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Archive for October, 2019

One of my favourite little indulgences when I travel to England is to read the “pink sheets”, aka, the venerable Financial Times. During our last weekend in London, I read a opinion piece which resonated with me.  The author was bemoaning the “last days of the middle-class world citizen”:   people like me and my husband and most of those we call family and friends would fall into that category.  Think about how many of your social circle have just returned from a summer sojourn in Italy, or your children grown friend’s were married in Iceland, or you went back to Scotland this fall for an “ancestry tour”. 

The article’s  author was writing about one of the implications of the positive changes for the planet (in terms of the pricing in of the actual costs of air travel) which will, frankly,  be net negative for us.  As he pointed out, a no-lose change is rare.   In my darker moments, I envision a future when long distance air travel has the moral equivalency and as such, potential for public shaming, as the wearing of real fur in downtown Toronto.  You may still value that coat in January in Canada, but you certainly don’t brag about it on Facebook! Cheap air fare (due to airline consolidation), package holidays (aka Thomas Cook) short term rentals (Air B&B and VRBO) are all being squeezed out of existence for different reasons, market driven or not, but it all comes down to the same result. The “democratization of travel” is done.   Enjoy it while you can.*
Edinburgh was our next stop on our journey:  it is considered by many global travelers to be one of the prettiest small cities on the planet.  The combination of stately 18th century architecture and the youthful energy of college students is very appealing.  Not to mention that some history’s most influential and enterprising people, from the fields of architecture (Robert Adam) exploration (Dr. David Livingston I presume? ), medicine  (Sir Alexander Fleming), philosophy (David Hume),  and economics (Adam Smith) are sons of Scotland.  Must be something in the haggis.
We had a specific mission in Edinburgh, beyond a family dinner, and that was to take photos of a probable Oakville connection with one of Edinburgh’s old aristocratic families.  Ben’s good sailing buddy, Dave Dick, had traced his family tree back to the Dicks of Edinburgh and he asked us to do him the favor of visiting the ancestral pile, Prestonfield House, and take photos of potential family portraits on the wall.  At first, I was a little reluctant to get off our agenda of museums & the Castle tour (I do have a bit of a control issue) but when I saw the House, I was absolutely gobsmacked.  Prestonfield House is now an opulent, antique filled hotel which feels like the home of a very wealthy aristocratic uncle who has invited you down to the country for a weekend of shooting, sherry by the fire  and big British breakfasts.  Very posh indeed.
Ben’s says that once you have seen the Edinburgh Castle you don’t need to see another.  Spoken like a man with a bias, but truly, it is impressive.  As are the views  over the Firth of Forth, where Ben was born.

We travelled by first class train to London, and for once, it was as promised.  We had gotten accustomed to being disappointed in train travel.  No hot food, sorry kitchen was broken for one, in another, there were only  5 cars instead of 7, “so get your butt in a seat before they are all gone” was the advice of the only uniformed rail employee that I could find.  The rest hid until the train had left the station.  There were 2 young women who, like us, thought that they had reserved seating in a first class coach.  Instead, they ended up sitting on their luggage in the doorways of the train.

What can you say about London, except that it never disappoints.  We had rented a VRBO condo on the south east side of the Thames, near landmarks like the Shard and the Tate Modern.

 

London has plenty of huge, crowded mega museums, and we have visited many. This time, I wanted to focus on the smaller, more esoteric and therefore relatively unknown ones, like The Wallace Collection.  Housed in a huge 18th century townhome, it is the culmination of centuries of collecting by a family of refined tastes and seemingly unlimited resources.  Our visit coincided with a special retrospective  of the shoes of Manolo Blahnik.  In the show notes, he is said to have drawn inspiration for his beautiful and luxurious footwear from the 800 year old collection of treasures at the Wallace.  Indeed.  Frankly, I would have found the Collection wondrous without all of the shoes under glass, but that explains their presence in the photos.  It is one of the few places in the world  where you can get so close to an Old Master that you might mistakenly touch your nose to the painting’s surface, before you realize that there was no alarm or guard to stop you.  (OK, that was me, pulling away just in time! )

 

I have lots of photos of memorable meals but there are 2 highlights at 2 extremes, both perfectly executed and appropriate for their locations.  The first was the remarkably delicious lunch of bangers & mash with green peas which Ben enjoyed at the Earl of Lonsdale after our Saturday morning Portobello Market stroll.   (I lived on Lonsdale Road in Toronto for 15 years, so that is why I picked that tavern. A  “tasty” coincidence!)   For dessert,  there was an incredibly delicious sticky toffee pudding:   I now understand the British obsession with the “pud”.  I could give up chocolate for those flavours.  Perhaps. For a week.  Maybe.

The other outstanding meal that we had was a 5 course tasting and shared plates meal at the counter overlooking the kitchen in the tiny Evelyn’s Table.  We were so close to the action at the grill, that I could have reached over and grabbed the ties of the Chef’s apron!  Only 11 seats, this place is in Covent Garden London, and is named for Faye Dunaway’s character in the classic movie “Chinatown”:  like the character, the restaurant has a ballsy, bold and unexpected approach to food.  So delicious and entertaining too.

* As a followup to my little rant about the imminent demise of leisure travel for the rest of us, I also read an interview with a CEO of a major tech company, based in Silicon Valley, but with offices around the world.  He had just landed from a global office tour because he felt it was still important to “press the flesh” and make eye contact with employees and important clients.  However, he admitted that in the face of growing “eco-pressure”, he was exploring a promising new technology from Apple which may be able to create “a sense of real person to person engagement through the screen.”  Oh dear,  can “smellovision”  be far behind?

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“Fish & A Chip”

When I first thought about a title for this blog post,  “Fish & A Chip” seemed to be a bit of fun:  it was both a nod to the classic dish found everywhere during our 17 day journey through SW Ireland (Cobh and Limerick), Northern Ireland, Scotland and London, as well as a tongue in cheek reference to our determination to eat somewhat modestly.  Hence, “a chip”, not “chips”.  And given the UK reputation for soggy, fatty, over cooked comfort food, which I shudder to even think about, I thought that the goal was a reasonable one.

Well, as you might imagine from the set up, we were doomed to failure. I now realize that neither Ben or I have enough self restraint to go on a cruise where tempting foodstuffs are available 24/7.  I never eat pastries. Well, “never” now means “hardly ever”.   At our hip hotel in Dublin, the art deco extravaganza in Belfast,  and the multi table breakfast buffet at the stately Adare Manor, the breakfast pastries were over-the-top delicious.  Of course, I always think that my next breakfast could not be as nearly wonderful, so I might as well sample one pastry.  All right, two, because they were so little.  All right, even if they weren’t little.  And it wasn’t just the breakfasts which tempted me:  there is something about the texture and taste of the dark wheat bread in southern Ireland which naturally led me to the fresh rich butter and sweet tart marmalade.  Bread at every meal is such an extravagance and one that I indulged in.  A lot.

In fact, you might say that indulgence was the theme of our whirlwind tour.  Ben’s son, Scott and his beautiful wife Tricia, were our agreeable travel companions for the first 14 days of our UK journey.  We stayed in a combination of home exchange, boutique hotels, a VRBO condo and more corporate hotel type accommodation.  We also spent the weekend in a fabulous Irish country manor:  with all of the money we saved from the exchange of our house in Mexico, we justified the expense of Adare Manor, called by some, “the best country house in Ireland, if you have the coin”.  Truly, I can rationalize just about anything.    Just like I can not say which country or city I enjoyed more, I would have a hard time stating a firm preference for accommodation.  We tried always to get good value for money, at every price point,  and I think we were successful.  Certainly, every place was a different experience.

Of course, I think that the Adare Manor was the standout.  A big part of what drew me to that particular property was the opportunity to experience Falconry.  Since I read the book “H is for Hawk”, by British writer Helen MacDonald, I have been fascinated by the idea of working with predatory birds.  When I was searching for a “castle” to stay in (my daughter-in-law and I had decided that staying in an Irish castle was a fine plan and there are a lot available.  Many ancestral family homes of, for example, the “8th Earl of WeWereWealthy Before Grandad Gambled, Drank or Whored it all Away”,  have been opened up for guests, a necessary evil when your leaking roof dates back to the 17th century.  After a brief misunderstanding (that’s a polite way of saying that this usually fine Hotel screwed up), the Manor staff recovered nicely and Ben and I were upgraded to a suite.  With a tray of chocolates and mini macaroons to say how very sorry they were.  Indeed.

We were eager to experience something of upperclass country life at the turn of the century, when aristocratic English families had lots of money and lots of leisure time. Accordingly, we had signed up for clay pigeon shooting, gun dog trials and falconry.   So after spending an entertaining hour with Willy, owner & trainer of prize winning Labrador and spaniels,  we moved on to Charles and his group of birds.  Notice that I don’t say “flock”:  birds of prey do not flock.  Or stay around after mating.  Only one of the type is the least bit social and when it was “mantling”, (protecting its food by spreading its wings around his dinner), I wouldn’t describe it as friendly.  We learned so much:  that owls are actually the dumbest of the group, that all birds weigh much less than they appear to because their bones are hollow, that they are superbly aerodynamic and possess extraordinary hearing in order to sense movement of their prey.  It was thrilling to have such a creature land on my arm, and to stare into their unblinking raptor gaze, even for a moment.  Actually, likely just a moment was a good thing, before they had time to size me up as an appetizer.

What else?  There is a noticeable bar culture in the UK cities:  everyone under the age of 35 seems to congregate at bars every night of the week.  In Dublin, there are cocktail specials for college students on Mondays, and they roam up and down the streets in packs, the boys noisy and jostling each other, the girls teetering on stilettos or strutting in boots, dresses in short skirts and “bar tops”.  (A new phrase to me:  “bar tops”, refers to a presumably provocative article of clothing that you can wear out with regular clothes on the bottom.  Think glittery or low cut or both).

On a related note, about 2 years ago, when I had to quit drinking alcohol for medical reasons,  I came across a woman’s only online community  called “Soberistas”.   It had lots of confessional postings from young women who had been alcohol free for a period of time, but had recently gotten plastered in a bar, forgotten most of the evening, and were equal parts ashamed and regretful, looking for absolution and encouragement.  This support group was based in Britain, and I could really see why it found an ready audience, especially for the under 35’s.    “Pubbing” is so engrained in the UK culture.

The spectre of Brexit hangs over the Irish cities of  Belfast, Dublin and London:  among ordinary folk like cab drivers and servers, there is worry,  concern and general unhappiness.  Dublin itself is very friendly and walkable but the Irish still feel the Diaspora of more than 150 years ago. There is no forgetting the harm that England did:  food was piled high on ships destined for English or French tables, while the Irish starved on country roads.

Recent memories of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland are even more acute and our tour guide thought that it would take a generation or more to calm those troubled waters.  I saw black & white billboards of with images of tortured and murdered people that were so graphic and bloody, it brought back my memories of the infamous killing fields in Cambodia.  And when all of the convicted political prisoners were freed from prison as part of the 2000 Good Friday Agreement, murderers on both sides were walking amongst those who were their victims’ families, only  2 months or even 2 days before.  The bitterness is tangible and the walls that separate the 2 factions still exist.

The Titanic Experience in Belfast is a absolute treat and a must do when you visit Belfast.  You must, if only to visit a bar called the Harp:  so much fun!  There was a young singer/guitarist playing who managed to sound like a 4 piece band:  he was doing enthusiastic covers of songs we recognized easily, and then he rocked the house with his version of “She’s a Belter”.  And what is a “Belter” you ask?  Well, it’s Scottish slang, implying that someone is stupid or uncool.  Or, in the case of this song, it means that she is one hot babe, “diamonds on her fingers, and she always looks her best”.  The song had the crowd yelling and screaming out the chorus:   apparently, being called a “Belter” when in Belfast is a high compliment

We had a grand time in Ireland, and then flew the next morning to Ben’s birthplace in Scotland and then onwards to London.

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