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Bonnie Scotland

16 Mar

I finally managed to get the photos organized from our weekend trip to see a wee bit o’Scotland. Apologies to the Scots, but I was so happy to hear “wee” and “bonnie” often…although they’re not likely to make it into my normal vernacular, as I can’t say the words without giggling, I simply loved hearing them used.  We did hear some Gaelic spoken, but occasionally it was when someone spoke English with the strong Scottish brogue that I wished for wearable subtitles.   The Europcar man who took in our rental car at the end of the trip told us that the Lowlanders can hardly understand the Highlanders – how they preserve these regional accents is curious to me considering what a small country Scotland is and that the news media seems to be national. I hope they can keep those local identities – the culture and language are richer for those differences.

In a word, Scotland was incredible.  We were lucky with the weather, and since we opted to visit in the least-touristy time of year, the only issues we had were some of the distilleries that we might have visited on our road trip were closed on the weekends.  We had three days to amble from Aberdeen to Glasgow, a right-hand drive rental car to keep things exciting, our GPS to frustrate us, and a loose itinerary that required we make nightfall in both Inverness and Oban to use the free hotel stays I booked.  Our “loose” itinerary included mandatory stops at Loch Ness, as many castles as we could find, and two distilleries from different whisky regions (Highlands and Lowlands).  The rest of the time, we wandered!  The main goal of the trip was to enjoy some natural beauty, as a most of our other getaway weekends while being in Europe have been to learn about the old cities with their history and culture.

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We did learn a bit about Scottish culture by making an effort to learn about whisky. Scottish whisky is double-distilled (except for Auchentoshan, the lowlands distillery we visited), and depending on the region where it is made, takes on flavors from burning peat (e.g., Islay whiskies) or the barrels where it is aged (e.g., Auchentoshan whiskies).  The stills where the spirits are distilled are each a special shape, which apparently imparts something different into each whisky, as well.  We’ve really enjoyed getting to understand more about the “scotch” that until last September, neither one of us had been particularly interested in.  Now, Justin is particularly fond of Islay single-malt whiskies (which can be rather strong in terms of the peat-smoke taste that you almost feel like you just drank a campfire).

Justin and our wonderful tour guide at the Glen Garioch distillery are checking out the mash tun.

Justin and our wonderful tour guide at the Glen Garioch distillery are checking out the mash tun.

We stopped at Glen Garioch for a tour at 9:30am, when they opened, and the lovely woman in the shop blinked at us a few times as if trying to decide what kind of people we might be coming in so early…before whisking us around on a ‘wee tour and giving us a ‘wee tasting of their Highlands style single malts for free.  It was fabulous, and we were able to visit another distillery our last day to see a rather different way of making whisky.  We paid for the tour and tasting at the Auchentoshan distillery on our way back to the airport, and it was worth the price of entry, as the guide was extremely knowledgeable.  Those whiskies take more of their flavor from the casks and barrels where the spirit ages (either American bourbon casks or Spanish sherry wine barrels).  We’re learning to spend the time tasting the various flavors – and really, you need to, unless you are accustomed to gulping firewater.

Enjoying our wee tasting.

Enjoying our wee tasting.

Justin is demonstrating how to give yourself "monkeyshoulder" which is an actual condition that the whisky workers have after moving all of the wet barley around.

Justin is demonstrating how to give yourself “monkeyshoulder” which is an actual condition that the whisky workers have after moving all of the wet barley around.

We’ll be back.


Spain Road Trip 2

30 Oct

After a day and a half in Sevilla, Tammy and I rented a car to drive to Granada, via some of the white hill towns of Andalucía.  At the rental car place, the guy mentioned to me that I really should have my international driver’s permit on me when driving – this was something I had inadvertently left behind.  Both Justin and I have one, but in the last 15 months, we have never been told to have this or asked for this – so we had assumed it was a scheme by the local AAA back in Austin to make a little pocket change!  However, apparently not, as Tammy found in Rick Steve’s guide that technically, all drivers should carry one, in case they are stopped by an official, but it is not required to get a rental car.  Alright then.

We headed towards our first stop – Arcos de la Frontera, after putting the name of the town into the GPS and hitting “Go!”.  We soon found ourselves driving on what Rick called, “a dangerous, narrow road full of curves”.  It was, but we saw perhaps 2 other vehicles and were treated to some fantastic scenery (well, I was mostly trying to keep the car on the narrow road).  The route probably took a bit longer than the suggested toll route, but paid off in a “road less traveled” sort of way.

Our first destination: Arcos de la Frontera, where we wandered the streets, found an artist’s workshop, and bought some more nun cookies!

Winding up for our walking tour with Rick Steves in Arcos de la Frontera.

Magnificent entryway for the Church of Santa Maria.

At the Church of Santa Maria in Arcos, we learned about an old design in the rocks in front of the building where to this day, some people still do exorcisms!

Driving in Arcos de la Frontera was not for the typical American car, unless you wanted to bring home some authentic Spanish rock gouges.

Here is the window where you ring a bell to buy cookies from the cloistered nuns. Unlike Seville, we had to do the negotiation and selection of cookies with a real-life sister.

After successfully buying cookies through the convent turn-table, we had to go sample them!

We stopped by the workshop of Señor Andres Oviedo Vidal and enjoyed perusing his tile work (he did tell me I could take the picture, although it doesn’t quite seem so, does it?).

The view from the tiny city center in Arcos de la Frontera.

We continued on, and after stopping by a farm where we bought olive oil and some wine that *hopefully* will be good (we did not get to taste it, and since I have very little experience as a translator, I somehow agreed that we would go ahead and buy some of the wine…oops), we found ourselves in Zahara de la Sierra.  The town was spectacular, perched in the mountains overlooking a reservoir.  We started a short hike up to the very top of the mountain to an old watchtower, but our stomachs got the best of us when we realized it would be a 30-45 minute effort…and decided to find lunch instead.

In Zahara, there is a reservoir off to one direction, and then the city in the hills nestled in with old buildings off to another direction.

After we climbed up to Zahara, we were rewarded with a lovely view of a nearby reservoir.

Sopa de tomate…this was not what we expected tomato soup to be, but it was delicious!

After lunch, which starred two delicious surprises (carrots with pesto and a bread salad dish that had been named “sopa de tomate”), we took off down the mountain to find Granada…


15 Jun

I think Spain might have been the country that Gulliver called Lilliput – the land of the small.  Not really, but in the last week, I’m reminded of one of the curiosities of the Spanish language, where speakers can pretty much take any noun they want and miniaturize it, for the heck of it.  Before you think that people go around holding their thumb and index finger close and squinting through the space, it’s not what they do.  Instead they tack on endings to the noun: –ita and –ito, depending on if the noun is feminine or masculine.

We’ve gotten used to being asked if we would like a bit of bread – un poquito (note: this is a strange one because poco means little bit, so poquito means a bit of a little bit).  We were out walking the dogs, and a woman approached saying she had a preguntita (a little question).  Then, I went to the dry cleaners to drop off a pair of pants and after I asked when I could pick it up, I was told in a semanita (I suppose this means a bit less than a week).  And sometimes when I make a mistake speaking Spanish, friends will kindly say, “Y Chris, una cosita” (one little thing) before they correct me.  Lilliput, no?

I wonder if I might take my Spanish to new levels by eliminating the use of the adjective, pequeño (small), and using these handy little –ita and –ito tools.  Spanish is most definitely a rich language because of some of these tricks, where you can add emphasis (exaggeration?) wherever you like, if you follow the rules.  English has other ways of doing things, but I just feel more creative when I get to actually get to tweak the words, rather than just come up with a clever order to place the words in the sentence!


Finally caved in…

7 Jun

…and decided I needed to get my hair done.  By “done”, I get a few highlights and have it cut.  Normally not too big of a deal, except I always wince at the price.  I’ve not gone to a salon in Spain before today.  Justin has – I found a place he can go to close to our apartment, and he has his monthly appointment that has been working well.

I’ve been using periodic trips back to the states to take care of those kinds of personal care items – it’s just a bit easier, but today, I was in a “what the hell” mood, so I walked to a salon.  I’d prepared a little since some of the vocab was new to me.  I explained that I wanted some highlights (hacerme mechas) and that I wanted to cut my hair (cortarme el pelo).  I was completely ready to have to make an appointment and come back, but luckily, they took me immediately.  After confirming that I wanted blonde highlights (versus the pretty purple ones that were in the stylist’s hair), I was left alone in the seat with a Spanish tabloid where I got to peruse a number of pages of posed pictures of some lovely, famous Spanish lady who has two lovely, famous daughters and a big house in Argentina – I was most impressed with the picture of these women in fancy clothes posing on a river raft with paddles.  It appears that, in Spain, tabloids are for the people who want to be photographed.

When my stylist came back with the color, she also came back with a partner…and between the two of them, I had highlights painted all over my hair in record time – certainly not more than 15 minutes later.  I’ve never quite experienced that before, as the whole process usually seems to take hours.  There wasn’t much small talk – they’d probably grown tired of my clarifications because it was pretty challenging to me – I could not hear well over the hairdryers, and they were speaking incredibly fast…maybe some sort of hip, cool Spanish that was a bit over my head, anyway.

After washing all the stuff out of my hair, I got my haircut – un poquito (just a bit…helped with an enthusiastic gesture with my finger and thumb), con flequillos largos (long bangs) y capas largas (long layers).  No problem.

After everything was done, I was a happy camper.  Record time (just over an hour!) and pretty inexpensive (54 euros ~$68).  And now I look less like Scooby Doo.

Elevator etiquette

30 May Wiki Commons - photo taken by Pavlemadrid

Madrid has a few highrises that are scattered throughout the city; my Spanish class happens to be almost to the top of one of these buildings.  Twice a week, I show up in the lobby, explain that I have a class, and ask for permission to go to the 42nd floor.  They scan my NIE card and then hand it back to me with an access card.

I make my way to the elevators that go up to the 42nd floor and crowd into them with smartly dressed Spanish businessmen and businesswomen, many of whom have just finished their smoke break (curiously, it seems that Europe has not convinced its citizens that smoking is hazardous to one’s health, but at least there is an excellent healthcare system in most countries should you need it).  Crammed into the elevator, it is inevitable that every one of the buttons will be pushed – so, even though the elevator only serves 12 or so floors, it’s going to be a lengthy ride.

It’s difficult to be irritated, though, because everyone is just too darn friendly on the elevators.

Sure enough, the elevator gets to the first floor it services and opens.  The man in the pink shirt (no issues here with wearing pink!) steps out and says, “A…go!”  Next floor, the woman in 4-inch heels teeters out and calls back to the people still in the elevator, “A…go!”  Occasionally, people in the elevator will respond back with the same.

Initially, I had no idea what was going on – contagious sneezing?  Some strange phrase that was not in my Lonely Planet guidebook that I carried around with me when I first arrived?  Finally, I had it explained to me – they’re saying “hasta luego” really, really, really fast.  And people say it almost always, even if it ends up being a bit mumbled (although I’m pretty sure they don’t say it to an empty elevator – but I’ve not requested video footage to see if this phenomena, similar that of “if a tree falls in the forest” exists).

Curiously, I don’t find that Spaniards go out of their way on the street to greet strangers or even make eye contact.  But, put them in an elevator, and they’ll treat you like they’re going to see you again, so they should end the chance meeting in a friendly manner.  I suppose these people likely do see one another occasionally as they work in the same building, but generally, there is no chit chat until the person boisterously exits and calls their farewell.  I think it’s quirky and fun, and I love it, even though I still butcher it a bit because my mind thinks I need to pronounce all the letters.


At least I had my sunglasses…

20 Mar

I’m in Düsseldorf, on my last leg of a March Tour of Europe.  I left home exactly 2 weeks ago.  The first week had 4 days in Rome and 2 days in Naples, then one night back home in Madrid that turned into two nights.  I’ll pick up the story there.  A week ago Monday after spending a lovely night in my own bed I headed back to the airport for a 1:20pm flight to Copenhagen.  Once onboard the plane we pushed away from the gate right on time.  A minute or so later my week started to unravel.  The captain came on the intercom and announced the front wheel had been damaged during pushback.  The plane was pulled back up to the terminal, and we waited for 1.5 hours.  The captain then announced they were trying to source a replacement wheel and that the repair would take at least 1.5 hours more.  Kindly, the fine folks at SAS invited us off the plane and to enjoy a free meal at a restaurant in the terminal, courtesy of SAS.  Never one to turn down free food I took the stroll over to Terminal 3 where they sorted out the details of giving 165 or so passengers a free meal.

Roughly 4 hours after our intended departure the repairs were complete, and passengers were able to reboard with one small exception.  Due to the delay, one of the flight attendants was now “off duty,” and apparently there is a maximum number of passengers per flight attendant allowed.  That meant they needed 16 passengers to volunteer to wait until Tuesday to fly to Copenhagen.  I quickly volunteered, realizing it would 11pm before I made it to my destination in Malmo.  Around 6pm I headed back home, ready to sleep in my own bed again.

I didn’t get to sleep long that night as my new flight departed at 7am.  Back to the airport I headed just after 6am when the Metro started running and away we went towards a stopover in Munich, more or less, on time.  We reached Munich unscathed and proceeded to sit on the tarmac for a bit.  The captain popped onto the intercom and announced our gate was occupied (by a plane with wheel damage?).  About this time I glanced at my ticket and realized I had only a 45 minute layover in Munich and the minutes were ticking preciously by.  And they ticked, and they ticked, and they ticked, and finally about 10 minutes before my next flight was due to depart we were able to exit the plane.  Not surprisingly, we deplaned at gate 37 and my next gate was gate 7.  Perhaps, surprisingly to some, this meant my next plane was waiting approximately 30 generous wingspans down a very, very, very long terminal.  Running shoes on and in need of a good jog, off I went to find my next plane.  I arrived, the flight attendants didn’t seem surprised, and proceeded down the gangway, and then down the stairs, to a bus.  A bus?  A few more passengers that I recognized from my flight the day before came huffing and puffing down to the bus as well, and I realized, I needn’t have run, as I only had to be as fast as the slowest person off my flight from Madrid.  Recognizing our folly we joked about the situation, and in the course of the conversation I came to learn that my flight the previous day had been completely cancelled.  A bright moment in my trip!  As it seems by volunteering I had simply sped up the inevitable and returned home much sooner than had I tried to fly on to Copenhagen.  My moment of satisfaction lasted just that, moments, as the bus proceeded to drive along the edge of the terminal, back the way I had just run, back the entire 30 gates, underneath the plane I had just left, before curving left onto the tarmac where my new plane happily waited.  In case you got lost, I had waited 30 nervous minutes on a plane on the tarmac, ran the entire length of the terminal and then rode a bus back the entire length of the terminal and boarded a plane waiting on the tarmac!!!

So it was on to Copenhagen now.  It turns out that I had another flight scheduled from Copenhagen that same day up to Stockholm and given the non-direct flight I had no option but to wait in the Copenhagen airport until my afternoon flight to Stockholm.  While I waited, I stopped by the SAS baggage service to check on the whereabouts of my luggage as the day before I had left the airport with my luggage on a plane I presumed was on its way to Copenhagen before me.  The friendly SAS lady informed me that my luggage would be on today’s SAS flight from Madrid, and I could just pick It up here later this afternoon.  Perfect!  Say, what time does flight arrive?  16:10?  Oh, that’s very funny, because my flight to Stockholm departs at 16:05!  So I filled out the paperwork to have my luggage transferred up to Stockholm later in the evening.  Fortunately, or so I thought, I was flying on another SAS flight to Stockholm, so I reasoned this would make the logistics of transferring my luggage easier.

Undeterred, I thoroughly enjoyed my flight to Stockholm.  It was a beautiful evening, and I had trouble telling the hundreds of lakes from the hundreds (or is it thousands?) of Baltic Sea inlets that surround and pass through Stockholm.  Amazing place and I had just arrived!  I was flying with colleagues now as we were headed to a future wind farm site a few hours north of Stockholm.

Approaching Stockholm from the air.

After landing, we made a quick stop by the SAS baggage service to check on my luggage.  It hasn’t checked into Copenhagen yet?  But that flight arrived an hour ago?  Well, we’ll go have dinner in the airport and check back again.  And so we did, very slowly, taking our time at every opportunity.  Around 9pm, with only one flight left to arrive from Copenhagen I checked again, this time with the fourth different SAS person.  She tapped in my special baggage service number, drew a puzzled look, tapped some more, left the room to make a phone call and returned a few minutes later to inform me that my luggage was in fact, still in Madrid!  I don’t know if I can share with you the joy I felt knowing we had just waited 4 hours for that excellent news (that perhaps one of the 3 previous friendly SAS people could have shared with me?) and that I the very next day I would be spending a glorious day outside in a forest, in northern Sweden, north of 60° N, in the winter, without a coat, nor boots, nor socks, nor hat, nor gloves.  But hey, AT LEAST I HAD MY SUNGLASSES!

And so it was, the very next day with two borrowed coats, borrowed socks, and a purchased hat (I really like the hat, so that part didn’t “smart”), I headed off into the forest.

Making our way to various sites.

Our access road.

Boreal forests in this part of the world!

Fortunately, the sun was out (and remember, I had my sunglasses!) so the 35° F temperature wasn’t bad, until I stepped through the crusty knee deep snow into a small stream, in my very non-waterproof shoes.  Ah well, it was worth it to see a little part of this world, and we saw hundreds of moose prints in the snow as we walked to a few of the turbine locations.

Moose tracks!

Actually, we walked quite far that day, because you see, about 100 meters after departing our first stop of the day, our VW SUV high-centered on the center ridge of the road.  By high-centered, I mean we were stuck, in the snow, in the forest, in northern Sweden, north of 60 north, in the winter.  And as we were quite stuck, I headed off to visit a few turbine locations while we awaited rescue courtesy of the rental car service.


It seems that it is not so easy to explain exactly where we were in the forest, in northern Sweden…, especially since we only spoke English (and Italian, and Spanish, but really how helpful could those languages be in Sweden?), and the “rescue” service only spoke Swedish.  A little telephone game through colleagues back in Malmo that spoke both English and Swedish seemed to be getting the rescuers on the right course, although, I’m told at one point they were way up at the top of the nearby ski resort  searching for us near the “big metal mast” that was supposed to indicate our whereabouts.  Roughly 4 hours after getting stuck and having walked to all reasonable turbine locations, and with the sun rapidly setting, I decided that despite the apparent futility, we should at least make an effort to get ourselves unstuck in case our rescuers don’t arrive as expected.  Using the jack and some wood to support the jack, I raised the VW up so that it was no longer high-centered, and by placing a generous supply of sticks under the tires along with a packing of snow so the tires wouldn’t sink back down, it seemed we had made some progress.  In fact, I think I’ll hop in the driver’s seat and see if we have made any headway.  Oh wait, there are our rescuers!  Umm, their vehicle really isn’t any bigger than ours.  In fact, they are going to get stuck just trying to get over to us.  How fine would that be, to have freed ourselves only to be blocked by our “rescuers” on this very narrow one lane road?  Nevertheless, the rescuers hopped out of their not so big vehicle and took a look at the situation.  “Not good” in Swedish is apparently one of the few phrases my colleagues understand.  Indeed!  The second chap seemed less concerned and after slipping and sliding his vehicle back the direction we’d all come, he returned to our situation, hopped into the driver’s seat of our VW and proceeded to drive us right back from whence we’d come.  Rescued!  Rescued?  Didn’t he just drive the vehicle down the road?  Couldn’t we have done that?  Ah, nevermind, at this point, we had another plane to catch, and with luck my luggage would be waiting for me in Copenhagen.

And yes, we DID see two moose alongside the road on the way back to the airport!

Snowboarding in the Sierra Nevada

26 Jan

We took a long weekend to spend some time chasing snowflakes and enjoying Spain’s mountains – this time, the mountains of Andalucía, at Europe’s southernmost ski resort.  A friend of ours had warned us that her trip the week prior had been a bit disappointing due to the lack of real snow, but the ski resort was doing its best to keep the slopes enjoyable with snow machines.  We weren’t too concerned, as we were simply looking forward to some time outside the city.

A view from our apartment down the hill towards the rest of the town.

One of the more interesting things about the resort was the fact that all the hotels were stacked along a hillside, with a one-way street doing a big loop.  Our hotel was nearly at the top, while the restaurants and shops were down near the bottom.  A chairlift ran through the town, amidst the buildings.

We had never ridden a chairlift where we could peer into hotel rooms...not that we did, but we could have!

In truth, we only snowboarded one day, but we had a great time.  I went down hard once and dislocated my shoulder (it popped right back in…and I’ve had issues before when I was a gymnast), but mustered on a bit more carefully.  After lunch, things were even more enjoyable, as we discovered the easy runs…instead of being the object to avoid who was eking down the steep sections heelside (with quads a-burnin’), I could actually relax and practice turning.  Justin was in his element and super comfortable, given he’d been on a snowboard only 2 other times in his life – he seemed to float down the hills effortlessly, turning easily and letting the board run.

The Spanish you hear spoken in Andalucía is a bit different from that spoken in Madrid – you hear less of the “th” sound that is used for “c” and “z” that precede “i” and “e”, and as my friend Begoña explained, they “eat” the letters (se come las letras).  This means that “gra-th-ias” becomes “gra-s-i….” and “buenos días” becomes “buen… día”.  I expected to hear more Portuguese and German, as friends had told us that the Sierra Nevada drew lots of folks from Portugal and Germany, but most of the people we were around were Spanish.  We did have a drink one night in a bar and were incredulous at a table of British folks who seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time on the menu…a half-hour later, we realized the super friendly waiter was just helping them a bit with translating some other, non-menu-related information.

Dogs + snow = pure happiness

The dogs loved the snow – chasing each other in it, kicking it up, peeing in it and reminding us to revel in it.  We did, especially after we discovered “buñuelos” (fresh little donuts with a sprinkling of powdered sugar).

These were pretty amazing little donuts - made to order and hot!

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