Islands in the sun

The summer has faded here in Scotland, although not without a welcome September reprise of beautiful sunshine and warmth. Many of my off days these past months, and not a few lazy evenings of extended twilight, have been spent wearing out the Golf Coast Road to Longniddry, Yellowcraig and North Berwick. 

In August I made my now-annual pilgrimage across the Irish Sea to the Openskies festival, once again in the excellent company of Ickle Bef, on a ferry which charged £1.65 for a cup of tea and £2.00 for a cup of hot water. 

The weather forecast for the weekend was absolutely apocalyptic. We camped anyway, praying madly that the weather would miss us, which it did, and we came away with tents and belongings mostly dry and all intact. Even the fairy lights – a lovely set of plastic pink flamingoes generously donated by DL – survived. The deluge, it transpired, had been diverted towards Wales, where it landed with full force where my sister and her family were camping. Our diversion prayers were non-specific in a directional sense, and my conscience is clear.

Sports-wise, England won the Cricket World Cup, failed to win back the Ashes despite Ben Stokes’ monumental heroics in Leeds, and the Red Sox had a disappointingly average season.

Ireland appeared to be alarmingly ill-prepared for the Rugby World Cup, but still I approached their opening game against Scotland with hope and a degree of expectation.

Sunday 22 Sep | Ireland 27-3 Scotland

Later that day Ryan texted me from Nashville.

“What’s happening to Scotland?”

I was feeling slightly daunted at the prospect of figuring out what, indeed, was happening to Scotland in the current Brexit and IndyRef2 climate, not to mention how to condense that into a text, when a further message clarified that he was talking about the rugby. 

I reminded him of my Irishness, which is something I am happy to do for people when they are inclined to forget, and especially when Ireland are doing well and most especially when they’ve just beaten Scotland.

Six days later, Ireland faced the hosts Japan in Shizuoka. 

I woke up early. Like, 4am early. Three hours later I gave up on further sleep, and made my escape to Sainsbury’s, which I had discovered to my surprise was open at such an hour on a Saturday morning.

I returned home with bacon and croissants. The croissants were freshly-baked and still warm, and so good it sort of made me want to get up early on a Saturday morning more often. Sort of. 

Then I watched Japan puncture the hopes of an island, and I wished I’d stayed in bed.

Saturday 28 Sep | Japan 19-12 Ireland

The afternoon was sunny and breezy on the coast. A few friends joined me on a fast boat trip from N Berwick, which skimmed over the choppy waves to three islands in the Forth – the Lamb, Craigleith and the Bass Rock. The Lamb, we discovered, is now owned by Uri Geller, who is convinced that the ancient Egyptians buried treasure somewhere on it. Our guide explained that the Lamb was made of basalt, one of the hardest naturally-occurring substances known, and openly wondered how the ancient Egyptians would have buried anything in it.

Having completed a slow circuit of the Lamb, we sped through the sea spray to Craigleith and did the same, and then on to the Bass Rock, and its 150,000-strong colony of gannets. At this time of year their numbers are thinned out somewhat, but there was still enough to make a considerable din, and their guano was, well, fragrant. 

As we circled the island I discovered that it not only has a lighthouse, but also a 14th century castle. In fact, the lighthouse has been built inside the castle. This makes the Bass Rock, in my view, about as epic as it could possibly be. An island with a lighthouse AND a castle? I feel sure the Famous Five must have visited.

Curate’s Egg

It’s been quite a summer. As the curate of Punch’s 1895 cartoon said of the stale egg he had been served by the bishop, parts of it have been excellent.

During the last few weeks, there have been days which have been among the nicest I’ve ever known in Scotland. But when it hasn’t been excellent, the rain has been apocalyptic.

At the end of June I travelled down to London to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees. I was excited about this. It would be the first time Major League Baseball had played a proper game (ie not an exhibition game – one that mattered) in Europe. Two games were scheduled – on Saturday and Sunday.

I watched Saturday’s game on a giant screen in a sun-soaked beer garden in East London. The Yankees were in front most of the game, and despite an 8th inning rally from the Sox, New York prevailed.

Sunday, nephew Sebastian in tow, we made our way to the stadium – London Stadium, which had been converted to a baseball field for the occasion. The sun shone again. 

I disappeared to get a couple of Cokes for Sebastian and myself, and came back £9 lighter.

Our neighbours in Row 37 were Violet and Joe, and their son Eddie, all the way from Boston. Eddie had trained as a vet at Edinburgh University.

Sebastian, meanwhile, was hungry. I got him a burger, averting my eyes and handing over my debit card, wincing slightly.

We returned to the game. The Sox were winning. Sebastian was still hungry. He seemed to be treating London Stadium as a huge open-air restaurant with some baseball happening as in-meal entertainment. I fed him some of my chips.

The Yankees had a massive 7th inning, and from then on the Sox were always chasing the game.

Sebastian, meanwhile, was still hungry, so we got doughnuts. Six of them, just in case.

The Red Sox lost again, despite threatening with another 8th inning rally. The game over, I bid goodbye to my new Boston friends, and promised to say hi to Edinburgh for Eddie.

It’s been a curate’s egg of a summer for the Red Sox too. There have been flashes of last season’s excellence, but no consistency. Following the inaugural London Series their record against the Yankees reads won 1, lost 6.


It’s now late July. It’s another sodden Saturday in Edinburgh, and I’m back in the Hideout. Cricket has been rained off again (third Saturday in a row). Boris has just been made Prime Minister. The country is unsure of what lies ahead, as it always is, but probably more so now than ever.

Tuesday this week, it was swelteringly hot. SCORCHIO! As the red-tops used to scream on days like this. Perhaps they still do.

I spent the morning paddling in the shallows at the beach, before meeting a friend in town. We lunched in the sunshine on Victoria Terrace. The Terrace overlooks Victoria Street, which was reputedly the inspiration for JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley. There is meagre evidence for this beyond Victoria St’s proximity to the Elephant House – the self-proclaimed ‘home of Harry Potter’ – but the tour parties come by, one by one, complete with excitable HP superfan tour guide.

It is, however, a pretty magical street, Victoria Street.

I had the Eggs Benedict, which was excellent. I managed to spill a quantity of hollandaise sauce down the front of my t-shirt, ensuring I (and everyone I met) had a visual reminder of the excellence of my lunch for the rest of the day, which was pleasing.

In the still-warm early evening, Ickle Bef and I sat on a rock in Holyrood Park, looking out over Holyrood Palace, the National Monument and a forest of giant cranes putting together the new St James Centre. We discussed our camping plans for Openskies, so that – this year – there wouldn’t be any unnecessary duplication of the important provisions. Not that Ickle actually brought any pine nuts last year, to my memory.

On Wednesday, apart from Boris becoming PM, the other main news was that the milk Ryan and Katie kindly bought for me to use while I was in Tennessee – in early May – went past its sell-by date. These dates are always conservative, as we know, so there’s a chance it may still be usable.

Thursday night the Red Sox finally got to play the Yankees again for the first time since London, and the first time at Fenway Park this season.

They thumped them 19-3. They thumped them again last night. The summer is looking up…

The Longest Day

It’s getting on for the end of June, dear reader. The country remains in unresolved Brexit turmoil, although attention has now shifted to the Conservative Party’s leadership election, which will determine our next Prime Minister. Once this is resolved, for better or worse, Brexit will again, I imagine, consume us all. 

In Edinburgh, the summer so far has been unusually damp. Unusually damp, I say, for it has been damp even by Scottish standards. 

Accordingly, the cricket season has been patchy. Last Saturday the Holy Cross 2nd XI, of which I had been carelessly – but happily only temporarily – left in charge, played their first game in a month.

We were away to Musselburgh. I lost the toss. This was the first indicator that it wasn’t to be a good day. We were asked to bat on a damp wicket, and bowled out for 21, which – for those not in tune with cricketing matters – is a pretty low score for one batsman, never mind a whole team. 

Captains and managers in sport are frequently said to have “lost the dressing room.”  I took this a step further by losing the dressing room key, which went missing from the scorer’s table at some point during the first innings. Fingers were pointed and accusations levelled.

In due course the key was located, in one of my team-mates’s pockets.

Normally at this point we would all ‘take tea’, which would involve picking at whatever meagre fare the home team had produced, before commencing the second innings. However, such was the low score that Musselburgh needed to chase, we simply went back out again.

Four overs later, Musselburgh required 7 runs to win. I threw the dice, and made my first bowling change, bringing on Ollie the Offspinner. Ollie delivered his first – entirely respectable – ball, and the batsman, in an act of considerable discourtesy, deposited it over long-on for six.

It bounced on the path which ran beyond the boundary, right over the wall, into trees and dense foliage, and was lost forever. We found another ball from somewhere. The same batsman edged this one through the slips and it was all over. 

We trooped into the changing rooms. The showers were cold. We emerged again, and the tea, sadly, met our expectations fully.

A dismal performance, a lost game, a lost ball, a lost dressing room key, cold showers, and a poor tea. At least it wasn’t raining.

The following Friday we celebrated 2019’s longest day, on an East Lothian beach. We really should have been at Akva, our monthly Swedish haunt, but the weather had taken an upturn, as if acknowledging that the longest day deserved better. So we cancelled our booking, in the process denying ourselves Akva’s pagan midsummer celebration complete with flower crowns and frog dancing, whatever that is.

Suitably equipped with fish and chips, we wandered down the sandy path to the beach. The tide was in. The fish was excellent, the chips too, although sand – unfailingly able to find its way into every available orifice – found its way into my box of chips, and became a most unwelcome garnish of the grittiest possible kind.

Nicola, garlanded most appropriately with a flower crown, produced a couple of bags of Haribo from somewhere, and we watched the sun sink slowly in an almost flawless blue sky, painting a pencil-thin orange stripe towards us across the water, and the wet rippled sand.

We walked eastward to the end of the beach, on the way enacting what we thought frog-dancing might be, and parked ourselves on a massive piece of driftwood, as the sun sank even lower. Eventually, just after 10pm, it dropped behind that little hill across the water in Fife, whose name escapes me now. 

I remember someone telling me that there are parts of the village of Falkland which are in shadow for six months of the year (or thereabouts), due to their proximity to that hill.

We returned along the Golf Coast, courtesy of Sonic Boom Bef’s thrill-a-minute driving, and stopped for a McFlurry at Fort Kinnaird.

It was at this point that I noticed TK Maxx. It was looking as good as a TK Maxx ever has, I would venture to say. The distant horizon, still burning a fiery red, was reflected in its polished glass frontage. This, combined with the odd solitary tree and manicured grass of the Fort Kinnaird car park, made for a striking image. Made me think of Malibu.

“It’s just like Malibu,” I remarked to Nicola.

Nicola snorted.

I’ve never even been to Malibu. Later, I found a picture of the TK Maxx in Malibu (although of course it’s TJ Maxx there). It was surprisingly unimpressive-looking, although there were real palm trees in the picture. Fort Kinnaird for the win, I say.

We found a table by the window, with a gorgeous view across the roundabout to Screwfix, and Bef had her first ever McFlurry. It was a momentous day.

The Nashville Diaries, part III

The reminder of my time in Nashville was spent profitably, with many root beers, tacos and great friends. 

The entire root beer research could be summed up by:
Kroger’s own brand root beer: terrible and to be avoided.
Everything else: pretty great.

With a special mention for Sarsaparilla, which is the best. I still don’t know what Sarsaparilla is.

Saturday’s back porch party was a whole lot of fun. The sun went down and the fairy lights came up, and I sat sipping root beer in the warm night, catching up on old times and new with some of my favourite people in the world. Much insect repellent was applied, as Ryan’s pre-party deck-spraying had not proved to be effective at keeping the mozzies at bay.

JJR proved to be a leading authority on insect repellent, as he is on many matters, and also regaled us with tales of his recent roadtrip to New Mexico.

Flying home a few days later, I found myself randomly upgraded to an emergency exit seat, with effectively infinite legroom. This pleased me greatly.

Across the aisle in the central block, there were two N Irish girls, with an American lady to their left.

The American lady was volubly excited to learn that her travelling companions were Irish. I overhead the beginnings of the “I have relatives from Ireland!” conversation. 

Meanwhile I was trying to work out how to ask my own neighbour to remove his elbow, which was protruding over our shared arm-rest by 3-4 inches.

“I had a DNA test. You can get that done with your saliva now y’know…” floated over from my left.

“Hey man, I’m going to have to ask you to move that…” I began, pointing at the offending elbow in my airspace.

He moved his arm and grunted an apology. And then, shortly after, crossed his legs in such a way that his right foot was now encroaching on my lower airspace. But I was rich in legroom, and I didn’t feel the need to mention it.

“I’m three-quarters Irish, one eighth Polish, one eighth Dutch!”

“Where were your relatives from?” enquired one of the N Irish girls, politely, as we always do, in these circumstances. 

“Oh… I don’t know! Their name was Lynch!”

Well, that’ll help.

Midway through the flight, I glanced to my left and noticed that the Irish girls had retreated. Somewhere. They didn’t reappear for the rest of the flight. It was a full flight. I am fairly convinced they were hiding in the toilets.

Today it’s my day off. I decided to spend the middle part of it driving out to North Berwick, with Steampunk’s Communal Work table in mind as a destination.

There are more direct routes to North Berwick, but the Golf Coast Road remains my favourite. I have tested the mettle of most of my cars through Longniddry, Aberlady and Gullane, and the bends and straights in between. But particularly the bends.

Just as I was passing Longniddry Bents, the blues groove of Gary Clark Jr.’s When My Train Pulls In kicks in. It inspires a head bob, not a completely horizontal tennis-watching-style one, but more of a shallow ‘V’ shaped one, with the chin hitting the bottom of the ‘V’ on the beat. It’s very very hard to not head-bob to this tune.

I find myself behind a slow-moving Volvo, still head-bobbing. When the overtaking opportunity finally arrives just before Aberlady, I turn Gary Clark Jr. down a little so as to better enjoy the sweet engine note which comes when the accelerator is floored in third gear.

Despite several of these moments occurring recently, I am still well on my way to attaining 2-leaf status on my dashboard plants. It occurs to me that vegans might not enjoy this car so much. Looking at those plants all the time must make them hungry.

Later in the afternoon I bus it up to Lauriston Place in an attempt to give away some of my blood. However, not for the first time, I am thwarted. Perhaps the insect repellent hadn’t worked, but whatever, having suffered from a tummy upset on my return from Nashville, I am persona non grata. West Nile Virus, maybe. I catch a 44 home again.

This evening will be spent at the opera. Nicola is going to be there, and has promised to wear face glitter and leopard print. It’s a while since I’ve been at the opera, but from memory I am confident she’ll fit right in.

The Nashville Diaries, part II

Sunday

Sunday morning the coffee-making travails continue, as, having laboriously ground the beans, and successfully decanted the resulting grounds into the basket thing, I then accidentally catch the edge of the basket and flip the whole lot onto the counter-top.

Ryan saves the day by producing a sheet of paper (quality cardstock, none of your cheap 75gsm stuff) and I brush the grounds onto the paper. Then, curving the paper, I get most of the grounds back into the basket. Katie helpfully points out, somewhat after the fact, that it would have been easier if I had used the paper in portrait orientation instead of landscape.

Later I visited Wholefoods. Picked up some Maine Root Sarsaparilla, and Maine Root root beer. Plus some A&W at Kroger.

(4) Maine Root Root Beer. Decent but unspectacular. A little bland even. 6/10.

Ryan disagrees, but this is my blog so it’s getting a 6.

Monday

Monday morning the Robinsons’ sweet children involve me in one of their games, which involves Jude (3) chopping off many of my body parts. He starts with the arms and doesn’t stop, at anything, really, naming each body part as he goes, and it turns out his genital vocabulary is pretty extensive.

I am relieved that we’re only pretending.

Every time I come to the States I get a temporary sim from Zip Sim. On activating it, I get assigned a US number. Two years ago I was given a number that had clearly belonged to someone who had signed up for daily parenting advice texts.

This morning, at 09:26 I get a text from an unknown number

GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!!!!

I am unsure where I am to get my ass in to, what’s more Jude has only recently chopped it off, so I stay where I am.

Tried to have a Maine Root Sarsaparilla but couldn’t get the top off. Nearly shredded my fingers before I conceded that it probably wasn’t a twist-off cap. Searched for, and failed to find, a bottle opener. So I have one of the A&W cans instead. It’s ok.

(5) A&W root beer. Really not that bad. 7/10

Tuesday

Get a text at lunchtime:

“Who is girl next to Patrick. Have not been here since break”

I research the area code of the text-sender, which is 267 – the same as my temporary number for the week – and it belongs to Philadelphia. Which is funny, because I am currently reading Silver Linings Playbook – set in Philly – and watched Creed on the plane on the way over, also set there. I am feeling a lot of connection to Philadelphia right now.

I drive back to Franklin, swinging past the Drake Motel, where I stop for a quick selfie to send to Nicola, as it features in the film Wild Rose, of which she is a fan.

Then onto my old haunt the Jam Coffeehouse. The sat nav takes me down South St, and on impulse I hang a left into my old neighborhood. It’s radically transformed from when I left 5 years ago. All around are brand new houses and condos, with boats in the driveway. The house immediately beside ours, which at the time belonged to a local drug dealer, has been pulled down and some tall construction is going up in its place. 

On arriving back in Franklin, Ryan shows me where the bottle opener was, so I could finally try the Maine Root Sarsaparilla, and then opens the bottle for me by twisting it off with his fingers anyway. I feel weak and unmanly.

But the MR Sarsaparilla is good, really good. Sarsaparilla, whatever it is, seems to be the thing. In discussion with Ryan, we concur that the Sioux City was marginally better, so this one gets an 8.

Maine Root Sarsaparilla. Pretty excellent. 8/10

The Nashville Diaries, part I

Thurs 9 May

After a pleasant and comfortable flight from Heathrow which was just a little longer than three feature films laid end to end, I landed at BNA, and was met by the full Robinson family. Well, I would have been, if I had come out on the level they expected me to, but I didn’t, and so we found each other in the car rental section instead.

Their sweet kids are holding Welcome Quinn signs, adorned by hand-drawn pictures of aeroplanes which do look slightly like they’re on fire.

I pick up my rental car. This year I opted for the “Compact” size, one up from “Mini”. Any concerns I had about the size of my transport are eased when I get to the car and realise that “compact” is American for “generously-sized family saloon.”

Ryan and Katie have organised a ‘welcome back’ party for me for Saturday evening, on their back porch. I am excited to see lots of old friends, and just to have a party on a back porch, which is not something that happens too much at home.

I have a breakfast date early tomorrow morning in Nashville, so set my alarm for 7:15am. 

Fri 10 May

7:15am was always hopelessly optimistic. Woke up at 4am.

Descended to the kitchen around 7am and made myself breakfast. Found milk in the fridge. I always check the expiry date on milk before using, ever since going camping with Ickle Bef. The milk in the fridge will expire on 24 July. American use-by dates scare me.

A sweat-soaked Ryan appears in the kitchen, returning from a run. We strike up a root beer conversation.

Each year I come and stay with the Robinsons, and each year, Ryan and I conduct extensive research into which root beer is the best. Never, though, have we taken any notes on our findings, and we forget from one year to the next, so every year we have to start all over again. 

This year, Ryan’s preliminary grocery store trips have indicated that a vastly-reduced range of root beers are available. I blame Trump. It wasn’t like this before he took over.

“Have you had a root beer?” Ryan asks.

It’s 7:30am. I do not feel the need to dignify this question with a response.

Instead I make myself coffee with my Cafflano Kompresso. Ryan is intrigued by this process, especially when I have to lean bodily on the plunger to force the water through the grounds.

“I think I packed the coffee a bit too tight,” I explain, through grunts, as a single bead of espresso finally drops into the clear container at the bottom. Some minutes later, I have a double shot of espresso with the most incredible crema, slight shortness of breath and a round mark imprinted on my right pectoral muscle.

Ryan looks bemused. He doesn’t drink coffee, he wouldn’t understand the lengths one has to go to sometimes.

Later that evening, I have my first root beer of the trip. It wasn’t good.

(1) Kroger Private Selection with ginger. Weird. Why add ginger? 4/10

I followed it up with a Sioux City. Made with cane sugar. That was pretty fine.

(2) Sioux City. Pretty fine. 7/10

The forecast tomorrow is for thundery showers, so we postpone the party to next Saturday instead.

Saturday

Saturday morning, I am leaning on my Kompresso and grunting again. Ryan comes into the kitchen.

“Looks like you packed it a little tight again,” he observes.

“It needs to be 9 bar of pressure,” I explain. “To produce genuine espresso.”

“Looks like you’re getting at least 11 bar there.”

I console myself that the great artists in history probably received criticism for their finest work too.

The other noteworthy thing that happened on Saturday is that I had a Sioux City Sarsaparilla and it might have changed my life. The label proudly claims it to be the Granddaddy of all root beers. I believe it.

(3) Sioux City Sarsaparilla. Proper good. 8.5/10

The new car, and the ageing process (contd.)

I got a new car a few weeks back. It’s a very fine car. Being somewhat sporty in appearance, it was suggested in certain circles that I might be having a mid-life crisis. I protested, with a certain degree of justification – I believe – that I have already had my mid-life crisis – having sold my flat, got tattoos, moved to the USA and bought a sports car.

In response to this, a certain member of said circles suggested that my crisis be upgraded to a three-quarters-life crisis. Which, I thought, was a touch harsh of him, or at least not especially charitable, since my mid-life crisis was only seven years ago. And since that gives me only another fifteen years to live, approximately.

Speaking of ageing, I also attained another year a few weeks ago. It’s a very fine age, and I’m quite proud of having achieved it. It’s taken me quite a while to get this far. But I still feel roughly 28 in my head. And even younger at times. Occasionally I feel mild surprise when somebody entrusts me with any kind of responsibility, especially when there isn’t an adult around to supervise.

Simon Zebo, the Irish rugby player now exiled in France and playing for Racing 92, received a certain amount of abuse from the Belfast crowd when returning to play against Ulster recently. Unfortunately this included some racist comments, which were – quite rightly – roundly condemned. But I noted with alarm that Mr Zebo’s tweeted description of his abuser included the phrase

“He was an elderly man, like 40-plus.”

Um, thanks Simon. Right on point, 27 Across in today’s Daily Telegraph:

Old tree likely hollow (7)

Back to the car. It is, as I’ve said, a very fine car, with something of a split personality, combining the frugality of a hybrid (for it is, indeed, a hybrid) with the performance of a sportyish car, if not an actual sports car. It has a hilariously useless back seat (even Ickle Bef doesn’t fit), and a surprisingly usefully-sized boot. I haven’t tried to fit anybody in the boot, yet.

It’s the first car I’ve owned which has the automatic start-stop feature so prevalent in modern cars. But the effect is not new to me – I did in fact master the manual start-stop thing quite a long time ago. My driving instructor, I recall, referred to it as “stalling”, being criminally unaware of quite how far ahead of my time I was.

In Sport mode, it handles and responds beautifully and slightly aggressively. And all the time, it looks great, and sounds wonderful. However, there is no question in my mind that Honda wants you to drive it like a grandad.

The onboard multi information display can display any number of different options, nearly all of which relate to the mpg or one’s driving efficiency.

Each time one turns off the engine, said multi information display shows a picture of a row of plants. One is awarded points over a driving lifetime (I’m not making this up, folks) based on the eco-friendliness of one’s most recently-completed drive, and the points are translated into leaves on the plants. Over time, the aim is to get four leaves on each plant, after which – if the good behaviour continues – the plants get a flower on top. 

It’s all very lovely, and slightly controlling.

The dash, filled with a bewildering array of gauges and information, glows green when one is driving carefully. Green for go. Green for eco-friendliness. Green for green and pleasant lands. Green is good.

Should one have made for oneself a sub-optimal gear choice, revving the engine slightly more than necessary and thus critically endangering the planet, a subtle (green) arrow indicates it’s time to change up. And the green-and-pleasant dash changes into a sterner ‘tsk-tsk’ shade of blue until one has complied.

But in Sport mode, the green and blue are replaced altogether by an angry glowing red. Red for danger. Red for stop. Red for shame-faced embarrassment.

And in such ways, Honda try to influence you to never really engage sport mode. Of course, for a Hearts fan such as myself, green is emphatically NOT a good colour. Red is the closest option I have to maroon, and so it’s sports mode all the way folks. At least until the Rugby World Cup or the Six Nations, when green becomes good again for me. Perhaps the car isn’t the only one with a split personality.


I, quite by accident, reconnected with an old friend yesterday. We stood and chatted, in the middle of a Balerno field, briefly catching up on the not-inconsiderable number of years since we last spoke, she keeping a watchful eye on her brood. I was reminded of a comment she made eighteen years ago, quite some time before there were any broods to keep an eye on, and long before I found myself in Balerno fields on such a regular basis. 

On discovering that I had acquired for myself an extremely sensible medium-sized estate car at the age of 27, she enquired if I was planning to use it to go “cruising for single mothers”.

Today I decided not to mention to her that I was now, aged 45, the owner of a small sports car. I can only – and prefer not to – imagine what she might have said… 

The Snow Angels of the Dolomites, part IV

Haggis Pakora Update: quite disappointing.

Day 5 in the Dolomites was spent on an away-day adventure to Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Hidden Valley. 

Unable to attempt the James Bond run in Cortina due to a race-related closure, we consoled ourselves by going down the ladies’ world cup run a few times, which, after a gentle enough start plunges dramatically downwards, towering rockfaces to the right and left.

Also to the left (we can think of it as Stage Left) was the chairlift, full of skiers, or the Audience, as I liked to think of them, as I lost control and slid down the slope headfirst, skis kicking up snow.

Sometimes the most obvious indicator that you’re on a black slope rather than a red is the time and effort it takes you to stop the slide.

Skiing, in a more conventional sense, further down the mountain, we came across several skiers who confirmed Cortina’s glamorous reputation, sliding along under the watchful eye of their personal instructors, sporting little round sunglasses, chic ski gear, and offering a whiff of expensive perfume as we shot past.

After lunch outside in the sunshine, we made the short trip to the (fairly ancient-looking) gondola that took us up to the start of the Hidden Valley run.

At the top, yet more beautiful views, and tunnels with machine guns left over from WWI. We took the time to explore the tunnels, and then took even more time gliding down a beautiful red run which curved round and through quiet mountain terrain, past frozen waterfalls, and the pub with the Alpacas. It was a twenty minute run and we took the best part of two hours over it.

Near the end, as promised, we got to hold on to a long rope attached to a horse-drawn cart, and get towed the last kilometre or so. Twice the horses stopped to poop, which nearly caused mass carnage among the fifty or so skiers who had to stop suddenly. But in the end only one wipe-out was recorded, the Flying Pistachio temporarily becoming the Swimming Pistachio in the slush.


All of my research into the Dolomites, which consisted of reading articles, reviews, and looking at photos, led me to believe that the Dolomites were spectacularly beautiful. 

It is something of a surprise and, to be honest, a comfort to me that the internet, for all its wondrous technology, cannot really transport you to the Dolomites, or for that matter to any of the beautiful places in the world.

The photos and video looked great. But electronic rendering never does justice to the experience of standing in the shadow of a gigantic rocky outcrop, which – up close – feels like a living, breathing thing, while the sun slowly moves behind it in an impossibly-blue Alpine sky.

Somewhere near Alta Badia, I believe it was during Day 4’s monastic pilgrimage, we passed underneath such an outcrop. I stopped, not on this occasion because my legs were tired and needed a break, but because Emma had stopped. 

She had paused and was gazing in wonder at the sight above her. So I stopped, and we all stopped, and the Sella Ronda momentarily became the Selah Ronda (© Emma). 

The photo I took of this moment wouldn’t win any prizes, and would fail to inspire awe in any who saw it, except perhaps for me, because it takes me back in time to that moment of that day.


We did the Saslong again on our last ski day, for old time’s sake, and in the fairly plush-looking shop at the bottom of the slope I bought an over-priced bobble hat. The lady wrote me out a paper receipt, which felt a little incongruous, in such a glamorous establishment. I can’t remember the last time I got a handwritten paper receipt for a purchase.

It’s a very lovely hat. I have only occasionally removed it since. It has pleased me greatly that the weather has remained cold in Edinburgh recently.

At the end of the day, a day in which I finally broke the 80 km/h barrier by tucking from top to bottom of a run, and Ickle Bef put this in perspective by recording a speed of over 1900 km/h, thus earning her the new name Sonic Boom Bef… we shared a smoked mozzarella pizza, some cold beers, and more limoncellos than was really appropriate. There may have been some unseemly giggling at the bus stop afterwards.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. Apart from the sheer joy that skiing brings, it was made more special for me by getting to ski, explode kittens, and generally have fun with such a great group of people.

But there was a healing element to the trip for me too, as the last time I organised a ski trip to Italy I had to pull out at the last minute due to my father’s passing.

Then there was the last time I organised a ski trip at all, back in 2011, when my good friend DC ended up in a coma as a result of an accident on the first day.

So just making it to Italy, and then having no holiday-ending injuries happen, felt like a win. It turned out to be a resounding win. Thanks to all who came and made it such a special trip!

Posh toilets and a numb septum

I spent the morning of my day off masquerading as someone from another layer of the socio-economic sphere (a layer closer to the crust, I would say), as I made my inaugural visit to Jack Wills on George St and then, acting on a tip-off from the Admin Supremo, I tried out Burr & Co for coffee.

Trying out the toilets first – not because I judge establishments on the quality of their facilities, but because I needed to wash my hands – I found them to be very posh, and the broadness and lushness of the stairs and hallway reminded me of various American hotels of my acquaintance. 

Posh because they had the two liquid-soap-dispensers-per-sink arrangement a proper posh toilet demands. Which requires you to inspect the labelling carefully so as to avoid a premature lotion application. This minefield successfully negotiated, I returned upstairs and opened today’s Guardian. Not to read it, obviously, that would only bring me up to speed with what’s not happening with Brexit. I opened it as far as page 2, which had the table of contents, to find out where the crossword was, for it was not where I would have expected it.

Nina Simone is playing, distantly.

I sit opposite the counter, and watch various people, who look more at home in a George Street establishment than I feel, some of them knee-deep in make-up, enter stage right and order their drinks.

A number of them look like they’re part of the decaf-skinny-cappuccino-no-chocolate-sprinkles-please brigade. The question which I longed to put to these people when I worked in a café was, essentially:

“Why bother?” and

“Would you like a glass of water instead?”

As a coffee-related aside, McDonalds have recently been aggressively marketing their coffee offerings here in the UK. Taking aim at what they see as pretentious purveyors of coffee, they have a series of billboards which target the flowery naming of small/medium/large by the large chains, and other aspects of the hipster coffee culture. 

They also have an excellent, funny and, to be frank, very astute TV ad which debunks the mysticism surrounding the flat white. After a variety of common myths about the flat white are presented, a McDonalds server punctures the superciliousness by explaining 

“It’s just a stronger latte with less milk.”

Which it is. Despite what Costa will try to tell you.

The irony is, I have never known a proper hipster coffee shop to buy into the overblown hype around flat whites. And the thing about hipster coffee is, usually, it really does taste better.

Also, McDonalds include latte art in their targeting of hipster coffee.

“We could draw fancy patterns in our milk and charge more for it. But we don’t.” 

Or something like that. I take exception to this on the grounds that:

  1. No you couldn’t, McDonalds. You don’t have baristas capable of producing latte art. Nor a proper coffee machine which would allow them to do it.
  2. Coffee shops don’t, in my experience, charge more for producing coffee with latte art. A latte/flat white/cappuccino is £2-and-something, pretty much everywhere, whether it has a nice pattern in the milk or not.
  3. Latte art takes real skill and practice to produce, and I appreciate people adding beauty and creativity to things. 

So, McDonalds, I applaud you for your services to flat-white-demystifying, but as regards latte art, wind your neck in.

At the table next to me a lady and her daughter are having coffee. I am guessing at the relationship, but it seems likely. After a time, the daughter departs in the direction of the posh loo. The mother takes time to re-apply her lipstick.

Belatedly I realise that right behind me is a long shoulder-level mirror, which means that the mother could, in fact, have read everything I’ve been writing, provided she was sufficiently interested to make the effort to read backwards. I decide to take the risk, but furtively reduce the brightness on my screen a little.

It’s a long time since I attempted the Guardian crossword. I have recently been re-enthused in my crossword-solving attempts by re-reading Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8), which is one of my favourite books of all-time. Possibly number one, in fact, but definitely in the top five.

Since re-opening it, I have attempted a couple of Telegraphs, one of which was quite successful (only three clues left unsolved) but today is my first foray into Guardian territory.

Typically my attempts at the Guardian involve me managing to solve one or two clues on the first pass, and then maybe another one or two if I come back to it after a day or so. But the incentive to come back to it is not high, if I have been thwarted by 93% of the clues first time round. So today I am risking getting my day off to a bad start. But the sun is shining, so it won’t be all bad.

In other news, two weeks on from my melodramatic ski-in-the-face incident, my septum is still numb. Nicola has been parsimonious in her sympathy on the matter. I am considering changing GP practice out of protest. 

Guardian crossword update: the first pass through yielded ten solutions, and the second pass another six. I am somewhat encouraged, and, fortified by my pain au chocolat and long black from Burr & Co (both of which were excellent) I stride out to meet the day.

I later found Haggis Pakora in Sainsbury’s, which I suspect may be the most perfect union of national culinary traditions ever.

I shall keep you posted.

The Snow Angels of the Dolomites, part III

I tried Castello Coffee this morning. Bathing in the spring sunshine on the south-facing Barclay Terrace, it had been recommended by Kenny Raz as a quirky establishment, during a chance meeting earlier in the week. It had been recommended to him by the baristas at Artisan Roast, on a day when their pavement was being dug up and they had no power. So, a double recommendation.

It was my intention to write this blog there. On entering I couldn’t help but notice the prominent notices explaining that laptops were prohibited at tables with four seats or more. I found a narrow breakfast bar arrangement upstairs. Technically it had four seats. Technically it was one table. I wondered if I would get away with it. The gentleman who brought my coffee and lemon-and-coconut slice didn’t offer a rebuke, so I settled in.

I hung my coat on a nearby hook using its loop. I have always wondered about this. How much of a load are those coat-loops rated for? They seem so thin and fragile and stretched to their limit. Are they rated for winter coats loaded down with wallet, gloves and hat? But, for now, it was holding.

Day 4 in the Dolomites was also bright and sunny, and that’s how it would be for the remainder of the week. Ten of us set off around the Sella Ronda again.

Through Val Gardena, up a chairlift over a fun park which included a car half-buried in the snow (anyone want to try jumping over a car? Anyone?), and on round as far as Corvara.

Here we cut off the circuit, taking a lift eastwards and up to Rifugio Col Alt for elevenses in the sunshine. If I’d realised we were going to miss lunch, I might have had more than a double espresso at this point. But I didn’t.

So, reasonably caffeinated but not much else, we decided to embark on our monastic pilgrimage to La Crusc. After some wonderful red runs, and a lot of lifts, we arrived at the little church, nestled in the shadow of a mighty rockface. It was a perfect time for lunch, and there was, somewhat inevitably, a rifugio on site. However, having been tipped off by an earlier pilgrim Richard that the service was a little on the “Italian” side, and aware that we were now against the clock to get home in time, we strapped the skis back on and headed back. 

Skipping lunch is not something I like to make a habit of, especially not on holiday, most especially not on a skiing holiday, but the prospect of missing that last lift, and the corresponding eye-watering taxi fare that would ensue, galvanised us into putting the hammer down.

On and on we went, passing rifugio after rifugio. Inevitably, when you’re up against it, unusual things happen. And so it was that Ruth, one of our happy (but gradually becoming hangry) throng, for reasons which remain hazy, failed to exit a particularly unusual chairlift and stayed on it for another go round.

This chairlift was unusual in that it required you to leave it halfway along its journey.  Which, even with multiple warning signs explaining this, still somehow came as a surprise. It was one of those situations where the signs were particularly large and shouty. The text was large, and bold, and repeated in various languages. 

The conclusion I usually arrive at, on reading such signs, is that they are for someone else. Signs aimed at me would be much more subtle and suggest things rather than screaming them at me. So, engaged in conversation as I was, I nearly failed to leave the chair, but mercifully my fellow travellers were eminently more sensible, and all was well.

On this holiday we were a sizeable group of 24, and we therefore, through a natural selection process based mainly on how often – and for how long – one aimed to stop for coffee and cake, subdivided into different groups. 

Accordingly there are many stories from the trip which describe events that I was unable to witness in person, and thus can’t recount with the unerring accuracy and objectivity for which I am renowned. 

However… this same unusual chairlift, reputedly, had been the scene of some drama only the day before. Richard and his band of merry adventurers, returning from their own pilgrimage to La Crusc, and also against the clock, had a whole chairful that missed the halfway drop-off point. 

Perhaps they also expected the warning signs to be a touch more subtle. Whatever, the Lift Attendant was not content, on this occasion, to wave them around for another go, and stopped the lift, with our dear friends’ chair suspended six feet above the ground.

“You must jump off!” he instructed. 

At this point our friends faced a dilemma. The prospect of jumping off, on skis, onto an uneven, slightly sloping surface of snow six feet below, was not an appealing one. But the clock was ticking, and the final lift they needed to make was still some way in the distance. And that taxi would be expensive.

And so they all jumped, one by one, landing in a variety of creative ways, losing various items of ski equipment and much of their dignity in the process. Even Shikha, for whom six feet is a taller order than for most of us, jumped.

Until only Julia was left.

Julia, being a lady of resolute and steadfast will, and having watched all her fellow travellers wipe out in spectacular fashion, declared that she was not for jumping.

“You must jump!” repeated the Lift Attendant. 

“I will not!” reiterated Julia, who was, of course, six feet above contradiction.

The driver of the expensive taxi began to think about warming up his engine.

In a process mildly reminiscent of a certain current political process, Julia, a British lady of determined will, engaged her European counterpart in strongly worded dialogue. Back and forth the negotiations went. 

Quite possibly she petitioned for a delay, but in any case it became increasingly clear that Julia was not going to embrace a hard chair exit. Or Hard Chexit, one might say.

In due course, the Lift Attendant eventually relented and provided a softer exit option, helping her to the ground, and our friends were able to continue on their journey, sneaking onto the final lift moments before it closed for the evening.

Perhaps this is why, on the following day, when the Lift Attendant saw another British lady stranded on the chairlift, he elected to not stop the lift, and allowed her to continue for another time around.

Having skied somewhere in the order of 50km that day, with only a couple of Twix and some espresso for sustenance, the 5pm pizza-and-pasta “lunch” that I shared with Emma at the bottom of the Belvedere gondola, with the accompanying cold beer (large), will go down as one of my favourite meals of all time.