I’ve been trying to figure out my travel schedule for the last quarter of this year. I need to spend another 16 working days in Scotland, so probably four trips of three days, and one of four. I try to arrange my trips to coincide with Abi’s part-time days off. But I’ve also got tickets for eight concerts between October to December, and I need to plan around those dates. And I want to spend more time in the Glasgow office, but Easyjet only fly between Amsterdam and Glasgow on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.
As if these constraints weren’t enough, Deacon Blue are playing some dates around Scotland in November and December. Most of the easy options (Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Perth) have long sold out, but there is still some availability for Dundee and Aberdeen… Was there any way to squeeze them in? Turns out yes. I can actually save €40 by flying to Edinburgh on Saturday 3rd December instead of on Sunday 4th December, and put the money towards the concert ticket and a super-cheap advance train return to Aberdeen. Done deal!
I’ve been a fan of Deacon Blue since Raintown in the eighties. OK, so Aberdeen is a bit out of the way for me, but I’m super excited to finally get to see them live. And not just for the nostalgia value. I loved their last album, A New House, and their next one, Believers, is out next week.
We didn’t do, or attempt to do, as much during this years’s trip to California as we did in our last trip in 2013. This trip was mostly to hang out with family, anchored by Pat & Susan’s party for their 50th wedding anniversary. That’s not to say that we did nothing at all, but it was mostly short trips, many just within walking distance. The party was great. I met my new sister-in-law Danielle for the first time, saw Abi’s aunt and uncle and cousins from LA who I haven’t seen for…many? years, and her aunt from Texas I haven’t seen since Mick’s wedding. We also met Abi’s cousin Travis (and his new wife Carla) for the first time since our wedding. He was six years old then; now he’s thirty and just starting law school. Plus lots of other people. Inevitably, there were many conversations that started with, “Brexit, WTF.” I’m not normally good with parties, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
The first day we were there, Alex and I walked down to the T-Mobile shop on Lakeshore to pick up some SIM cards for the whole family. Amazingly, T-Mobile had a perfect offer for us: a “tourist plan” that offers three weeks of phone and (more importantly) data service for $30. We didn’t even have to explain what we wanted to a confused shop assistant. Cardboard pop-ups for the tourist plan were right there on the counter. There was a hidden cost in that the $30 doesn’t include an actual SIM card, just the service. (Or sales tax — a matter that Alex rolled his eyes at whenever we bought anything.) But still. It was a good deal, considering how much of our California family business is arranged through text messages and group chat. I’ve hung on to our SIM cards, because I’m going to be back in the US next week, and I’ll be able to re-up my data plan for another $30.
On the way back, we bought donuts. The first of many donut runs. The rest of the world — even New York! — doesn’t understand old-fashioned donuts, you see. (Maple glaze for me, chocolate for Abi.)
Abi and I walked in to Berkeley one day for lunch, and to snuffle around Telegraph Avenue a bit. I found a copy of Geoff Manaugh’s book A Burglar’s Guide To The City at Moe’s, as well as Charles Fleming’s Secret Stairs – East Bay, which I’d heard about on 99% Invisible. I ended up only trying out one of the walks, but throughout the trip I was much more aware of all the stairways that led up and down between houses all along the hilly streets of Oakland.
I had wanted to follow up on another 99% Invisible tourist tip, the (base of the) statue of Triumph Of Light statue on Mt Olympus in the heart of San Francisco, but I didn’t get round to it. We did, however, take a trip to San Jose to visit the Winchester Mystery House, which is amazing. Of all the things I’ve talked to people about since we came back, this is the one that has animated me most. It may be the spooky history that lures you there, but it’s the story of Sarah Winchester the Architect that I find much more compelling. She was so far ahead of her time that she would not have been out of place as a present-day eccentric Silicon Valley billionaire philanthropist. I need to read Mary Jo Ignoffo’s book Captive of the Labyrinth, because that book concentrates entirely on that side of her. There’s a film about Sarah Winchester in early production right now, but of course it’s going to be a supernatural thriller rather than a biopic of a fascinating woman challenging the restrictions how her time. (It might still be fun, though.)
Alex has got a gaming group going with his friends from school, and he was interested in making a start with miniatures. There was a games store in San Francisco that stocked the figures he was looking for. One morning, we walked to Jack London square and caught the ferry to the city. Wow! I had never taken it before, but it was a much more fun way to travel than BART. The ferry stops at Alameda, and then sails past the old naval base that the Mythbusters used for filming many of their iconic segments. You head out over the bay at speed — the ferry is a high-powered catamaran that can get up to 35 knots — cruise past Treasure Island, under the colossal Bay Bridge, and arrive at the picturesque San Francisco Ferry Terminal. I’m a big fan of ferries anyway, but this is a particularly good one.
Fiona and I saw Suicide Squad and Jason Bourne at the beautiful Grand Lake theatre.
Because the ferry to San Franciso was so much fun, Abi and I took it again when we made a day trip over to the city to visit the newly reopened SFMOMA. It’s an amazing museum, from Richard Serra’s monumental Sequence at street level to the stark geometry of the Oculus bridge at the top of the building, it’s a feast for the senses. We spent hours roaming about, but we could have spent a lot longer. I’m glad we decided to have lunch before we went in, because we were exhausted from all the walking when we finished our tour. If and when we go back, we’ll plan our visit with a half-way break for a snack and a sit-down. My favourite work was Lee Krasner’s room-scale Polar Stampede, which I’m sure I could sit and stare at for hours.
On our last weekend, Abi, Fiona, and I walked to the Art & Soul Festival in beautiful downtown Oakland. Great atmosphere, lots of food, music, and T-shirt vendors. Fiona bought a baseball shirt with an octopus design that she basically has been wearing non-stop ever since. We bumped into Sarah and her mother, and watched a circus and acrobatics performance by the students of the Kinetic Arts Center. We hit the Oaklandish store on Broadway on the way back.
The last day before we flew out, Alex and Fiona wanted to go karting. We went back to K1 Speed in South San Francisco, where they still had our signups on record from three years ago. Fiona still had to ride in the kids’ races back then, but she’s with the grown-ups now.
Finally, a quick word about WOW air. We flew with them because they offered the cheapest tickets for the dates we wanted to travel. They may be a “budget” airline, and so you do pay for everything, including a glass of water on the flight, but the quality of service was excellent. The planes were (almost) brand-new A321s and A330 Airbuses with firm but comfortable seats, lots of legroom, and universal AC power sockets between each pair of seats. The seat backs are rigid, which reduces the amount of poking and stabbing from the passengers behind you. There is a layover to change planes in Keflavik airport, but that’s worth it for its own sake. The views you get flying on approach to the airport are amazing. If you’re of a science-fictional mind, it’s more like landing at an outpost on a young colony planet than at a traditional Western airport. But the airport terminal itself is brand new, spacious, with a beautifully stark Nordic design. There’s not a lot to see or do in the terminal, and I’m not sure how I’d feel if there had been delays, but for a couple of hours it was just fine.
One thing I did miss on the flight was a map display that tracked the plane’s position. On the flight from KEF to SFO, we flew over a tiny remote settlement consisting of a few streets and a small airstrip. I don’t know why, but I felt intensely curious about what it must be to live there. I didn’t know if we were over Greenland or Canada, though. When we arrived, I spent some time looking up the flight path, and using Google Maps to try to identify the place from mental sketch of the village layout and coastline land from above. I’m pretty sure it was Cape Dorset in Nunavut. No Google Street view, but the satellite imagery is surprisingly detailed. I have no idea what I’d do there, but I find myself drawn to the place.
Our second trip to the South Bay during August was to see Lindsey Stirling, again at the Mountain Winery. This is the third time we’ve been to see Lindsey Stirling as a family. Both previous times were at 013 in Tilburg, so there’s a family tradition of driving an hour and a half to see her. Or maybe it was just a trilogy than a tradition.
Fiona was excited because we were returning to where we had taken her to see the Barenaked Ladies six years ago — her very first concert. Alex seemed lukewarm. We were running a little late, but we still saw most of Carah Faye’s opening act, which was fine.
The first time we saw Lindsey Stirling perform, it was just her, her drummer, and her keyboard player. The second time she had two dancers on stage with her as well. This time, she had a troupe of six dancers. I don’t know if this is the continuing progression of her stage act, or because she didn’t have to fly so many people half-way across ther world; either way, it was the biggest and richest visual performance we’d seen of her. Although perhaps the dancers are starting to become a distraction from her own violin playing?
A definite distract were the short skits that played on the video screen behind the stage while she nipped off for a quick costume change. The first one was a jokey short about her biggest fan living backstage, and doing a short piece to camera. Meh. The second one was a new-agey video of water crystals forming and dissolving, with soothing background music, and a voiceover explaining the (pseudo-scientific) work of (discredited) scientist Masaru Emoto on how water crystals respond to our emotional state as an obvious truth that we were all missing. Alex literally facepalmed, and spent the whole video with his head in his hands and groaning. We could see his prior respect for Lindsey Stirling drain away from him. Around us, the open-air auditorium felt hushed, not so much out of respect, but out of a uncomfortable feeling of “is she really…?”
California is a bit of a weird mix, sometimes. One the one hand, it is a centre of scientific and technical innovation. On the other, it is the worldwide home of woo. I’m sure that some people in the audience were sitting there, nodding, and going “yeah, she’s really onto something”, just as many of the parents there were going to have some resoundingly skeptical conversations with their kids on the way back home. Alex certainly had a good rant on the way out of the gig afterwards. Abi pointed out that we go to Lindsey Stirling concerts for her music, not her beliefs, but I’m not sure if Alex was convinced. It’s a hard and perennial question: how do you deal with it when a person has qualities you both admire and abhor?
Alex didn’t buy any merch after the gig. Fiona did. The geometric T-shirt designs accompanying Lindsey Stirling’s new album Brave Enough are pretty cool.
Because we were late to arrive, we were right at the back of the Mountain Winery’s car park, and it took us almost a full hour to exit. A few days earlier, Abi and I had arrived much earlier, because we were having dinner before the concert. Even so, getting our of the car park was a slow affair, because the venue is half-way up a mountain, with just a single-track approach road. So, note to self: when visiting the Mountain Winery, get there early.
While we were in California in August, we took several trips to the South Bay. On the first occasion, Abi and I went to the Mountain Winery in Saratoga to see the Indigo Girls. We had been to the Mountain Winery six years ago to see the Barenaked Ladies when Fiona was still six years old (her first concert). This time it was just Abi and me, though. We had booked one of their dinner + concert packages, and we had a lovely meal out on the Chateau Deck overlooking the valley. I had a tuna and shrimp salad to start, braised beef short rib for my main course, and a lemon meringue tart for dessert. The food was okay (the wasabi overpowered everything in the salad, and there was far too much beef), and I felt a little bit hurried throughout the meal (to be fair, they were trying to get everybody done by the time the concert started), but the accompanying wine from the winery itself was excellent, and the setting was amazing.
Lucy Wainwright Roche played a pleasant opening set, and then she came back during the course of the Indigo Girls to provide backing vocals on a few numbers. I’m not actually the Indigo Girls fan here. Abi likes them, and I spotted the gig when I was scouting for live music to see while we were in the Bay Area. I didn’t know any of their songs apart from “Closer To Fine”, but I enjoyed the music throughout. “Chicken Man” stuck with me because I couldn’t quite believe I was hearing the lyrics right. (“They can’t really be singing chicken man, can they?”) I listened to the song on Spotify when we got back home after the gig, but I didn’t like the recording as much as the live version — it lacked the energy they brought to the concert.
Alex, Fiona, and I took a trip to Edinburgh in July. We flew over in the afternoon of Monday 18th. We picked up a rental car at the airport (upgraded from the Ford Focus I’d booked to a ludicrously huge Mercedes C200), and took a drive around South Queensferry to have a look at the new bridge under construction. Afterwards we drove to Haddington, and went out to dinner at the Waterside Bistro with Scott, Ange, Kyle, and Rachel. Alex and Fiona both had cajun chicken for the first time, not realizing quite how spicy cajun food can sometimes be. Alex was comically taken aback by his plate, but he did claim to like it (even though the heat eventually became too much for him). His palate is definitely evolving. It was a warm and sunny evening, and we took a leisurerly walk back along the river. Well, leisurely for the adults. The cousins spent most of the walk running and chasing each other.
Tuesday was one of the hottest days of the year in Edinburgh. I went in to work for the day, while Scott and the kids went to Foxlake for watery adventure fun, and hit Haddington again for ice cream in the afternoon. In the evening Alex, Fiona, and I drove back to the airport to drop off the car, and took the bus back into Edinburgh. We took a taxi to our Airbnb rental.
Wednesday I had to work again. I was supposed to be at an all-day workshop, but I had to abandon it part-way through the morning because of an allergic reaction to a personality profiling exercise. (That did allow me to be around the office during for an important software release in the afternoon, but my team had that all under control anyway.) Alex and Fiona were on their own. (Deliberately so: this was an Independence Quest.) They had phones, they know the language, and they had been around Edinburgh before. This was the day for them to explore the city on their own. They left the apartment around lunchtime (after the massive thunderstorms had passed), and visted the National Museum. They wanted to go to Maison de Moggy, the cat café in the Grassmarket for lunch, but they found that it only serves cake, not hot food. So they found a fish and chip shop and had that instead. At some point during the afternoon they hit up the Black Lion games store, and made their way back across the Meadows to the apartment. In the evening we went out to see Area 11 at the Mash House, and had fish and chips (again) at Uncle’s on George IV Bridge on the way back.
I had the day off on Thursday. Ange dropped Kyle off at our apartment just before we left. We walked across the Meadows to drop off our bags at the FanDuel office for the day, and raid the snack table. A long time ago (2002), Abi made a geocache called Up The Close And Down The Stair, which is a scavenger hunt around Edinburgh’s old town, following in the footsteps of 19th century serial killers Burke and Hare. We had a great time doing the cache, stopping off for ice cream, lunch at Mamma’s, and the occasional pokémon. At the end of the day we picked up our bags, saw Kyle off on a train back to East Lothian, and had just enough time to get Alex a haircut at Alfies barbershop on Fleshmarket Close before we caught the bus out to the airport and back home.
So it turns out that if you stick googly eyes on stone statues of children, the result is absolutely terrifying:
We saw these near the site of the first stop of the cache, in the graveyard of St Cuthbert’s on Princes Street. In case you missed it the first time:
Of course this meant that we had to find a shop that sold googly eyes, and targets to apply them to:
Not quite so terrifying, that last one.
At festival time, Edinburgh has such a shortage of flat surfaces for affixing posters that they put up temporary structures just for plastering with festival advertising. In Dutch, these would be called “plakzuilen”.