Scotland – Glasgow

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Ok people – what the damn hell? Over the years I’ve heard so many negative things about Glasgow. After visiting I am extremely happy to report that what I’d heard is about as clichéd and out of date as the people who think the UK only serves fish and chips, warm beer and doesn’t have ice cubes.

I originally had visions of a grimy city with uninspired architecture and angry, sullen residents. Edinburgh’s ugly step-sister. But then I started reading about Glasgow, about how it’s a city that has been allowed to evolve and change, not being shackled by Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status. From that I inferred, wrongly, that Glasgow’s city centre wouldn’t necessarily blow my mind. I really didn’t do my research obviously. My friend was visiting from Canada, wanted to see a bit of Scotland along with London and some Yorkshire countryside and I chose Glasgow more because I wanted to avoid the costs and crowds of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And then I spent 90% of my time planning our London itinerary and day trips in Yorkshire. I think the extent of my Glasgow planning involved picking a hotel and making note of a great whisky pub my friend recommended.

Now I will be the first to say that Edinburgh is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. You should go. I’ve already covered it in an earlier post and I was very happy to return for a second visit.

But Glasgow. Street after street of stunning Victorian and Mackintosh architecture, culminating in George Square. After wandering around the crazy streets of Leeds, York and London, the city centre’s right-angled grid of wide streets was reassuring and homey to this Torontonian. Glasgow has done a very nice job of juxtaposing its modern buildings into the mix. And the scale of the buildings made the streets feel more like the canyons of Manhattan (and oddly, Budapest) than any place in Europe I’ve yet been.

With all the tourists flocking to Edinburgh, we really felt like we had the place to ourselves. I saw one store selling plaids and kilts, and another selling knicky-knacky thingies, but otherwise, the shops and businesses had more to do with people’s everyday needs and wants.

Armchair Travel
It’s true enough that when I read Glasgow’s slogan on their official visitor’s site – People Make Glasgow I thought of all the warm and friendly people we spoke to during our visit and yeah, it’s a great, fitting slogan.

I think it’s photos like the one used on the front page of Lonely Planet’s Glasgow pages that might have had me expecting a very modern city centre. (Not that there’s anything wrong with modern architecture!)

EDIT: How could I have forgotten about researching Glasgow in Scotland Now? A true forehead-slapping oversight: 10 hidden gems you didn’t know were in Glasgow

Food and Drink
This is a short list as we really didn’t spend much time in the city itself. In order of how happy they made me:

The Pot Still  – Whisky Bar
So great we went twice in the same day. Bartender was worried about my choice of such a peaty whisky (LAPHROAIG QUARTER CASK) and wondered if I’d like a taste first before he poured it, bless him.

Cafe Wander
Three words: Full Scottish Breakfast. Everything perfectly cooked, friendly service and my new litmus test for a breakfast joint – when I ask them to hold the eggs, I really like it when a server asks me what I’d like more of, instead.

Bread Meats Bread – gourmet hamburgers
Hungry travellers fresh off a train that contained an exuberant, heavily perfumed hen party, this place caught our eye on Yelp. Jeff and I both ordered burgers, but Ann really won this round with the Angry Bird Poutine. Happily it was so huge she needed help.

The Butterfly and the Pig – The Dining Room Downstairs
Shabby chic and a super quirky menu of comfort food classics. It was nice and cool in Glasgow after a hot week in London so I could dig into mac and cheese with bacon. Big portion, could only eat half. Really wished our hotel room had a kitchenette so I could have taken the second half with me.

Regretfully, we didn’t spot a single deep-fried Mars bar, deep-fried pizza or a munchy box. But then, I don’t think I was drunk enough to really want any of those things anyway.

Fun
Trust me there are tons more things to do than we managed owing to the whirlwind nature of our trip but we managed to fit these in:

Glasgow Botanic Gardens
I can imagine how nice it would be to enter the glass houses during a dull, wet day in January for a fresh transfusion of green, tropical plants.

Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis
Over 800 hundred years old, we went because I had an Outlander fan moment and they had used it as a location, but that soon turned into simple appreciation of its beauty. Nearby Necropolis is great for an uphill walk and good views of the city.

Discover Scotland – coach tours and day trips
We did the Jacobite Steam Train, Glenfinnan and Mallaig tour, which was spectacular. Great driver/tour guide, lots of great stories and anecdotes about the points of interest. It was about a 12-hour day (tour van leaves George Square at 8:00am sharp and returns at about 7:30 pm) but very relaxing to let someone else plan the day’s events and stops! Our feet thanked us for taking a day off.

I am going to finish my thoughts here today with the realisation that I – gasp – prefer Glasgow to Edinburgh and look forward to visiting again.

 

A couple of new, well-paired obsessions

I’ve got two new hobbies that complement each other bee-yoo-ti-fully. Knitting and podcasts. Podcasts and knitting.

I realise podcasts have been around for ages, and I’d often tried to get into them, sometimes listening to a random episode of something during a long stint in the kitchen, but nothing really stuck.

Until I found a podcast I really liked: The History of English. Etymology, linguistics and British/European history have long been interests of mine, and as a word nerd, learning about the evolution of the English language has been absolutely fascinating. Especially when I discovered that I’m living in an area of England that used to be known as The Danelaw.

Now I had a riveting podcast with over 80 episodes (and counting) to listen to, but needed a secondary activity to keep me busy while listening. While I do like to cook and potter around the house, I would find myself running out of things to do before the episode had finished but also didn’t really feel like playing yet another round of 2048 on my phone.

Around the same time, a friend here in Leeds convinced me to give knitting another try. I mean, we are in Yorkshire, once the wool capital of the world, and a place where sheep and wool are still incredibly important to Yorkshire’s livelihood and cultural identity. My village, Chapel Allerton, even supports a wool shop!

She picked me up the first issue of Simple Stylish Knitting, the best way I could have possibly re-learned how to knit. Each issue of the magazine contains a ball of yarn and a pattern for a 15 cm square to knit for a quilt. Each knitted square teaches a new stitch or pattern. Every issue also contains other simple projects that are growing progressively more detailed as each square is mastered. If the detailed instructions and photos aren’t quite enough to go on, they even have a YouTube channel with instruction videos – the only way I mastered the bobble stitch.

I tried knitting as a teen, started a horrible scarf and quickly gave it up as a bad job. In general I have never been very good at most crafts and visual arts – I was the kid who always got a C+ in art class, and happily switched to music and drama in high school. I don’t draw, I don’t paint, I don’t sew, I don’t make jewellery, and in general I’m okay with that – nobody can be good at everything, and I’m happy to be a good cook, writer and somewhat flukey photographer.

But, I think precisely because I don’t really identify as a knitter, it has been a fun, low-key thing to try. And someday I’ll have a massive quilt to be quite proud of.

bobble!

 

Amsterdam

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I’m just going to get this off my chest now because it’s the main reason I didn’t post much on Facebook during my visit to Amsterdam. Yes – sometimes I caught whiffs of marijuana as we wandered through the narrow streets of the city centre, but I get tired of people who assume it’s the top (or only) reason to visit. Even Anthony Bourdain is getting a bit bored and refers to this juvenile assumption in his travel tips. Sigh.

Amsterdam is full of distinctive seventeenth century architecture, more canals than Venice, a swoon-worthy amount of art and friendly, laid-back locals for whom a smart-ass sense of humour seems to be mandatory. Either that or I ask a lot of stupid questions. I loved how they would take my earnestness, set me back on my heels with a wee bit of sass and make me instantly comfortable.

It’s an emotional city for me as well. My parents are Dutch, so being surrounded by soft, guttural Dutch speech transports me back to childhood family gatherings. During one cozy breakfast in a small café, the radio was on and the morning show DJ sounded exactly like my late father. 

And the food! Whether it’s the sausages and cheese I grew up with on every brown café menu, the abundance of pancake houses or the little speculaas or stroopwafel biscuits that appear with each cup of coffee or tea, I’m never far from my roots.

This was our first experience using AirbnbWe planned this trip rather quickly and our visit fell during the Tulip Festival so available hotel rooms either had Manhattan prices, or were so small that we’d be able to dive into the bed from the doorway. Our rented flat was in a great location near the museums and a short walk to the city centre. I’m definitely a convert – for less money than a tiny hotel room, we had a large, airy flat with a huge open-concept living room/kitchen, along with a comfortable bedroom and bathroom. Our hosts were easy to reach by text and email, punctual and helpful. We’ve used other flat and house rental agencies in the past, but Airbnb has moved to the top of the list.

When we last visited Amsterdam in 2011, we quickly realised we could have easily added at least three more days to our itinerary so I whipped up this short trip to right that ancient wrong. And it was my birthday. There’s nothing like waking up in a different, exciting city on your birthday.

Armchair Travel
Stunningly beautiful pictures of Amsterdam (exactly what it says on the tin)

I always love me some travel shows when I’m researching, and my two travel gurus are Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves. Bourdain’s bad boy balances out Mr. Steve’s more wholesome ethos and delivery. But as much as I’d rather have a night out with Anthony,  it’s my man Rick’s insistence on travelling with only carry-on luggage that has saved my ass on multiple occasions, so…I think Rick wins.

More specifics on food, drink and fun below. Continue reading

Carrot Soup with Jalapeño and Cilantro

Carrot Soup Jalapeno Cilantro

I admit it, I can still make food choices like a 12 year old when I’m not being diligent. I do my best to eat as many vegetables as possible, but I have to trick myself a lot of the time. The only time I will eat carrots willingly is when they have been made into soup, or baby carrots on a platter of crudités with plenty of dip.

So it’s not surprising that I have more than one go-to recipe for carrot soup. This is the one that you can make without too much planning, as there are only six ingredients, and you probably already have butter, chicken broth and onions in your possession. It’s an easy recipe to vegan-ize as well, I would imagine. From there it’s just a quick hop to pick up some carrots, jalapeño and cilantro.

I made it tonight because the selection of chilis I bought for a previous recipe came bundled with a jalapeño pepper, and I didn’t want it to wither before I could get to it. A combination of Dutch heritage and soaking up some Yorkshire thriftiness is definitely working in my bank balance’s favour.

You can find the recipe here – Alice Waters’ carrot soup (one of the variations) at chinese grandma and check out the whole site; it’s gorgeous.

Six months in Leeds

Six months have passed since I landed at Heathrow with more luggage than I’ve ever lugged anywhere. I’ll never forget the moment I pushed the trolly through the arrivals gate and there was Jeff – a week further along in his English adventure than me.

I celebrated my six month anniversary in a fitting way – two of my wonderful co-workers from my temp job joined me at a monthly cheese club, and afterward we popped into the pub where Jeff was taking part in a jazz jam so they could meet him. I thought it was a small turning point – the first time my work life, social life and Jeff’s music life intersected.

Coincidentally, the pub that holds the cheese night is two doors down from the short-term flat rental Jeff and I stayed in for my first week in Leeds. I hadn’t been to that part of the city in weeks and it was fun to remember how strange it was to walk around and think  “Holy shit – I LIVE here now”.

Six months in seems like a good time to take stock. Have I changed or am I still the same me in a different place?

  1. My accent is still the same, even though it’s the question I get most often from back home. And no, it isn’t a cliché, one of my trusted friends here assures me that yes, I do say “oot” and “aboot” instead of “out” and “about”. How I Met Your Mother and every other piece of pop culture making fun of us is right! We Canadians just can’t seem to hear it.
  2. I have a hard time saying words like “telly”, “cuppa” and “cheers” because I’m concerned I sound like a twat trying to sound English. And oh god, I still can’t get the hang of “Alright?” as a greeting.
  3. I’m living in leggings and jeggings and now normal jeans that aren’t super skinny jeans just look weird to me. I shouldn’t have let one upsetting peep in the 3-way mirror at GAP convince me that I couldn’t pull them off.
  4. Emotionally, I do feel stronger and more confident. I’ve always been a fan of my own company and, both in Toronto and here in Leeds, I choose it over people who don’t make me feel great about myself. No, I don’t mean I need to be showered with compliments, more just that if I come home happy and elated about who I’ve hung out with, rather than feeling uncool and/or uncertain that the other person liked me, it’s some food for thought about whether I want to seek out their company in future. Oh, and patronising insults are an instant way to make sure I “lose” your contact information.
  5. I’m not walking as much as I did in Toronto – everything is much closer together! Where I was routinely walking at least four kilometres a day in Toronto – one km walk to the subway station, another 900 metres from the subway station to my office, long walks at lunchtime, and then the return journey home, let’s just say that I am going to have to really press on those friends who’ve promised me long walks on the dales and moors of Yorkshire to get back into walking shape. Or stop eating anything sweet.
  6. I still get a kick out of living somewhere where I don’t know almost everything about it the way I did in Toronto and southern Ontario in general. I genuinely don’t know where things are, whether it’s the geography of Yorkshire or finding neat little shops and cafés. There’s always something new around the corner for me here.
  7. We still don’t know what we’re going to do once Jeff is finished his program in September, so I’ve had to make peace with the fact that life will be up in the air and unsettled for months to come. Will we be able to stay in Leeds? Will we be somewhere else in the UK? Will we return home? As a planner and a do-er, this is new territory for me and I’ve had to get comfortable with the not-knowing. So I’m trying to make sure I experience everything that living in this part of England has to offer and try to live in the moment more often.
  8. I miss how grounded our house in Toronto made me feel – our framed photos of people and places, furniture and home stuff acquired over time, shelves full of books and little objects. Whenever I’m in someone’s house that has that lived-in quality I envy it a little. Which is odd because I found the exercise of reducing our belongings and keeping the essentials incredibly exhilarating at the time. Let’s just say that the FBI Safehouse Chic look is wearing a little thin. And I should have chosen a sofa long enough to stretch out for proper naps. What are love seats good for anyway?

Haworth

My mother-in-law took this stunning photo of Haworth – Brontë country

Two Quiet Armchair Travel Films

Let me be clear – these are quiet films. Not chick flicks, not rom-coms; no explosions, zombies or decapitations. No Byzantine plots with multiple storylines. No A-list celebrities sculpted and styled to perfection.

These two simple films will draw you in and are less like watching a movie and more like that feeling when you reach the part of your holiday when time has slowed down, you’ve finally shucked off your workday cares and sitting at an outdoor café in the sun watching the passing parade is your only reason for being.

Both films remind me of Lost in Translation, but nobody needs to tell you to watch that. Both films are easy to file into the back of your mind and never actually get around to watching. I know, because I heard about them every so often and I never bothered to watch them either. Until I did.

The Lunchbox
Do yourself a favour and plan to watch this film when you have already picked up a takeaway Indian curry. Do not do what I did and watch this film while eating butternut squash ravioli with arrabbiata sauce. The dissonance was almost painful. This film will make you want to buy a tiffin box for your lunch and maybe branch out from your usual butter chicken or tikka masala next time you’re in the mood for Indian food.

Set in Mumbai. If you’re short on patience/time, don’t miss the sequence near the beginning of the film which depicts the delivery system of home-cooked lunches in tiffin tins to Mumbai’s workforce. Absolutely amazing!

Note: The version I’ve linked to doesn’t have subtitles, but you can probably find it on Netflix.

Cairo Time
One of my favourite books, Moon Tigeris partly set in Cairo. It’s a book that always lingers in my mind long after I’ve finished it, and I decided to watch Cairo Time. I began to watch it to sneak a few glimpses of the city, but I quickly became engrossed in the characters and story. It’s a fascinating depiction of a city I’ve been curious about since childhood. Come for the cityscapes, stay for the stunning shots of the pyramids.

The next time you’re looking for something a bit different to watch on a bleak winter night, give one of these films a go!

 

Thank you, Mr. Monaghan

books books booksWhen I look back on my life I can see moments when a single person changed its trajectory completely. One of them was my English Literature teacher, Mr. Monaghan.

Before that fateful English class in my penultimate year of high school, I didn’t really know what I was going to do afterward. I had gone to a private school for grades 1-8, and reader, before you think “ooh, fancy”, let me tell you it was not that type of private school. It was a private Christian school, big on GOD and religion but not particularly focused on having a high-quality curriculum or teachers, where it was okay for teachers to turn a blind eye to mean-spirited cliques and favouritism. Shy, awkward and deemed uncool at the age of 6 in a class that didn’t change for 8 years, I had a miserable time that I’ve tried to forget.

Thankfully I switched over to our town’s public high school for the next stage in my education and while I was relieved to be a normal kid at a normal school, I had to work my ass off to keep up with the coursework – this is when the alarming gaps in my primary education showed clearly. I must not have had much confidence in my intelligence – I’ve saved some of my assignments from high school and there is one essay I wrote at 16 for a sociology class that still breaks my heart when I think of it. We were tasked to write about what we saw ourselves doing in the future. In short, I had imagined myself going to community college in a nearby town for a one-year administrative course and living in that same town in a small studio apartment while I worked full time as a secretary. Wow. Dream big, kid.

By the following year my ability to keep up with the rest of my classmates must have gotten easier because I ended up on the university-bound track. The first course that counted toward my admissions average on my university applications was English Literature, taught by Mr. Monaghan. I had always liked my English courses, but now I loved it.

He strode into the room that first day, gave us all a long piercing look, and led us through a fiery semester. He seemed to take all of our measures with that look – those sitting in the back of the room, arms crossed in defiance and boredom, he let alone; those in the front rows, rapt with attention, he engaged fully. I sat near the front and to this day I am glad I did. To me he was equal parts John Keating (O Captain! My Captain!) from Dead Poets Society and Mr. Carpenter from the Emily trilogy. I was one of the lucky ones on his radar, and if I failed to finish the required reading, he left me sizzling with remorse. And it wasn’t enough to do the reading, you had to come prepared to discuss it with the class, and be articulate about it too. Unless you were sitting in the back of the room; by that time he had cheerily dubbed them “the behemoths” and ignored them unless they raised their hands.

I felt confident enough to try poetry for one of the assignments – something I’ve not done since, and while I’m sure it was supremely awful (I was going through a breakup at the time), he marked it with the same gravity he bestowed upon my essays.

I ended up with a final mark of 86 per cent. With only five more courses to count towards that all-important admissions average, I had an amazing start which I maintained nicely over the next year, never quite reaching that peak again, but well enough to be accepted everywhere I’d applied. I took my degree in English Literature thanks to that class – the first time in my life I felt like I was actually good at something.

And now, reader, you are probably thinking, “Nice story, but what does this have to do with food or travel?”

Well, nothing. And everything.

My English Lit studies filled my head with Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Romantic period, the Gothic period, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Dickens and scores more genres and books than I can even remember. Being away at university became my ticket to a much larger world than my previous small-town self could have possibly imagined – a world of new friends, new foods, new experiences, city life, travelling, and at the risk of sounding hokey, starting the process of finding out what I wanted out of life. And with all those books sloshing around in my head, it’s thrilling to be here in the UK, to see with my own eyes the places where so many stories have been set, so many authors have lived.

Thank you, Mr. Monaghan, for seeing something in me.