Monday, June 30, 2008

Oxford, City of Dreaming Spires

Imagine you are sitting in a train, six bags safely and expertly stowed in the luggage racks, a deck of cards decorated with adorable kittens splayed out on the table in front of you, mid- game of Norwegian Rummy. Soon, you think, you will be in Oxford, the city of Dreaming Spires, where you will be learning exciting and important things in a University established in the thirteenth century. Aaah, you sigh. Suddenly, a voice comes over the loudspeaker. You feel perhaps you have been inserted into a comedy against your will.

"This train has been canceled. Please proceed to Platform 3 and board the train to Reading. Passengers for Oxford will change at Reading."

You scramble to your feet, wait fruitlessly for someone to let you out, then finally push your way in to join the throngs headed for the doors. As you unearth your luggage from the racks, hundreds of people pass you. Your careful planning to be one of the first on this train means nothing now. You and your husband hoist your luggage onto your shoulders, backs, and any spare digit, and begin the fast walk that feels like a sprint across the station. You board. You stow. You cower in first class where there is actually room, waiting for a ticket agent to come and say you aren't allowed to be there, but he never comes. You hoist your luggage again in Reading, crawl down some stairs, under the tracks, up some more stairs, onto another train. Your husband, it must be said, helps a lot, perhaps even handles the bulk of the luggage with superhuman strength, though you still consider yourself heroic to be bearing up under the circumstances.

At Oxford the luggage boards a taxi and the two of you squeeze in with it. You call at Lincoln college for your apartment keys. Third Floor. Hmmm. The luggage laughs in your face. The taxi driver drops you off at a gate. Your special key card doesn't open the gate. You hurry back to Lincoln college for a new special card. Ha! Success. Bolstered, you walk through the courtyard, up the stairs, up the other stairs, and stand facing your door. You are about to enter your home for the next six weeks. Will it pass the test?

You open the door onto a small hallway with your first key. Your second key opens a single room, with a single bed in one corner. You and your husband consider the scene. It doesn't seem like married student housing to either of you. Ah well, at least you know the way to Lincoln College.

Back at the front desk, you receive a wary look. It seems just minutes ago you were there with a complaint, and now you're back? However, two scouts are dispatched with keys to another room next to yours and the three of you troop back through the streets, through the gate with your now working key card, and up the stairs to the little hallway. The scouts open the room next to the single, full of comfort about how they will just push the two single beds together in the first room and create a sitting room next door and voila! Married student housing! You feel unconvinced. Lukewarm, even. So does your husband. Your doubt increases when the room next door turns out to have someone's random stuff left in it and a very dirty floor.

You consider taking a train out of Oxford but remember what the trains are like.

You imagine what a funny story this will be someday when you and your husband look back on your very first apartment together. You do not laugh.

The scouts helpfully clean the room and the bathroom and kitchen which magically appear through other doors of the little hallway. You carry in the second bed to the first room. You unpack your suitcases, full of plans to get a real apartment the next day. You do not sleep much because you get a terrible sore throat and a head cold. What a surprise.

But at last it is the next day.

Suddenly things seem better. You walk your husband to school and go buy strawberries at the covered market. You arrange things. You peruse hidden spaces and discover small and pleasant surprises like silverware and pleasant views. You buy little orange roses and put vases full of them everywhere. You notice a skylight above your bed. You find tiny dishes at a thrift store for the soap and your jewelry, and buy the littlest jade plant you've ever seen. You play music and put pictures up in bare spaces. You take a walk and discover a secret meadow for picnics and ultimate frisbee. You do laundry. You blog.

Suddenly, yesterday is kind of funny. Ha ha. Ha ha ha. Oxford is pretty lovely really, once past the dodgy details of day one.

My FAVORITE non-people Pictures

Alright, this is it. After three weeks of travel and a lot of figuring out how to upload my pictures into my brand new and exciting freshly shipped Mac laptop, I have chosen five winners of my own personal travel photo contest. These aren't meant to show what any of the towns we visited are like, or how cool Brett and I look posing next to cool things, they are just photos I like.

Here they are, in order:

1. A feather on the sidewalk in Edinburgh
2. A tree and a cloud on Day One of the West Highland Way
3. Loch Lomond through the trees on Day Three of the West Highland Way
4. A red rose in the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens
5. A rainbow in Glencoe, Scotland

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Castlerigg Stone Circle

When you awake to a rainy day in Keswick, Lake District, England, UK, you are presented with several options. You could

A) Roll over and go back to bed

B) Spend the morning visiting one of dozens of outdoor shops or tiny bakeries with names like "The Wild Strawberry" and "The Wholemeal Cafe"

C) Visit tourist information at Moot Hall, buy a brochure for a local hike, and then follow its seventeen steps to an ancient stone circle, 1000 years older than Stone Henge

D) Hop on the bus and go somewhere the weather doesn't change every 20 minutes

For Brett and I, the choice was clear. We donned raincoats, stuffed our brochure up one sleeve to keep it dry, and headed for the hills. After crossing a beck (turns out it means a stream) and following a path through the mossy woods, we emerged into higher country and the rain miraculously blew away into the distance, where we could admire it from afar. We dallied along, taking the above photos of sheep sheltering from the wind along a stone wall and of brown cows companionably munching grass and mooing back and forth with Brett. Finally, we reached a huge field and climbed in on stone steps over the wall to explore the stone circle. We had about ten minutes to take photos before the storm blew back and sent us home to Keswick in the car of two friendly fellow photographers.

Brett's take on the West Highland Way

The West Highland Way is a 95-mile long footpath running through classic Scottish landscape, by lochs (lakes), up into moors (marshland), and finally over proper windswept passes. As Betsy mentioned, sheep and rain were steady companions, and both give the Highlands its essential character and add to the drama of the hike.
The first picture above is Blackrock Cottage, at the foot of the mountain Buachaille Etiv Mor, the "Great Herdsman" of the mountains. It is cloaked in cloud behind the cottage. In the second picture, Betsy and I pose at the top of Devil's Staircase, the highest point of the hike. The third picture is a rainbow running into Loch Tulla. And finally a shot near Rannoch Moor, the largest uninhabited area in Britain. The puffy pants should tell you how windy it is, not how much I've been eating (which is quite a lot, though I resisted the haggis).
We're now back in London, staying with my college friend Christian, and preparing to move to Oxford for the summer. It will most definitely be nice to unpack and have a home, at least for a couple months.
More pictures from the hike and our overall travels through the U.K. will be available shortly on a Kodak EasyShare page. We'll put up the link as soon as we finish it. And yes, the wedding pictures too.

Betsy's Take on The West Highland Way

The West Highland Way is marked by dozens of brown posts with white thistles emblazoned on them. It cuts through forests, along the wide shores of Loch Lomond, through highland meadows and a vast moor, across the Devil's Staircase, through a final pass and down into Fort William in Northwest Scotland.

Our hike was a lovely one, though punctuated with some frustrating weather and the occasional cloud of voracious pregnant midges. We saw most of the beauty and crossed many of the miles of the way, though we did ride in a car and a couple of buses when necessary. I won't try to recap the whole experience, but I'll share a few of my memories.

Picture these moments...

On our first day we climbed over and through and across many fences designed to outwit sheep but not hikers, getting acquainted with the stepstile and the kissing gate in particular.

Late one evening after setting up the tent, we came across someone who was RUNNING the entire way as part of a race (the men's record for these 80 + miles was around 17 hours!). Kind of put the hike in perspective...

While Loch Lomond diminished behind us, we hiked up and up through a tremendous green bowl, sheep scattered on the far left reaches and birns tumbling down from the right.

Who would have thought those four other tents on the beach would contain such inveterate partiers? Several hour long blocks of pouring rain didn't keep them from mirth and merriment on all sides of our tent until after four a.m.

Nothing tastes much better than an apple rhubarb crumble at the end of a thirteen mile hike, unless of course it is so badly burned that no fruit is recognizable within its charred black mass. I sampled the good and the bad.

I met my first wild swan one morning as we hiked by its powder room (the edge of Loch Lomond). It fussed and rustled its feathers like the most fashion conscious teenager.

I'd tell you about all the beautiful sunsets and sunrises, except they all happened while we were asleep! We went to bed in pretty broad daylight, and woke up to it too. Welcome to the north country!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Strolling through Scotland

After a week and a half walking around the cities and hills of Scotland, we have landed in Inverness, a lovely little Northwest town with the charm of the big capital Edinburgh in a much more manageable size. I can't put up any pictures yet (just six more nights until we'll have an apartment and an internet cable to call our own...) but here are a few highlights and surprises from what we've seen of Scotland so far (Edinburgh, Glasgow, The West Highland Way with two nights in Glencoe, Fort William, and now, Inverness):

At a small pub in Edinburgh we heard a band called Freddie and the Boys playing various stringed instruments with love and spirit, and spent our half hour trying to figure out which one was Freddie and who were his boys?

In Glasgow we stumbled into the West End Festival and the largest parade I've ever seen, including various belly dancers and unusual characters on stilts; in Edinburgh we stumbled into a Friday the 13th big screen showing of E.T. on the main plaza as a precursor to the film festival that was coming.

On the West Highland Way we walked through three days of mostly sun, beautiful lake and valley views, and then one horrendous morning of heavy rain and wind on an exposed plain which led us to our delightful hideaway of tiny Glencoe village. In Glencoe, after looking for it throughout perhaps seventeen rainshowers throughout the day, we found our huge rainbow spanning the one main street (there were two side streets). We ran out in front of the town restaraunt (yes, the town restaurant, the one and only) and got some pretty good pictures!

We watched Euro Cup soccer games in practically every major city in Scotland, getting continually stunned by Turkey's big comebacks and rooting for Spain in overtime.

We ate bread and cheese and apples and mint chocolate candy bars with views of the Atlantic Ocean, the Highland plains, various lochs, and now today, the River Ness.

We visited the oldest largest used book store I've ever seen - it had a copy of Harry Potter in ancient Greek in one of its dusty back shelves, if that gives the idea at all.

We saw LOTS of sheep, including some very cute brown ones and lots of babies, and even some of the highland cattle constantly pictured on postcards with huge long horns and shaggy heads. Plus two tinier than two fingers red frogs. Plus lots of scottie dogs. Plus one extremely poofy and proud cat guarding a Glencoe doorstep. Plus a white stallion in a lonely field under a mountain (it really was that picturesque)...

Love to everyone! Pictures to come very soon!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Safe in London Part Two

Well, Kodak is being a bit difficult, so I am adding a few more pictures here. Tomorrow we head for Scotland and it may be two weeks before I can post pictures again, but I'll be taking them!

Safe in London!

We made it through our flights with no trouble, and through customs and border controls and everything. We're at Brett's good friend Christian's apartment in north west London and we just went on a serious tour - we saw St. Paul's, the London Bridge, the Millenium Bridge, the London Eye, Big Ben, the Parliament Building, two different parks, Buckingham palace, and Trafalgar Sqaure. Brett had his first ham and cheese croissant in Europe (yay) and now we are about ready to sleep for a year. I put some of the best photos above, and will probably drop a few more onto Kodak.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Hit the Counter Kneading...

As I searched through pages of info on Bulgarian black sea coast beaches and resorts tonight(we hope to spend some time on the coast in August before school begins), I stumbled onto a bunch of recipes for traditional Bulgarian food. I've selected some of those that looked most interesting for you, but feel free to go to the site and find some more.
There's a world of culinaria awaiting at:

Ingredients: 500g flour, 1tsp. yeast, 150g white sheep7s cheese, 120g butter, 2 tsp. salt.
Make a hole in the flour and place 1/2 tsp. salt, the diluted yeast and 1/2 a cupful of water in it. Knead a medium soft dough (add some more water if necessary) and let stand for about on hour. Roll into sheets, ~3-4mm thick cut into squares and add crumbled cheese to each. Fold in two, seal the edges and drop into salt boiling water. Boil for ~5min. Arrange the ears is a dish and pour over melted butter. Serve hot.

Meat on a spit
Ingredients: 1kg pork, 1 onion, 1 tomato, 1 pepper, salt.
Cut the meat into pieces, salt and mix with the largely chopped onion and pepper. Let stand for ~2 hours and string on a spit with pieces of onion, pepper and sliced tomatoes inbetween. Grill. Serve hot with vegetables of your own choice. Baste with lemon juice if desired.

Baked apples with vanilla syrup
Ingredients: 8-10 eq. sized apples, 1/3 cupful walnut kernels, 3/2 cupful sugar, vanilla, cinnamon according to taste, 50g butter.
Peel and carefully hollow the apples. Prepare a stuffing from the beaten butter, 3/4 cupful of sugar, crushed walnut kernels and cinnamon. Stuff the apples and place in a lined dish, pour over 1-2 spoonful of water and bake in a moderate oven. Serve cold, sweetened with syrup made from cupful of sugar, 1 cupful of water and vanilla. The same recipe may be used for quinces and pears. (My grandma used to make them the best, may God bless her).