Friday, February 28, 2014

Hidden Lane Tearoom

Described by professional reviewers as providing one of Scotland's "definitive" tearoom experiences, the Hidden Lane Tearoom in Glasgow is a cozy and eclectic place offering tasty food, freshly baked desserts and, of course, a wide array of teas. It serves proper afternoon tea with all the requisite scones and sandwiches, but not in a formal or stuffy way. No starched collar required. Rather, it's relaxed and informal. A sign even indicates B.Y.O.B.

A tearoom that encourages you to bring your own beer  =  my kind of tearoom.

I'm not a foodie, and this isn't a foodie blog. I'm not even a tea aficionado. Kate, however, loves tea and coffee and wants to explore coffee shops and tearooms around Glasgow. So earlier this week I enticed Kate away from work and we went in search of the Hidden Lane Tearoom for a bite of late lunch and a pot of tea. (We don't aim for afternoon tea because Jack naps for two or three hours starting around 1:00 or 2:00 pm.)

Finding the Hidden Lane Tearoom isn't difficult, so long as you know where to look: down an alleyway off Argyle Street, one of the busy commercial streets in Glasgow's west end.

The alley off Argyle Street is to the left of the "G.G. Brothers" liquor store.
A chalk sign points the way.
The alley emerges onto a cobbled lane lined with indie businesses such as art galleries, boutiques, a used record store, and graphic designers.

You emerge onto the cobbled hidden lane. The Hidden Lane Tearoom is at the back left corner.
Tucked into the far corner of the lane is the Hidden Lane Tearoom, quaint and bright on a gritty urban street.

The expanse of south(ish)-facing windows allows plenty of light into the tearoom.
Inside the tearoom it's snug. The small space and the abundant decorations might feel a little cramped, but there's just enough open floor space to avoid claustrophobic worries. The wall of windows helps, too.

The view just inside the door of the tearoom.
The ground level has front and back rooms for seating; the latter is more of an event room and sometimes closed off. A mezzanine level above lies open to the front room below. Pastel walls are covered in illustrations and photos. As one recent travel article puts it, the tearoom's decorations are on the "just-right-side-of-twee," meaning sweet but not sickeningly so.

Mezzanine level.
The view from the mezzanine down to the front room.
Vintage and mismatched tea sets decorate the shelves and are used for table service. While some pieces come from auctions and secondhand stores, others have been donated by loyal customers. Tea choices abound, of course -- from Earl Grey to chai to iced teas to nonalcoholic "tea cocktails" -- and the brews are served loose-leaf in teapots, with a strainer. The menu generally offers soups and sandwiches, with daily specials, as well as vegetarian and vegan options. The owner has a passion for baked goods, which figure prominently in the food choices. If you go for a full afternoon tea, you'll get a tower of finger sandwiches, scones, and cakes. Payment is cash only, no credit cards accepted.

Afternoon, or "high," tea platter. (Photo courtesy of the Facebook page for the Hidden Lane Tearoom.)
Our service was friendly and relaxed. Given the small staff and little kitchen, your food likely won't come quickly. The point of a tearoom, however, is leisure and conversation. You shouldn't want your food to come too fast.

I don't know that it's hidden, but the tearoom is definitely tucked away. That's part of its cache. Away from the bustle of Argyle Street, patrons can unwind. Idle. Savor a hot cuppa and nibble scones. I'm not a veteran of many tearooms, but this quaint yet modern version appeals to me.

Departing the hidden lane.
We'll be back, I'm sure.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sagrada Família — Nativity Facade

Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia
Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Família.
It's one of the greatest buildings of modern times.

It's the greatest cathedral {Ed.'s note: yes, we know it's technically a basilica} built in the last several hundred years. Frankly, it's one of the greatest cathedrals ever built.

Even if it's not to your taste it's fantastically unique and idiosyncratic, to be sure the sheer audacity, complexity, scale, and craftsmanship demand awe and appreciation.

It won't be completed until 2026, at the earliest.

Construction on Sagrada Família began in 1882
Construction began in 1882.
Consider just the scale of the project. Currently it has eight towers, four for the Nativity Facade and four for the Passion Facade. Each tower rises 330 feet. There will be four more such towers made for the newly begun primary entrance, the Glory Facade. Besides those twelve towers, four even taller towers dedicated to the Evangelists will rise from the middle of the building. A tower dedicated to the Virgin Mary will rise higher still, to 400 feet. At the center of the cathedral, an eighteenth tower dedicated to Jesus will top out at 560 feet.

The cathedral will be the tallest church in the world. It might have been even taller but its architect, the renowned Antoni Gaudí, declared it should not be taller than Barcelona's tallest hill, Montjuïc, because he believed his creation should not surpass God's.

Inside, the cathedral is just as massive in scale. The central nave, 300 feet long, rises to a height of 150 feet, almost exactly the same height as the tallest church nave ever completed, St. Peter's in Rome. The vault in the center, where the transept crosses the nave, reaches 200 feet. In the apse, a portal ascends to 250 feet.

I'll show more of the interior in a future post. Here's a tease:

Transept of the Sagrada Família
Looking across the transept from west to east.
But let's start on the outside. Construction on the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (i.e., the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) began in 1882 and completed a small crypt in 1883. Then the original architect resigned.

At that point, the project was taken over and transformed by the devout Antoni Gaudí. He knew he would not live to see it completed; as he wryly remarked, "My client [i.e., God] is not in a hurry." Though he designed and built remarkable projects throughout Barcelona (see, e.g., here, here, and here), the Sagrada Família was his life's work.

In preparation for the project, Gaudí studied numerous great cathedrals around Europe. His design synthesized a Gothic style with his own blend of natural forms and Modernisme aesthetic. As typical with Gaudí, the design incorporates numerous geometric shapes, such as parabolas, hyperbolas, helicoids, and ellipses.

Double twisted column, ellipsoid knot, hyperboloid vaults
A double twisted column, ellipsoid knot, hyperboloid vaults.
Started in 1894, the cathedral's Nativity Facade is the only part of his masterwork that Gaudí lived to see (somewhat) completed. He died in 1926, and the eastern facade was finished in 1930.

Nativity Facade in 1926
The facade in 1926.
The Nativity Facade is a visual feast, both from afar and near. You can't imbibe it all in one sitting; it requires multiple viewings, from multiple distances. Since there's a man-made lake directly in front of the facade, the designed approach is at an oblique to the three arched doors.

Approach to the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Família
Approaching the Nativity Facade in the morning sun.
Central portal of the Nativity Facade, the Portal of Charity
The approach directs you to view the archivolt of the central portal, the Portal of Charity.
From a distance, the Nativity Facade looks like its stone once melted, curling and dripping but then re-solidifying. Getting closer, you can see the immense profusion of carvings, and then closer still you admire the exquisite craftsmanship and stonemasonry.

Dripping stone on the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Família
Even when you get close, it can still somewhat resemble dripping stone.
Like both the Passion Facade and the yet-to-be-completed Glory Facade, the Nativity Facade has three portals for entry into the cathedral. Each portal is named for a theological virtue. On the left is the Portal of Hope, centered on Joseph; in the middle is the Portal of Charity, centered on Jesus; and on the right is the Portal of Faith, centered on Mary. So here's a place you can, appropriately, shout "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" {Ed.'s note: preferably in a thick Irish accent}, and no one can call you blasphemous or accuse you of taking the Lord's name in vain.

I can't possibly describe all or even most of the myriad carvings on the facade. But I will try to show some of the statuary that caught my eye, starting with the Portal of Faith:

Joseph and Mary present baby Jesus at the Temple
Joseph and Mary (far left and right) present baby Jesus at the Temple.
Carving of Mary on the Nativity Facade
Mary, the new Eve, can step upon the serpent because evil has no power over her.
I found the left portal, the Portal of Hope, to be the most visually striking. In particular, the carving of the Roman soldier slaying infants was an unflinching portrait:

At top, Mary and Joseph get married; at bottom left, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus flee to Egypt; at bottom right, a Roman legionnaire slaughters children on orders of King Herod; and in the middle, young Jesus sits on Joseph's knee.
Joseph and Mary flee with baby Jesus to Egypt, in the Portal of Hope
Joseph and Mary, with baby Jesus, flee to Egypt, led by an angel.
Roman legionnaire slaughters infants in the Portal of Hope, Nativity Facade
With a slain infant at his feet, the Roman legionnaire prepares to slaughter another while the child's mother pleads for mercy.
These carvings aren't the typical generic-visaged saints, or the somewhat humorous gargoyles, that you find at most cathedrals. The statuary at the Sagrada Família is personal. Individual. Each statue or setting shows a specific scene. Those scenes collectively provide a narrative within the portal, while the portals combine to illustrate a larger story. The overall facade not only demonstrates the theme but also provides a rich tapestry of symbology.

Viewed in this light, the Nativity Facade doesn't look like it's melting (which is how it's commonly described), but instead as though the facade is sprouting new growth. The stone isn't melting, it's germinating. If you look closely at many of the pictures in this post, you can see a wealth of flowers and plants covering the facade. Given the facade's theme of birth physical, spiritual, theological budding stonework makes much more sense than melting.

Central image in the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia
The central image of the facade.
With that understanding in mind, let's examine the central portal, depicting Jesus's birth in the manger. This Portal of Charity (i.e., Christian love) centers on Mary and Joseph with newborn Jesus in the manger. Three wise men look on from the left while shepherds gaze from the right. Angels sing and play instruments from above.

Newborn Jesus observed by an ox and mule
Newborn Jesus observed by an ox and mule.
Carving of mule head on Nativity Facade
The mule takes great interest.
Three wise men bearing gifts, Sagrada Família
Three wise men bear gifts.
Shepherds, lamb, and dog on Nativity Facade
The shepherds look on. As do the lamb and the dog.
Heavenly choir sings angelic hymn on Nativity Facade, Sagrada Família
A heavenly choir sings an angelic hymn, beginning: "Gloria in excelsis Deo . . ." ("Glory to God in the highest . . .") The words are carved into the stone below them. In this picture, you can see the "Gloria" below the leftmost angels.
Carvings of bassoonist, violinist, and lutist on Nativity Facade
Bassoonist, violinist, and lutist rocking out in praise. This has got to be the only bassoonist ever carved onto a cathedral, right?
At the very top of the Portal of Charity is the only scene that falls outside of Jesus's early life. It portrays a grown and bearded Jesus crowning Mary as the Queen of Heaven.

Coronation of Mary, carvings on Nativity Facade
The coronation of Mary.
Dividing the three portals are two pillars. One is supported by a turtle, the other by a tortoise. They symbolize the immutable and unchanging nature of the theological themes of hope, charity, and faith.

Turtle at base of pillar, Nativity Facade, Sagrada Família
The turtle at the base of one pillar.
Tortoise at base of pillar, Nativity Facade, Sagrada Familia
The tortoise supports the other pillar.
Atop the pillars are four trumpeters, two on each side. These angelic trumpeters announce the the arrival of the the Last Judgment. They trumpet in four different directions land, sea, heavens, and light representing the all-encompassing nature of the Apocalypse.

Trumpeting to the four corners of the Earth, Nativity Facade
Trumpeting to the four corners of Earth.
Rising above the three portals, at the pinnacle of the Nativity Facade, stands a painted stone cypress tree. At its base is a pelican, a symbol of the Eucharist. The long-lived evergreen cypress tree symbolizes Christ's eternal love. Perched above the tree stands a white dove atop a cross. The dove represents the Holy Spirit, the red cross represents Christ's blood, and the gold cross embracing the red cross represents God the Father holding his sacrificed son.

Gazing up the Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia
You've gotta strain to see the cypress tree from the base of the facade. Jackson announced: "Christmas tree!"
Cypress tree and Jacob's ladder on the Nativity Facade, Sagrada Família
The cypress tree atop the Nativity Facade. The ladders at the base evoke Jacob's ladder.
Holy Spirit doves circle the cypress tree on the Nativity Facade, Sagrada Familia
The Holy Spirit circles the tree in the form of white doves.
Gaudí originally wanted the entire facade polychromed (i.e., painted) in the same manner as the cypress tree. That would have been amazingly garish. However, a painted facade would have further emphasized life and vitality, as a strong counterpoint to the facade on the opposite side of the cathedral.

Knowing the Nativity Facade would be the most generally pleasant in subject matter and execution, Gaudí cannily directed that construction on this facade be completed before work began on the other two facades. He feared that if construction began with either the Glory Facade or the Passion Facade, the public might recoil and the project would lose support. Currently, the Glory Facade including depictions of the seven deadly sins, purgatory, and Hell is under construction and likely won't be unveiled until the cathedral is completed.

Construction on the Passion Facade didn't begin until 1954. Its brutal sculptures were completed in 2005. It's a radically different approach and style from the Nativity Facade. More about the Passion Facade in an upcoming post. (See here.)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Best in 90 years

Team GB may not have the most distinguished Winter Olympics pedigree, but 2014 was a banner year. The U.K. equaled its medal haul of 1924, its best-ever showing in a Winter Olympics.

With one gold, one silver, and two bronzes.

Lizzy Yarnold won gold for the U.K. in skeleton. (Photo courtesy of the BBC.)
As I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, the U.K. tends to win one or two medals per Winter Olympics. Sometimes none. They set an "ambitious" goal for 2014 to win three medals, investing a total of £13.4 million in just a handful of the sports which they thought offered a decent shot at winning a medal. That £13.4 million doubled what the U.K. invested for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Given their results this year, it's anticipated that funding will increase for 2018.

A little oddly, the U.K. seems to excel in the skeleton competition. All six times skeleton has been included as a sport, the U.K. has won a medal. This year, 25 year old Lizzy Yarnold won gold, equaling her British friend/landlord from the 2010 Winter Olympics. So the U.K. is now the two-time defending champion in skeleton, and Yarnold looks to be a favorite heading into 2018.

Team GB also won two medals in curling this year. The men won silver, the women bronze. Since the men went into the competition ranked second in the world, and the women went in ranked third, their medals were precisely what you might have predicted. Both teams are young and on the upswing, so it's possible they'll continue to be strong competitors over the next several Olympics. As a side note, both teams are entirely composed of Scots, so these curling medals are truly wins for Scotland.

The U.K.'s women's curling team, winners of bronze in 2014. (Photo courtesy of the BBC.)
In perhaps the most amazing accomplishment for a Brit, this year Jenny Jones won a bronze in a snow event, the snowboarding slopestyle. All of the U.K.'s previous Winter Olympics medals had been for ice events. (They did win a bronze in slalom in 2002, but it was rescinded for a failed drug test.) Jones thus became the U.K.'s most decorated snow sport athlete ever. As she remarked following her win, "Hopefully, I'll be in a few pub quizzes now."

Jenny Jones stylishly winning bronze in 2014. (Photo courtesy of the BBC.)
After this banner year, with its haul of four medals, the U.K. now has a grand sum total of 26 medals from all the Winter Olympics. Their four medals in 2014 account for just over 15% of their collection.

For comparison's sake, the U.S. won 28 medals just in 2014. It has been deemed a disappointing year for the Americans. While the U.S. was second behind Russia (with 33) in total medals, it was fourth in golds (with 9), behind Russia (13), Norway (11), and Canada (10).

It's all about perspective, folks. Team GB is delighted with its historic showing. Considering it's a land with no mountains {Ed.'s note: shhhh, don't tell that to the Scots, who like to "bag" their tall hills, which they call "Munros" and pretend they're mountains}, the Brits are ecstatic over their accomplishments in 2014.

I'm setting the bar high for Team GB in 2018: six medals. More funding, more interest, and returning medal winners should boost their medal count. Go Team GB!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A turning point for Scottish independence

We're at a turning point regarding Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. A major turning point, by my reckoning.

But we don't know which way the Scots will turn.

The background:

As I have previously explained (and I suggest reading that post before this one), Scotland will hold a referendum on September 18 to answer a yes/no question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" If the majority votes "no," then nothing changes and Scotland remains in the U.K. If the majority votes "yes," then Scotland will become an independent country (but within the British commonwealth of nations, such as Australia or Canada).

The British Isles in coins. (Photo courtesy of the BBC.)
The referendum question seems simple, but the consequences of independence are complex and unknown. Although independence would not come immediately -- some undetermined number of years would pass before Scotland secedes -- much of Scotland's future relationship with the remainder of the U.K. would be negotiated. How open would access and trade be across the border between Scotland and England? Who pays the pensions, and in what system, for current U.K. government employees who are Scottish and live in Scotland? What military materiel from the U.K. would Scotland retain, if any? Who keeps the rights to the oil fields in the North Sea? And so on.

Perhaps the most important immediate question is what currency Scotland will use. Should Scotland create its own currency? Adopt the Euro? Or stick with the British pound sterling?

Polls show a slight majority of Scots identify themselves as either wholly Scottish or primarily Scottish, and not wholly or primarily British or as members of the United Kingdom. That may indicate a sentiment or desire for separation from the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, polls demonstrate economic and currency questions are the number one issue for the voters regarding independence. For major sectors of the economy -- such as financial services, manufacturing, oil and gas, tourism, etc. -- the currency question must be answered. Many voters who might desire independence seem inclined to do so only if they are confident about the practicalities of doing so. Right now, many voters seem to think a vote for independence is too economically risky, or at least decidedly unsettling. Consequently, polls show the "no" vote leading the "yes" vote by roughly 10%, with a sizable "undecided" segment which could possibly tip the balance either way.

Scotland's ruling party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), is the main driver behind the independence movement. Last November, they issued a lengthy "white paper" declaring their proposed policies on what they think should happen if Scotland votes for independence. In their white paper the SNP asserted an independent Scotland should retain the British pound sterling as its currency. Moreover, they proposed Scotland should reach an agreement with the remainder of the U.K. about how to share and regulate the currency, including having the Bank of England as Scotland's lender of last resort. Essentially, the SNP avidly seeks independence for Scotland but also a currency union with the rest of the U.K.

Keep the British pound sterling as Scotland's currency? (Photo courtesy of the BBC.)
The SNP's declaration was surprising. Their leader, Alex Salmond, the current First Minister of Scotland, declared back in 1999 that the British pound sterling was a "millstone round Scotland's neck" and Scotland should seek its own currency. While no one seems to argue Scotland should join the Eurozone -- it's still unclear whether the Euro will survive -- it is startling the SNP calls for Scotland to retain the British pound rather than create its own currency. With a currency union, Scotland would surrender its freedom to set its own monetary policy and severely limit its freedom of action on public finance.

Of course, creating a currency is complex, cumbersome, and risky. How would a Scottish currency be valued against the U.S. dollar, the British pound, the Euro, etc.? What kind of borrowing power would the Scottish government have? What would interest rates be? Scotland could create its own currency. But there necessarily would be a disruptive transition period which could cause significant economic hardship. Almost certainly, things would get worse before they might get better. Or things could go from bad to to really bad.

Remember all those voters who will vote for independence only if the economics seem beneficial? They're the impetus behind the SNP's declaration for seeking a currency union with the U.K. Keeping a unified currency is the safest and smoothest means of transition to independence, even if it leaves Scotland partly tied to the rest of the U.K. Some within the SNP complain that a currency union would leave Scotland as more of a federal entity within a reformulated U.K. instead of a truly independent nation. I'm sure those malcontents are being told to take a gradualist approach: first worry about getting independence, and then in the future they can seek their own separate currency.

The turning point:

Now, after all that exposition, let's talk about the turning point: The U.K. just said no.

It will not enter into a currency union with Scotland.

In a major speech last week -- delivered in Edinburgh, not far from the Scottish parliament, essentially in the lion's den -- the U.K.'s Chancellor of the Exchequer declared that if Scotland became an independent nation, it would not be in the interests of the U.K. to share its currency and its economic policy. Even more significantly, Chancellor George Osborne's declaration is supported not only by the governing Tory party, but also by the other two major parties, the Liberal Democrats (currently in a coalition with the Tories) and Labour (the ardent opposition). That's a united political front against the SNP.

According to Osborne, although the rest of the U.K. would suffer from increased transaction costs if Scotland had its own currency, the U.K. would suffer more if its own economic policies had to be negotiated with another country. The transaction costs are merely an inconvenience. A currency union, by contrast, could be economically stultifying, and possibly dangerous. Moreover, why would the U.K. want to take on the financial risk of underwriting the financial institutions of independent Scotland? If Scotland had an economic crisis, the rest of the U.K. would be on the hook to save it.

Osbourne said the best way for Scotland to keep using the pound sterling is to vote against independence. (Duh.)

A political commentator pointed out that the combined economies of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland do only 10% of their trade with Scotland, but 40% with countries using the Euro, and 20% with the United States. Thus, it would make more sense for the U.K. to seek a currency union with the U.S., or to adopt the Euro, than to agree to a currency union with Scotland.

This move by the Tories, Labour, and Lib Dems is a haymaker to the jaw of the SNP.

The SNP's leader, Salmond, has responded that Osborne's declaration is a bluff. It is meant to scare Scottish voters. He thinks U.K. businesses would be more than just inconvenienced by a lack of currency union, but instead would feel it as a heavy tax (the "Osborne tax") on their activities. According to Salmond, the costs would run to the hundreds of millions of pounds. He describes Osborne's tactics as "bullying."

Alex Salmond, the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images and the BBC.)
But Salmond had a punch of his own to throw. He stated that if the U.K. rejected a currency union, then an independent Scotland would not take on any of the national debt owed by the U.K., leaving the U.K. to pay any debt that proportionately would be owed by Scotland.

As Salmond argues, the British pound sterling has been built in part by Scots, and they have a right to it: "To be told that we have no rights to assets jointly built up is as insulting as it is demeaning. To be told there are things we can't do will certainly elicit a Scottish response that is as resolute as it is uncomfortable to the No campaign – it is yes, we can." The left-leaning SNP apparently is drawing from the Obama slogan handbook.

According to Salmond, under international law the debt of the U.K. was created by the U.K. and if the U.K. continues as an entity (i.e., with England, Wales, and Northern Ireland) then it will still be responsible for that debt. Scotland, on the other hand, will be an independent nation. It will have no duty toward the debt, which is owed by a separate nation. Although the SNP's white paper offered that an independent Scotland would take on its fair share of the U.K.'s debt, Salmond now says it would not do so unless it was in a currency union with the U.K.

If Scotland became independent without any national debt, it would have a freer hand economically, with significantly greater borrowing power and less worry from financial ratings agencies. Such a stance could make it easier to implement its own currency.

Or, an independent Scotland could keep using the British pound sterling even without a currency union with the U.K. Just as some nations use U.S. dollars as their currency, either officially (e.g., Panama and El Salvador) or unofficially (e.g., parts of Mexico), Scotland could continue to use the U.K.'s currency. That would make it easier for many Scottish businesses, as well as pensioners and others reliant upon the British pound. But it would leave much of Scotland's economics beyond its control, with the U.K. acting in its own best interest without regard for Scotland, or even with deliberate intent to affect Scotland.

That's not a recipe for successful independence. At least, not in the long term. But in the short term, it might work. And doing so would create a drag -- not crippling, but more than just a nuisance -- on the U.K.'s economic policy. So the U.K. might be better off negotiating a currency union with Scotland instead of having a free rider on its economic policy. (The U.S. doesn't really have this concern with countries like Panama or El Salvador given the massive GDP disparities, as well as the dollar's fading but still-preeminent place as the world's reserve currency.)

David Cameron, the U.K.'s Prime Minister, has said the SNP doesn't have a "Plan B" if it can't get Scotland into a currency union with the U.K. His obvious message to Scottish voters is it's too risky to vote for independence.

The Tories, Labour, and Lib Dems are ready to play hardball with Scotland and its ruling Scottish National Party. They might try to woo voters, but they'll also bring a hammer down. Salmond says their hardball tactics will backfire. Scots don't like being pushed around by the English (see, e.g., the "Rough Wooing" period during Henry VIII's reign). One of the thrusts of Scottish independence is predicated on the idea that its needs and desires are frequently ignored, downplayed, or deflected by its bigger neighbor to the south. Salmond predicts an upswell in "yes" votes for independence.

Another recent wrinkle:

Just a few days ago, the president of the European Union stated it would be "extremely difficult, if not impossible" for an independent Scotland to join the E.U. A failure to join the E.U. would be a significant blow to Scotland. Trade, travel, and a host of other considerations would be harmed. The E.U. president, Jose Manuel Barroso, said Scotland would need to apply to be a member of the E.U. To be accepted, a new nation must be unanimously approved by all the E.U.'s member states, and Barroso apparently thought such approval would be tough to get.

He noted Spain has refused to accept Kosovo, which it regards as a breakaway province from Serbia. Though Barroso did not say so directly, he apparently thinks Spain might have similar concerns regarding Scotland. If you've read my earlier posts about Barcelona, you know Spain struggles with its own province of Catalonia, where a majority of citizens favor independence. Spain may not want a precedent set by Scotland, which could encourage Catalonia.

The SNP responded by calling Barroso's remarks "preposterous." They noted Spain's foreign minister has indicated that so long as Scotland departs the U.K. through a politically-agreed process (i.e., the September referendum), then it would not have concerns. Furthermore, Scotland is already a nation -- it's one of four nations within the United Kingdom -- and already has been a part of the E.U. for more than 40 years. By contrast, Kosovo sprang from a nation which was not already part of the E.U.

Regardless of his accuracy, Barroso's remarks are a second front on which the SNP must battle. They have predicted an independent Scotland will not face tremendous difficulty in joining the host of international organizations and agreements which it currently enjoys as a member of the U.K. Barroso's statements are a shot across the bow that things may be tougher than the SNP predicts.

Whither Scotland?

Between the U.K. and the SNP, who's bluffing, and who's not? Both sides? Neither?

Is the U.K. trying to bully the Scots? Will the Scots feel bullied, or simply forewarned?

It is hard to tell what's a turning point in political decisions, except in retrospect. But Osborne's speech, and Salmond's response, feels like one.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Wee ones we're missing

One of the hard things about being an expat -- or, at least, a new expat -- is missing stuff at home. We miss people, we miss old jobs, we miss certain foods, we miss some traditions and holidays and many other things.

The feeling isn't constant. If it were, we'd probably just pack up and go back to the States. Most days I don't miss anything, or at least not a whole lot. But when you do feel like you're missing out, the feeling can be powerful.

Missing out isn't the same thing as being homesick, though they can go hand in hand. I don't feel homesick, like my home is in the U.S. and I'm too out of place in Scotland. Rather, missing out is being unable to participate, or help, or be present for moments that are ephemeral.

Our friends Trish with William on left, Jamie with Molly on right. (Not pictured: me and Kate and Jackson.)
Some of the toughest things to miss are big life events for family and friends. When you move overseas, you know you're not going to spend most holidays with your family. You're going to miss birthdays. You may not be able to attend events like reunions or weddings. Unless you're quite well off and have a lot of vacation time, you just don't have the money and/or the freedom for frequent intercontinental travel.

Phone calls, Facebook, emails, texts, Skype and Facetime can all help bridge the international gap. Often, it helps quite a bit. Even a quick note or text can boost your entire day, or maybe a whole week. It might even be a gift that keeps on giving.

As an expat, missing out is a regular fact of life. It comes with the territory. Before you move, you're intellectually prepared for it.

You can't, however, prepare for precisely how or when it's going to hit you.

Two of our sets of really good friends -- Trish and Sam, and Jamie and Aaron -- each recently had a baby. All four were around when our son, Jackson, was born a couple of years ago (in a harrowing manner, but that's a story for another day). They endured watched us as we shifted life from childless to parents . . . and they stayed our friends. As great friends do, they let us bring our baby along to parties and weddings and pub trivia nights, with nary a complaint. Heck, they even invited the lil' guy.

But we couldn't be there for when Trish had baby William, and Jamie had baby Molly. Missed the growing baby bumps, missed the baby showers, missed the births, missed the first months (and counting) of William's and Molly's lives.

Around the same time we moved from North Carolina to Scotland, they moved from North Carolina to New York and Massachusetts. So even if we had remained in North Carolina, it's not as though we would've been able to see them frequently. As expats, however, we've missed everything.

This weekend Trish and Sam got to go visit Jamie and Aaron. Baby boy got to meet baby girl.

"Hey, girl! How you doin'?" (Alternate caption: "Hey, girl! Pull my finger.")
We're delighted for them. It's awesome they got to see each other.

We miss them, though.

Not jealous. Well, not jealous in a bad way.

Instead, it's the knowledge that we're missing moments like these. Our own moments with them. Our own visits. Our own shared experiences.

Is it impossible for us to fly back to the States to see them? No. As expats, however, returning to the States for a visit is challenging, and costly, and time-consuming. We need to pick and choose our trips carefully, but when we do so we wonder if we're choosing the wrong timing, picking the wrong events. If we pick this, then we miss that. And how do you take a trip to see scattered friends in various states, and also spend time with family far-flung across the continent? We know we can't do it all, see everyone.

This isn't a dilemma unique to being an expat, obviously. As you read this, no matter where you live, you likely have friends and family who live far away. You can't see them all the time. You miss them.

But I think being new expats heightens our feeling of missing out on certain things. It's not just about physical distance. It's that we live in a different country with a different culture, which comes with at least a sprinkle of emotional dislocation. Then on top of the dislocation come the reminders, sometimes the jolts, that we're also going to miss events at home. Important events. And the littler events, the conversations, the shared meals, the communal sports viewing, which often loom larger in your memory.

We missed our friends this weekend. Powerfully.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Arthur's Seat

This past Monday, I loaded Jackson into the car and we headed off to Edinburgh to hike up a volcano. Did you know there's a 350 million year old dormant volcano in the center of Edinburgh? Much of it was ground down by passing glaciers, leaving a few hills jutting up from the urban streets. The peak of the tallest hill, at 822 feet, is "Arthur's Seat."

Arthur's Seat is the peak on the left. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
It's a nice hike. Not a great one. The main draw is not so much the scrubby and grassy vegetation, but rather the views the hills provide of the city and the Firth of Forth. That said, birdwatchers are drawn to the waterfowl nesting around several small lochs in the hills. Geologists enjoy the Salisbury Crags, a line of basalt and dolerite cliffs. James Hutton, the 18th century "father of modern geology," was captivated by the differing igneous and sedimentary layers of stone, which helped spur his ideas about the long processes of rock formation and deep time. Dog walkers are specifically "welcome" to bring their "well behaved" dogs.

Most hikers start from trails beginning near a parking lot adjacent to Holyrood Palace. The main trail leading to Arthur's Seat starts gently. Very soon you come upon the remnants of a 15th century chapel.

The back of Holyrood Palace, which serves as the Queen's official residence in Scotland.
In a valley looking up at Arthur's Seat.
St. Anthony's Chapel may have been under the control of the Abbey of Holyrood (just a few hundred yards away), but more likely was controlled by the more distant, but also more powerful, Kelso Abbey.
The chapel's tower once rose to 39 feet. Only fragments of the north and west walls remain.
The trail then curves up along a ridge line, slightly steeper than before but still not too taxing. The gravel path has eroded slightly but the footing is easy, with stairs to make the ascent even simpler.  Many other trails crisscross the main trail; you can detour or ramble as you please and never be lost. The hills and lochs make up a 650 acre royal park -- Holyrood Park -- first created in 1541. While it once was a game refuge for the king, it is now very well used by the public. Even on a midwinter Monday, there were hundreds of other hikers ambling over the hills. This is not a hike you take for quiet and seclusion.

At this point, Jackson wanted to get out of his backpack and hike. Of course, that slowed our progress considerably. But he's a willing 2.5 year old climber, and I reminded myself that one of the reasons for taking him along on hikes is so he learns to enjoy hiking, not just riding. So we meandered, stomped, jumped, giggled, and sidestepped up the ridge.

Jackson proudly hiked up this section, following the curve to the left beyond the frame of this picture. Good effort from a toddler.
Arthur's Seat doesn't look especially steep until you get up close. I took this photo from the opposite side of the ridge from the main trail, as part of our preliminary explorations.
Looking back down the trail, about 2/3 of the way from the top. The northern half of Edinburgh stretches all the way to the Firth of Forth.
At this point, Jackson decided he did not want to complete our hike. Although he emphatically answered "NO!" to my questions asking him whether he was hungry, or thirsty, or cold, or tired of the wind blowing in his face, I think a combination of all those factors upset him. He of course refused any of my offers to help, and broke into tears. After a little while he calmed down, and we headed up. But every few minutes he would again start snuffling or crying, and we would pause as I tried to mollify him.

Of course, it's the last bit of the hike that rises steeply, with somewhat uneven footing. Most folks can probably reach the summit of Arthur's Seat within 30 to 45 minutes. It took us more than an hour, given our slow progress from Jackson's hike up the hill and then his bouts of tears. But we eventually made our way to the top and gazed out on the city below.

The view during one of our mollifying stops. Edinburgh Castle rises on the left in the middleground atop the other hill that juts sharply above the city.
The summit of Arthur's Seat.
Jackson calmed down at the summit, providing a minute of peace to let me snap a few pictures.
View of Edinburgh from the summit of Arthur's Seat.
If you want a shorter, but somewhat steeper, hike to the peak, you can follow the road around Holyrood Park and start your ascent from a parking lot on the eastern side. I've read that you can reach the summit in 20 minutes or so, but you'll have to put forth some exertion.

View down the shorter hike from little Dunsapie Loch.
Why is it called "Arthur's Seat"? The popular mythology claims the hills are a possible location of Camelot. But there are several other places in Great Britain with a same or similar name (though none are especially convincing). And while there are traces of some early forts, there's no sign of a castle or anything like a significant settlement. Others theorize the name "Arthur's Seat" is a bastardization of Scottish Gaelic phrases, but there's no real evidence for those claims, either. Simply put, no one knows the origin of the name.

Given my druthers, I would've descended from the peak on different trails than we ascended. Robert Louis Stevenson described Arthur's Seat as "a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design," and I would have liked to explore more. But the wee one's demands of a quick exit dashed those hopes. Fortunately, I'm sure we'll have opportunities later this year to make another foray, probably with dog and picnic in hand.