You take the high road ...
3 June, Ayr, on the west coast of Scotland
A new adventure -- a week in the land of half my forebears (the other half were Hungarian). My mom was born in a small town on the Clude coast in Ayrshire and emigrated with my grandparents when we was almost four. My cousins and I have talked about this trip for a while and finally got organized. Four of us committed: Melanie (nickname Tooz) is a first cousin; Annie is her niece, her brother’s daughter; and Tomery (sometimes called T) is my niece, my sister’s daughter. Have never traveled with Tooz or Annie and not with T since she was a kid, so it will be an interesting week. Annie booked our rental car, and I booked the B&Bs. We all said we were flexible on sights to see other than wanting to visit Stevenston. I’m the only one of us who’s been there (I took Peter in 1987).
I flew from Warsaw to Amsterdam and met Tomery at the gate where we were to depart for Glasgow. She looked exhausted from her transatlantic flight and was. Annie and Tooz had arrived in early morning respectively from San Francisco via Newark, and St. Louis via Philadelphia. They picked up the rental car (a Peugeot mini-van with a decent sized trunk) and drove to the B&B in Ayr, then returned to meet us. No sooner were we outside the terminal than I got a text message from Annie describing their vehicle. Since the firebombing at the Glasgow Airport a few years ago, there is only one pick up/drop off place. We were dragged our suitcases and totes in that direction when we heard a “Hello, Americans,” and there they were. Annie’s doing well with the driving on the left side, but we added me to the rental contract so she didn’t have to do all the driving, and we took the insurance just in case. Off we went to begin our tour of Scotland and of Scottish roundabouts.
Aside: In lieu of crossroads and stop lights, a substantial majority of the intersections we traversed were joined by roundabouts. These are traffic circles, some large, some small, all with an abundance of signs that weren’t always easy to see or understand. But when you miss a turn, a roundabout makes getting back on track easier, especially in the countryside where making turns around the block and back to your road isn’t possible. And Annie got the knack of proper roundabout vehicle positioning pretty fast, resulting in few close calls with more experienced roundabout drivers.
The B&B in Ayr is lovely, well stocked with miniature toiletries, hair dryer and hair iron, electric kettle and coffee/tea fixings. Big glass shower; took a while to figure out the hot water but got plenty. Hurray. We are in the two rooms on the top floor -- T’s and mine looks across the neighboring rooftops to the Clyde a block or two away. The whole street of row houses seems to be B&Bs. Our only downside is the double bed, but T has assured me she sleeps like the dead, literally on her back with arms crossed on her chest. We should do okay since I sleep in only one position half the night and switch after my 3 am bathroom break. Neither of us should get kicked or socked in the night.
The B&B owner, who had previously given Tooz and Annie a breakfast place recommendation, walked by as we were going to dinner. At our request he suggested the two best places in town for dinner, gave us directions and off we went on foot. Safffie’s was all reserved for today and tomorrow (!), so we made a Tuesday reservation, then walked on and had dinner at The Treehouse. The half hour wait was filled with glasses of wine and lots of conversation. Food was good, but we were surprised that Annie’s lobster mac and cheese came with chips (french fries). Hmmm.
Annie,Tooz and T outside our Ayr B&B on arrival day
6 June, Edinburgh, Scotland
I’ve been very bad about keeping up my writing or even taking notes -- been having too much fun. Tomery does indeed sleep like the dead. She fell asleep on top of the bed so I covered her with the extra comforter, then snuggled under my side and slept soundly. The B&B offered an array of cooked breakfasts, all much larger meals than any of us usually have. The full Scottish breakfast was eggs as you choose, “bacon” or sausage, potato scone, grilled tomato half, saute’d mushrooms, toast. Plus juices, several fresh fruits, cereal selection, milk and yoghurt, tea and coffee. Phew! We all tried downsized versions of the Scottish breakfast, and a tasty French toast was also offered, tried and deemed delicious. I mostly stuck to cold cereal with fruit and yoghurt and toast. And of course coffee. Annie and I shared a steamy French press of marvelous coffee each morning (Tooz drinks tea, and T only juice).
Aside: I wrote “bacon” like that because UK bacon is definitely not the American bacon we’d’ve preferred. It’s more like what we call Canadian bacon. I love “real bacon” but as a result, rarely eat it because it’ll make me fatter. T, the personal trainer, said that’s not true; I can have it daily within a healthy diet. Hmmm. Food for thought.
Monday we went to Mom and Granny’s hometown, Stevenston. I was able to find New and Boglemart streets, where they had lived, and the old cemetery with so many familiar family names. We old folks had our photo taken under a unique-to-us sign, “Elderly People,” that had a silhouette of two bent-over figures with canes. Definitely an aging population in the town, eh? We bought organic wine at a cooperative which must be a national organization that offers broad services. We saw the same coop in many places and selling things as diverse as pharmacy and funeral services (different locations!).
Me and ‘the sign’ in Stevenston
After a potty-and-tea break at a neighborhood cafe with great cupcakes, we headed for Dundonald Castle. We’d seen signs and decided it would be our castle visit on this side of the country. It was a ruins high atop a hill but included a handsome Scot tour guide as well as good exercise on a sunny day. It also had a pit-style dungeon, and since, the guide said, American author Edgar Allen Poe was known to have visited the area, this may have been the inspiration for his “The Pit and the Pendulum” story. Afterwards we had lunch in Troon, then got to the Robert Burns Cottage and Museum in Alloway, near Ayr, before it closed.
Tuesday Annie suggested a Scotch whisky tasting, I suggested a picnic on the beach afterwards, so we thought we’d take the ferry to Arran Island where there’s a distillery, and lots of beaches. But alas, while we could get there, we could not return the same day, and we had our one commitment - the dinner reservation - that night. Off we went in search of food and a beach on the mainland. A nearby shopping area included a Marks & Spencer food store, which I knew would offer lots of single-serve prepared food. It was a much bigger version of the small M&S stores I had used in London in the past, but we all found some things for our lunches.
The beach was a perfect break, especially for the three still enduring jet lag. Tooz and Annie explored different parts of the seaside and beach; Tomery napped; and I read my Kindle and people watched. Several horses and riders trotted along the beach, lots of wading kids laughed as gentle waves pushed them shoreward, a small group of adults chatted as they tossed a Frisbie with two children. We watched three horses wade straight into the sea deep enough for the riders’ rear-ends to get wet. None of us had ever seen that before and could not figure out why the riders had done it. We dusted off the sand, labored up the steep sandy path and down the other side to our car, and continued our tour of roundabouts as we returned to the B&B. Saffie’s that night was as good as its billing, and included a photo op with the handsome waiter.
This morning it was my turn as driver. Before we left for Edinburgh, Tooz and I took Annie to a recommended “surgery” for meds for a urinary track infection that refused to go away. We went via a wrong address that looked familiar. Duh - we were in Alloway, across from Burns Cottage. We asked for help at a tiny convenience store complete with post office and friendly locals. We met a puppy being trained as a seeing eye dog and got postcards and stamps. We dropped Annie at the right address, then returned to the B&B await for her. T was awake and waiting for us. Annie said that her doctor visit, urine test and prescription were a pittance compared to what it would’ve cost her at home.
After loading the car trunk successfully (rear window was visible for driver), we went for coffee and the mandatory potty break and got a photo op too. Afterwards we learned that the handsome waiter grabbed Annie’s ass as we photo’d them! The predicted rains came, and we stopped at a social history museum in Glasgow recommended by Steve from the Poland board -- The People’s Palace also had an arboretum and outdoor gardens. By the time we finished, the rain was down to a very light drizzle, so we headed to the city center for lunch and shopping. Three of us bought shoes, including Annie’s ruby red slippers (actually very sparkly high heeled mary janes) and my neon pink Tom’s slip-ons. Tooz also got Tom’s, which means two pairs of shoes will be sent to Africa.
I’d promised the B&B we’d arrive between 5 and 6 pm, which we did. Nice to have rooms on the main floor since we are schlepping more than we arrived in Scotland with!
After all the riding, a long walk toward the city center found us in a shopping area with mostly closed shops but some eating spots. We had dinner at Zizzi’s, an Italian restaurant that must be a chain since I ate in one in London’s Notting Hill with my friend Ana years ago. Good food, some nice eye contact across the restaurant with a handsome Scot but the “youngsters” decided no photo op.
7 June, Edinburgh
Well, we surely had an adventure today, thanks to me. I will never live this own. We were taking the scenic route up the coast to St. Andrews with me at the wheel. Even on the highway, I had been “leaning left” too often, over compensating for driving on the opposite side of the roadway. On this narrow winding road with a bus coming quickly in my direction, I went a bit too far left, hit the curb, righted the car when we realized I’d blown out a front tyre (tire). (Later we were shown a bulge in the rear one on the same side.) Thankfully I found a wide driveway just ahead and pulled in next to what looked like a side-by-side duplex. A larger building with maybe four flats was at the back. I went to both and rang doorbells to no avail. So we were on our own as we set about fixing the tire. Unfortunately we had a sealer kit, not a spare, and for whatever reason, despite our following the instructions, it didn’t work. Annie eventually got through to Avis on her iPhone. The rep took our details and said they’d send a replacement car and someone to fix and return ours within a couple of hours.
We stood in the chill wind because we thought we might damage the tire rim if we sat in the car. Then a car pulled in and drove to the back of the duplex. I followed and found an older man taking groceries from his trunk. I told him what had happened and that we were just waiting for a tow. Later a second man arrived and let us into the front garden, which offered a place to sit out of the wind. He’d come to water his partner’s flowers and apologized for not having her keys to let us into the house! The other guy returned to offer us his bathroom and a cup of tea or coffee, and eventually we decided to sit in the car, rims be damned, and wait.
Finally a huge rescue truck arrived, complete with flat bed for carrying our car and handsome, older Scot for driving, humor and photo op. We were going to be transported, not get a new car. The cab of the truck had a long bench seat that would hold all of us. The driver removed his tool box to facilitate our climbing into the high rig while he winched our car. Then off we went, only to hear a loud ‘clunk’ about two minutes into our drive. The driver had set his took box on a flat bumper, and it had fallen onto the road. Amazingly when he retrieved it, it had not opened.
With two new tires, a few signatures on forms, photo of me and our handsome rescuer, and an agreement that we’d find lunch next, off we went in search of Frankie & Benny’s, a supposedly New York-style restaurant and a chain that we had seen everywhere and decided to try. If ever there was a day for comfort foot, this was it. The ambiance was decidedly un-New York other than the ‘60s steak-house music, the food was disappointing, the service was worse. The waiter was gorgeous but not a native Scot (Argentinian I think). But we’d filled our tummies. With a few more tours of roundabouts, we finally arrived back at our B&B. Although the night before we’d made reservations at Ryan’s Pub for dinner and live music, none of us was up to it. We were in for the night. It’s exhausting doing nothing, and I was miserable over having ruined our trip to St. Andrews but glad we’d taken the extra insurance. I appreciate the reassurances that the day was an adventure and not a ruin. And having all three men at the scene tell us that multiple accidents had occurred on that stretch helped too. Now Tomery is hungry, so I ordered a takeaway pizza on line from a local place. Must get to the door and wait for delivery.
8 June, Edinburgh
My legs are shot, my back is killing me and I’m booped -- all indicators of what a fantastic day we had, despite ugly skies and occasional rain. We walked toward Edinburgh Castle, and at the commercial area where we’d been previously, we were puzzling over how to navigate a maze of construction fences when a handsome city worker asked if we needed help. When we said we were going to the castle, he said he was en route to a pub near there and would lead us, which he did at a brisk pace, complete with historic commentary. No photo op as he seemed in a hurry when he left us at a wooded park path that led to the castle.
Two Leos at Edinburgh Castle
Two Leos at Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle looms above the city, is largely in tact and exemplifies the ‘castle as town.’ Lots of picture taking, a tea-and-potty break, some souvenir shopping inside the castle walls and outside too. Then down the other side of the hill in search of Fishers. Since that’s the family name, we had pre-determined we’d lunch there. Didn’t hurt that food reviews were also excellent -- and well deserved. Then more wandering and shopping -- we kept finding dresses to go with Annie’s ruby red slippers, dresses she didn’t buy but occasionally did model for us. A trek back up the hill for more souvenir shopping, down the other side and back through the construction maze to our familiar local commercial district where I gave up on walking and hailed a cab.
Annie, T and Tooz at Fishers for lunch
We ordered takeaway Chinese -- way too much so-so food and no utensils or condiments, drank some of the wine we’d bought in Stevenston and played a new card game. Tomery and Annie both knew “Asshole,” a college drinking card game, and taught Tooz and me. The winner gets to be “president” and the loser, “asshole,” and I won and Tooz lost the first game. I need to find a new name for the game as it’s fun and while Tosia in Krakow would enjoy the game, my friends/her parents would not appreciate the name. We kept playing ‘one more game,’ but finally Tooz and I gave out. T and Annie are still sitting on the floor with the last of the wine, and I’m ready to pull the comforter over my head and go to sleep to the sound of their laughter.
9 June, Glasgow, Scotland
Where has the time gone? One day left. T and Annie had decided to sleep in, but Tooz and I were up early a usual for tea, coffee, silence and reading, but the host never seemed to get it today or ever. He must have asked us three times if our friends were coming to breakfast though we told him “no” the first time. We had decided to leave early and re-try our aborted trip to St. Andrews before going on to the airport area hotel. We all agreed we’d move to St. Andrews if we could; it’s beautiful. We shopped for gifts for the golfers in our lives. The drive cross country to Glasgow was through a lushly green countryside and hills. Mountains in the distance. Not many houses, an occasional village. With Annie behind the wheel, we made the trip from Edinburgh to St. Andrews to our hotel near Glasgow airport without major incident, just the occasional tour of roundabouts.
Glasgow Airport is not easy to locate, even with a Google map and directions on my Mac. Given that and my accident, after we checked into the hotel, Annie and I drove to the airport (almost going via the wrong way and through the Clyde Tunnel) to return the rental car. Thank God we did. The poor Avis rep was having a hard time with a new computer system complicated by the fact that Annie had rented through Budget but all the documents and contacts were Avis. The Avis rep shared her last two Gummie Bears with us, so when we finally completed everything, she found an airport shop and got her a new bag, which made her smile. We were socked with a 100 pound deductible but at least not the full cost of the tires etc. I offered to pay that but Annie refused.
Annie and I took a cab back to the hotel with our final handsome Scot at the wheel. I told him about our photo op, and he readily agreed to a photo with Annie.
Annie and our final handsome Scot
12 June, Warsaw, Poland
Returned Sunday and had dinner with Peace Corps friend Kim, who is here having physical therapy. He broke his leg in a bad fall a few weeks ago. Great to catch up with him over gyros and hummus at a nearby Turkish cafe. Then the deluge came, so we shared a cab. Back here at my old flat (Marta’s at her mom’s - Hala’s - in Sandomierz this week), I did two loads of laundry, so I’d have something clean to wear this week.
Monday I called a few friends, ironed, bought some groceries and walked a lot. The weather was iffy in the morning but got warm in the afternoon. Today has been lovely all day. Iza, a friend from Krakow who’s here this week, will come over later and we’ll have dinner. Maybe I’ll cook, now there’s a change.
15 June, Dworzec Zachodni, Warsaw
Sitting at the main bus station waiting for my bus to Sandomierz. Yes, I cooked dinner for Iza and myself -- pasta with garlicky pesto, a huge “garbage” salad (old friend Dean’s description of my salads that include every fresh veggie in the flat) and fresh strawberries. It was great to catch up with Iza. Her job with the micro-finance investment firm seems to be going well. So she’s taken a small flat in Warsaw and is essentially living here.
Since it’s raining in the village, Marta and the cats returned early. We had lunch yesterday after s long drive to Marta’s old roommate Piotr’s new flat in one of the exurbs; she had promised to water his avocado tree while he’s working in Germany. Beautiful area and flat but waaaaay too far out for me. Lunch was at a little hole-in-the-wall in the center of Warsaw, The Lunch Box, where Marta and her colleagues often lunch. I had the best cheeseburger and fries as well as a bowl of cold cucumber/yoghurt soup. Need to get that recipe! Not sure what was in the burger besides beef, but it was delicious.
Now I’m returning to Sandomierz for the weekend and hoping it won’t still be raining!
18 June, Sandomierz
Busy weekend. On Saturday I went on a wycieczka (excursion) with some of the Center and hotel staffs to a small village organized for agro-tourism, The excursion was part of the activities supported by the Center’s social fund, one of the carry-overs from the ‘old days’ when such funds sent kids to summer camp, workers to health spas as well as covering the costs of excursions. The Center uses part of the funds for a big Christmas party for staff children, regardless of their ages since some are at university or beyond (eg, Marta) now. All those children that I took to see animated films and who had their faces painted at the strawberry festival when I worked here are grown up although a few new ones have come along as the staff has grown in size.
It was refreshing to be outdoors much of the day, despite the heat. Our host and his son greeted us with cherry liqueur, fresh bread and smalec (a spread made from lard), and various cakes. We toured his site on foot -- a large wooden house with a dining hall and permanent band (human sized cardboard people dressed and with instruments), petting zoo of farm animals, small pond with gazebo and various other places to sit and relax. We took a trip around the village in wooden wagons pulled by a “horse” (wooden cutouts on either side of a Rav 4), walked in the forest, ate traditional village food (grilled meats) for lunch. We visited two local potters where the children made some small pots. These men are among the few potters who continue to use the traditional methods, so every piece is hand made from start to finish.
Yesterday I went to a skansen near Kielce with Halinka from the Center and her friend Irena who owns a souvenir shop that specializes in Polish-made crafts. A skansen is an outdoor ethnographic museum that is a collection of houses and other buildings from the past. This one is assembling a town square of a small town as well as a mountain village. The curators gather old buildings, have them disassembled and moved, then reassembled in the skansen. They are decorated with period furniture and artifacts. Thirty years ago when Halinka was still an ethnographer she decorated one of the houses we saw.
The skansen was the site of a celebratory event to announce the winners of a regional competition to identify the best regional products -- food, beverage, souvenirs, baskets, toys etc. -- and opportunity for vendors to show and sell their wares. We noshed our way through a buffet at the private reception in an old granary, and wandered the booths the dotted the park. We all bought a few things and took photos. Halinka wanted some because promoting authentic regional foods will be part of the Swiss-supported agro-tourism program the Center is implementing.
I returned exhausted and full but enough room for a snack of cucumbers and tomatoes fresh from the vines of Hala’s neighbor’s garden. My mouth was in taste heaven.
Today I did what little ironing we had, sweating profusely the whole time. At 9 am it was already 80F (27C). The contractor’s team arrived very early and is starting work on Hala’s old building that she’s turning into a couple of small apartments that could eventually be used for tourists. Scaffolds are up, the roof is down and the men are off to a tea break; it’s 10 am.
30 June, Minneapolis MN USA
Back home but getting ready to leave again.
After my weekend at the farm in Sandomierz, I returned to Warsaw and stayed with Dorota and her family. She was my first Polish teacher during Peace Corps training almost 21 years ago, and her business partner Malgoscia was my second. Their school that trains foreigners to speak Polish is 18 years old. Hardly seems possible. I edit English language copy for them, like their Facebook pages. We brainstormed some marketing ideas while I was there.
Have been taking it easy in some ways since I got back -- seeing friends but not running around like a maniac trying to see everyone. I decided to give myself time to relax and to get back into the swing of exercise. I’ve been back to my morning water exercise class ... and my aching muscles are screaming that I needed to be less aggressive on that. And I walk around the lake with friends regularly. Oh, and of course, I’m checking out my favorite restaurants and a few new ones too.
Next weekend I fly to DC and on 9th fly out for South Sudan for two weeks.