Monday, August 31, 2009

Newtonmore Part 3

When Travel Buddy and I were at the Macpherson museum, the Macpherson there asked us what our plans were while we in Newtonmore. We said we had been planning to hike, but probably wouldn't because of the rain. "Rain?" he said. "In Scotland? No!" And we all had a friendly little chuckle. Because it rained on and off the entire time we were in the Cairngorms.

Since we couldn't hike, we decided to explore a couple of nearby towns. We had heard Kingussie (pronounced Kin-GUSSIE, or if you're Scottish, Kin-GOOSIE) had some nice shops, and it wasn't very far by train. Kingussie is much larger than Newtonmore, but I wouldn't say it is a grand metropolis. We went into about four stores (including the grocery store, I believe, because of our aforementioned obsession with the availability of food), and after that it became clear that there was actually very little to do in Kingussie.

Also it was raining. Here's a picture of the obligatory war memorial in the rain. Have I mentioned yet that every town, village, and hamlet on the entire island has one of these? It's enough to make you a pacifist if you weren't one already.

The town of Aviemore (Avvy-MORE) is one stop further up the line from Kingussie, so we hopped on the train again. Aviemore seems somehow more closely surrounded by mountains, and is more tourist-friendly than Kingussie and Newtonmore. And it has a nice train station.

In Aviemore we caught a bus (on our second attempt) to Cairn Gorm to take the funicular up the mountain for which the entire range is named.

Fun fact about the Cairngorms: cairngorms means "blue hills," but the Gaelic name, Am Monadh Ruadh, means "red hills." This is apparently a matter of some controversy. The day I was there, they were decidedly brown, so I can't weigh in.

I don't ski so I can't be sure, but that horrible ugly thing in the landscape looks like a ski lift line to me. I must say I was slightly taken aback that after being repeatedly lectured on the ecological importance of this mountain and how no one was allowed to walk on it, touch it, breathe on it, or blink at it, they cheerfully informed us that it's open for skiing in the winter. Hmph! I guess they have to make money somehow, but the wires and fencing aren't doing the already gloomy landscape any favors. Next to outer Mongolia I imagine this is one of the most depressing places on earth. (And yes, I absolutely want to see outer Mongolia someday! It's right under Iceland on my list of miserable places to visit.)

The base of the funicular railway. Right above the building you can see the tracks going up and over to the other side of the mountain.

Cairn Gorm has the seventh-highest peak in Great Britain and a sub-arctic climate. The trees grow along the ground like vines and play dead for most of the year. There is a nice display right when you walk in telling you how many people die on the mountain every year (an average of fourteen, I think) due to unpredictable blizzards, yeti, and, I can only assume, depression. This is what we saw at the viewing station:

And then it brightened up infinitesimally and we saw this:

The viewing station is not at the top of the mountain, which is a good thing because I think if we'd been any higher, we wouldn't have been able to see anything but clouds.

To be fair, these pictures do not convey how grand and dramatic the view really was. It was kind of like being in the Earth Science edition of the Total Perspective Vortex.

It was very cold and windy at the top, so when we got back to the hostel we made a fire and played board games. And if you think I'm not going to do an entire post on the board games we played, you are terribly mistaken.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

This is what happens when you miss your dog.

You buy puppy-shaped creamers on the spur of the moment. The camel of course has nothing to do with it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Horrible Thing Happened at Grandmother's House

It started out as a typical day with a six course breakfast in the kitchen. Some of the paint was peeling off of our fruit but it is after all about forty years old. We often have corn and turkey for breakfast, as well. As you will see, we are an unusual family.

After breakfast we sat in the living room listening to the wireless for a bit. It is a family tradition not to bend our legs at the knees; we feel that would be a sign of weakness.

Then it was time for our morning bath. We are very modest and bathe fully clothed. This allows us to have three bathtubs in use at once. We never have to fight over who gets to go first.

Once we're done with our morning routine it is nearly always time for an afternoon nap. Cousin Freddy unfortunately has to sleep in a chair because although we could afford to have an entire schoolroom transported into the bedroom, we can't afford to buy him a bed.

After our nap is when It Happened. We thought it was time for a snack and we had just wandered into the kitchen when what to our wondering eyes should appear but THIS:

The hippo had dragged something UNSPEAKABLE into the house!

We never recovered from the shock and we all had to move to Canada under assumed names before the police came and arrested us for illegal ownership of a hippo. The end.

Monday, August 10, 2009


I have never liked karaoke and I have a long list of things I would rather do than sing it-- hike 20 miles in a relentless northern California rain storm, clean a 1/4 inch of black mold out of a window sill, poke hot needles under my fingernails, watch professional wrestling, drink MilkPop... I'm telling you, it's a long list and it's pretty comprehensive.

But moving makes you vulnerable and sometimes all it takes is a hint of nostalgia to change your mind. Cali people sent me this picture on Saturday night and I think I could make a karaoke exception for "Since U Been Gone".
I like Kelly Clarkson so much, I will reorder the list-- she can go right above "drinking MilkPop on a hot summer day"... but I would still rather clean mold out of the window sills.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Newtonmore Part 2

Scotland was the only place it rained, which foiled our plans for hiking in the highlands. Travel Buddy's shoes were barely dry from our last foray into the countryside, so we dedicated our first day to museums instead.

In the morning we tackled the Clan Macpherson Museum. First things first: we later discovered that the outside of the building was used in one episode of Monarch of the Glen. This was quite exciting, as we had picked the area because it was Monarch country, so we knew it would be pretty. Lots of the buildings looked like they came right out of the show, because practically every structure in the region was built with the same kind of gray stone.

I had thought Monarch of the Glen depicted the life of a country laird in a way that was, well, highly fictional. And I'm sure that's the case. But the entire feel of the Clan Macpherson Museum was quite reminiscent of the fierce clan pride, obsession with history, peculiar mythology, general lack of funds, and overall self-conscious Scottishness that comes up quite often in the show. When we walked into the museum, we were stopped by a Macpherson and asked, "Are you Macphersons?" No, we were not. "Well, you're welcome anyway," said the Macpherson half-heartedly. Then he had us watched a video on the history of the Macphersons and the museum, in which the current chief of the clan walked around in glens wearing a kilt and looking outrageously aristocratic. It was all quite surreal.

The weather cleared in the afternoon, so we walked a mile or two in the other direction to see the Highland Folk Museum, an open-air museum made up of re-located buildings from various historical periods. A couple of buildings from the turn of the century looked like they'd been banged together out of corrugated metal, and it turned out that was more or less true. Apparently, back in the day, you could order a prefabricated building from a catalogue and BAM: schoolhouse! or BAM: church! They are not pretty, but they're pretty cool.

They had a lot of small shops, the most pleasant of which was the tailor's.

The clockmaker's was a bit dim and dusty.

The schoolhouse seemed quite cheerful until it occured to me that this pronunciation guide was actually a symbol of linguistic oppression.

Most of the children (if I recall correctly) would have spoken Gaelic at home, but were discouraged from using it once they got to school. Fortunately it didn't totally work; north of a certain point it seems like all the English signs have Gaelic translations (which you could damage your vocal chords trying to pronounce, but that's another post).

Then there's a stretch with no buildings, where you walk down The Most Scottish Road Ever, seen here in all its mossy, fir-treed glory.

And then you pass the curling pond and the curling hut, which contains curling stones, all kinds of tools for dealing with ice, a quantity of tweed outerwear, and the all-important supply of whisky.

Then, at the very end, the best part. Oh yes, that's right: thatched-roof hovels!

Alarmingly, these are not replicas of Iron Age homesteads. This is how highlanders lived in the 1700s.

I took a lot of pictures of them.

All of them, but especially that one, make me think of Snufkin from the Moomintroll books.

It must be the hat.

The other end of the museum has the more modern stuff, dating to the forties and fifties, which was less exciting because nothing was thatched. However, I had just read 84, Charing Cross Road, in which the American author sends her friends in England all kinds of rationed food during World War II, so I was somewhat bemused to see the package of eggs in the post office. There is some discussion in the book as to the merits of powdered eggs versus fresh eggs, and I am happy to say that that brown parcel did nothing to enlighten me as to the nature of powdered eggs, which I can only imagine to be revolting.

This was also the farming portion of the museum, where we saw all kinds of unidentifiable equipment. I leave you with this image of feline bliss. I have no earthly idea what it's sleeping on.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Moment You've Been Waiting For!

Or at least the moment Katie P. has been waiting for:
MilkPop! And no, it does not taste like a birthday party for a polar bear! It tastes like 26 grams of cane sugar in an 8oz "vibrancy drink"!
Wandering through Manhattan in the heat of the day, I took my parched self to a convenience store and low and behold, the MilkPop was in the drinks case. I purchased three of the four flavors (much to the bafflement of the clerk-- apparently not many people understand the desire to drink MilkPop) and cracked open the Citrus Burst. Never Again. We had some favorable reviews of the Colada. Michelle drank it and the ensuing sugar high was worth the price of admission... eventually someone will have the courage to try the Berry... perhaps if I leave it in the fridge long enough one of my roommates will drink it... better odds that the cemetery dead will come to life and have a sip...

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Newtonmore, Scotland: Part 1

I have nothing to blog about so am forced to resume posting vacation pictures. After Windermere we went to Newtonmore. Newtonmore is smack in the middle of Scotland in a mountain range called the Cairngorms. The Cairngorms cover 5% of Scotland, but less than 1% of the population lives in the region. I forget where I heard that. I hope it's right. It is the farthest north I have ever been in Scotland. We passed the previous record-holder, Stirling, on the train ride up. Stirling is the "gateway to the highlands." North of it, the landscape gets very . . . glacial. It's like stepping back a couple billion years. There's simply nothing there but brown, rocky, treeless land formations, some so big you couldn't see the top from the train window. I'm told they're teeming with life, but you wouldn't know to look at them.

The Cairngorms

Here's what's in Newtonmore: one street worth speaking of, one tourist shop, more rabbit warrens than you will ever see in one place again, a war memorial (all towns with more than three residents have one), two or three cafes with eccentric opening hours, a used books shop, and a very small grocery store.

Main Street, Newtonmore
The Strathspey Mountain Hostel is where we stayed.

But let's back up and talk about the grocery store. In every other place we stayed (national capitols aside), grocery stores opened at seven if you were lucky, and closed at five or six. But this store, in a one-street town in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Scotland, opened at SIX IN THE MORNING and stayed open until TEN AT NIGHT. We were so happy, so delighted, so tickled, that we immediately bought everything they had. When you've spent a week never entirely knowing where your next meal is coming from, and being unable to rely on grocery stores opening at normal hours, you start to get greedy. Scones? Check. Crumpets? Check. Jam and butter? Check. Scottish cheddar? Check. Nairn's Oatcakes? Check. Milk, orange juice? Check. Fruit 'n' Fibre? OH YES, CHECK. Best cereal I have ever had that didn't involve chocolate. I took a picture, that's how good it is. Don't worry, I'm not going to make you look at it.

The reason we could buy all this food was that our hostel was basically a house with a lot of bunkbeds in it. It had a full kitchen, a fireplace, and lo! a television. And aside from one hiking guide who was rarely in, we had it to ourselves.

Behold the kitchen!

Behold the living room, by which I really mean, behold the magical moving picture machine!
Unfortunately all we ever saw on the tv were soap operas and reality shows. The man and woman shown here were about to get married when the woman's mysterious chronic/fatal disease, which had no symptoms other than making her faint moments before her wedding, caused her untimely but dramatic expiration shortly thereafter. It was one of the stupidest things I have ever seen. And the other soaps were actually worse.

Behold, while you're at it, Travel Buddy's amazing sheep slippers.
It was wise of her not to mail these home until we left Newtonmore, because it was extremely cold. We thought it was unnecessary when the hostel owner showed us how to make a coal fire in the fireplace, but we ended up having a fire every night. Otherwise we would have died of exposure indoors, which would have been embarrassing and inconvenient.

I haven't actually covered anything we did yet, but this seems long so I'll stop here. Well, no, I will stop after I warn you against the evils of Irn Bru (which is "iron brew" spelled in a more manly way, I guess). Irn Bru is a Scottish soft drink. It is orange. It is everywhere.

It is utterly disgusting. It tastes like carbonated bubblegum with a twist of licorice. It gives me the same feeling that drinking orange-flavored Triaminic used to give me, which is a desperate desire to scrape all the taste buds off my tongue and then drink a gallon of water. Maybe you do have to be extra manly to be able to stand this stuff. I'm not sure whether my opinion of the Scottish people is raised or lowered by the fact that they can drink large quantities of it without puking.

P.S. A picture of Fruit 'n' Fibre, for those of you, like Ivan, who are deeply interested in cereal.
I didn't say it was a very good picture. This picture makes it look like Raisin Brain. But it is so much more than that, my friends. So much more.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


Some things that are making me fall in love with Brooklyn:

-My teeny tiny view of the Statue of Liberty
-the street I took to the movie theater had WORKING GAS LAMPS
-you can WALK to the movie theater
-The threat of MilkPop is only in Manhattan

Monday, August 03, 2009

Move Over, Cadfael

Reading two separate things I've been working on lately, I noticed there is some overlap of subject areas that would suggest that I have an unusual combination of preoccupations:

the drinking of tea
stonemasonry (professional and amateur)
Latin names for plants and animals

This would also appear to suggest that I am writing a series of medieval murder mysteries, focusing on the attempts by an herbalist to discover whether the abbey's handyman died naturally or whether someone put POISON in his BREAKFAST. Gasp! I wonder what happens! Unfortunately we will never find out, because this is not the book I am writing. However, it does sound like the plot of an Ellis Peters novel, so there's hope that this will be resolved for us in one of Brother Cadfael's many adventures. Meanwhile, I must return to my apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, to which for some reason fourteenth-century concerns seem to be integral.