goodness, manfolk

Oban: Day 2

This morning I ordered way too much breakfast. The B&B where I was staying had a menu with lots of delicious sounding breakfast options: sausage, fried/poached egg, bacon, tomato, mushroom, porridge, toast, tea, cereal, etc. The rule of serving size in the US is thus: the nicer the establishment, the smaller the portion. Since the B&B was so nice, I figured I should just check the box next to just about everything to ensure that I got enough to eat. Not my best idea ever.

While I ate, I heard a loud “mow!” emanate from the kitchen, with a quick “How did you get in here?” in reply.  That conversation went back and forth as I smiled to myself, quietly enjoying the universal ridiculousness of cats, alone in the small dining room in the Highlands of Scotland.

the clouds fled

Back in my room, I grabbed my coat, purse, and camera, and started out down the hill toward the town.  The day was glorious.  No one could have asked for a more perfect balance of sunshine, offshore breeze and drifting, puffy clouds.  I passed an older man with a small dog, who said (with a fabulous accent), “Lovely mornin’ isn’t it?”  I agreed heartily, and he continued up the hill, singing softly to himself.

I walked to the dock, and wandered around until I got up the nerve to ask a local where I could find the ferry to Kerrera.  The man said, “That’s the one,” and pointed out a very small boat that was just pulling away.  I would have to wait another hour until the next one.  I meandered around town, did some window shopping for souvenirs for friends and family, bought a ticket for the Oban whiskey distillery tour, and sat in the sun until the 11am ferry arrived.

As we neared the island, the man sitting next to me on the boat pointed out a house with grass on the roof.  “Women’s work, ” he said.  His rather overweight friend looked down at him and said, “Such cheuvanism!”  The seated man joked, “The man trims the lawn, the woman trims the roof.”  I said, “That’s because the men are so fat, they’d break the roof.”  He indicated toward his friend as an example and laughed.  His largish friend gave his body a glance, and said with a straight face, “Specimen. Perfect specimen.”

next time i’ll have to walk to the castle

At Kerrera we were left to ourselves. I hiked for about an hour and a half, first to the monument (a small obelisk on a high spot on the northeastern end of the island), along a low cliff, down and then up a short steep rise to the top of the hill.  There I rested on the roof of a run down brick and mortar shack until I got my breath back, and cooled off a bit.  I couldn’t find where the seals are said to be, so I went down the other side of the hill, along a path peppered on both sides by little yellow wild flowers. I stepped off the path to step over a barbed wire fence to get back to the dock.  I waited about a half hour for the Nessie Hunter to arrive. There were only two of us on the ride back. I bet everyone else was hiking or at the cafe.

I arrived Back in town just in time to catch the beginning of a very small parade of bag pipers in traditional regalia playing the tune we all think of when we hear bag pipes in our heads. That was quite a treat.  Their outfits (costumes? uniforms?) included a kilt with a pin designating their clan, and a small knife tucked into their right socks.  My favorite member of the parade was a very old man, hunched over but still marching in time, and playing his pipes.

I went back to the seafood shack for more oysters (delicious), and a rather bland prawn sandwich.  I had spotted a striking tartan pin in the window of a jewelry shop, and headed back to see how much it was.  Blah, 88 Pounds!  I told the lady I’d have to think about it, and went to find some ice cream.  It was a beautiful summer day in Oban, and there was a little street fair of some kind at the round-about in front of the train station.  All the kids had painted faces and very tempting ice cream; I couldn’t resist.

Cappuccino gelato cooled me off some more (a boy with a Spiderman painted face stood behind me in line and was very proud when I complimented him), and I realized that a tartan pin was something I had been looking for the whole trip.  So I decided to get it (it’s the only souvenir I’ve bought for myself) and wear it on my coat when I got home.

The whiskey distillery had some of the best smelling hand soap I’ve ever used in a semi-public bathroom, but their whiskey tastes like rust and sand. And it’s pretty expensive, so I’ll just count myself lucky that I’ve dodged a costly indulgence. At least it came with a free glass, which I plan on giving to Scottish Friend when I visit her after I leave Oban.

whitefish bait is apparently small, and highly judgmental. it watched me.

Dinner was more fish and chips at the same place, seated indoors at the restaurant this time, then it was back home to relax for a couple of hours until around 830, at which point I forced myself to get my shoes and coat on, and head back out to a bar that hosts live traditional Scottish music and dancing for the whole group (I wasn’t in the mood to go out dancing without a partner, and I’m still missing Boyfriend a lot, but when am I going to be in Scotland again?). I got there a little before halfway through the show, and volunteered for the first group dance I heard mention of. It was fun; the women run around the line of men and vice versa, then the first couple facing each other joins hands and prances down the middle of the isle (picture a traditional Scottish version of Soul Train) to rest at the end, at which point the woman go running hand in hand round the men again and it all starts over with everyone clapping and smiling.  A good time to be had by all (except that I was the only American- everyone else was German or French, so I couldn’t follow conversations, it I felt surprisingly isolated in a room full of people).  I drank a Strongbow while the music and dancing continued, and immediately came to the conclusion that the Irish Uilleann pipes are better than bagpipes; sweeter to listen to, and not so ear piercingly loud.

I passed a bar on my way back home that was loud a packed, and seemingly the only place open past 10 in the whole town.  I was a little hungry (for food and human interaction), but walked by without going in (the ladies were very stylish, and I was in day-old clothes, jeans and sneakers), and headed up the road toward the B&B, admiring the first view I’ve had of he bay in the darkening twilight.

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Edinburgh to Oban

Full disclosure: Once Boyfriend left with his laptop, I didn’t have anything to upload my blog from every night, so I kept notes on what happened each day on my iPhone to ensure that my memory didn’t fail me or start making stuff up.  Thus, the following posts are written at the end of each day in Oban.  After that I stopped taking notes, and must pull from my still-fresh memories.

I woke up when Boyfriend did, a little earlier than my alarm for the bus so he could make it to the airport on time to head back home while I made my way west across the country to Oban on the opposite shore.  I didn’t cry when he left (I cried a little after), but we were sad to part.  I didn’t have an appetite for the croissants and honey we bought for breakfast.  The tea we had previously enjoyed so much tasted bland and dirty; I poured it out.  I brushed my teeth, dressed, packed up my things and left without a backwards glance.

The 29 bus took me to the city center, as usual, and I walked to the train Waverly station.  A very nice woman helped me buy a train ticket to Glasgow, and a return ticket from there to Oban.  the Dublin airport and Glasgow train station both have a little restaurant called The Upper Crust that features delicious sandwiches on baguettes.  I got one with bacon, spinach, cranberry and brie.  I wish we had these in the U.S.  I made plans to eat there when I flew out of Ireland at the end of my trip.

i want to go to there

On the train, I sat at a table with an older woman who read a newspaper with an enormous photo of a topless woman with startling nonchalance.  I was duly impressed.  The train to Glasgow was a quiet, steady, and quick.  I couldn’t believe how much countryside we passed on our way.  The woman at my table glanced up whenever I whipped out my phone to take a photo of yet another unremarkable field.

The trip to Oban was three hours plus, and full of beauty.  I was astonished at the greenery, the seemingly endless lakes with houses peppered around the shores (or not), the fly fisher, the two men on a row boat that I saw in both directions, the sheep (!), the eternal hills capped with mist and mystery.  This was my first taste of the Scottish highlands.

I arrived at the end of the line at a very small (and totally unmanned) train station in Oban, and was directed by a woman working her a newsstand in the station to the tourist office across the bay.  As I walked the gentle arc around the pebbled shore below, I couldn’t stop staring at the water, the islands off shore that looked so close I lifted my hand to gauge the distance, just in case I really could touch them.   Happy people, families and (mostly German with a few French) tourists, chatted as they passed; a few benches looking out toward the islands were quietly occupied by silent, gazing groups of two or three people.  I looked to my right, saw a blue and white sign for fish and chips, and made a note to settle into my bed and breakfast, then head straight back to town, get some fish, and find one of those lovely benches to stare into the distance, relax my bones, and taunt the seagulls with my catch.

The Tourist Information (TI) shop was surprisingly busy.  Apparently Oban is known by local tourists (that is, those visiting from Ireland or the UK) as a good vacation spot for the older generation.  Let me say that again: the older generation.  Everywhere I went, every tour I participated in, every shop I visited, I was the youngest person there by a couple of decades (at least, usually more).  This surprising age gap made me feel especially lonely and out of place, especially without Boyfriend.  Everything was so beautiful, I wanted so badly to share it with him.

bright, soft, and welcoming

A rather handsome boy at the TI (he couldn’t have been more than 18, I’m just terrible) said that he lived right in the neighborhood of my B&B, which shouldn’t have surprised me at all since the town is so small.  I took a cab for just a few pounds with captivating views of the bay to my right on the way up the hill, and was shown to my room by the mother of the woman with whom I had corresponded via email to book the room.  A large window on one wall let in plenty of light, and gave me a view of the backyard (clotheslines mostly).  There was a stack of mail-order DVDs on the sill, out of which I pulled an episode of Hercule Poirot (Four and Twenty Blackbirds), and the second half of the Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth (the first half was nowhere to be found).  My evening entertainment was shaping right up.  The tea caddy had a set of real china: one cup, one pot, and a different little package of cookies each day.  I dumped my stuff unceremoniously on the bed, changed into the stylish and very comfortable blue sneakers I had bought just for the trip, and headed back to town via the one and only road down the hill (featuring more gorgeous views of the town on the water).

on my appropriately decorated iphone case

I got my fish and chips, and sat down next to a solitary woman on a bench facing the water, just like I’d planned, and fought to keep a particularly brave seagull away from my dinner.  I signed up for a ferry to the Isle of Mull, a bus ride across the island narrated in both directions by a very friendly and funny driver, ferry to Iona, self-guided tour of the ruined abbey and still-standing monastery on Iona, and then all in reverse.  I decided I should wear myself out after sitting all day, and had a long walk around town, exploring a couple of blocks inland from the water to find some cafes and churches (all closed), except for the church at the end of the bay, which was plain inside and out, and had a lesson for children going on when I stepped in.  I took a few steps down from the sidewalk onto the rocky shore for a short way, and picked up some shells (where did I put those?).

I walked back up the hill to the B&B around 8, took of my shoes, read my Kindle, showered, popped Pride & Prejudice into the DVD player and crawled into bed to relax and hate Mr. Wickam.  Boyfriend called via Skype about midway through; it was nice to see his face.

The bed was the softest, warmest I had slept in during the whole trip, and I slept soundly in the quiet B&B near the top of the hill overlooking the bay in Oban.

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Edinburgh: Day 2

an armrest at St. Giles Cathedral

Our first visit to Edinburgh’s city center today, and my suspicions have been confirmed: Edinburgh is gorgeous.  Because it’s a historically recognized city, there are loads of regulations that force new buildings to closely resemble old ones (which are meticulously maintained), for extra police cameras to be placed all over to keep people safe, the cobblestone streets are immaculately kept (even in the residential area I’m staying in), and so on.  The historical sites are well organized and never crowded. Navigating the city was a bit challenging at first, but it’s so small that we became familiar with it very quickly. The little alleys that shoot off from the Royal Mile (the main drag) every ten yards or so are adorable and mysterious.  There are rivers running under the occasional bridge, he areas around which are a vibrant green and have an untamed look to them.

The day went something like this: Wake up and eat store-bought croissants and honey with tea, walk to bus stop and get worried that we’ll miss our stop when the driver fails to call out each stop.  Arrive at city center, and immediately get lost. Walk a full circle before finally getting to our destination.
Our first stop was Gladstone’s Land, a 17th century house with beautiful painted ceiling beams in the bedroom.  Old houses were built up to 13 stories high!  Of course they also fell down a lot, too.

Greyfriar’s Bobby. what a sweetheart.

Next it was off to find some lunch.  We found The Hub in a guide book which we forgot back at the B&B, but found it again in our wanderings.  It’s a cafe (among other things) built within a large old church.  We got a cheese plate which did nothing to fill me up (although Boyfriend was oddly satisfied), and went off to meet up with our tour group.  A nice older lady gave us a general history of Edinburgh during our walking tour under a constant drizzle.  The rest of the group was very stern and didn’t laugh at any of her funny (and true) stories of old Edinburgh, so I made a point to keep a smile on my face and listen intently.  It was all very interesting, to tell the truth, and she did a very nice job.  At the end of the tour, she took us down under the North Bridge, a dank, moist place that would’ve been pitch black and reeking of burned fish (they burned fish oil in their portable lamps).  We got the overall impression that life back then was not something to be envied.  Gardy-loo!

We stopped in a little cafe to dry off and satisfy my growling stomach (I’ve been eating more than usual with all the walking around).  After some scrambled eggs and toast, we set off for St. Giles Cathedral, which was more ornate than I had imagined.  I didn’t know anything about it beforehand, but I didn’t expect there to be shrines and gravestones to various important and wealthy people inside.  I had forgotten how old Edinburgh really is; St. Giles Cathedral was founded in the 12th century, and has plenty of beautiful carvings and windows to show for it.  I paid three pounds to be allowed to take photos in the cathedral, and it was well worth it.

white chocolate, strawberry ice cream with a very thick whipped cream and chocolate on top

We made it to The Witchery for dinner in plenty of time, and were among the first seated of the night.  We had three course meals of butternut squash soup, salmon, beef, and ice cream and cheese for dessert.  I ordered the Atlantic blackened bream for the second course, but was told afterwards that the chef had a look at it and wasn’t satisfied, so they substituted with salmon, which might have been the best salmon I’ve ever had.

I ran into one totally impenetrable accent today (although Boyfriend professed to be able to understand every word, what a liar).  The man with the accent took our photo with a statue of the Greyfriar’s Bobby, a dog that guarded his master’s grave for fourteen years.  If possible, it was more adorable that I expected.  Anyway, it turns out this guy was telling us about the graveyard just around the corner that we should check out, and we did.  Super cool.

there were loads of these skull and crossbones all over the graveyard on very old tombstones

All the shops seem to sell the same thirty patterns of cashmere scarf/stole/blanket/skirt/kilt.  Not sure if I’ll end up getting anything at all here by the way of a souvenir, even though this part of the trip has been just fantastic.  What I really wanted was an Irish kilt pin.  They’re so lovely and simple, just a circle or a C shape with a pin going through.  But they’re all so expensive.  Maybe some other time.
After the bus and a short walk home, I realized we didn’t have enough for breakfast, so after a quick rest we were back outside to walk to the market: croissants for our tummies, batteries for my camera.
That’s all for today!  Tomorrow is Edinburgh Castle (for real this time), the Britannia yacht, and the Palace at Hollyrood.
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Scotland, I am in love

Boyfriend and I arrived in Edinburgh today, and fell in love instantly.  Everything looks old, the accents are hilarious and fun, and we haven’t even been to the city center yet.  It’s been a drizzly evening, the cobblestones are jet black and shining under the streetlights.  The buildings are a grayish brown brick or stone, and everything else is green.  It’s just gorgeous.

kitty dreams of the outside world

But I’m ahead of myself.  Breakfast this morning at the Harrington Hotel in Dublin ended with the waitress calling over her shoulder to us, “Be happy!”  So that was adorable.

We booked it out of there, and made the bus and the plane to Edinburgh in plenty of time.  I looked out the window while we took off, and nudged Boyfriend to wave and say with me, “Goodbye, Ireland!  Bye, Dublin!”  I asked him if he ever did that when his planes took off.  He said, “Yeah, in my head,” and managed to leave out “like a normal person, you hilarious weirdo.”  What a sweetheart.

We took a bus and walked about a mile to our bed and breakfast, St. Bernard’s Guesthouse.  We decided against paying for a cold breakfast and bought some croissants, honey, tea, and cranberry juice.

We wandered a couple of blocks over to find some pre-dinner food (we hadn’t had anything since breakfast except for Worcestershire sauce flavored chips, and some bacon flavored… crispy things.  We couldn’t decide if they were tasty or gross).

Quick side note on airports in Ireland and Scotland:
I’ve never seen so few people, nor so many easy to understand signs and well-organized layouts in airports, at home or abroad.  Kids go running around, playing while the parents read and chat.  The people were so friendly, unlike the TSA people at LAX who are in a constant state of fuck-off.  When I commented on this to a teller, he said, “Well no one’s after us.  They’re just passin’ through to get to someone else!”  Well said, sir.

Anyway, pre-dinner food.  We wandered around and couldn’t find any place that served dinner before 6 except a place called Pizza Express, that sounds like shit but turned out to be a pretty upscale place, and served delicious pizza.  Mine had a fried egg on it, and we split a cider.  Amazing.

We headed back to the B&B to plan out our day tomorrow, and work up an appetite for second-dinner, which we decided had to have meat pie.  We found a delicious steak pie with blue cheese in it at The Stockbrige Tap just down the block from us, coupled with a Black Isle Stout (dark but brighter than Guinness).  We got to listen to the locals chatting in surprisingly comprehensible local accents, and had a nice walk home in the chill air.

There’s a small park just outside the B&B where someone was hosting a large party today until late into the evening.  It says light so late here (the lights come on around 10) that it’s easy to stay out later than you ordinarily would.

I’m super excited about tomorrow!  We’re taking a bus to the city center to save time and energy to visit the Undergound, a statue of a dog, a famous pub, and a museum.  I’ve been too excited to sleep for a few nights because of the cool stuff we’ve had planned for this trip.

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