Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Anguish, annoyance and absence

Or - reasons why I haven't been blogging.  Let's take them reverse order.  

Absence:  it's been a busy summer.  Busy at work, busy with family comings and goings, and I've had no inclination to be in front of a computer screen.  Another screen did claim my attention during July, as the annual Tour de France is essential viewing for me.  The photo above shows a patriotic breakfast from a Tour de France day, complete with home-grown blueberries and alpine strawberries.

Before touring France mentally by bicycle, my husband and I toured the Tarn valley in south west France much, much more slowly on foot.  Each day's walking started with steep ascents through chestnut and oak forests, up out of the valley floor and onto the high plateau.   Here I am below, complete with blindingly white Scottish legs and fetching hat.  The heat was pretty crushing for us Scots - mid 90s.  We were only walking about 10 miles a day, but it was enough in the heat. 

Our starting point was the beautiful city of Albi, with its cathedral of rose-coloured brick. 

We certainly saw a lot of fields of barley, with many more wild flowers along the edges than would be the case in Scotland.  Butterflies and bees were also much more in evidence, as were rather large snakes, which I could have done without.

At the end of each day, with our luggage transported in advance, we could look forward to cool drinks and regional cuisine in small family hotels.  If you are ever in this area, do stay at the Hostellerie des Lauriers in Villeneuve-sur-Tarn - mouthwatering sample below.

We visited medieval villages en route - another rare glimpse of me, below, at Brousse le Chateau.   I seem to be rather podgy round the middle in this photo.  Must be all the gourmet meals. 

More of Brousse le Chateau, with gathering thundercloud.

No summer is complete for us without a visit to Speyside, this time including whisky tasting at the Macallan distillery.

What about the annoyance?  Well, I started fiddling around with my blog template one night, and before I knew it the whole thing had transformed itself with no apparent way of going back to the previous template.  I was so annoyed with it that I signed up to Wordpress, but have had no time to set about the laborious-for-me business of creating a new template.  So absence and annoyance together combined to keep me away from blogging.

And finally anguish. With the Scottish independence referendum looming next week I am finding it impossible to think any sort of creative, positive thoughts, as I face the possibility that the UK may be split apart and I may have my identity as a British citizen taken away from me.  I find this deeply depressing and unsettling. For myself, but most of all for future generations.  Whether I have the heart to return to blogging if there is such a profound upheaval in my life isn't clear to me at the moment.  

Edited to add this link, which shows why my anguish is well founded:

Negotiations after a Scottish referendum yes vote.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Cycling to Syria

In aid of Unicef's Children of Syria Emergency Appeal, a group of cyclists is cycling the 3,284.5 miles from Edinburgh to Syria at the east end of Princes Street over two days.  I encountered them cheerfully setting up yesterday morning on my way to work.  By the time I passed then again on the homeward journey after 6pm they were into the grimly determined phase.  From the map below they seemed to be on the German border, judging by the white dot.

Their fundraising page is here, if you're moved to donate.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Amazing Antwerp

Cathedral of Our Lady

After being bagpiped in Brussels, we did a quick hop by train to Antwerp.    Because this was my daughter's first visit to Antwerp I was determined that I wasn't going to be the annoying mother-with-camera and intrude on our precious time together by photo-bagging.  So although  Antwerp is worthy of a photo at every step, I only have a few glimpses to show you.


We stayed in a self-catering apartment overlooking Vrijdagmarkt, or 'Friday market'.  Unfortunately we weren't there on a Friday, so missed the market, but the square was a microcosm of Antwerp life.  A mix of cafes, residential apartments and one of Antwerp's major museums, daily life went on under our windows.  Most striking of all, life cycled by under our windows - the square was criss-crossed by cyclists at all times of day.  Early morning workers, the husband on the baguette run for breakfast, children being taken to nursery on the back of bikes, business people with laptop cases strapped on the carrier, students pedaling dreamily towards lectures.

Plantin-Moretus Museum
The museum, Plantin-Moretus, is on the right in the shot above.  If you've heard of the Plantin typeface, it was named after the original printer Cristoffel Plantijn, whose home this was.  The printing presses are still there, set up ready to print 440 years later, together with some of the earliest printed books, ancient manuscripts, paintings by Rubens, and all the furnishings of daily 16th century life.  To make up for my lack of photos you can catch a glimpse in this video - although the ferociously elegant 'visitor' skips past the most fascinating manuscripts! 

Downstairs cafe

Below, one of my few words of Dutch, but an important one: 'winkels' means 'shops'.  This is Antwerp Central Station - a cathedral of rail travel from the turn of the last century at ground level, with two futuristic underground levels dating from 2007.

Antwerp station

More transport - a typical Belgian bike.

Typical Belgian bike

If you're lucky enough to visit Antwerp, do consider staying at Aplace apartments.  Decorated in quirky vintage style complete with vinyl records and a ferocious coffee machine which we failed to master despite looking up a tutorial on daughter's phone, our apartment was an absolute delight.  (Edited to say that the coffee machine failure was all ours - we are not a coffee machine family at all.  Our most technical piece of coffee apparatus is like the yellow 'Koffie-Automaat' in the shot below.)

Aplace living room

Aplace kitchen

Aplace dining area and view to square



More my style
I wanted to stay.  For a long time I've thought that if I wasn't British I'd like to be Norwegian or Canadian, but now I have to add Belgian to the list, or more particularly Antwerpish.  I think Dutch is going to have to be one of this autumn's evening classes.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Bagpipes in Brussels

At the end of March my daughter and I hopped on the Eurostar for a mother-daughter holiday in Belgium.  I have no Eurostar photos for you, because I was so entranced by the journey that I forgot to take any.  Travelling all the way to Brussels by train was magical.  Just a short hop across the road in London from King's Cross to St Pancras International, a quick passage through security, and then on to the train.  The route from London to the Channel Tunnel goes through Kent, and it was lovely to see this part of the UK. There's still so much more of my country that I want to explore.

We spent the first night in Brussels, just off the Grand Place/Grote Markt. The next day we were returning to our hotel after a quick trip to the English bookshop (daughter having exhausted her reading material on the journey from Edinburgh), when we realised that there was a procession forming.  At first it all seemed very Belgian, with unfamiliar ceremonial uniforms. 

And then suddenly - a pipe band.

Followed by what appeared to be 'anciens combattants' (veterans).

The whole procession congregated in the Grand Place itself. Competition for viewing spots was fierce.  I definitely need to polish up my pushing-to-the-front skills. 

The Belgian police band played, and then the pipe band formed a circle and played Scottish tunes, among them Highland Cathedral and The Bonny Lass of FyvieHearing the pipes far from home made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.  No-one around us in the crowd seemed to know what the event was.  I chatted in French to a lady beside me, who said that she wasn't from Brussels herself, but one thing was sure - there was always something going on in Brussels. Very true - just behind the massed flags a joyful same-sex marriage was emerging from the Town Hall.

I leave you with this puzzled piper - any guesses as to what he's thinking?  And if Anni from This is Belgium knows what the event was on 22 March, please tell us!

Friday, 25 April 2014

Sloe gin

or rather the blossom that will form the sloes that will be picked to make the gin.   In the village I come from on Speyside, and where my father still lives, there's a wonderful wild expanse of sloe trees.  My mother used to make sloe gin from the fruit.  If we can time our visit right this autumn I'm planning to make some.  It's not really a gin, more a liqueur made by pricking the sloes and macerating in gin along with a hefty addition of sugar - the sloes by themselves are mouth-shrivelling.

Whether or not I manage to harvest some sloes, it was balm to the city soul to walk among the blossom on Easter Sunday.


On Speyside of course you're never far from whisky, and our alcoholic-themed walk continued as we passed Glenrothes distillery.  A load of draff was coming off.  Draff is the spent barley, which the distillery has no more use for after it's been soaked in hot water to extract the sugary liquid that will be fermented, then distilled.  In the shot below you can see the spiral of hot mash falling into the trailer.  Traditionally it's been used as animal feed, but increasingly now it's going to a biomass plant in the village where it's mixed with woodchips to produce electricity.   More about this mixed environmental 'blessing' in another post sometime!

And then, sadly, we had to leave Speyside to come south, where we were met with a good dose of haar (sea fog).  There's a castle in there somewhere...

Monday, 21 April 2014


We're very fortunate in Scotland to have free personal care for the elderly.  In my father's case it allows  him to remain in his own home, when otherwise he would surely be in an institution because he is too frail to look after himself, although mentally as sharp as ever.

He has four visits a day: in the morning, to help him wash and dress, and to get breakfast; at lunchtime and tea time, to prepare his meals; and in the evening to help him to bed.  The carers also wash his clothes and bed linen.  Beyond the physical help, they keep his mental world alive in a very real way.  He knows all about their children and grandchildren, and they bring local news in to him to the extent that he is one of the best-informed people in the village. 

And as we found when we arrived on Thursday night for the Easter weekend, they pick him posies of spring flowers from his garden. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Chariots of Fire 10k

 You've seen the film's opening shot?  A couple of figures walking on a beach beside the steely North Sea, the ancient university city of St Andrews on the skyline. 

A line of runners appears in the distance, far up the stretch of sand.

 We had our own family re-enactment of Chariots of Fire today, at the 10k of the St Andrews Running Festival. Here are husband and daughter, 3rd and 4th from the right, on the second West Sands leg of the circuit. 

No baggy white shorts and singlets as in the film; instead high performance leggings, trainers and goodness knows what else.  Also hats - in my daughter's case, MY hat, purloined at the last minute because of extreme wind-chill. Nor was there any thought of splashing barefoot through the sea - a safe distance was kept.

Meanwhile the other half of the family tried to keep warm and failed, and as a distraction we took photos of anything that moved and much that didn't.  My son, below, trying to capture the swirling patterns of wind-blown sand. 

The dunes against a darkening sky.

The optimistic aim of runners trying to lob their water cups and gel sachets into a litter bin. 

The hazard, perhaps unique to this race, of children building a sandcastle in mid-route. 

And at the end, a remarkably un-puffed looking daughter, and just a glimpse of her dad trying to keep up with her.


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