Category Archives: Joie de vivre

Road Trips, Fireworks, and Kittens

I’ve written about snorkeling in Belize, hiking in Petra, learning Spanish in Mexico, working in Istanbul and Ramallah, and the biggest adventure of all, visiting my son in prison.

But I’m also a proponent of finding adventure closer to home.  After all, you can’t travel internationally 365 days a year, although I’d like to test that assumption.

So on Tuesday I drove 260 miles (418 kilometers) to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my cousin.  The speed limit for most of the route is 70MPH (113KPH).  On the plus side, the road is smooth, the scenery is pretty, and I just found out I have cruise control—after owning my car for over a year.  I set it to 76 in honor of the Independence Day holiday.

I90 was congested with semi trucks.  There are a lot of disturbing billboards for truck stop porno shops along the way.  Is that all truckers do when they don’t have their hands on a steering wheel?  Ugh.

This was the route Lynn and I took two years ago on our way to New Orleans.  This post describes some of the exciting places we visited, like the Cranberry Discovery Center and Jellystone Park.

I stopped at a wayside rest and learned about sphagnum moss, including how to spell it.

I somehow tore myself away from this fascinating info-plaque and drove on.

Madison is half the size of St. Paul-Minneapolis.  It has a Top 10 public university where I met one of my nieces for happy hour.  She’s always been a great person and she’s even better now because she’s doing what young adults are supposed to do in college.  I don’t mean studying.  I mean figuring out how to be an adult.  How to manage friendships, romantic relationships, inner turmoil, outer turmoil, etc.

A few hours later, my cousin and I went to Hyvee for dinner because his wife, who was exhausted from her work as a physical therapist, wanted to rest and asked him to bring her a to-go Cobb salad.

When Hyvee opened in St. Paul, people acted as if it was the second coming of Christ.  I don’t get it.  It’s just another grocery store with all the same processed food but presented beautifully. We had the all-you-can-eat “Chinese” buffet and I can tell you, they should have paid me $8.99 to eat the execrable crap they passed off as Chicken Stir Fry.  The chicken was rubbery and looked suspiciously as if it had been extruded from a machine.  But I wolfed it down because I hadn’t eaten since happy hour, where I had ordered a large basket of deep-friend cauliflower. It was terrible.  I ate every crumb.

Back at his house, my cousin and I sat on the porch in the dark, slapping mosquitoes and talking about politics and our childhoods—we grew up three houses apart so we feel more like siblings than cousins. He’s a radio journalist and just about ready to hang it up in this political climate.  “Working at Hyvee looked really appealing,” he remarked.

The next day we drove through the arboretum, had breakfast at a place called Barriques and a few hours later lunch at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner. Then we spent an hour at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.  How had I never been there?  I’ve been to many botanical gardens around the world, and this was one of the best.

Then it was back on the road, just in time to arrive home for 4th of July fireworks.  You may have read that people who have lived through war can be re-traumatized by the sounds of fireworks. Well I live in a neighborhood of many Southeast Asian immigrants and last night it was like trying to sleep through the Vietnam war.  I could hear my neighbors yelling and shouting in Hmong in between what sounded like cannon blasts until 1:30 am.

I finally gave up on sleep and got up, only to find an animal adventure under my dining room table, where my latest foster cat was in the process of giving birth.  I sat with her, stroking her head.  It was a rough night, but here they are this morning, six in a pile.  Worth it.

Marmot in Medellin

It’s a good thing I friended our Bogota tour guide on Facebook, or I might not have known he was featured in a New York Times article about the city this week.  Here’s what it said about him:

“Cyclists here often seem as abundant as cars, streaming down equally abundant protected paths. Bogotá is credited as the first city to host a Ciclovía — and it still does, shutting down large swaths of street every Sunday for bikers, pedestrians and even acrobats.

“Itching to get on two wheels, I joined a three-hour ride that offered a fascinating look at the city through the eyes of our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas, a graffiti artist and passionate enemy of inequality. He told us about Justin-Bieber-gate, when the Canadian singer tagged a wall under police protection just a few months after the police had shot and killed a popular graffiti artist — and inadvertently sparked a street artist uprising.”

If Michael told us that he, himself, was a graffiti artist, I missed it.  But it fits.

Back to Medellin.

The four of us sat around the lounge drinking coffee and waiting for our guide to arrive.

“Mota!” Roxana exclaimed, beaming at me from across the table.  Mota, short for marmota, meaning marmot, because I sleep a lot.  Roxana’s pet name for me.

Roxana and I met at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health where I was the director of development and she was the development assistant—a position for which she was way overqualified.  We soon spent our weekly meetings talking about our personal lives.  I was a hot mess.  My son was in jail, homeless, or missing much of the time due to his addictions.  I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was injecting myself with steroids every day.  I had such extreme vertigo at times that I couldn’t open my eyes or sit up.  I wasn’t able to focus on my job and my employment was precarious as a result. I either had insomnia or slept for 12-hour stretches.  Thus the marmota moniker. Roxana was like a mother to me during those dark days.

Finally, to everyone’s relief including mine, I was fired.  I went back to grad school, got a part time, completely flexible grad fellowship, and started to travel.  First I went to Mexico for a week to study Spanish.  It was such an exhilarating experience that I went back for three weeks, then three months.  My MS symptoms disappeared.  Eventually I was told there had been a mistake, that I didn’t have MS after all.  Now, I’m not saying that MS is just a symptom of stress.  Most people with MS really have MS, an extremely serious condition.  I got lucky and was misdiagnosed.

“When you first came to Scotland,” Lynn said, as we discussed how we had all met each other, “Richard was sure you had survived cancer or some terrible accident, because you had such zeal to see and experience everything. And you took all those pills.”

“Oh, those pills were just supplements that gave me expensive urine,” I said.  “And Richard wasn’t far off.  I did live for two years with that MS misdiagnosis. I thought I would be in a wheelchair within five years.”

That was 18 years ago.  When Roxana went through her divorce, I got to mother her.  Now that we’re both in good places we mostly talk about books, movies, politics, our families, and of course, travel.  She works two jobs and has built her own translation business so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like.

I was excited to spend two whole days with Roxana and Lynn, and for them to get to know one another.

I had met Ricardo over one of many excellent dinners in Peru, where Roxana had been my excellent guide.  He reminds me of an old-time movie star like Cary Grant.  He’s smart, funny, and well traveled.  He worked for the Peru Tourism Board for years and is now with Regus , which rents out office space on an as-needed basis.

Our guide, Daniella, arrived.  She was a serious young woman, but she lighted up when she learned Roxana and Ricardo were Peruvian.  She was going to Peru the following week, so our guide would be getting tourist tips from her tourists.

Lost and Lonach

Three days left in Scotland, then home to Minnesota to sleep in my own bed for one night. The next day I would drive to northern Wisconsin to a resort called Garmisch USA that some heiress from Chicago had built to resemble the German town of Garmisch, with an “Irish Castle” thrown in.

The giant carved androgynous figure at the entrance?  It’s anyone’s guess what that’s about.

This would be the annual cousins’ weekend in a big cabin on a lake, sponsored by my aunt.  I so look forward to it every year.  We would eat, read, make bonfires, take the boat out and fish, eat, play Scrabble, talk, hike, eat, and not sleep much.  It would feel surreal, being in Scotland one day and at this resort two days later.

But first I had to push myself to finish the attic, my second proposal, and the book by my new favorite author, Kazuo Ishiguro. How had I never read him?  Lynn and Richard had two or three of his novels in their library, and I started with the most famous, The Remains of the Day.  I am a big reader, and I found Ishiguro’s character, the butler Stevens, one of the most movingly described characters I’ve ever read described.  I bought two more of Ishiguro’s books at Heathrow and as I was plowing through them at home, Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.  I felt like a genius.

There were a few more excursions to fit in.  We took Lord Parker and drove around, first stopping at a ruined church.

There was a sad plaque in honor of a 15-year-old soldier killed in WWI.

We visited a Pictish tel.  A tel is a hill composed of layers of settlements.  I had only ever heard tell of tels (ha ha) in Israel, where you have the Romans building on top of the Arameans, who had conquered and built on top of the Whosiwhatsits, and on and on.  Don’t bother looking up “Whosiwhatsits,” I just made that up.

Nearby was this road sign.  I’m fairly certain I am not the first person to have my photo taken in front of it.

“It has to be done,” Lynn commented.

There was yet another war memorial plaque, to the Gordon Highlanders, nearby.  In the US, it seems you have to go to Washington, DC or a state capitol to see war memorials.  They  are ubiquitous in Britain—in parks, street corners, and department stores.  I prefer the British approach.  We should be reminded about the cost of war all the time, everywhere we go.

The following day Richard dropped me off in town to get a haircut at Cassie’s salon. My stylist had extremely short, brassy red, spiked hair.

“I’ll just have a trim,” I stated unequivocally.  She went to work and talked away but I could only understand about half of it.

Another customer was seated in the chair next to me and when I heard her Spanish accent I asked, “Are you Maria?”  And it was Maria, the Peruvian wife of Lynn and Richard’s friend Nigel.  They had met when he was working on an oil company project in Peru.  We chatted, then Nigel came in with their nine-month-old son, and Nigel and I chatted.

The hair cut was good and it only cost £9—about $12!

The next day Richard and I went to the Lonach Games. There are Highland games all over Scotland, but I’d like to believe that the Lonach Games were the best.  They’ve been an annual event for 175 years and are a source of much local pride.  The men start early in the day and march in clans, playing the bagpipes and drums, from one town to another for hours, stopping for “wee drams” along the way.  Their grand entrance onto the grounds in the early afternoon is a highlight of the games.

There was lots of piping, dancing, and competitive throwing of very heavy objects over very high bars. Richard and I had a pint and people watched.

This couple looked like movie extras.  “Probably American or Canadian tourists,” Richard remarked.

 

Leith Hall

We slept in, although for me that meant 7:00 am.  I had forgotten to bring milk up to my room so I crept downstairs to the kitchen.  All the doors make that “eeeeeeee…” creaking noise that doors make in scary movies.  When I offered to oil them once, Richard explained that they like the creaking because it tells them when a dog is sneaking in or out where he shouldn’t.

I managed to get into the kitchen without waking the dogs. I fetched milk, turned, and there was dear old Cosmo, lying in his bed in the corner looking at me with his misty bluish-brown eyes.  I walked over and squatted down to talk to him. He briefly moved as though to get up but must have realized I didn’t have food, so he settled back down with his head resting on his paws with his eyes rolled up to look at me.

“Who’s a good boy?  Isn’t it nice and quiet.  No Merry and Pippin to bother you.  Aren’t you the lucky dog.  What a good life.”

He heaved a sigh which rattled his whole body as if to say, “Okay that’s enough,” and I tiptoed back to my room to work until everyone else was up.

Sabrina had booked a pony-riding tour for herself.  Simon was dropping her off, then driving to MacDuff to visit a cemetery and learn more about the Jacobites.  The Star Tribune recently published his article about this.  He and Sabrina were leaving the following day so they packed in two distillery tours after lunch—Glenlivit and Glenfidditch.

Lynn asked if I wanted her to drop me off at Leith Hall on her way to somewhere else.  I didn’t know what it was, but I said yes.  I wanted to do everything.

Leith Hall is a “typical laird’s home.”

I got lucky and joined a tour that had just started with a young couple from Germany and a dour, elderly Canadian couple. It was one of those times when I felt like a stereotypical American, with my enthusiastic appreciation of everything, exclaiming, “Wow!” and asking lots of questions.  The guide loved it, but I got the impression the Canadians found me annoying.  The Germans stared at me as Germans do—as if I was a specimen to be studied.

Photos were not allowed inside except in a few locations.  This is Henrietta, or Henny.

She was Northern Irish.  She outlived the laird and their three children. A niece who could have inherited was lesbian, so Henrietta donated the hall to the National Trust in 1945.  It’s interesting that Henny knew her niece was gay, and sad they she disinherited her.  Henny lived in the house until her death 20 years later.  I would love to know what the niece thought about it all.

I had to—had to—have a photo from the taxidermy exhibit.  I fell behind the group pretending to be seriously interested in reading the plaques about boxing squirrels, then whipped out my camera and surreptitiously snapped a pic.

The tour was brief and then we were cut loose to explore the small military exhibit, where photos were allowed.

In generations pre-dating Henny, the younger sons had been sent to Australia or the Americas. One came home with these articles and the dubious claim that the Cree Indians loved him.

This was a standard issue musket given to British soldiers in America.  It was finely carved.  I wondered by whom.  Was it issued this way or did the soldiers have lots of time on their hands to literally whittle away?

I liked this miniature knick-knack shelf carved by a prisoner of war.

I spent my last £2 on a bottle of water so inspected the tiny gift shop just for fun.  Mostly it was garden-themed items, which was apropos because the gardens were really the highlight of the place. You could wander for hours, and I did.

There was a kitchen garden kept by students of nearby Clatt Primary School.

What a downer of a story for a beautiful tree!

Too late—it was time to meet Lynn—I discovered the walking paths that went for miles through the fields and woods.

This Little Piggy went to Market

I settled into a routine as I had in the south.  Get up early, blog and work, join Lynn and Richard for breakfast, then work some more.   I lay on my bed under the covers to keep warm, at first wondering, “How will I ever work without a desk?” but quickly getting used to tapping away on my keyboard in a reclining state.

Whenever I glanced out the window, Dottie the cat would be in position, staring at me like she was trying to communicate some vitally important matter of possibly national interest.  I tried to get into the habit of  rousing myself once an hour and take a lap around the property.  Dottie would accompany me down the drive, but at a distance of about 10 feet, as if to say, “I’m not with you, I just happen to be walking down the drive at the same time as you.”  Lord Parker would wait for me at the gate, then tail me as I walked the circular path around the garden.  When I got to the gate on the other side that led to the river, he would watch me beseechingly with his tawny, human-like eyes, maybe thinking, “maybe this time, maybe she’ll let me come too.”

There, I did it, I anthropomorphized.  I really don’t believe that animals have thoughts, but since we humans have more thoughts than we know what to do with, I guess it’s tempting to lay some of ours on other beings.

It was better than nothing that I walked around Dunrovin half a dozen times a day.  I would like to report that I also took long, vigorous walks every afternoon as I had in Eton and Windsor.  That was my goal.  But just the opposite took place, and I may well have to check into a fat farm to work off the pounds I gained in Scotland.

I blame it on the doubles.  Lynn has two small fridges in the kitchen and two freezers full of venison and other meats Richard has harvested, plus a pantry and a wine cellar. Then there was the double cream.  I continued my personal single, double, and clotted cream festival throughout the month, pouring it over or globbing it onto pastry shells, croissants, ice cream, strawberries, muesli, and anything else that didn’t move.

The three of us ate lunch and dinner together most days.  Lynn loves to cook, is a great cook, and doesn’t stint on rich ingredients or portions.  I feel so lazy saying this, but I only prepared about six meals the whole month.  When I offered, Lynn would usually say she already had the meal planned.  When I offered to make it, she would wave me off, saying it was no trouble.  We often had a salad and veggies, but they were in addition to a leg of lamb or shepherd’s pie.  I made lasagna and moussaka, then felt it was my duty to eat all the leftovers so they wouldn’t go to waste.

My first outing was to the Huntly Farmers’ Market, held once a month in the town square.

Bread, pastries, chutneys and jams and jellies, and beautiful berries.  All good vehicles for double cream.

Have you ever been to a farmer’s market where they sell fresh fish?  I bought some langoustines for our supper.

Surprise!  There was wild game.

Then there was the paella man, a Spanish guy named Marco.  I bought a bowl then walked around while Lynn sold raffle tickets and promoted an upcoming Harry Potter children’s party.

I talked to a retired physician who, with his wife and daughter, runs a small charity which benefits local initiatives in Nepal; they invited me to a fundraiser that would involve ceili dancing.

I sat on a bench to finish my paella and the granite was so cold I let out a yelp.  A woman standing nearby immediately offered me her portable seat cushion, then we began to chat and—too late—I noticed her kiosk full of Jehovah’s Witness literature.  But she and her fellow adherents were very nice and didn’t push it.

I decided to have a wander to work off the paella and wound up at Huntly Castle.

Just another day in Scotland.

Dunrovin

Lynn and Richard’s home is remote.  You fly into Aberdeen, population 212,000.  From there you head into the highlands and know you are getting close when you pass the town of Huntly, with around 4,500 people.  The closest town to the house is Gartly, a “hamlet” of 144 people.  A bend in the road.

Lynn and Richard’s house has a name, as do many houses in the UK.  I will call it Dunrovin because this is where Richard wanted to move when he retired and was done with big city life and international travels.

Actually, he wanted to move to a “wee bothy” (a hut).  I’m not sure which of these variations he had in mind but Lynn put the kibosh on the idea of a bothy.

Dunrovin had been owned by generations of the Gordon family until all the sons were killed or disbursed in the wars and there were no men of their class for the sisters to marry, so the family died out.

The idea of a stately home was difficult for me to comprehend, as an American.  It’s one of those things I think British people grow up knowing about, so it’s obvious to them.  There is a wealthy family—not royalty or aristocrats but landed gentry—living in the main house which has a name.  Everything surrounding it is referred to with that name and would have been part of the estate.  In the case of Dunrovin, there is the gamekeeper’s cottage up the hill, the laundry cottages over the road, and the farm house.  All were sold off, along with the silver, as the Gordon family contracted financially.

I will share some photos of the house and land, starting with the great outdoors.  My photos have been taken at various times of year over 12 years, so if some look like they’re set in winter, they are.

As you come up the drive, there are fields on either side with grazing sheep.

This is the back garden and beyond from inside Dunrovin.  In the middle distance is one of the satellite cottages that used to be part of the estate.

This is a view in the opposite direction, from the back of the garden near the gate that leads down to the river. Meet Parker.  He’s a very aloof dog; people call him Lord Parker.  But he always appeared and hovered near me whenever I left my room.  Parker is not much for people and I am tone deaf to dogs, so we got along great.

This is a similar view, only taken in summer this year so you can see that the sun really does come out in Scotland.  When there’s the slightest bit of sun and warmth, people like Lynn and me go out and sit on benches and turn our faces up to the sun and go “Mmmmmm,” while Richard complains that it’s too hot.

This is the back garden from the attic, where I spent a lot of time.  No, they didn’t put me up there, although that wouldn’t have been so bad because it’s a nice space with skylight views of the 15 chimneys.  No, it was because I requested to be given a project, and Richard assigned me to clear out and paint the attic.

Here is Parker again, your tour guide, showing you the net house full of lettuce and broad beans and peas.  The netting keeps the birds (and dogs) away.  Across from it is the glass house, where Richard grows hothouse veggies like tomatoes and peppers.

In addition to growing his own produce, Richard shoots deer and other game so in theory they could be almost self-sufficient if they wanted or needed to be.

Exiting out the back gate and leaving behind a disappointed Parker, I would often walk down to the river, passing these trees with old graffiti from soldiers billeted nearby after the war (I think).

Richard had moved a café table down to the river, where I enjoyed a cuppa.

I have asked and been told several times the name of the river, but I can’t remember.  I prefer to think of it as just The River.  This was where I would spend a month.

Signs and Wonders

Before I leave England for Scotland, I want to share a few favorite signs and sights that made me wonder.

Like this one, on the back of the toilet stall door at the Waterman’s Arms.  The Clansman function room?  I know it’s clansman with a “c” and I realize it’s probably something to do with a Scottish clan, but still.  In the US there would be protests over this sign.  I guess the word clan just doesn’t have the same association with the KKK as it would in the states.

Speaking of bathroom signs, I always got a kick out of this one at the leisure centre.  Probably some fool had ignored the first sign, which just had words, and they needed to literally paint a picture.

Walking home from the leisure centre, I would pass this sign.  It was tempting to hang a right to find out if there would be liquor barrels bigger than a man.  But the path led to a deserted-looking industrial area and I was always in a hurry, so I will never know.

At home, I kept glancing at the cover of the teacher’s union magazine that arrived in the mail.  The cover story was an important one.  Teachers need to be aware of the effects on children of being involved or even just hearing about traumatic events like the inferno at Grenfell Tower or the mass shooting in Manchester at the Ariana Grande concert.

But I also smirked at the acronym for the organization, and its placement, with rendered the title “The Teacher NUT.”  It seems a bit inappropriate, but it is memorable.  In the US, we have several bland acronyms: NEA—National Education Association and AFT, American Federal of Teachers.  I think I would prefer to be a member of the NUT.

Out on my walks, I would often pass this van.

It could be worse.  It could be Farter & Son.

At the playground in Windsor.  What an optimistic sign.

In the Eton Museum of Natural History.

Do a lot of contractors wander in off the street to use the toilet at the Natural History Museum?  Are contractors considered an inferior type of person, not worthy to piss in the same toilet as others?  Did some contractor create a situation in here, and no one is brave enough to confront him in person so they put up this sign?  I was careful not to make a mess in case there might be a sign “This Toilet is NOT to be Used by Americans” upon my return.

I passed this ominous poster in Windsor, stood a while taking photos of it, then realized I was right outside a military installation and moved along.  I’m sure it doesn’t appear ominous to the target audience—young men with lots of testosterone.

It’s a recruiting poster for the Coldstream Guards, the oldest regiment in the British army.  There is probably a recruiting office here because these are the “guards” as in “the changing of the guards” at Windsor Castle, which is just a few blocks away.  In this role, they wear what’s in your mind right now—the tall black furry helmets and red uniforms with brass buttons.

And this, in London, didn’t make me wonder. It made me feel admiration for a country which had only decriminalized “homosexual acts” in 1967.  Fifty years.  That’s not so long.  Maybe in 50 years’ time we in the US will have decriminalized immigrants.

Julie and I treated ourselves to a couple nights in a room above The George. The only room left was the top floor suite. Julie chose the master bedroom with a spectacular view of the Thames bridge and Windsor Castle.

Unfortunately this room turned out to be the one beneath which smokers congregated and drunks hung out at closing time.  I was in a nook off to the side and with ear plugs I didn’t hear a thing.  I slept fine in my narrow bed except that the floor in the 270-year-old pub was so slanted that every time I rolled over I kept rolling, into the wall.

This was our last supper, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in the back garden.