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, 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.

The Snow Angels of the Dolomites, part II

On Day 3 the sun was out from early morning. With a large and very attractive white bandage on my face, I joined forces with Steve, Doug and Fiona. Fiona had a lovely green ski jacket.

“It’s pistachio,” she pointed out.

We started out clockwise on the Sella Ronda, heading for Val Gardena. Our progress could best be described as halting. 

At the top of every lift we paused in wonder, breath visible, hanging in the crisp mountain air. The fresh covering of new snow had added a layer of further splendour to mountains that were already the most startling and majestic I’d ever seen.

Thus we proceeded, slowly, interrupted regularly by the scenery, eventually arriving at the top of a massive bowl which, further down, gave way to the top of the Saslong World Cup run. But in the middle of the bowl, irresistibly alluring, lay a short parallel giant slalom race course, complete with start hut, and a timing wand to push through. Like real ski-racers do.

Doug and Fiona – who in due course would become known as the Flying Pistachio – raced each other, and the result has been lost in the mists of time, obscured by a difference-of-marital-opinion and a steward’s enquiry. Which left me to race against Steve.

Steve, in his youth, had raced competitively three of the four race disciplines (Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super G and Downhill). 

I, on the other hand, had watched all four on TV. Many times. Accordingly I felt I had an even chance, if not a slight edge.

Technology is such these days that one can scan one’s ski pass at a handy nearby electronic kiosk and watch a video of any of these kind of races one has taken part in. As both of my regular readers will know, I am not always a fan of technological advances. However, coming across such a kiosk later in the day, I saw that the automatic camera had successfully captured the first few seconds of the ‘contest’, and then – gamely – had swung through a random arc and focussed on a nearby metal pole instead. I was grateful.

The ‘racing’ complete, we joined the Saslong and made it down safely. I remain in awe of the skill, but mostly the courage, of World Cup downhillers who straight-line it down black runs like that.

At the après-ski bar at the foot of the race piste, there was a goat on the roof. Of course there was. We took pictures.

After a funicular train journey through the heart of a mountain, and another gondola ride upwards, we stopped for lunch at the top. I went inside the Rifugio to order.

“Bitte?” asked the server.

Many moons ago, in Edinburgh, I had an Italian neighbour whose first language – I discovered – was German, and thus I was educated in the fact that a region of Italy is primarily German-speaking. And it appeared that we had skied into it.

I later discovered that this part of the Dolomites had originally belonged to Austria, until relatively recently, when it had been transferred to Italian ownership through a series of circumstances that I am still a little fuzzy on.

However the Austrian-German-sounding placenames live on, and German remains the first language in certain parts.

We skied the lovely 10.5km La Longia run down into Ortisei, and caught the cable car back up again.  

One of the distinct pleasures of skiing in this area is that all the villages were real villages, not purpose-built ski resorts. Thus one had a definite sense of touring around the area, rather than simply skiing up and down runs. The differing languages across the region only added to the sense of travel.

That evening we had dinner out at the Kaiserstube. Having been in Italy for three full days at this point, and not having had pizza, I decided to put that right. There’s something about Italian pizza, eaten in Italy. It’s apparently simple and uncomplicated, and yet profoundly tasty.

My first and, prior to this trip, only visit to Italy was a week’s holiday in Milan, during a hot and sticky June, nineteen years ago. I and my travelling companion Stephen arrived at our small city hotel after a series of delays due to striking baggage-handlers. We were ravenous.

I approached the hotel receptionist – a youngish, bespectacled gentleman.

“Is there anywhere around here we could get a pizza?” I enquired. This remains, I believe, the most stupid question I have asked in any country at any time.

He smiled, and with a benevolent and gracious air, produced a local map and with a pen circled the location of a backstreet pizzeria nearby. I believe it was called Grog. It was family-run, and the pizza was simply outstanding.

Kaiserstube’s pizza reminded me very much of this. It was an excellent evening, to round off a great day.

The Snow Angels of the Dolomites, part I

It’s April, dear reader, Yesterday’s watery sunshine, luring us briefly into thoughts of balmier weather, has given way to today’s endearingly British rain-hail-sleet combo. Or “April showers” as we like to call them.

But before April came March, which witnessed a couple of important events. Firstly, Britain’s non-exit from the EU on 29 March. Having been guilty in the past of being carelessly ignorant of important goings-on in the nation, I have tried manfully to stay abreast of developments with Brexit. At least every now and then. I have periodically read articles and blog posts by political analysts, which appear to come forth daily. But I find they all follow the same format:

  1. Last night [this thing] happened.
  2. What does [this thing] mean? or occasionally What happens now?
  3. We don’t know

What I deduce from each article is that, really, nothing is happening.

Happily, March also finally witnessed my long-awaited ski trip to the Land of Bialetti, with 23 fellow adventurers. I christened our group the Dolomites Snow Angels, and no-one objected, or at least not too strongly, and so that was that.

On the first or second evening, I can’t quite remember which, Emily – the holiday rep – held court in our neighbouring chalet’s living room. Our chalet was the Traviata, theirs the Violetta. Both named after a Verdi opera. This pleased me.

Every chalet holiday I’ve been on has had one of these introductory chats from the rep. Never have I attended one before.  But this time I was numbered among the crowd that trooped over to the Violetta. And I found myself pondering what my sceptical non-attendance might have cost me all these years, as Emily engaged us in a whistle-stop tour of the area’s skiing highlights.. 

She waxed lyrical about La Longia – the 10.5km red run down into Oritsei, and went on to mention the legendary Saslong men’s World Cup downhill black run in Val Gardena, the La Crusc church in the furthest away corner of the map above the village of Badia, the lovely blue runs of the Alta Badia valley, and the Marmolada Glacier, with its spectacular views from upwards of 3000m, not to mention its WWI museum. 

Clearly all that plus the 1200km of general skiing available wasn’t going to keep us busy, so she was also offering limited places on a trip to Cortina d’Ampezzo and the Hidden Valley on Day 5. Cortina promised yet more stunning and unique Dolomites scenery, a ladies’ World Cup downhill, and a ski run featured in For Your Eyes Only. Meanwhile the Hidden Valley ski run is regularly voted one of the world’s top 10, includes a pub with two resident Alpacas, and the opportunity to be towed the last flat 1km or so by a horse-drawn cart. Oh, and there were tunnels left over from WWI to explore at the top.

Having come to the Dolomites with the express purpose of completing the Sella Ronda, by the time she was done I found myself less invested in that, and much more interested in the variety and quality of the unique skiing experiences to be had here.

Of course, there was no reason why these attractions had to compete, and so on Day 4, ten of us did in fact complete the Sella Ronda, interrupting our clockwise journey at Corvara to head off on a monastic pilgrimage to La Crusc, before rejoining at Corvara and skiing hard all the way home.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Day 1 was, as it always is, a day for re-acquainting oneself with one’s ski legs and remembering forgotten techniques. Having more or less found my way down the hill safely in the morning, I had decided to have an easy and fun afternoon skiing in the fun park, through ice tunnels and over pianos, but took the wrong lift up and instead found myself skiing black runs and moguls in Arabba with the some of the more adventurous Snow Angels.

But I survived, and on the way home found somewhere selling Baileys, with which we toasted St Paddy that evening.

On Day 2 we awoke to falling snow. It had been falling since the early hours, and so we abandoned any plans we might have had to ski hard and long that day. Truth be told, there probably wasn’t a plan for that day. Most days plans were formed late and on the hoof, which is not a bad way to approach a holiday, I reckon.

We headed away from the crowds of the Sella Ronda, up Val di Fassa, and took a gondola ride into a winter wonderland. Not that we could see all that much of it, initially.

Skiing in the falling snow, provided it’s not being propelled into your face by a Force Nine gale, is a wondrous thing. Sounds from across the mountain are muffled by the ever-deepening snowy blanket, and skiing must be done more by feel than by sight due to the reduced visibility. And everything is soft. Everything, that is, apart from my ski, which came off during a particularly inelegant wipeout at the bottom of a black run, and clattered into my face.

After some slope-side ministrations from the amazing Steve, who – Mary Poppins-style – conjured a host of medical supplies from his bottomless rucksack, I repaired to the nearest Rifugio, whereupon a host of friends patched me up with steri-strips, chocolate cake and espressos. I remained there for many hours, entertained by the inimitable Jamie and Kirsty, until I had recovered my courage sufficiently to ski a blue run a couple of times and then retreat back to the chalet.

Bialetti, oh Bialetti

I reconnected with an old squash foe on Tuesday – Colin Eye. Colin and I have had innumerable court-based battles over the years, and he has often emerged victorious, being younger, fitter and faster.

After a long squash-playing hiatus for both of us, however, the disparity in athleticism is less marked, middle-aged portliness being a great leveller, and movement around the court could best be described as lumbering. I found myself wistfully recalling the days when I was able to change direction swiftly and without the assistance of the momentum gained from having crashed heavily into a wall immediately prior.

The result of the contest shall remain forever shrouded in mystery, as it would be churlish and graceless of me to be anything other than magnanimous in victory. Even a victory so crushing as that one.

Afterwards, between gasps and gulps of water, we wondered aloud when the pain would kick in properly. The next day, or the day after that? 

The next day, it turned out. My body, impatiently, decided it couldn’t wait for the day after tomorrow to arrive, and protested loudly regarding my reckless attempts at athleticism every time I tried to stand up, or perform any other routine function.

Wiseman got in touch on Wednesday. Sent me a link to an article he thought I’d appreciate. The article was entitled The Humble Brilliance of Italy’s Moka Coffee Pot. In it the writer regales us with not only the history of Bialetti’s stovetop coffee pot, but the history of coffee, and in particular its brew methods, from the dawn of time. Or the dawn of coffee being discovered, at least.

It was a wonderful and fascinating read, and I did appreciate it. I love my moka pot. I’ve made coffee that way every morning  for more years than I can now remember, even taking it with me on my travels, excepting those mornings when I was staying somewhere with an induction hob. Although I note that Bialetti now make an induction hob-compatible version, which I am considering purchasing purely for the five days in every four years or so that I spend in an induction-hob-equipped house.

I’ve found the moka pot provides a more consistently good, strong cup of coffee than any other home brewing method I’ve used. I have recently become a fan of the Kompresso espresso maker too, especially while travelling, but at home the moka pot remains my default coffee brewing device. 

The article, splendid as it was, was irredeemably spoiled by the news, right at the beginning, that Bialetti – the company that invented the moka pot, and still make the best version – is in serious financial trouble and struggling to compete due to the proliferation of pod machines. Globally, but even in Italy.

*&!!%# pod machines. *&!!%# George Clooney. 

Learning that Italians are choosing to make coffee at home from artificial capsules rather than their trusty moka pots is a hammer blow akin to discovering that Starbucks had successfully opened stores in Paris. And, only last year, in Milan. 

Oh Milano, Milano, how could you let this happen?

Is nowhere and nothing sacred anymore? I am grieved, dear reader, grieved. I feel sure that these events are referenced in the book of Revelation as signs of the end of days.

I could tolerate pod machines while they remained in their place, their place being in the kitchen of the undiscerning coffee drinker who values speed and convenience over taste and quality. But now that they’ve successfully wormed their way into the homes of even discerning coffee aficionados, my own dear sister and the whole of Italy included, I am most grievously vexed. The urge to panic-buy 3-cup Moka Express stovetops is strong.

It’s time to take to the streets. Or at least start an online petition.

Hold tight, Bialetti. I’ll be over here drinking proper coffee and listening to records, while the real world gradually digitises itself and becomes available only through a Virtual Reality headset on a streaming subscription basis.

The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think I’ve maybe skipped denial and gone straight to anger. Bear with me, dear reader, while I work through this…

Siri Problems and Extreme Laundry

It’s a Tuesday morning in early February. Leith smells like damp cabbage, and Radiohead are playing in the Hideout. Not literally, of course, but on magnetic tape, which is surely the next best thing.

Before leaving the house, I asked Siri for the temperature. 1 degree, she said, rising to 9 tonight. NINE degrees, Britons. Spring is surely not far away.

Sometimes, on days when I am going to be in Balerno (that’s most days), I ask Siri for the forecast for Balerno. Occasionally this is a surprisingly warm and sunny report, which seems too good to be true, and so I check the screen, and it turns out it is too good to be true, as Siri has delivered the weather forecast for Bologna. Or sometimes Palermo. One’s diction is not always crystal clear early in the morning.

But sometimes my articulation is not to blame. On one occasion I was driving along Seafield, with its plethora of car showrooms and garages lined up along the shore. Impulsively desiring some car-related window-shopping, I requested that Siri tell me where my nearest Honda showroom was.

“Hey Siri, where’s my nearest Honda showroom?” I asked. Just like that.

“The closest one I see is Honda Showroom & Service Centre in Penang. Is that the one you want?”

Penang. Yes, of course it is.

“OK. Would you like me to get directions?”

Yes, yes, I really would.

But, unaccountably, she was unable to provide me with directions to my nearest Honda Showroom, 6,420 miles away in Penang.

I tried a different tack.

“Hey Siri, where’s my nearest Honda garage?”

“Garage Zollig”, she said. 993 miles away, in Switzerland. Am probably not going to make it to either of those places and be back in time for dinner. Another day, maybe.

On the domestic administration front, the laundry has been taken to a whole new level. One of my Christmas presents this year was a fine-looking v-neck jumper. I proudly wore it to the last Akva of the year, shortly before we failed to go clubbing.

Somebody, I can’t remember who now, commented on how fine it looked. I was gratified.

“Extra fine merino wool,” I announced, grandly.

I believe time stood still at this moment. I am sure that all 140 people inside Akva, as one, raised their eyebrow. There may even have been an audible drawing in of breath.

“Ooh,” said one.

“Hand-wash,” said another.

“No. Please no,” I said. When a label says hand-wash only I tend to read that as single use item – please dispose of responsibly after use.

I found the care instructions on the label. The machine wash symbol did not have a cross through it. I was mightily relieved. However, the paragraph of tiny almost-illegible text beneath contained all kinds of arcane wording. Something about wool detergent, and a cleaning net.

Unaccustomed as I am to such extreme clothes-washing techniques, I did what any right-thinking nigh-on 45 yr old man would do. I visited my mum.

Mum had a cleaning net. Mums always have these kind of things. She even had some silk/wool detergent, which, she assured me, she had acquired from me, circa 2003 I think. It didn’t look like the kind of product that would go off, exactly, so I gave it a whirl last week.

I may have been too generous with my application of detergent. Peering in, worriedly, mid-cycle, there seemed to be an unfeasible amount of foam behind the glass. However, while I haven’t worn the v-neck in question just yet, it’s looking good. Perhaps a bit less shapely than it once was…