Our lost together locations

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Impressionists and impressions

I know that many of you are just gutted that you cannot be here with us in Paris as we wander through the endless museums on offer.

So, always mindful of my audience, I thought I would take this opportunity to give you a vicarious taste of today's visits to the Orangerie and Musee d'Orsay. As you know, these museums are where some of the best Impressionist works can be found.

The Orangerie mainly exists to house the massive Water Lilies paintings by Monet. In two oval rooms, you are surrounded first by water lilies in the morning, then water lilies in the evening, enhanced by daylight from skylights far overhead, filtered through vellum canopies. I don't remember whether this setup existed when I was there last; certainly I don't remember the music that they pipe in to accompany your viewing experience:

Because we were there so early, there were hardly any people. When I was there last, there were so many people crowding the rooms that I could hardly see -- let alone appreciate -- the paintings.

(Note: there doesn't seem to be any "off-season" for tourists in Paris. No matter where we go, there are tourists jamming everything -- especially at the Louvre, Notre Dame, and, no surprise, the Eiffel Tower. This is exacerbated by the fact that it appears to be mid-term break in many schools, and Paris seems to be the place to drag the kiddies if you're a European parent.)

We spent a good long time in the Musee d'Orsay, but we haven't downloaded the photos from the good camera yet, and besides, you've probably seen most of the notable works that are there if you've taken any kind of art history classes in school. What you probably haven't seen are these shadow-puppets from the "Black Cat Cabaret" that was started at the turn of the century by a group of artists and writers who liked to create improv puppet-shows with topical subject matter -- kind of the SNL of their time, I guess.

We headed home relatively early (last night we stayed out late because the Louvre was open until 10) to buy some groceries and cook dinner (to be fair, David did the cooking) in the little apartment we're renting for the week in Montmartre. While dinner was in an in-between stage, David decided he wanted to be interviewed about his impressions of Paris:

He may come off as jaded, but he still conceded to a romantic moment under the Eiffel Tower the other night -- and I even had a cold!

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Few Travel Tips:

Amsterdam is not an overly safe city for pedestrians. I don't care how cycle-friendly it is, it's bloody confusing to get around on two feet. But that's my two cents worth.

Bruges doesn't seem overly safe for stilettos/high heels. I don't know this from personal experience, but the fact that it's mainly covered in cobblestones would lead me to believe that heels are the not the best choice for a walking shoe.

If you're not good with accents, good luck in Glasgow!

If you're from Canada, get used to people assuming you're American. Everyone loves Canadians, but we're not the first guess for most.

A lot of people who are from Canada, say they're from Toronto. It seems to be easier for them to say instead of Guelph, Windsor, Ottawa, Trent/Peterborough.....

People still smoke indoors in Bruges. It's like an “old school” experience. Sitting in non-smoking and coming out of the establishment smelling like an ashtray. Oh well.

Scotland: My Real Ancestral Homeland.

I was born in Toronto. I'm Jewish. I've been told my whole life that my homeland was/is Israel, but I've never felt that way. Mind you, I've never been there either. (Though we're headed there for four weeks in the middle of January!) My grandparents were born in Poland, Russia and Scotland, making me ½ Polish, ¼ Russian and ¼ Scottish.

As I've said before, I never met my dad's mom and barely knew my dad's dad. That's the Polish side. I knew my mom's parents quite well, or as much as I was capable of knowing them, based on my not asking questions and them not volunteering much by way of information about their formative years and lives in general.

I'm not really sure what it is about me and Scotland. I know there's certainly my mom's mom as the primary link; the start of it all. I know there's a love of plaid/tartan/kilts. So much so, that I gave serious consideration to wearing a kilt when I married Jodi. Mind you, that was not a popular option with anyone other than me! I know that my parents' friends, the Livingstones, are both born in Scotland and I've always thought very highly of them. And not just because Alan worked for Laura Secord in the 70s and their front room was PACKED with chocolate!!!

Regardless of where or when it started, I've always wanted to go to Scotland, and when the whole five months away came up....well.....Scotland happens to be one of Jodi's favourite countries. It was a no-brainer really. Had I really been on the ball, I would have done a lot of research about my family before we left, but I didn't, and this (unfortunately) resulted in Jodi (and me) spending more time in libraries in Edinburgh and Glasgow then I/we had planned.

Thanks to a great website, www.scotlandspeople.org, while in Belfast, just before closing time at the Starbucks (FYI...when in the UK for an extended period of time, and in need of “free” WiFi, get a UK Starbucks card for 5 pounds, and use that to access free Internet in the Starbucks. It's the same in Toronto too. I can't speak for other cities or countries though.) I found my grandmother's birth record. It brought me to tears, and is doing the same thing now. I don't know what it is, but I'm very emotional as it pertains to mom's mom, and think the greatest compliment I can pay towards Jodi and my sister-in-law Julie, is that she really would have liked both of them. A lot.

We left Belfast for Scotland, and I finally stepped foot on the land that I had cherished for as long as I can remember. Upon getting on the train in Stranraer, I saw an Irn Bru (Yes Scott Gaertner, the Holy Grail!!!) machine. I put in my pound coin and pushed the button.


I pushed it again.


I pushed the next one down.

YAHOO!!! Down came....

diet Irn Bru.

So wrong in so many ways, but hey....it was close to what I wanted needed. “Scotland's other national drink”, after (scotch) whisky. Since then, I managed to get several smaller bottles and a monstrous 2 litre bottle. I was a happy man. Apparently, it's quite a hangover remedy, but I don't drink that much and don't get hangovers, so I wouldn't know. The first time I had it was when I went with my dad to Hamish's Fish & Chips, near Pharmacy and St. Clair, about 25 years ago.

That was a regular thing that we'd do, me and my dad. Go somewhere to eat or grocery shop. It seems I'm more like my dad than I've been willing to admit. Until recently. We'd go to Spadina for Chinese, and not just because he grew up in Kensington Market (just west/north of downtown Chinatown), but because that was where the authentic Chinese was to be found. Now, Toronto has five or more “Chinatowns”, but there was always be one for me, and Kum Jug Yuen remains from the restaurants that we used to go to: Lung Fung, Kum Kuk Yuen and Goodyear are no more. I'll always remember being asked for “I.Q.” when we'd go down there for dinner and (underage) beer in high school, and the look on Doug Martin's face, when a guy came out of the kitchen at Kum Jug Yuen with hip-waders on.

So, I'd had Irn-Bru with “nasties” (artificial sweeteners), and we were on a train for Edinburgh (Ed-in-bra is the way to pronounce so you're in the “know”). We saw cows, horses and sheep, but no “Highland Cows”, which would have to wait. If you haven't seen one, they're really a sight to behold.

Edinburgh was great. Great beer at great prices. The salads are painfully small, but the produce tastes way better, so buying apples, pears, carrots and peppers at grocery stores helped with my/our vegetation intake. We have not had a bad tour yet, in Dublin, Galway, Belfast, London or Edinburgh. As teachers, we really appreciate a good entertaining and informative tour!

As good as Edinburgh was, Glasgow was where I wanted, or needed, to be. Agnes (AKA Grandma) was born in Shettleston, which was a suburb of Glasgow, and is now a part of the city. South-east of the city centre. Interestingly enough, Shettleston is the only place in the E.U. (European Union) where the average life expectancy is dropping. Yep, dropping. She lived to be almost 82, but she also left Scotland for Canada at 18.

I knew her first place of residence was 96 Gray Street, and that the street didn't exist anymore. I emailed the Shettleston Housing Authority about the change in street names. I got no reply, and in fact, still haven't. Lazy f**kers. I did however get a TON of assistance from librarians in Edinburgh (at the National Archives and public library) and Glasgow (at the public library – thanks Hazel!) and found out that the street name had changed to Denbeck.

Thanks to Google Maps, I found Denbeck.

By now, we were staying with our friends Zoe and Alex, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, in Carstairs (near Lanark). We rented a car in Glasgow, and had LOTS of adventures with driving on the left-side of the road, and also figuring out how to start the car, as we drove up to the Highlands. Sight-seeing, whisky tours (Glenmorangie & The Macallan – two of our three faves – Highland Park being the other), LOTS of pictures, beaches, walking, and a rather eclectic hostel/hotel in Balintraid.

Getting back to Zoe and Alex's was easy enough, mainly because Jodi did the navigating (which seemed to be rather arduous with the maps we had!) and I did the driving. Then came Friday morning. Me taking the car back to the rental agency, after trying to find Denbeck Street. In what is considered to be less-than-ideal Glasgow. Using Google Maps again, I had directions from Carstairs to Shettleston, and then Shettleston to the rental agency.

I got “lost” twice on the way to Shettleston. Once, because there was construction at a roundabout, and subsequently, there were no signs saying which entrance/exit was which. My visit to the Shell station was less than helpful, as the guy said he didn't live in the neighbourhood, and the woman said she wasn't sure about where I was going.

So I went back the way I came and decided (after a mental coin flip) to go straight at the roundabout. Then I got to a street where I decided to go left and ask for help. The first place of business was closed, and the second was open. Woohoo! The two people in there were really helpful, and I got some directions from there to where I wanted to be going – which was only a couple of miles away.

After a couple of wrong (and corrective illegal) turns, I saw a street name I recognized and parked the car, hoping/praying that it wouldn't be stolen or damaged. I walked the ½ block to Denbeck and saw that the corner house was 92. I walked down, and the numbers got lower. I looked at the other side of the street and the numbers weren't any bigger. There was no 96. There was however a church across the street from 92, and I wondered if that had been 95 in 1908.

Two engineers, getting out of their service truck in front of the church, weren't from around there and of no assistance. I took some pictures of 92, hid my camera in my bag – lest we forget we're in council housing (that's what they call it in the UK. The projects/slums in the U.S., and assisted/government housing in Canada) and I'm not too keen on losing The Baby. There was a social work facility around the corner and I asked some questions of staff, and they pointed me towards a 79 year old blind man. He confirmed that Gray Street became Denbeck, and that the church had been there for as long as he could remember. He had to go to a meeting, but he was quite interested where I was from.

(Which brings me to the whole accent thing. Spending 39 years in Toronto has meant that everyone else has an accent, except me. Most people assume I'm American when they hear me speak, but I'm frankly confused by this. What do I sound like to others? Aside from the fact that I hate my voice when I hear it played back.)

I didn't make any wrong turns heading to the rental agency, minus the whole wrong off-ramp/illegal turn to get back on thing. Oh, and the ending up too far down the one-way street to leave the car, so I did a circle. But it was relatively stress-free, PLUS, I got to listen to Fred on BBC Radio Scotland, and I do like Fred. He's a funny fella. fred@bbc.co.uk. I need to remember to look him up. I do believe he's a comedian on top of his radio work.

So, I got the car back, and had a few hours to myself in Glasgow. Having navigated the city a few times with Jodi – okay Jodi navigated and I walked and picked up a thing or two about where things where, and I had walking directions to The Wee Curry Shop, I was all good! FAN-FREAKIN'-TAS-TICK curry at The Wee Curry Shop. If you're in Glasgow and like curry, it's a must. But they don't open for lunch until noon. Getting there at 11:20 meant that I wandered around, found a bar and had a cheap pint of yummy beer. The beer in Scotland is second to none! That includes Canada, the U.S., England, Holland and Belgium. World-class, in my mind.

Had lunch, bought some bottles of beer (as I'm apt to do!) and headed to the train station. I just caught the train before it headed off to Lanark, and I just caught a bus headed for Carstairs. Getting back was a breeze, which was MUCH easier than the trials/tribulations that Jodi and I had trying to get back to Zoe and Alex's after a night in Glasgow earlier in the week.

We headed up to Fort William (and the Nevis Mountain Range) with Zoe and Alex – YAY NO MORE DRIVING FOR ME!!! Their vehicle being standard meant I was off the hook, since I haven't driven stick since I was 17 and only did it a couple of times. We stayed at a great place on the locks (where they're twinned with the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, so seeing the Maple Leaf (Canadian flag) was uber-weird!) and took a gondola up part of the range and walked down. We went to a tasty (but small portioned!) restaurant that night, and then wandered around in the misty rain the next morning/day, in search of a water fall. Steil was where it was, I do believe.

Before we knew it, we were headed for Glasgow, and an overnight bus ride to London.

I was sad to be leaving Zoe and Alex, sad to be saying goodbye to Glasgow, and saddest to be leaving Scotland. The people are great, even if Glaswegian “English” is an adventure to interpret – which is probably why the city is hiring interpreters to help out those more challenged than me. The sights are mind-boggling, but we did get lucky with the lack of rain and warm-ish weather we encountered.

As I walked along Denbeck Street I felt like I was with my grandmother once again.

As I've said before, this journey/adventure that Jodi and I started September 20th was a difficult one to wrap my head around. It was made even harder because of my father being in ill-health. He's been in the hospital four times in two months. This is a pattern that I recognize from my grandparents. It's not a pattern that makes me warm and fuzzy. I'm bothered by the fact that I'm unable to help my mom to do things around the house, or to cook some food for them, or anything for that matter – since I'm not in Toronto. Having a sense that I was taking a few steps in my grandmother's past has made it a little easier on my mind, as it's something that I can share with mom when I get back home.

Or online for now.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Things I Learned in the UK

1. They do NOT drive on the "wrong" side, but rather the "other" side. It's a complete and utter mindf**k driving from Glasgow up to the Highlands, and that's with Jodi as my navigator/co-pilot. Driving from Carstairs to Glasgow with nothing but a couple of Google maps and a mission was insanely bizarre.

2. Glaswegian "English" at its finest/worst is harder to understand than French. I only took French until grade ten. They're even hiring translators for Glasgow to aid in the comprehension of what they're saying.

3. Beer is SUPER good and SUPER inexpensive in Scotland.

4. They don't seem to understand the meaning of bite size pieces of lettuce.

5. Side salads are really just a tease in most places. But when you don't order a salada, it's amazing how big they can be when they magically arrive on your table.

6. Haggis is good. REALLY good. Salty, but really good. Don't knock if it you haven't tried it. I suspect I'll be making a Dave version in 2010.

7. I can pretty much distinguish between Irish, Scottish and English accents. Not always, but I'm rarely able to do anything "always".

8. Changing directions on the highways can be stupidly easy or stupidly hard. It's all where ya are.

9. Making illegal turns in Glasgow is only illegal if you get caught. I didn't. Remember, I was on a mission.

10. Pheasant calls are really annoying.

11. I didn't so much learn this as do it, but I've know urinated on two important "landmarks" related to Canada. One in Toronto and one in Scotland.

12. Sometimes budget hotels are better than hostels.

13. Sometimes hostels are better than others.

14. Air-dying laundry in Scotland takes a long time.

15. You don't need to live in Scotland to get a library card. For the National Library or the Glasgow Public Library.

16. Euros do not have Queen Elizabeth II on the back. Repeat after me, euros do NOT have Queen Elizabeth II on the back. (Still working on this)

17. Highland cows can gallop. As much as cows gallop.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Who Am I?

This is a question I've been asking myself for a long time now.

I am the youngest child of three. My parents are Beverley and Stanley. My siblings are Ellen and Jordan. This I've always known.

I never knew my father's mother, as she died as a result of an accident in 1960, ten years before I was born. My dad's father died when I was a boy of 7 or 8, and I barely knew him. Well, I knew him in the way that a young boy knows their grandfather, who comes over once a week for fish dinner and then I'd put my pyjamas on and we'd drive him home.

I was fortunate enough to know my mother's parents until they died, my grandmother when I was 21 and my grandfather when I was 23. I knew them the way a young man knows their grandparents, in that I would seem them at family functions and holidays, where we would kibbutz a bit, from what I remember. We would go over to visit, for dinner (home-made macaroni & cheese, with bacon!) or to hang out and play gin, or watch the baseball game (usually the Blue Jays, whom my grandfather quite liked) or Wheel of Fortune, or whatever. Sure, there was the time when I was an adolescent, or thereabouts, and I slept over at their place for New Years, and my grandfather asked me if I wanted some prune juice. We'll leave it at my being up into the wee hours of the morning, but not for celebratory reasons.

I'm eternally grateful for my mother talking to me when I was about 15, and saying that her parents weren't going to be alive forever, and that I should make sure that I didn't have any regrets about not having visited with them. And a few years later my grandmother almost died on the night of her 75th birthday, or the party, I don't remember which it was.

Up until she died, I cherished going to hang out with my grandparents, often on the way home from university. I went to school in-town, and I was able to stop off at their place to chat, play some cards, watch some TV or go grocery shopping for them if the weather was foul. That said, I still never really got to know my grandparents as people. I never asked them about their childhoods in Shettleston (Glasgow) and Toronto. I never found out my grandmother's journey via ship from Scotland to Canada and her instant love affair with Coca-Cola upon her arrival (though it was Coke or Pepsi in her later years, whichever was cheaper).

I've heard stories from my mother, my aunt (my mom's late sister) and their cousin, but I never thought to ask those questions when my grandparents were alive. I'll chalk it up to being immature, self-centered and male. I don't dwell on it much, nor should I. I've certainly heard stories from my father's childhood, where he grew up in Kensington Market, a part of Toronto that was once full of Jews, and recently said goodbye to the last remaining Jewish merchant (it really is a market) in the last month, as he sold his butcher shop. I've heard stories from my mom about a lot of things too. Stories of my grandparents as parents, and also a few stories about my grandfather as a boy. He grew up in Toronto and his family was all here too, unlike my grandmother, who left Scotland at 18, leaving behind siblings (except for her brother Bill (I don't know who came to Canada first, Agnes or Bill) and sister Elizabeth, AKA Bessie – who came to Canada later in life) and her parents, and never saw them again.

I suppose my quest for some sense of who I am began in grade six. That was when the seed was planted, as my teacher, Mr. Tindall, spent a good deal of time going through my report cards from JK to that point, and put all the relevant information into a hand-written document which I still have. He pointed out that my intelligence would seem to be such that the regular school system wasn't challenging enough for me, and that's why I was continually disrupting, distracting and otherwise getting myself into trouble. My parents only found out about the Gifted test the day before it was to take place. Long story short, I entered the Gifted program in grade seven, leaving behind my friends and local school for one further away.

This posed a problem, as I was not socially ready to handle the change in making new friends, and I had never learned how my brain worked, or I had never learned how to learn. I got by on my ability alone and had no clue what it was to work. I struggled for some time, probably until at least into grade ten or eleven. The Gifted program focuses on questioning.It's not about 1 + 2 = 3, but rather the reasons why. The student is asked/forced to think in class and can't really just get by on intelligence alone.

This saved me.

Otherwise, I suspect I would have dropped out of the local high school (which was just at the end of our street) instead of thriving (in as much as I allowed myself to thrive) at Earl Haig. At Haig I was surrounded by people smarter than me, people who were talented in all disciplines of the arts, and people who all hung around with each other. I learned about not just the books and courses, but about myself. I went from being a jackass to being a class clown, but starting to become a more socially aware individual.

Thanks to a few friends and a girlfriend, I started to express myself more. To be more aware of that which I was not: gay, female and black, specifically. Instead of listening to the rock music that seemed to surround my “old life”, I was listening to New Wave/Alternative and Rap. It was the mid-to-late 80s and it was beautiful. I don't know too many people who liked high school so much they'd go to school early and stay late.

Sure, school life was made better because I was skipping classes and getting intoxicated in one way or another, and the parties at Haig were legendary.

While I didn't exactly give it my all, I certainly got myself into where I wanted to go for post-secondary. In retrospect, I should have gone to the University of Toronto (downtown) or Ryerson for journalism.

But I didn't.

Instead, I went to the cold, grey, desolate campus of York University. I wanted to be in business. I wanted to be rich. My pre-BBA changed to Political Science in 2nd year, and I added Mass Communication as a Double Honours major in my 3rd year. I decided in my final year that I wanted to be in advertising, since I was a pop culture fanatic and I could write.

(Or so I thought.)

A three year course in advertising meant that I knew I could succeed in any of the three streams of advertising, but I only wanted to be a creative, and write. I saw that it was a soul-sucking, and painfully difficult, world to enter and continue along. I waited tables for a year and by chance ended up in sales for a couple of years, selling anything and everything you could put a logo on.

I was pretty successful and would have continued to be even more so, but I wasn't fulfilled. The world of the dot come beckoned, with a downtown address (versus the industrial wasteland suburbs) of exposed brick and big windows. I was going to become a millionaire, and get my parents cars and send them on vacations and buy a downtown home and gut/reno/retrofit it.

Needless to say, it didn't happen.

But, what did happen is that I learned a little more about myself. Shortly after turning 30, I found out that my borderline high blood pressure wasn't borderline anymore, and I was going to be starting on medication.

I decided that if I was going to have a heart attack or a stroke, I wanted to “go out” on my terms.

I quit my job and sat on my butt for the summer, and then I volunteered in a few classrooms at the feeder school to Earl Haig's arts program. I wanted to “pay it forward” for what Mr. Tindall had done for me, and I wanted to make a difference.

I was accepted to teachers' college at OISE/UT (I had applied in '97 without having done any research and was promptly rejected by York and U of T's programs), and I was finally going to be going to school downtown. My going to school as a “man”, and not living at home with my parents, and not working throughout the school year, threw my personal finances into turmoil.

I'd never been happier though.

After putting so many teachers through difficulty (truthfully not on purpose) I was now able to see that this was wanted I wanted to do. Teach grade six. Right out of teachers' college I was hired by the Toronto District School Board (the only one I applied to!) and placed in grade 5/6 class at Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Regent Park.

As inner city as it can get in Toronto. It was a rough ride, and after a month I was transferred down to kindergarten because of a staff restructuring based on student enrollment numbers. I was there for six years, with the last year being a grade 4/5 class, and a very difficult year. I know that should I return to teaching after my year off, it will be for kindergarten, as my personal life suffers much less that way.

At most stops along the way, I've made some phenomenal friends. I can count friends from just about everywhere I've been for work or school. In fact, some of my best friends are the ones I've made since I started to have a better understanding of who I was. From Saul (camp) to Emily (school) to James (bike ride to Montreal) to Marcos (professional course) and the many others I count as friends, they understand me.

As much as someone can understand me. After all, sometimes I don't understand myself. I view things differently than most, and I can thank people in my life for offering different ways of looking at things. I have met some of the most amazing people as a result of being involved with Jodi, for almost four years now.

As most of you know, my father is 80, and hasn't been well of late. When Jodi floated the idea of taking a year off (she had a paid sabbatical year coming up right after we got married) it seemed profoundly bizarre. Initially, she was going to do a masters in some form of English or Education, and I figured I'd work and we'd take a few fabulous vacations in the Winter and March Breaks and Summer.

Instead, we're in the early stages of five months in the UK, Europe and Israel. I had a really hard time packing up my life (literally) in Toronto and putting it into a storage locker. I had a really hard time saying goodbye to my father, not knowing if I was going to see him again, considering he almost didn't make it to our wedding, and that night was back in the hospital.

I had a really hard time leaving Toronto because I felt like I was abandoning my mom, even though I only see her about once a week. I knew I could leave my friends, because thanks to email, Skype and Facebook, they're never really that far away.

Thus far, this has been an amazing experience.

I've been away from home for almost four weeks now, and while I'm out of sorts because I don't have a chance to cook and/or bake in my kitchen with my utensils, spices, pans, pots, etc.....I can deal with this.

Living out of a rucksack/backpack is something that I've learned to deal with. I'm now used to looking like a tourist and subsequently being ignored by all around. At least at home I get a look or two from a female or male.

Not now. Not here. Oh well, I'm married!

Jodi has been the perfect person to do this with, as she's been to many of the places we're going, but we're doing a lot of different things that are new for her. As I near the end of this ramble, and I've digressed from where I was headed (as is par for the course), I’ve decided to share this to perhaps give some of you a better sense of me. I plan on continuing along this vein, perhaps as an attempt at self-help, perhaps just to share.

Regardless, there will be more to read, and more for me to ramble on about.

The Heilan adventures of we twa

I've mentioned to a couple of people that Scotland is one of my favourite places, and, besides the fact that Edinburgh is one of the most amazingly beautiful cities, the whole country is just gorgeous. But really, it's difficult to appreciate most of it without a mode of transportation, so we rented a car for three days and drove up to the Inverness area via the scenic A82 along the shores of Loch Lomond (of "ye take the high road an' I'll take the low road" fame).

Here again, for your entertainment, are some video moments from that trip.

First, meet our car!

We discovered after our first photo stop that this car had some interesting security features...

Some helpful German tourists were able to help us free the locking mechanism so the car would start, and we were again on our way.

Loch Lomond (or, as David likes to say it, recalling the Auld Alliance, perhaps, "Loch Lamond") is ridiculously photogenic. It was hard not to stop every five minutes to take photographs of its ever-changing scenery.

But every so often, we did succumb.

This, of course, meant that we didn't arrive at our destination until quite late, but it was worth it -- Balintraid House, about half an hour north of Inverness, outside of the small town of Invergordon, was not your typical hostel. Our room was huge, with a sitting area that comprised a sofa and two armchairs, and had a view over the water from a large bay window! The kitchen was excellently equipped, so we were able to cook dinners and breakfasts while we stayed there.

On the second day we visited the Glenmorangie distillery. Glenmorangie is one of our favourite whiskies (thanks to Tony's introducing me to it years ago -- thanks Tony!). It was a nice little tour, and the distillery itself is a very pleasant place, as you can tell here:

Then we spent the rest of the day driving around the Highlands, including Portmahomack (as pretty a beach as when we were there, Dawn), and in some cases on some very narrow roads indeed!

David did eventually get the hang of driving in Scotland, though, never you worry.

We still felt compelled to pull over every five miles or so to take photos. But can you really blame us??

And now, as a special treat, we bring you "the sounds of the Highlands":

Now, with so few cars on the back roads, the cows get a bit chippy about sharing, so we had to remind them who was boss:

But no cow is quite like a Highland cow (or, as they call them in the actual Highlands, "Heilan coos"), and we got a good opportunity to visit with some on the Macallan distillery lands. They are the cutest!

All too soon, it was time to head back to Glasgow, but we would be hitting the Highlands again briefly with our friends Zoe and Alex, spending a glorious weekend in Fort William, in the shadow of the impressive Nevis Range.

At the moment, we are back in London en route to Amsterdam in the morning. So cheerio until our next post!

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Belfast and other things Irish

Here is a post I wrote for my Bedford High School Bits blog about the Black Cab tour we took in Belfast, recommended to us by many people and well worth it. It doubles pretty well as a travel blog post for now -- we're working up to some more, soon to come!

If you're interested, you might also enjoy my other Bedford Bits post about Dublin and the recent Lisbon Treaty vote they had there.
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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Things I've Learned/Decided/Realized Since Leaving Toronto

I suspect this is something I'll be adding on to in the next few months.

I've learned that produce tastes better in (Northern) Ireland than Canada. The peppers are tastier and the apples are crisper. The millk may taste better too.

I've decided that I do not understand why religion is the cause of so much conflict around the world. Most recently and evidently in Northern Ireland. I know that I will also see this in Israel.

I've learned the Irish love to talk, give amazing tours and are full of craic (pronounced “crack”).

I'm beginning to decide/believe that organized religion is the cause of more grief than it's worth. Spirituality seems like a more positive road to travel. Believing in the “Golden Rule” and the goodness of people, rather than something/someone that you can not see, touch or feel. I see people, but I do not see “God”. I see graves and pictures of deceased, killed in the name of “God”. I see heartache and tragedy, but I do not see “God”. Maybe I'm just not a true believer and therefore not privy to seeing “it”, but I see heartache and suffering in the name of “God” and this seems a bit too primitive for me.

I've learned that some hostels are better than others. Some are amazing, social and fun. Some are acceptable as a place to sleep. Some have awful mattress covers that result in you having your sleep interruped. These same beds can also creak WAY too much. Annoying to say the least.

I've learned that most hostels have painfully awful kitchens.

I've decided (realized?) that five monumental events have happened in my life which have truly shaped “where” I am today. One, entering the Gifted Program in grade 7, thanks to Mr. Tindall and my mom's diligence and perseverance. Two, following Deborah Levy up to Camp Shalom in 1988, and meeting Saul Colt. Three, deciding to go back to school for teachers' college when I was 30. Four, doing The Friends for Life Bike Rally the summer before I started teachers' college and meeting James Anok. Five, meeting Jodi.

I've learned that I tend to view things photographically now.

I've decided that travel to learn about people and cultures is a beautiful thing, in order to figure out more about the “world” that I live in.

I've learned that I do not understand why the conflict in Northern Ireland has continued for as long as it has.

I've decided that things and stuff are less important to me now than they have ever been, but what I have with me right now keeps me warm and dry.

I've learned that marrying Jodi was the greatest thing I could have ever done.

I've learned the Irish serve Guinness too cold for my liking.

I've learned I like Magner's cider more than Bulmer's cider.

I've decided that all toilets should have a bidet and dryer. Mind you, I haven't encountered one as of yet.

I've decided that Starbucks is not evil, but a gift to humanity, for their consistent quality and "free" WiFi.

I've decided this trek isn't about farming or slaughtering a meal, but is becoming a quest to learn more about the world and try to make sense of (in)humanity.

I've learned that I can run and take pictures quickly. Belfast is a good place to learn this!

I've learned I like Scotch whisky more than Irish whiskey because it's more challenging. Which is somewhat analogous for my relationship with Jodi.

I've learned that Jodi is right at least 85% of the time.

I've realized I REALLY miss being truly connected to my friends and "weekly" visits with my parents and in-laws.

I've realized that 2.5 weeks into our five month adventure I'm really excited about my "hajj" to my truest ancestral homeland (Scotland) and not at all burnt out. I've never really desired to go to Poland or Russia, and we'll be in Israel at the end of our travels, but I'm more excited about the geography and people than it being "the Jewish homeland". Probably in large part to being Jew-ish and more cultural with my Jewishness than anything.

I've learned that tea is better in the UK and Ireland than North America, because everyone here seems to boil the water for tea, whereas back home it's just "hot water". Feh.

I haven't had any fried food yet, but I know that fish and chips is on the horizon in Scotland. Maybe even a fried Mars bar for s**ts 'n giggles.

I've realized I'm really emotional about finding birth information on my grandmother, both for me (and my mom - who hasn't asked me to do any of this), but also because of my father's uncertain health in the past few months. (On that note, as I know people will ask, he's going to be starting a six-month low dose antibiotic that should help with the infections he's been dealing with for a few years. That said, I'm not a doctor (though I play one on TV), but I'm also concerned that it could lower his overall immunity and make him susceptible to something else.)

I've learned that Tim Horton's is available in Belfast (Northern Ireland otherwise?) at SPAR. That said, I'm not a Tim Horton's fan. I know, I know. I'm Canadian. I also don't like hockey. As my mother frequently reminds me (I used to say this a whole lot more than I do now), "Suck it up and deal with it kid."

I've realized it's sort of ironic that I'm going to take a boat to Scotland today. I learned from Billy Connolly (on the plane from Toronto to London) that people leaving Scotland frequently had their wake done at the boat docks, as the family/friends left behind knew that they probably would never see them again. My grandmother left Scotland as a teenager and never saw her parents again. I can't fathom that.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Galway to Belfast, the abridged version

Dateline: Wednesday October 6th, 2009.
(Written Tuesday October 5th)
Posted in a Starbucks in Belfast.

I initially thought that I'd be blogging more often about our UK/European adventure. I was wrong. Some times the internet is hard to come by. Some times there isn't time to sit down with the computer and write something. Some times I'm just too flippin' tired to think about writing about what's going on physically and in my head. Some times I'm just overwhelmed with how many pictures I've been taking and the sheer amount of time/work necessary to get them online. Whether it's on Flickr or Facebook, it's a lot of time and effort, and we've just been busy touring around.

Okay, so when last I blogged, our heroes Dave (that's me!) and Jodi (not me) had gone to the Oyster Festival in Galway, in the west of Ireland. After that, we took a bus trip to the Cliffs of Moher. They're pretty cool, in that they're a big freakin' load of cliffs on the southwest coast of Ireland. I was told that the Aran Islands and Dingle are two must-sees, but hey....no time. Plus, Jodi's been there, and as Jodi says, “It leaves something to come back for.”

That Jodi's a smrt one sometimes. Well, usually. In fact, most of the time. Almost always. But I catch her sometimes. Not very often mind you. Okay, back to our heroes. The bus trip was lengthy but worth it. Our bus driver, Eamon (or Eamonn, since we never saw his name) was GREAT! We saw a ton of cool stuff, heard a bunch about Ireland and fairies (like I don't know a few fairies!) and took a crapload of pictures. APPARENTLY “crapload” isn't a word. How about crap-load? Hyphens always make the red squigglies go away! Oh. APPARENTLY “squigglies” isn't a word either. AH....

We also wandered a bit along the Burren while on the bus tour. In case you were wondering.

Good fun regardless.

Then Jodi got sick. We think that I got a bug of some form and went through me the way that most things go through me. In one end, out the other. In one ear, out the other. If you know me, you know this is the case. It was quick and that was that. Well, not so quick 'n easy for Jodi. Her being "under the weather", meant that our bus trip from Galway to Tubbercurry was on hold for a day. Not having our cell working meant that I Skyped Farmer Brian to let him know we weren't going to be there on Monday.

This meant that I spent the day editing/culling pictures and uploading five photo albums to Facebook, but because I wasn't finished until 1:00 AM, didn't comment on them. Maybe at some point I'll get around to commenting on the first two days of our travels. Considering we're two weeks in already! Oh well.

We met some great people in the hostel in Galway. From New Zealand, Germany and this country called Canada. Maybe you've heard of it? Oh ya, and a lovely young lady from the U.S. It's always nice to meet good folks from the States, so as to not end up saying bad things about Americans. Too many people already do that and I don't want to add on to the s**t heap if I can help it.

We took the early bus to Tubbercurry the next day, and were met by Elona, Brian's wife. She's German and Brian is English. APPARENTLY the Irish don't take WWOOFers (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming) unless they're single/widowed women or not Irish. Interesting. The farm isn't too far from Tubbercurry and for whatever reason, it didn't look the way I thought it would. That said, I didn't know what I expected it to look like. Go figure, but it's me, so go with it. One thing that stuck out in my head was something that was said in "The Blue Collar Comedy Tour" about car parts and tires on the lawn, and there was an old VW van that was in the back with oodles and zoodles of old assorted electrical items that literally filled it up. FILLED IT UP!!!

We had tea, chatted for a bit and then went outside to throw wood that Brian was cutting up on a circular saw, that he had reclaimed from an old church roof somewhere near there. The wood had paint on it, but they didn't seem to care that this would be used for firewood. Elona made a good point when she said that it would be burned one way or the other, either by them or by whomever took it away as trash. Sad, but probably true. Regardless, I wouldn't want to burn painted wood inside my home, and have my children/family breathing it in.

Another reality that threw me for a loop was the caravan. It was a trailer/camper out of the 60s that wasn't in the greatest shape, but it was where we slept for four nights. It was cold and "rustic". Remember that this trip was the first time I slept in a hostel (no big issues thus far) and was used to motels and hotels, or our tent. The caravan wasn't quite what I expected, but I sucked it up and dealt with it.

They have a lot of animals, and they all seemed to smell. In their own way. The pigs smelled like pigs. I wasn't prepared for how bad the pig barn smelled. The dogs (one Border Collie (Liz) and two English Bulldogs (Bonnie and Edward) smelled like smelly dogs. The ducks, geese and chickens didn't smell, but the roosters seemed to crow all day and the geese were INSANELY territorial. Did I mention how territorial the geese were?!?! The turkey and peacock were also not smelly, and not overly “fresh” and healthy looking. The pony and cows were mostly kept off the property. They found a badger in a trap and put it into a big ole cage and fed it cat and/or dog food. They had two guinea pigs that were kept outside, and several cats/kittens that they breed/sell. Oh ya, I'm allergic to cats, but it wasn't awful, which was nice.

Brian and Elona are chain-smokers, which made for memories of my grandparents' place, as everything was coated with tar/nicotine/tobacco/whatever cigarette smokers coat their inside stuff with. Frankly, they're really good people. They take in complete strangers through WWOOF and that was super for us. They also have two children. Sophia is 12 and Jonny is 7. Jonny loves to take things apart, build things and wonder about lights and electricity. For Christmas, he wants a 12 V car battery. Sophia is a 12 year old girl. Enough said there. She's a good girl, but I suppose it can be a bit much with going through life as a 12 year old girl and having strangers coming into your house.

There wasn't much to do at night, so we would watch TV in the farmhouse. The bulldogs would come and hang out with us, the cats/kittens would come into the TV room, or want to go outside (which involved getting up and opening/closing the squeaky (and tough to open) sliding door for them – and open again when they came back.

Brian and Elona were very open with us, and I truly believe we learned a lot from there.

Our work wasn't easy. Moving the cut wood, mucking/cleaning out a pig stall, emptying a large compost heap, chasing after cows on a bicycle (more on that in a bit!), moving gravel from beside the house, picked/pulled grapes for wine, pulled an electric fence (NOT on!) and made dinner for them. Dinner was the easiest, FER SHURE!!!

The most memorable part of the farm was my cow herding. Brian had brought two cows from the field down the road on to the farm in order to have them tested for TB, as is mandated by the Irish government. He called to me, and asked me to block off the farm driveway, in order to corral them into the barn. We had mucked out the stall in order to have them go there. Well, apparently the cows didn't get the memo on this and they were having no part of it. Remember, I'm 5'11” and about 220 pounds. I'm not Slim Jim or Skinny Minnie. I'm also not a 600-800 pound cow. I'm not overly confident around large animals. This makes sense.

Brian told me to get a stick, which I did. He told me to give them a whack in order to let them know they shouldn't get going the way that they were.

I replied, "I don't think I can do that."

So, this meant the cows didn't want to go in the barn, and Brian and I wanted them to go in the barn. They decided they'd go down the driveway toward the road. Brian ran after them, and I ran after Brian. He told me to get the bike. Sophia's metallic purple bike, that's the right size for a 12 year old girl. With a seat that's not quite tight and no brakes.

I've ridden a bicycle to Montreal from Toronto five times. No biggie. Right? But wait, I was wearing wellies (rain boots) too! Jodi will attest that this was quite a sight. Me, riding off after Brian and the cows, on a bicycle that was too small for me, in wellies.

When I got to the road, I went left. This too made sense, since the cows went left down the road. The driver of the oncoming car found this amusing too. I didn't much care about her, since I didn't want to get knocked off the bike by one of the cows. I decided that it was in my best interests to wait for them to end up on the right side of the road, and I'd "sneak" by on the left.

It worked.

But I had to stop now. No brakes. I pulled a Fred Flinstone, and used my feet and turned the bicycle sideways, saying firmly but nicely, "NO! STOP!".

They did.

Yay me.

I don't speak Cow, and they don't speak English. So I pointed in the direction of the farm. This too worked. Brian steered them back on to the farm, and had me close the gate. No more cow herding on the road. After getting them to the barn again, they again turned around and got back to the gate. This was getting more and more annoying, but once Jodi and Brian figured out how to block their escapes in every direction, they finally got themselves into the barn.

After this, we drove down to a neighbouring field and got another three cows into a pen on that land. WAY EASIER!

As a kindergarten teacher I referred to myself as a cat herder. Now I'm a real cow herder. On a girls' bicycle no less.

We left the farm on Saturday, as they didn't have work for us and we were looking to head off to travel anyway. A drive in to Tubbercurry – and I left my stainless steel water bottle on the farm or in the car (oh well.) and then the bus to Bundoran and I was going to surf.

Except for the fact that it was BLOODY windy and BLOODY cold. No surfing. Lots more pictures and lunch at the Grand Hotel. It may have nice rooms (don't know) but the food and service was far from grand, but hey...it didn't smell like a farm.

Oh ya, I wore the same clothes for four out of five days that I was on the farm. The same socks, underwear, pants and shirt. I didn't even take them off. Now that's a real farmer. Or, someone who doesn't want to get more clothes dirty and smelly.

We went to Supervalu to buy stuff for dinner and made pan-fried trout with a veggie/tomato pasta. It was lovely. Oh ya, and the white bread toast with garlic butter. Jodi was a mighty fine sous chef and people kept coming in wondering if they get some food. Oh well, all gone on the trout and we left the leftover pasta in the fridge for whomever may have wanted it.

In Bundoran we had a shared room, and the two guys we were with are living in Belfast. Bryan and Damian are both (civil?) engineers and good chaps! We went to Brennan's on the main street for a pint (two!) of Guinness. The boys said that it was a mighty fine pint of Guinness and that you weren't allowed to talk on a mobile or you'd get turfed out. There were two Mrs. Brennans there Saturday night. They're both in their 60s or 70s and I asked them the rules.

No loud talking on a mobile. No cussing. No singing.

The four of us were constantly concerned about whether or not we'd get turfed out for #2, but it worked out fine. When the boys were in there in the afternoon, they were the only patrons, but when we went in, it was quite busy. We lucked into a booth and good craic (Gaelic for chat) and by fluke ended up also chatting with Bryan's cousin and his g/f.

The boys said they'd come in about 4 AM and apologized in advance if they were noisy. Regardless, we had earplugs and they never showed up, so it was ALL GOOD!

Sunday morning (when Ireland in general seems to be quite shut!) we took a cab to Ballyshannon, the bus to Enniskillen and transferred to a bus to Belfast. Now we're in Northern Ireland.

The hostel is an HI (Hosteling International) establishment, and it was all we could find for the days that we're going to be here. For those of you that haven't done a hostel before, HI isn't the best, but it's not awful. It's not “fun” like some of the others, like the one in Dublin or Bundoran (with a rock 'n roll theme!), but it's clean and a bed. Albeit two single beds, but hey....c'est la vie. Oh, and they're not moveable. Ugh.

I talked to my parents on Skype last night and when my dad told my mom that "David" was on the phone, she replied, "DAVID KRUGER?!?!". Nice. Two weeks, and she's not sure. Mind you it could have been Mr. Erskine, or my cousin, our dentist.

We took a bus tour today to the Giant's Causeway (via the Glens of Antrim), the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge (I'm not too good with heights, and the upcoming video is telling of that!) and The Old Bushmills Distillery, where we had an ounce of 1608 and an ounce of 16 year old. Not bad at all, but we both prefer Scotch to Irish whiskey.

We're going to take a Black Cab tour of Belfast to see the murals, which give a lot of history of Belfast/Northern Ireland and The Troubles (the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants, and England and the Irish) and wander around on our own otherwise. We're trying to figure out the best way to get a ferry to Scotland on Wednesday, and then spend some time in Edinburgh, rent a car to tour up the east coast (Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire (BrewDog!!!!), Northern Highlands, Loch Ness (feh!) and back down at some point, maybe getting to the Isle of Skye) and then heading to Glasgow. HOPEFULLY, I'll find a way to see where my grandmother lived, provided I can figure out where that is/was. She lived in Shettleston, which is seemingly a suburb of Glasgow, before emigrating to Canada way back when.

We'll be hanging out with Jodi's longtime friend Zoe, and spending a weekend with her and her beau Alex in/near Ben Nevis and maybe getting ourselves to another distillery like Glenmorangie, Highland Park or The Macallan. After that, it's off/back to London (or maybe Belgium and the continent) and trying to find a farm in France to WWOOF on, and probably looking to line something up for Italy and WWOOFing as well.

I hope you're well while reading this, and feel free to comment on places that you think are visit worthy in London, Amsterdam, Belgium (Brussels/Bruges), Paris and/or France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Israel, Greece, Jordan, Egypt.