Alex found Lindsey Stirling on YouTube back in 2012, and got the whole family listening to her infectious pop violin. She was touring in support of her first album, and for Christmas that year I got us tickets for her gig at 013 in Tilburg on 16th January 2013.
I don’t remember if it had been snowing that day itself, but the country was white and cold. Alex, Fiona, and I bundled into Turty late in the afternoon and drove around the Amsterdam ring to Breukelen, where we picked up Abi from the station. We stopped off for some food at a McDonalds on the way, and got to Tilburg in time for the concert, but not in time to catch the support act. The place was packed — unpleasantly so, I thought. We struggled to find a spot at the back of the hall with a moderately unobscured view.
The gig itself was great. Lindsey played all of the key songs from her album. She had a keyboard player and a drummer on stage with her, and the act was full of energy. Fiona had been to see the Barenaked Ladies at the Mountain Winery with us in 2010, but it was Alex’s first pop concert. We loved it and resolved to catch her whenever she played near us again.
That day was last Tuesday! The concert at 013 in Tilburg again (after originally having been scheduled for the Klokgebouw in Eindhoven). Not wanting to run the risk of Turty’s exhaust dropping off (again) on a long trip with a time-critical component, I hired us a bigger car for the drive this time. I picked it up at lunchtime, and we set off on the journey at about 17:30. Just as before, we circled Amsterdam and picked Abi up at Breukelen. No snow this time, just lots of traffic jams.
We got to the centre of Tilburg just before 20:00, parked, and queued to get in. The place was packed again. We tried to get in to the downstairs area, but couldn’t even squeeze through the doors. A friendly usher told us that there was still space up on the balcony. It was better up there, but the sight lines weren’t great. We bought merch, lots of merch. We caught the second half of Mike Tompkins’s opening set, which was energetic and nicely produced, but not quite my thing.
Lindsey Stirling came on at 21:00, and the difference from last year was clear straight away. She still had the same keyboard player and drummer, but she was joined on stage by two dancers for many of the songs. The set was more elaborate, the lighting better, and the choreography was more elaborate. In the pauses between songs, she seemed more self-assured. Her second album, Shatter Me, came out earlier this year, and so she had more material to choose from. Everything was bigger, brighter, and more polished. Fiona was utterly entranced. Alex was somewhat pained by the sheer volume of the music, but enjoyed it too.
(I confirmed my suspicions that the iPhone 4’s low-light performance isn’t as good as the Nexus 4. And the Nexus 4 is not that great.) Long drive back afterwards, and we didn’t get home until after midnight. Alex and Fiona had brought neck pillows and duvets with them, so they curled up in their seats and slept some. I was up early the next day to get the car back before 08:00. Very worthwhile trip.
I’m back in Edinburgh this evening after spending the weekend up with Mum & Dad.
Dad was in hospital with a gallbladder infection back in May. By coincidence, I had planned to be stay with them for my trip Edinburgh trip of 7-9 May, and rent a car for driving back and forth to Edinburgh. When I arrived in Murthly late on the Tuesday evening, Dad was in a pretty bad state; it was handy that I was around to drive him to the doctor the next morning. The blood tests came back later that day, and he was admitted to hospital straight away. A variety of tests and scans indicated an extremely distraight gall bladder. When it became clear that the infection wasn’t immediately life-threatening, the doctors decided it would be best to treat him with antibiotics and wait until the infection had cleared up before operating to remove the organ.
Dad had his operation on Tuesday. Although the surgeons didn’t need to open him all the way up, apparently it was a tricky operation. During keyhole surgery, the abdominal cavity is inflated with CO2 gas to make space for the surgeons to poke around more easily. The gas is partly absorbed by the body, but in some patients it can cause effects that are more painful than the healing wounds themselves. From Wikipedia:
Not all of the CO2 introduced into the abdominal cavity is removed through the incisions during surgery. Gas tends to rise, and when a pocket of CO2 rises in the abdomen, it pushes against the diaphragm (the muscle that separates the abdominal from the thoracic cavities and facilitates breathing), and can exert pressure on the phrenic nerve. This produces a sensation of pain that may extend to the patient’s shoulders.
By coincidence (again) I was across in Scotland this weekend anyway. On Friday I took the train up to Perth and saw Dad in hospital. Mum said he looked much better, but I thought he looked dreadful. A photo wouldn’t have shown it, but a video would have: he was holding himself perfectly still to minimize the pain in his shoulders. He has been better each day, though, and we got him home yesterday afternoon along with a gallon bag of drugs to keep the pain in check. It has been a tough weekend for him, but it will get better soon. I’m glad I was able to be around for a while to help out.
On Saturday Abi and I took a long walk from Oostzaan to Velsen Zuid. Our original plan had been to walk a bit farther to IJmuiden and then take the green “Fast Flying Ferry” hydrofoil back to Amsterdam, but unfortunately the service has stopped. It was shut down on 1st January because of low passenger numbers. Alex and Fiona went on it once a few years ago, but I never got the chance – pity.
We left the house around 08:30, and had amazing walking weather. Blue skies, temperature rising through the mid teens, and a very light haze that burned off later in the morning. Our route took us over the Den Uylbrug, along the north shore of the Noordzeekanaal, and through Overtoom and Nauerna. We took the Spaarndam-Buitenhuizen ferry across the Noordzeekanaal, and then walked through Spaarnwoude to the edge of Velsen Zuid, where we caught the 82 bus into Amsterdam.
I’ve played golf at Spaarnwoude, but this was the first time I’d explored more of the recreation area on foot, and it’s lovely. Towards the end of the walk, we took a detour from the direct path to visit an outlook point (on a hill — a hill!) and a signposted art object. This turned out to be the enormous piece “Klimwand en Schijf in Grofpuinheuvel” (Climbing Wall and Disc in a Mound of Rubble) by Dutch sculptor Frans De Wit.
It does exactly what it says on the tin: a free-standing public climbing wall (no entrance fee; just bring your own gear) in line with two massive concrete discs embedded in a man-made hill of rocks. There’s a narrow staircase betwene the discs, and when you climb it you can see that the climbing wall is exactly in line with the discs. It’s super impressive.
This week, I have been mostly listening to Capital Cities’ In A Tidal Wave of Mystery and watching Arrow on Netflix. I said that I might have to listen to Capital Cities a bit more before getting to grips with the album, but now it is fully embedded in my head. Can’t stop listening to it, can’t stop my brain from replaying it internally when I’m not listening to it. My favourite album of 2014 so far.
I’m at episode 13 of Arrow now, and I’m particularly enjoying the way the relationships between the characters are genuinely changing, and how the plot is unfolding at the same time as Oliver Queen’s back story on the island is being revealed. It hasn’t (yet?) got stuck in a bad-guy-of-the-week rhythm, or forced Oliver and Laurel to replay a tormented “I love you but I can’t be with you” chorus whenever they’re in the same room. (That repetitiveness was one of the reasons I stopped scarfing down episodes of Chuck somewhere in the middle of its second season. That, and the disturbing levels of non-ironic sexism.)
I’ve started on Ken MacLeod’s Descent but haven’t made it very far yet.
The painter is almost finished with the house. The scaffolding is down, and the outside is all finished apart from a few final touch-ups on Monday. We got him to do the downstairs woordwork as well, and that’s looking lovely now too.
This afternoon Abi and I spent an hour and a half pruning back the pear tree, which had got out of control. Last year it threw off more pears than we could handle, even after we finally (6 years in this house) discovered that the right way to deal with otherwise inedible cooking pears is to cook them. So the pear tree is much smaller now.
Edinburgh from the evening of Tuesday 18th February until Friday 21st. I was staying at the Ritz Hotel on Grosvenor Street, whose name makes it sound quite posh. This is the hotel Jim dubbed the “serial killer special” after seeing the photo of the chintzy, blood-red room I stayed in last time I was there. I watched Red 2 on the journey there, and finished reading Leonard Richardson’s Constellation Games before bedtime.
I didn’t have any other books with me, so on Wednesday evening I swung by Pulp Fiction on Bread Street and picked up The Surgeon by Tess Gerritsen and Deception by Jonathan Kellerman, two authors I’ve always passed over until now. (Having finished both of them a week later, I think The Surgeon is probably the better book, but Kellerman’s is the series I want to read more of first.) I started reading The Surgeon over an extra-hot half chicken at Nando’s, but quickly stopped because turning pages + greasy finger food = nonono. Back at the hotel I watched The World’s End. (No wifi in room; previously downloaded.) I enjoyed it, and thought Simon Pegg’s character Gary King was particlarly well-realized, but the ending was weak. Maybe I need to see it again to give it a second chance.
Thursday evening I made good on my promise not to over-eat by buying an extra sandwich at lunchtime and just saving it for dinner. Watched The Amazing Spider-Man, partly because it was on special offer on iTunes, but it actually turned out to be really good. I like Andrew Garfield as Spidey – he brings less of an angsty vibe, and more of a jaunty swagger to Spidey than Tobey Maguire did. Yes, it does feel a bit soon for a series reboot, but I can deal with it. Looking forward to the next film in April.
Friday evening I flew down to Gatwick, met up with Abi and the kids, and spent a lovely weekend with Jules & Becca. We went in to see Wicked at the Apollo Victoria in the London on Saturday afternoon, and had a fabulous time. We had figured that Fiona would love it, but Alex thought it was just about the best thing ever, too.
Abi flew back to Amsterdam on Sunday evening, but the kids and I stayed an extra night and took the train up to Edinburgh on Monday afternoon. Early in the morning, though, Jules dropped me off at the edge of Guildford on his way to work, and I took a sunny walk to the station against the flow of commuters. (I like urban walking.) At lunchtime, just before catching the train, we ate at the food court in the Friary Centre. The kids had McDonalds; Jules, Becca and I ate from Thaï Express, and when you ask for “extra spicy”, let me tell you: it is genuinely hot. And delicious.
Train travel with Fiona is always a risk because of her travel sickness, but she didn’t experience any discomfort on the way: Guildford to Waterloo, taxi from Waterloo to King’s Cross (which is so much nicer than the last time I was there, many years ago), East Coast line from the London to Edinburgh (first class! very reasonably priced when you book ahead and choose an off-peak time), and finally a tiny switchback from Edinburgh to Drem, where Dad came to pick us up from the station.
Tuesday I went in to Edinburgh to do some more work, while the kids hung around with Mum & Dad and Kyle & Rachel once they got out of school. I brought back fish and chips in the evening. Wednesday was a lazy day in Haddington, and we drove up to Murthly late afternoon. We stopped at the Sainsbury’s just before the bridge for some groceries (and sweeties). I made tuna pasta for dinner, and we watched Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 in the evening. The curious thing about the film is that the trailers make no mention of the actual plot, or the real antagonist the heroes face. It concentrates on the good and funny bits, which is fair enough, but it makes me think that the actual film could have been better if it had concentrated on just those elements, too. Mum & Dad were still babysitting until late in the evening. We were all asleep by the time they got in.
Thursday we went to the Falkirk Wheel, which is a magnificent experience. Abi, Alex, and I had been there a long time ago, but Mum & Dad never had. In the winter season there are only three boat tours each day. We hadn’t thought to phone ahead and check, so we were lucky to catch the last one at 14:00. We were lifted up in sunshine and had a great view out over the surroundings.
On the way back through the tunnel and into the boat lift’s gondola, we watched a black curtain of rain slide across the landscape towards us. It hit us on the way down, battering the glass roof of the tour boat with hailstones. Fortunately the worst of it didn’t last very long.
The Wheel is now guarded by two small-scale reproductions of the Andy Scott’s Kelpies. After lunch at the nearby Rosebank Beefeater grill in Camelon, we tried to get close to the real thing. All the parking at The Helix is on the wrong side of the canal, though, and the footpaths are still under construction. (The official opening isn’t until 21st April, apparently.) It was cold, and we needed to get back, so we had to make do with a drive-by on our way up the M9. They’re a stunning sight, and I’d love to go back and see them up close.
Thursday evening I drove Mum & Dad in to Perth to see Mike & The Mechanics. After I had dropped them off, the kids and I watched Pacific Rim and ate lots of chocolate and crisps.
I had been admiring Dad’s new Troop London messenger bag earlier in the week. I had been thinking about getting a new satchel to replace my old @Media Ajax freebie from seven years ago. House of Bruar is one of Troop’s stockists in Scotland, and on Friday morning (with the kids still asleep) Dad and I took a wee drive there to have a look. We pawed around, spreading plastic packaging material all around the carefully arranged display (seriously – it’s amazing how much loose wrapping you can stuff into a single bag). After much indecision I finally settled on a “Classic Messenger Bag”, slightly bigger than my old one, but lined and padded, sturdy and stylish. Not too small that it won’t fit my laptop, iPad, a couple of books, and a sandwich or two; not too big, lest I fill it with so much crap it gets unwieldy. Just right.
In the evening we drove down to Edinburgh to watch Kyle play a junior masterclass rugby match in the half-time interval of the Edinburgh Rugby vs Ospreys RaboPro12 match at Meggetland. I had never been to a rugby match before, and I had a good time. (Edinburgh won!) It was very cold, though, and Alex definitely didn’t want to be there. Fortunately there were hot dogs, burgers, chips, hot chocolate, and donuts.
On Saturday we all met up again at Scotland’s Secret Bunker (!) in Fife. We’d seen signs for the bunker before while driving through Fife, and we were aware that it was an underground command post that, in case of a nuclear war, would have housed government and military figures. I had no idea just how astonishing the actual site is.
You enter through a fairly standard farm house (okay, so it’s surrounded by razor wire, radar emplacements, and decommissioned military vehicles, but they seem like decorative additions for the tourists). Inside, you go down a set of stairs, and then walk down through a long tunnel to a set of fairly standard institutional corridors that would not look out of place in any large office building. Only completely underground. There’s no feeling of being crammed into a tiny functional space. At first glance, it’s just completely normal.
It’s only when you step through the doors leading off the corridors that it all goes cold war on you. A tiny medical center. Dormitories and switchboards. Map rooms, radar monitoring stations, cipher suites, an emergency BBC broadcast facility, a cinema, a chapel, an armoury.
The walls are decorated with old Royal Observer Corps recruiting materials, posters warning of the dangers of nuclear fallout, instructions on how to dig latrines, and press clippings from the time when the threat of nuclear war was very, very real.
My photos can’t do the place justice. The facility was still in operation while I was at university in St Andrews, less than 10 miles away. It only shut down in 1992, when the old Soviet Union collapsed and the cold war danger dissipated. Watching the flickering black-and-white public service broadcast films shown in the bunker’s cinema brought back childhood memories of wondering which room in our house had fewest outside walls, and would make the best shelter in the case of a nuclear blast. The secret bunker is a relic from that age, a chilling reminder, beautifully preserved in place. It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s well worth the visit.
Sunday was a quiet day. Late rise, pack. Hang around reading and chatting. Kyle and Fiona had hoped to go out to The Space in North Berwick, but the timing and transport options (too many passengers, not enough drivers) didn’t work out. Scott drove us to the airport late in the afternoon, and we got our flight back to Amsterdam (along with plenty of creme eggs). Abi picked us up at the other end, and there was much rejoicing. We hadn’t had time for dinner on the way, so we stopped off at McDonald’s for drive-through, and the kids ate when we got back. I had a cheese sandwich. Then bed.
Mum & Dad were over for a lovely visit this weekend. They arrived on Friday afternoon, so of course we had frites for dinner. (Friday is frites day.)
On Saturday five of us (no Alex) went in to Zaandam to do some shopping. We snacked on kibbeling (which, I just learned, used to be made from cod cheeks — kabeljauw wang — not just generic cod fillet) and deep-fried mussels from the market while wandering around. Abi and Fiona hit the crafts shop to get materials for crochet projects. Our other goal was for Mum & Dad to get Fiona a birthday present, and we quickly located a prized pink space scooter, although we did some price checking and stopped off for coffee (and hot chocolate) and cakes before actually buying it. Steak and salad for dinner.
In the evening we watched Robot and Frank, which is a sweet and funny film, lined with sadness. I’d seen the trailer, and I’d been too fascinated by the robot-human interaction story; I hadn’t realized that Frank’s dementia is the twin theme. It’s a sweet story, but it was a bit of an emotional trip for us.
Sunday, five of us (no Alex) had a walk around Oostzaan, ending up in at Eetcafé Oostzaan for coffee (and hot chocolate) and warm apple pie.
Our plan for the evening had been to order in Chinese-Indonesian from our wonderful local Het Oosten, but I’d forgotten that it was Chinese New Year. Fortunately our fallback take-way in Zaandam was open, so I drove out there to pick us up a minor feast. We played Kill Doctor Lucky after dinner for the first time, and it was a hoot. We’d been burned by the phenomenal complexity of Arkham Horror last year, but Kill Doctor Lucky is much easier, and plays moves nice and fast once you get going. We didn’t have time to finish a whole game before the kids had to go to bed, so we just called “sunrise” at 21:30. True to his name, Doctor Lucky lived to see another day.
Then we watched Drive, which was a trip of a whole different kind than Robot and Frank. The sound design of the film has incredible dynamic range, from ear-splitting car chases to long scenes of almost total silence. This matches the plot and emotional content of the story, which goes from calm and passive to brutal, gory violence in jumps you know are coming, but which nevertheless arrive as gut-wrenching shocks. The way the film builds tension is incredible. I loved it.
Monday was back to work and school. Mum and Dad went to Amsterdam for the day. We had burritos in the evening, and played De Mol (The Resistance) after dinner. Tuesday was a beautiful sunny day, and Mum and Dad went to Volendam and Edam, and we all went back out to Eetcafé Oostzaan for dinner in the evening. Alex ran into a classmate, and Fiona experimented with vanilla ice cream (turned out it was too delicious for her).
Departures this morning. But the kids and I will be over in Scotland in a few weeks to see them again soon.