Saturday, August 31, 2013

Dry at last, dry at last

We have a dryer! You're thinking, Big deal. Welcome to the second half of the 20th century. Well, this is a significant improvement in our quality of life since we've been in Glasgow.

The house we're renting has a washing machine, which is located in the kitchen (normal for Europe) under the counter between the sink and dishwasher. It's an Indesit, a brand with which we were not familiar. Works fine. Uses powdered detergent. Liquid fabric softener. Holds 6 kg. I'm guessing you have no idea how much laundry that is. {Ed.'s note: It's maybe/possibly/approximately/guesstimated about 75% of a typical U.S. washing machine.} At certain times during its washing cycle, it's as loud as a banshee from Hell, which means we are usually smart enough not to wash things when we're in the kitchen or living room or trying to watch television.

It's fancier, but smaller and louder, than the washer we had back in the States.
So many choices, and all I generally use is "white cotton" and "color cotton." Jackson delights in spinning the dials, though.
Some homes here have combination washers and dryers, both in the same machine. We're told they don't dry as well as you might hope, and their capacity isn't huge.

Our house did not come with a dryer. Instead, for the most part we've been drying our laundry out in the yard on this:

What should we do with all these clothespins now?
I had never previously dried my clothes on a clothesline. It's cumbersome. Takes most of a day to get things dryish. Even with fabric softener -- and this is the first time I've ever noticed fabric softener actually having an effect on my laundry -- the clothes and towels and sheets end up slightly crunchy and coarse. The bigger problem is trying to guess when it won't rain, so we can wash and dry our clothes at an appropriate time. Since only one or two loads of laundry fit on the clothesline outside, we can't do big batches of laundry on the same day, which means we might have to go without doing laundry until the next day it doesn't rain. That might be awhile. It's not that it rains every day, but there seems to be a perpetual chance of rain every day.

We also tried to dry laundry inside on a folding rack. That works, but golly gee damn is it slow. Even with open windows, it can take several days for things to dry. Our friend Nancy in London does most of her drying on racks in her second bedroom, and says her room is basically overrun with soggy laundry and she never feels on top of it.

The tiniest person in our house is a clothes horse.
Once, I tried out a laundromat; we have one within a quarter of a mile from our house. But it cost more than 10 pounds (i.e., ~ $16) to do three loads of laundry, and those loads were still damp at the end. Not an economical solution.

Thus, after two months, we finally gave in and bought a dryer. Trying to dry our laundry was hard enough during the summer. I can't believe we'd ever be successful during the fall and winter.

Our dryer is a Beko, another brand with which we were not familiar. We didn't want to spend very much, and we think fancy dryers are a waste. I did quick internet research and the cheap Beko was rated highly in best-of lists.

"Dryer at last, Dryer at last, Thank God almighty we have a dryer at last." Didn't MLK say that?
It holds 8 kg, so no matter how much we put in the washing machine there will always be plenty of space in the dryer. According to specifications, it will hold "24 t-shirts." Isn't that how you measure your dryer capacity?

I'm sure you look in there and say to yourself, I think that'll hold precisely 24 t-shirts.
This is not a vented dryer like we were accustomed to in the States. A vented dryer sends steam to the outside of the building. Our house has no place for such a dryer. Instead, it is a condenser dryer, which means the water is heated out of the clothes into steam and then condenses back into water in a tank within the dryer itself. This tank needs to be emptied after each load, and it results in a considerable amount of water to dump out.

I pull this tank out of the top left of the dryer after each load -- it's usually close to full -- and drain it in the bathtub.
We've had the dryer for a week, and it's a godsend. Drying is done within 90 minutes. The loads are actually dry. And it has been a nice perspective change on convenience: although the washing machine is located on the ground floor and we have the dryer in a guest room two floors up, it's still much easier to transport the laundry within the house than to put it up and take it down from a clothesline. No complaints here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Goings and comings

We've been lucky to have had a steady stream of visitors. But with the comings of visitors also means, sadly, the inevitable goings of those visitors. Last Thursday, Kate's mom -- Grammar, as she is known 'round these parts -- departed after two months of helping us make our transition to Glasgow. While Kate and I will definitely miss her, we know she'll be back at some point in the future, probably only a few months from now. Jackson, however, has a harder time with the concept of "future." He seems to understand he will see her again at some point. He has suggested seeing her "on computer," which means Skype or Facetime. But he doesn't have any real sense of time or how long it will be before we see Grammar in person. (Try telling a toddler to wait a minute before he can have a toy -- just one minute! -- and watch a meltdown.)

Before she left, we went out for a nice meal at Bothy, a Scottish restaurant seeking to "serve modern classics with a twist." Located down an alley off the trendy Byres Road, it is a comfy stone building with dark woods and earthtone fabrics. Some of the tables come with sofas, which is a good place to keep a wee one entertained.

Grammar finished knitting Jack's vest earlier that day. He got an unsolicited compliment from a passing waitress, who then asked for Grammar to knit her a sweater.
Although Bothy might seem fancy, it's the kind of place many attendees (including me) can feel comfortable in jeans. We had traditional fare, such as duck breast for me and lamb for Grammar. Our food was excellent, the ambiance was great, the service was attentive and friendly. It is now one of our favorite restaurants in the city.

Kate ordered "wild pigeon" as an appetizer. Was it good? Yes; only a tiny bit gamey. More importantly, what makes a pigeon "wild" instead of...well...umm...not wild? Does "wild" pigeon mean it wasn't one of the street pigeons a block away? My understanding is that a "wild" pigeon is one you would find out in the wild (e.g., by the sea), and not on the street. Is it the same species as a street pigeon? Yes. Would a street pigeon taste the same? I guess so.

Pigeon looks kinda tasty, doesn't it? Also note the shadow from Kate's phone and hands.
No pigeons, wild or otherwise, to be found after dinner on this traditional tenement house street.
Grammar departed on Thursday. Our next guest, Nancy, arrived on Saturday. Nancy is one of Kate's best friends and former roommates from Cornell. She was a bridesmaid in our wedding. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to see her very often since the wedding.

That's because Nancy has lived in London for the past thirteen years or so. We've been able to visit her in London and meet up at some other weddings and gatherings in the States, but not as much as we would like.

Nancy is one of my inspirations for living abroad. She has lived more than a third of her life as an expat. Thus, I made sure to ask her vital questions like, "Do they show any college football and basketball here?" and "Can you find Cheetos in the U.K.?" She was kind enough to explain mysteries like whether women throughout the U.K., and not just Scotland, wear leggings all the time. Or to note that, hey dummies, you need to put salt in a cup at the bottom of the dishwasher or else the dishwasher will break, hence the bright red "Salt" light glowing on the door.

Her visit was more of a hang out and chat time, rather than go around and be tourists. Nancy has been to Glasgow before, so there was no need to be especially touristy. Instead, we took walks along the canal and to see the all-important diggers at the construction site. We watched Downton Abbey. We made stir-fry and ate out on the deck.

One night we went for an Italian dinner at Firebird restaurant near Kelvingrove Park. We have eaten at Firebird three times so far, and it's another of our favorites. Although it is as much a neighborhood bar as a restaurant, it's a good place for kids (you might notice that is something of a requirement for our meals nowadays) and adults -- noisy and boisterous, quirky interior shape/layout, a fishtank, wooden walls that roll up garage-style for al fresco dining, thoughtful beer menu (let me recommend the Orkney Brewery's Skull Splitter ale), etc. Firebird hosts a pub quiz night I hope we might be able to try out soon, since we greatly miss our usual Tuesday pub quiz nights at the Flying Saucer in Raleigh.

After dinner we headed over to Kelvingrove Park to let Jack burn off some pizza calories. They have a nice playground for the kids, and even a skatepark -- generally used more by bikes and scooters than by skateboards -- for the riffraff.

Suffice it to say that Jack's "steering" of the "train" would result in a crash.
After burning off some calories, we promptly added more with a stop for ice cream at Nardini's ice cream parlour.

Jackson assumes that both Kate's and Nancy's sundaes are his.
On Sunday we headed off to be a little touristy, with stops at the Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis. The cathedral was Scotland's most important church prior to the Reformation. It suffered some damage from the conflicts between the Catholics and Protestants, including the loss of its original stained glass windows. Inside there is a centuries-old wooden door with bullet holes. Nevertheless, it's the only medieval cathedral on the Scottish mainland to have survived the Protestant Reformation without losing its roof.

Modern replacement stained glass.

It would've been a shame for Glasgow Cathedral to have lost its beautiful barrel vaulted roof.
The cathedral has not enjoyed the inside and outside cleaning that many of Europe's cathedrals have undergone in recent decades, so it looks a little grimy.

Most important churches and cathedrals in Europe have cleaned off the soot and dirt that makes the stone look so dark. Not this one.
Since the Bishop of Glasgow was primarily responsible for the university's founding, the University of Glasgow held its classes for a couple of decades on the cathedral's grounds starting in 1451. For the next two centuries, the bishops served as the chancellors of the university.

If it looks to you like the cathedral is leaning slightly, you're correct.

Kate and Nancy talking outside Glasgow Cathedral while Jackson roams the cemetery.
Although the cathedral is supposedly located where the patron saint of Glasgow, St. Mungo, founded his church, the building is no longer used by the Catholics but rather by the Church of Scotland's Presbytery of Glasgow, which means it is now a Protestant church.

I like looking around in old cemeteries to find glimpses of the past. Here's a gravestone that shows parents who had all seven of their children predecease them:

Assuming Helen was John's only wife, Helen was only 16 when her first child died. Over the following 30 years, she lost six more children. She and John then had nearly 17 years together after all seven children had died. She was alone for her final 10 years.
There was also at least one presumably lighthearted gravestone in the cemetery:

Happy Sundays, or dead and buried Sundays?
After exploring the cathedral and grounds, we headed across the "Bridge of Sighs" -- apparently a ripoff of the name of the bridge in Venice -- to the Necropolis.

Jack eats a bagel while pondering the Necropolis rising before him.
This Victorian-era graveyard for wealthy merchants isn't pristine; it's more like a New Orleans graveyard, with decrepit tombs, broken gravestones, vines and moss and nests entwined through the stonework.

This would be an excellent place for Halloween, if it ever catches on as a holiday here.
The top of the hill is dominated by a large John Knox statue, staring sternly down on the (formerly) Catholic cathedral:

Jackson careens around the base of the statue.
Though we visited in mid-afternoon, and it stays light until around 9:00 pm, you never know when the clouds and gloom will briefly pass over:

Surely someone has written a Gothic story or novel with this as a setting.
I quite like the Necropolis. Just as during our visit to Glasgow last January and I trekked up to the top in the wind and rain, I found it to be an appropriately moody and gloomy place, better seen in dim light than sunshine. Oddly, I find it to be a place where I want to have a picnic with Jack. Doesn't this look like a cheery spot?

The sky is parting for Kate and Nancy as they approach John Knox.
You can get a nice view of the city from the Necropolis, particularly of the cathedral:

John Knox's view of the Glasgow Cathedral.
Nancy left on Monday. It was great to see her for the first time in years, and we really appreciated that she spent her bank holiday coming to visit.

It was not too sad a farewell, though, because we expect to see her again this coming Monday when we visit London. More on that in an upcoming post.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Few things seem as quintessentially Scottish as bagpipes and kilts. This past weekend we embraced Scottish culture by attending the World Pipe Band Championships, held annually in Glasgow.

What is a pipe band? It's a group of approximately 20-25 bagpipe players joined by 10-15 drummers. They march in looking like this:

Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band, from Northern Ireland, enters the circle for competition.
Held over two days on the Glasgow Green (one of Europe's largest city parks), the championships included approximately 225 pipe bands from 17 countries. Pipe bands came from as far away as Australia and New Zealand, and even from countries you might not associate with highland bagpiping, such as Mexico, Brazil, and Zimbabwe. All told, there were roughly 8,000 participants and nearly 30,000 fans. The event was broadcast live in many countries around the world.

The bands form a circle for performing, with judges roaming around the outside.
Jackson was entranced. He rarely took his attention off the bands. Sitting in his backpack under a rain shield, he bobbed up and down to the music.

Even with a break in the action he couldn't tear himself away from watching.
The television cameras were smitten with Jackson, broadcasting him for 20 seconds or so sitting in his backpack and enjoying the music. I think the bright yellow rain shield helped provide some pop of color on a day of cloudy skies and intermittent rain.

The 225 bands were divided into subgroups of varying levels of skill. The top level bands all played a prescribed set of pieces, and if they scored highly enough on Saturday they came back on Sunday and played a differed set of prescribed pieces. We attended only on Saturday, but in our time in the stands we were lucky enough to hear three of the past world champions, including the two-time defending champions Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band. As it turned out, the Field Marshall Montgomery band -- named in honor of the famous World War II general -- also won this year, completing a three-peat. I am not very knowledgeable about bagpipes and pipe bands, but as a classically-trained musician I can say that the level of musicianship was impressive.

Besides the bands playing in the various performance arenas, the Glasgow Green was sprinkled with other pipe bands rehearsing or simply performing for fun.  Along with the traditional bagpipe fare, I heard snatches of some more unusual music like "Jump" by Van Halen.

The drum line for an Los Angeles-based pipe band entertained the crowd.
After listening to a series of pipe bands, we headed over to watch some Highland dancers in competition. The dancers were divided by ages, and each had a prescribed dance routine set to a live bagpiper. Judges watched groupings of three dancers dancing simultaneously.

In a new twist this year, all dancers had to levitate off the floor while dancing.
Kate remarked on the incredible leg strength and muscles of many of the dancers. Their socks camouflage how strong their calves are.

Not many boys participated, which I suppose is typical of boys and dancing everywhere. But there were a few:

Note the live bagpiper, who had to play the same tune over and over and over again.
I overheard some young preteens who were rather smitten with this fellow.
Next, we wandered across the Green to snag lunch, and then went to watch some Highland games grunting and wheezing. We got to see one of the most popular events, the caber toss:

This caber didn't completely turn over, resulting in a lower score.
What is a caber? It's a heavy log: 19' 6" and 175 pounds.

"The Big Stick." Of course.
The goal is not so much the distance of the throw as it is to have the caber fall directly away from the thrower, not at an angle. According to Wikipedia, you probably don't want to refer to the thrower as a "tosser" because in the U.K. that refers to "a (generally male) masturbator and, by extension, carries pejorative overtones." {Ed.'s note: Oh, the things you're learning from this blog.}

Now that's a good, thrower.
Besides the caber toss, we got to see some women throw some weights. The event is actually called a "weight throw."

This thrower seemed to be the best of the bunch. Some of her competitors were a bit directionally-challenged with their throws.
We also saw a some guys do an event of lifting three successively heavier stone balls on top of barrels. Undoubtedly it has a name like "ball lifting," but I don't know the name. Of the three gents we watched, two were unable to lift the final ball onto the barrel.

Given the general atmosphere of the competitions, this van seemed to fit in well:

{Fill in your joke caption here.}
Jackson was so enthused by all the sights and sounds of the day that he powered through into late afternoon without a nap, waiting until he got home to finally sleep. He liked his hand stamp so much we only cleaned the other side of his hand for the next day to prevent the ink from washing off.

Really, how could anyone bear to wash off this stamp?
With 8,000 kilt-wearing pipe banders, plus all of the Highland dancers, plus the Highland gamers, this had to be the largest crowd of kilts we'll ever see in our lives. I remarked to Kate that next year I need to have my own kilt to wear to this event. She pointed out that I won't be competing, so why would I wear a kilt?

Why not, woman?!? What kind of question is that? If I need a kilt -- and I do -- then obviously I need places to wear it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Border Abbeys — Dryburgh Abbey

Set along the River Tweed (more like a stream) in the Scottish Borders amidst farmland, Dryburgh Abbey has the most romantic setting of the various Border Abbeys. Sir Walter Scott author of historical romances like Ivanhoe and The Bride of Lammermoor chose the abbey as his burial place. Old trees surround the ruins, a grass floor has replaced the stone in the destroyed nave, and numerous park benches are provided for a rest or picnic.

The abbey was founded in 1150; burned by the English in 1322; rebuilt; burned again in 1385; and then rebuilt and flowered until its final destruction by the English in 1544.

Upon entry, you first encounter part of the abbey grounds that have been converted into a small and haphazard cemetery.

Grammar and Jack gambol through the grounds. Well, Jack gambols and Grammar shuffles.
Through the trees and gravestones you catch glimpses of the abbey. Eventually the trees part and you have a wonderful unofficial entry view of the ruins.

Dryburgh Abbey ruins
The cemetery trickles away into the ruins.
The follow-the-paved-path official entry view of the ruins looks down the nave with its grassy floor and stumpy pillars.

Nave of Dryburgh Abbey
Looking down the nave toward the north transept.
Sir Walter Scott is buried within the remains of the north transept.

Sir Walter Scott's tomb at Dryburgh Abbey
Jack makes good use of the running space while his mother takes a photo. Sir Walter Scott's tomb lies behind the red placard.
As with Kelso and Jedburgh Abbeys, the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey are a great place for a little one to run and climb and explore. The Dryburgh Abbey ruins function less as a historical landmark and more as a public park with beautiful scenery and stone playgrounds.

Jackson exploring, never still, never at rest.
Having conquered the remains of a pillar, he must now wildly swing mommy's camera.
These ruins are also a great place for older folks (ahem) to climb and explore:

View of the Dryburgh Abbey ruins from a tower
Sometimes you have to ignore the metal grates blocking your access up a crumbling staircase so you can catch a glimpse of your lovely wife down below in the ruins.
Dryburgh Abbey also allows your dogs to come romp and play. Isn't this a very picturesque dog park?

Back of Dryburgh Abbey
A view of the back of the abbey. Mattie waited patiently only because she had already exhausted herself playing.
As the day faded into late afternoon, Mattie and I sat and watched the shadow slowly proceed across the cloister:

Cloister of Dryburgh Abbey
The monks here enjoyed a cloister quite large in comparison to the size of the abbey overall.
Like our visits to the other Border Abbeys, we encountered few tourists. And given the size of the site, everyone had plenty of space for solitude and contemplation.

Dryburgh was our last stop of the day. We ran out of time to visit Melrose Abbey, which I understand is the most complete of the ruined Border Abbeys. It is definitely on my list to visit this fall.

Two out of four looking at the camera? That's above our usual average.
Tourist books don't seem to emphasize these Border Abbeys, which I think is a mistake. To my mind, they are among the best sites in southern Scotland. Moreover, the scenic drive connecting the abbeys is a nonstop series of beautiful vistas and charming villages. They make a great day trip from Edinburgh or Glasgow, providing a respite from the urban centers and heavily touristed sites in the cities.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

I have allergies?!?

Before coming to Scotland I never would have said I have allergies, or at least nothing significant. On occasion, when we would visit Katie's sister Tracy and her family out in Colorado, I would find myself sneezing a bit, which I figured might be a mild hay allergy; they have a lot of hay for their horses and goats and donkey and miniature horse. Or perhaps some kind of grass allergy. But I would usually have only a one or two instances a day of several sneezes in a row, and then nothing else.

Here, I've had a two sizable allergic reactions. For the first several weeks after we arrived I sneezed many, many times a day. When I woke up in the morning, my nose would be stuffed up to the point I could only breathe out of my mouth. My eyes sometimes got red. I had hours during the day during which I was symptom-free, but most days I would get hit with one or more symptoms.

We don't have any hay around here, nor any horses or goats or other such animals. I think the source of my symptoms was the grass in our backyard. The landlord (or really, the landlord's agent, since our landlord lives in the Middle East and relies on the agent to handle things) had neglected to cut the grass in our backyard for a couple of months, and so the grass was more than knee-high.

It was like a wild grassland in our backyard. Also note that this was the first time in my entire life I had ever hung a load of laundry out to dry. We should be getting a dryer in the next week or two, so look forward to what surely will be an exciting blog post about it.
Once the grass got cut -- it took awhile because we had to get the landlord's agent to send out a crew to hack through the backyard (a household lawnmower couldn't get through the stuff) -- my symptoms went away. Not the same day, but within a couple of days. Nowadays I don't have any problems. We keep the grass reasonably short, and I don't seem to have any allergic reactions.

Of course, I don't know if it was the grass. It might have been something else. I think we won't know until next year, to see if I get the same symptoms in spring or early summer.

My other allergic reaction was this morning. I woke up with a fatly swollen bottom lip, like a horribly botched Botox job. No real pain, but a feeling of tightness and swelling. It subsided a bit during the day, but was still noticeably swollen and tingly. And then it swelled again tonight.

Where did this come from? I don't know, but I have three main suspects. We took a day trip the Isle of Arran this past Thursday, and came home with some foods and drink I've never had before. I ate them last night. First is the Isle of Arran dark brown beer.

I refuse to believe this fine beer could have given me a fat lip.
I don't think the beer is the culprit. Perhaps it is just my fondness for this beer -- which won a 2012 award for the best dark brown beer in the world -- but I highly doubt I had an allergic reaction to the beer. I've had hundreds and hundreds of different beers, and never had an allergic reaction. I simply cannot accept that beer has given me an allergic reaction. In any case, I plan on continuing to drink this beer (we have 11 more bottles), so we'll see in the not-so-distant future if it's the culprit.

The second suspect is a bag of Guinness brand chips (called "crisps" here in the U.K.). I ate those and threw away the bag. Nothing seemed remarkable about them.

The third suspect is cheese, probably types of blue cheese. We ate an Isle of Arran cheddar cheese and Isle of Arran blue cheese on Saturday evening. Both tasted very good. I would happily eat them again. I've never had an allergic reaction to any cheese, and I eat cheddar and blue cheese all the time. My guess, though, is that I'm allergic to something in the blue cheese here in Scotland. There must be something among the ingredients, perhaps only trace amounts, to which I'm allergic. I got further confirmation today when eating a roast beef and gorgonzola cheese sandwich. My assumption had been that the allergic reaction was specific to the blue cheese from Arran, but I had a similar swelling after eating the gorgonzola in Crieff today.

Did I suddenly develop an allergy to all blue cheeses? Or only certain kinds of blue cheeses? Or only blue cheese from Scotland? Or only certain Scottish blue cheeses which have particular ingredients? I find this sudden reaction very odd.

Not sure whether I'll take any formal steps to figure out what is causing my reaction(s). Prior to my swollen lip, nothing has really been dramatic or even all that annoying. I think I'm going to take a wait and see approach.