show that I knew would take place at the end of the tour.** 

Of the jewelry I bought, I kept one necklace for myself.  It is my absolute favorite piece of jewelry, even more than the diamond drop necklace that my parents gave me for my thirtieth birthday (don't tell them that.)  I always think of that story when I wear it and when anyone asks me about it or compliments me on it.  Of course, I think one of the reasons that it is my favorite is because of that story!

A nice cherry on the sundae of that day is that when we got back to the hotel and got off the bus, I heard bagpipes (because, hello, it was Scotland.)  I went looking for the source, and found a pipe and drum band rehearsing outside (and fundraising--I had to borrow a pound to put in their container, because I somehow had only 10 and 20 pound notes, and don't get me wrong, I'm all for supporting musicians, but I wasn't going to give them 10 pounds!  Actually, I think I still owe one of the other tour members a pound...oops.)

This past June when I went to Heathergems I took a public bus to Pitlochry (because there wasn't an option to go as part of the tour, but we had a free afternoon.)  There was no drama.  I browsed, chose what I wanted, paid for it, got the VAT form (because I'm a slow learner and I still believed it would work), and that was that.  Somehow, even though I got some lovely pieces of jewelry, it wasn't nearly as much fun.

Have I mentioned how much I love Scotland?

**The song I wrote and performed for our end-of-tour talent show is called "Ode to Tablet."  Tablet is a type of Scottish candy that we had a lot of on that first tour.  One of the verses, sung to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands", goes:
If your credit card's been declined, have some tablet
If in Pitlochry you're almost left behind, have some tablet
If the lamb you saw at play could be your dinner later today
Please don't fret, it's all OK, have some tablet

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I probably won't be writing a travel guide any time soon

When I was in Scotland last summer, I kept a journal.  I've never done that on previous trips, but it occurred to me the first evening I was there (at Sandy Bell's) that there were things I really wanted to post on Facebook, but I didn't want to pay outrageous data roaming fees for accessing Facebook from my cell phone, so writing stuff down seemed a reasonable alternative.  I was re-reading the journal this weekend, and a lot of it really does sound more like a series of Facebook status updates than serious travel diary entries.  Here are some excerpts.

There was a guy at the end of the bar who looked like death personified.  He asked me if I had a kitchen sink in my gigantic purse.

So there's a Legionnaire's outbreak in Edinburgh.  Lovely.

Went to Scottish National Gallery (big art museum.)  Pretty much stayed in their Scottish section, because I didn't come to Edinburgh to see paintings by 15th century Italian artists.

At the cafe in the National Gallery.  Hot chocolate is literally that--like liquid hershey bar!  Could only tolerate a few sips.

I don't know exactly what clotted cream is but I am a fan.  It's like butter that you can eat with a spoon.

People wear tights here more than at home.  Maybe because it's cold, so if you're going to wear some sort of leg covering, instead of wearing hose you might as well wear tights.

Went to Surgeons Hall museum.  Mostly looked at the history stuff; only had a few minutes at the end to look at things like musket balls in people's skulls--those things are huge!

At Surgeons Hall, they have a display about Alexander Wood, who was President of the Royal College of Surgeons of the City of Edinburgh.  One of the things it says is that he was "often accompanied on his professional rounds by a tame raven and a sheep, and was the first person in Edinburgh to carry an umbrella."

On the way back to the hotel, there was a sign on a lamppost looking for a lost 20 year old panda.

Note to self: more mushrooms (and nutella) at breakfast!

Random thought: the Brits (not just Scots, because it was on BBC News too) use the term "funnily enough" a lot.

Had an extremely strange dream involving various members of the royal family and Ted Kennedy.  They and I were at someone's house, and they were helping around the house, like clearing the table and fixing a leak.

Poached eggs at breakfast--significantly underdone.  I think I should quit playing poached egg roulette and just get scrambled.

"Robert Burns: born in Alloway, died in Dumfries, but LIVED in Mauchline!"

Friday night I had a terrible, but luckily relatively short-lived, bout of vertigo.  Margaret Bennett ended the evening with a funny (but politically incorrect) joke that ended with "when you get home, I hope Snow White skelps your arse!" and I threw my head back and laughed, and then the world started spinning.  I think the head-throwing did it.

Petted a black lab outside of Heathergems.  Have waited 6 years to go back to Heathergems--it went much smoother this time.  (The first trip to Heathergems is an entire other blog post in and of itself.  Stay tuned.)

I'll never understand why, in all the hotels we've been in, the servers only count the number of things ordered, but don't record who ordered what.  Because then it's this ridiculous thing of them standing there saying, "Salmon?  Anyone at this table have the salmon?"  Oh well.  As our guide Charles said when I made that comment, that would be too logical.

Well, now it's Thursday 6/21/12--got home last night.  Not sure how, or if, to end this journal.  Maybe I won't.  Maybe it will be for my thoughts about Scotland and music and whatever.  NOPE--THAT'S WHAT THIS BLOG IS FOR!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oh, so that explains it...

When people first hear about my obsession with all things Scottish, especially Scottish folk music, the questions they usually ask are, "Is your ancestry Scottish?" or "Do you have friends/family in Scotland?", and "Do you play an instrument/sing?"  My answers are "No" and "No, I'm just a very enthusiastic audience member."  Depending on how strangely they look at me, I either move on, or tell them some variation of the following story.

I have a couple in my practice--the wife is Scottish and the husband is English but lived in Scotland for many years.  In 2005, I happened to see them a few times in the early spring, and they mentioned that a festival they were involved with, the Houston Highland Games, was coming up in May.  I put the date in the back of my mind, but didn't have any firm plans to attend.  Then, coincidentally, my father was given tickets to an event put on by St. Thomas Episcopal School, an evening of bagpipes and Highland dancing.  He couldn't go, so he gave the tickets to me.  I went, and as I was leaving after the show, who did I see but my patient, in a kilt, handing out fliers advertising the Houston Highland Games.  It seemed that the universe really wanted me to go to this festival.  So, on a Saturday in May, my mother and I went to the festival. I sampled canned haggis (I don't recommend it), watched a demonstration of Scottish Country Dancing (and thought, incorrectly, that I would enjoy it--I wound up taking lessons that fall and did not like it at all), and listened to a few musical groups.  It was late May in Houston, so of course it was really hot, and as it happened the stage where many of the performers were playing was the only air-conditioned part of the venue.  So, my mom and I figured we'd just stay there for a while.  One of the singers was Ed Miller, who is a Scottish folk singer originally from Edinburgh, now living in Austin.  He does a funny song called Cholesterol (here's a version, although not Ed's), about the terrible Scottish diet.  My patients were in the audience, and requested the song for me (doctor, cholesterol, get it?)  After the set, I said hi to Ed, bought his Lowlander CD (which has Cholesterol, as well as another fantastic song, Prince of Darkness, on it), and took a brochure about a Folksong Tour of Scotland that he does every summer.  Over the next day or two, I could not stop thinking about the tour.  And, despite knowing pretty much nothing about Scotland and even less than that about Scottish folk music, I decided I wanted to go the following summer.  After checking with my patients to make sure Ed wasn't an ax murderer (he's not), and emailing Ed himself to ask for references from prior tour participants (he told me later I was the only person, at least up to that point, who had ever asked him for references), I sent in my deposit, and eventually my entire payment, and started looking forward to my vacation, which was to be in June 2006.

And then, in March 2006, my dog was diagnosed with cancer.

I couldn't let myself be excited about the trip anymore, because I didn't know if I was going.  I didn't know what was going to happen to Richard (the most wonderful chocolate lab in the world)--whether he would be well enough for me to go on vacation, or whether he would even still be alive in June.  I was quite stressed about Richard's illness, obviously, but I was also really stressed about the trip--was I going or was I not going, and when did I have to decide?  At some point during this period my sister said something that I thought was quite brilliant.  She said that I didn't have to decide not to go; if the day of the trip came and I didn't want to go, then I just wouldn't go.  That sounds pretty straightforward but it actually took a huge weight off my shoulders, because suddenly I realized I didn't need to stress over the decision, because there wasn't a decision that needed to be made.  So I settled in to the routine of taking my dog to the vet and giving him a regimen of medications, and, since he was actually doing pretty well, I allowed myself to start looking forward to the trip again.  I made plans for him to stay with my parents while I was away, and wrote out an extensive schedule of vet appointments and medication times.  Then I packed.

And then, two days before I was supposed to leave, my grandmother died.

She was almost 98, so it wasn't terribly unexpected, but it did sort of throw a monkey wrench into things.  She lived in Montreal, which was where her funeral was going to be.  So I had two problems. First, I really wanted to go on my trip, which meant missing my grandmother's funeral, and I felt guilty about that.  Second, if I did go on the trip (or even if I went to the funeral), I'd have to figure out something to do with Richard for a few days, because I had planned for him to stay with my parents and I didn't have a back-up plan for if they weren't available (I couldn't in good conscience board a sick dog, who needed special attention and medication and a weekly trip to the vet, at just a regular kennel.)  Anyway, that all got worked out, rather speedily, and on a Saturday morning in June, I jetted off to Glasgow.

The tour was PHENOMENAL.  I have never been entirely sure if it was the music or the people or the place, or the combination, but on about the second or third day, I had this very distinct feeling of "this is where I'm meant to be", which was odd, because up to that point it wasn't like I had felt that anything was missing in my life or that I was longing for something.  But I knew even then, early in that first trip, that I would go back to Scotland, and that it would be on Ed's tour again--and I have been back, four times, all on the same tour (the itinerary does change somewhat.)

Fast forward several months, and I went to a house concert where Ed was performing, and then a festival where he was performing, and then other festivals.  I started out specifically going to see Ed, and just filled in the time when he wasn't performing by going to other acts, but I gradually realized that the other performers were really good too, and soon I started looking forward to seeing other groups almost as much as going to Ed's sets.  I also bought a large number of Scottish folk CDs (from time to time I had to force myself to go on a CD-buying hiatus, because it was getting really expensive), and found a Scottish folk music radio show (which gave me a tiny bit of international celebrity!)  And, almost eight years after that first fateful trip to the Houston Highland Games (which will be April 27th and 28th this year), here I am, an obsessed but fairly harmless fan of Scotland, Scottish folk music, and recently, by extension, some Irish folk and traditional music as well.  I have found my passion.

At the end of Ed's tours, there is always a little talent show, where the tour members can perform a song or a skit or whatever.  Each year, I've written a song and performed it.  The second time I went on the tour, I wrote and performed the following song, to the tune of The Wild Geese.  I think it pretty much says everything I've just said in this blog post, but in fewer words and with a pretty melody.

The first time I went on Ed's tour was mostly on a whim
A highland games, a cool brochure, big check made out to him
And though I have no Scottish blood, I felt like I'd come home
And knew that I'd be back again as soon as I could come

And back home in the Lone Star State conversations seemed to start
With something I did on my trip, or a song I knew by heart
I know I bugged family and friends, but they kindly indulged me
And sometimes even listened when I played them Ed's CDs

And over time I came to know of Scottish fests and games
Bought CDs there and online too, and spent a chunk of change
And any lingering doubts I had about my obsession
Disappeared when I woke at 3 AM to drive to Arlington

So now I've come full circle and I'm back here once again
A different trip in many ways, but some things are the same
The songs and stories from this place will be with me quite a while
For it took three decades, but at last, I am a Scotophile