Scotland trip, 18 Feb – 2 Mar 2014

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.

Falkirk Wheel

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.

Back towards the boat lift
Back towards the boat lift

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.

A Kelpie guarding the Wheel
A Kelpie guarding the Wheel

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.

The Kelpies
The Kelpies

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.

Sutherlands at Meggetland
Sutherlands at Meggetland

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.

An ordinary corridor...or is it?
An ordinary corridor…or is it?

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.

Switchboards underground
Ops room
Ops room

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.

Don't fancy your chances, mate

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.

Good to be home.

The two-weeks-late back-from-holiday post

Almost three weeks late now. Oh, well.

We were in France with my parents for a week, followed by a week in the Netherlands. It was hot. We did very little, and had a great time doing so.

In The Netherlands, we spent two days at De Efteling, a theme park with a focus on fairytales. This is where we discovered that Fiona is as much of a thrill-seeker as her big brother. There is a rollercoaster called the Pegasus which has no height restrictions. It doesn’t have any loops in it, but it rattles around at a fair clip. Fiona looked kinda worried while we were on it, and when we disembarked, I asked her if she was okay.

“That was fun,” she said.

“You want to do that again?” I asked.

(Breathless) “Yeah!

Some random notes that I had meant to flesh out into a coherent narrative, but which seem a lot less pressing now:

  • I’ve known intellectually that booze is cheaper on the Continent, but for some reason it was only on this trip did this sink in properly. Holy shit! Even good single malt whisky is cheaper in Euros than it is here in its country of origin in Pounds. Having to pay even £4 for a bottle of quaffing wine now feels like a stiff gouging.
  • The Van Der Valk hotels we stayed in in Belgium and NL (Charleroi and Heerlen, respectively) didn’t have air conditioning. I don’t know if this is consistent across all their hotels, but bear it in mind if you decide to stay there when the temperature is in the mid 30s.
  • If you’ve got kids, consider getting a suite at the Van Der Valk hotels instead of just a double room with extra beds. They’re not much more expensive, and the extra space is fantastic. (Thanks, mum & dad!)
  • If you want to go to De Efteling when it’s quiet, choose the hottest days of the year. The park is thoroughly bedded into the surrounding forest, and all the waiting areas and walks between attractions are shaded by old trees. It was about 37C when we were there, and it was hot but bearable.
  • Dutch radio is chronically insipid. You remember the 1980s? They didn’t go away–they just retired to the Netherlands. In fact, I think Dutch radio stations are required by law to play at least one song an hour by either
    1. Billy Joel,
    2. Sade, or
    3. Simply Red.

    Bring your own CDs, or end up with MOR-induced psychosis within three days. Your choice.

  • Dutch doctors are wonderful. With the enormous heat, Alex ended up with a bad case of dehydration diarrhoea…and that’s all I’ll say about that.
  • Small local bakeries. Mmmmm, breeeeead.

That last point brings me round to the post-holiday diet: when we got back home, we looked at the photographs of ourselves and went, “bleah.” We’ve been living a snack-food rich lifestyle for too long, and it is time to cut back. Back in 1999, Abi and I both did a simple, low-calorie diet for a few months, and it was very successful for us. We’re doing the same thing this time round as well: we’re targeting 1500kCal a day, which should result in a loss of about 0.5kg a week.

Immediately after the holiday I was up at 80kg, which is heavier than I’ve ever been, and I really would like to get down to 70 and stay there. It’s a long-term project. In fact, it’s not so much a project as a lifestyle switch: once we’re down to our target weights, we have to stay there, and not slip back into old habits. Right now, the diet (for me) consists of a bowl of cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and a pretty normal dinner. Fruit inbetween. I don’t drink coffee, so I don’t have a latte habit to deal with.

For the first few days, I spent a lot of time between meals thinking about the fact that I wasn’t eating, but that went away pretty soon. Now, a few weeks on, and I’m feeling pretty good about eating less and better. My weight is down, I’m feeling less bloated and sluggish. The food I do eat, I’m enjoying more. Also, Judging by my weight fluctuations (we’ve been weighing in every morning, and keeping a chart), I even seem to be able to cope with the odd diet malfunction (of the round, cheese-covered kind). So I’m not even feeling completely deprived of my favourite foods. Just not as a daily habit–only as an occasional indulgence.

Oh yeah, there’s some holiday photos, too. (More on Flickr: 1, 2, 3)

Alex sitting at a cafe in Castres, France

Fiona at De Efteling

Fiona and Alex deep in thought at De Efteling (watching Longneck)

Alex near (and in) a fountain in Castres

Alex with Pardoes at De Efteling

Fiona in the back garden in Mazamet

Fiona in a playground in Heerlen

Poopy can fly!

There are some things you really don’t want to hear your three-year-old son say to you over the phone when you’re on holiday three thousand miles away, and your parents are graciously taking care of the roost for a few days. “Poopy can fly!” is high up on that list.

Fortunately, this isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. Alex loves playing Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Gamecube, and “Poopy” is just what he calls “Kirby”, one of the characters in the game. (If we correct him, he’ll say the name correctly a few times, and then revert to Poopy. I wonder if Kirby’s pink, blob-like appearance has anything to do with it…and then I wonder what they’re feeding him at nursery.)

Apart from that minor heart-stopper, we had a fantastic time on holiday in Boston. We flew out on Thursday, and came back Sunday overnight. While we were there we shopped a lot, walked a lot, ate a lot, and lost sensation in our faces on several occasions. (Early mornings are cold.) On Friday morning we unwittingly walked into the middle of Filene’s Bridal Gown sale. Then while Abi was shopping for paper in the afternoon, she found herself chatting to a member of staff who had, by stunning coincidence, just visited her bookbinding site just the previous evening. And this was just minutes before we met up with Keith Martin for hot drinks and a wander through Harvard…proof, if we needed it, that the world is definitely getting smaller.

Martin, Abi and Keith in Tealuxe in Harvard

Keith and I might have met two years ago at a Toad the Wet Sprocket gig, but we didn’t connect until afterwards, and we’ve been keeping an eye on each other’s blogs since then. It was great to see him in person at last, even if he did forget to wear black.

The rest of the weekend was relaxed and relaxing. It was lovely to be able to wake up early in the morning, and not have to rush up to handle the kids. On the other hand, we missed them a lot. Every time we’d see a parent walk by with a toddler or a baby we’d squeeze each other’s hand and smile and wish (momentarily) that we had Alex and Fiona with us. Then the moment would pass, and we’d realise that we were FREE FREE NO MORE NAPPIES AND POINTLESS TANTRUMS FOR A FEW DAYS WOOHOO.

It was a good weekend.

Boston 2005

Abi and I are off to Boston (MA) on Thursday, for a short weekend break. That’s right, just Abi and I. It’ll only be the second time that we’ll have been away from Fiona for an overnight trip, and it’s the longest that we’ll ever have both been away from Alex. I was on Boston for a few days back in 2003, and Abi attended a bookbinding convention that same year, but apart from those isolated occasions, we have never been apart from the kids for anything more than a very rare overnight stay.

It’s going to be good, but it’s going to be strange. I’m looking forward to the plane trip (I love travelling–being on the move), and to hanging out in Boston again, which is a lovely city. Staying in a hotel, eating out, sightseeing and shopping–it’s all going to be great.

Spending that much time alone again just with Abi is going to be good, too. I know it will be nothing like it, but somehow our first trip to Rome together keeps popping into my mind. That was a great holiday. We saw the sights, we ate wonderful food, and we spent a lot of time sheltering from the afternoon heat in our cool hotel room, reading books, and munching on fruit, bread, and meat bought from the nearby alimentari. (I very clearly remember reading Mike Resnick’s Second Contact and Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio.)

But I’m also feeling terribly anxious about leaving the kids behind. They’ll be with their grandma & granda, so they’ll have a wonderful time. But still. Abi and I have got out of the habit of being away from them. We let each other have evenings off, but we only rarely get someone to babysit so we can both have an evening out together. It seems that recently we’ve both been so absorbed in our own housebound activities (bookbinding, computing, etc.) that we haven’t had much interest in “just” going out.

Well, Boston will certainly shake us up a bit. We’re also likely to freeze our asses off. Romantic weekend away in Boston…in February? Brrr….

Crazy cat lady action figure

You may be aware of the phenomenon of animal hoarding. Teresa Nielsen Hayden has written about it:

Basically, hoarders accumulate an impossible number of animals–more than they can care or provide for, and far too many for the available space. Their quarters rapidly become a stew of filth, misery, and suffering animals.

It’s an odd, disturbing, and pitiable pattern of behaviour. But as the Singing Branson proved, nothing is too off-beat for the tacky gift shops of Piedmont Avenue. Here is the “Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure (How many cats do you have?)”, on display in a shop window just down the street from the purveyor of fine Bransons:

Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure

Half funny, half offensive…all tasteless.