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

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.

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…

Saturday at the Hideout

And so I wake in the morning // And I step outside // And I take a deep breath and I get real high // And I scream from the top of my lungs // What’s going on?

It’s Carol Service week at our church. Carol Service fortnight, really. In my world, this means longer hours – prepping, planning, emailing, video editing, and picking up kit. Crossing task after task off the to-do list, without the Tasks-Still-To-Do figure seeming to reduce at all.

It’s late morning on Saturday. Nicola is probably at the Cameo watching a foreign subtitled documentary about a year in the life of a rural French primary school teacher.

Money’s too tight to mention // I can’t get an unemployment extension // Money’s too tight to mention.

I am ensconced in my new favourite coffee shop, in Leith, having picked up some hired sound equipment from the nearby Warehouse. Another thing off the list.

My new favourite coffee shop has those hipster lightbulbs hanging in the window, slightly oversized, with filaments glowing brightly enough to emanate a sense of warmth, without, probably, any actual warmth, and very little actual light. But they look great.

I just wanna dance the night away // With señoritas who can sway // Right now tomorrow’s lookin’ bright // Just like the sunny mornin’ light

The coffee is decent, and the almond croissants are epic.

Nailed to the wall are a cluster of box-shelves, housing a variety of historic museum pieces. There are a couple of old alarm clocks, an old telephone with one of those rotary dialling mechanisms, a gas lamp or two, and a hand-operated coffee grinder sitting alongside a stovetop espresso maker. It brings me a perverse sense of pleasure that I am using a museum-worthy method to make my coffee every morning.

It’s just a little crush (crush) // Not like I faint every time we touch // It’s just some little thing (crush) // Not like everything I do depends on you // Sha-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la

The place has an unmistakable whiff of nostalgia. It’s winter, and in the middle of the room, contravening all manner of health and safety regulations I imagine, is something I haven’t seen for a serious number of years. It’s what I want to call a Calor Gas heater, although I daresay that’s like calling all vacuum cleaners Hoovers.

But by far its most prominent nostalgia-inducer for a child of the 80s such as myself is a wall-full of stereo cassette decks. Some single, mostly twin, there’s even a TRIPLE for maximum-efficiency mixtape-making. And on another wall, sitting atop an emptied-out TV cabinet (now jammed full of cassettes), is the cafe’s working model, a white plastic Sharp with stickers proudly advertising its main features.

Continuous Play™. 2-way 4-speaker. 14W PMPO, for goodness’ sake. Made in Malaysia.

That’s what is providing the tunes. Right now it’s a Simple Minds number which I can’t quite remember the title of, and can’t quite hear the words to Google them, because they’re just a touch too muddy.

None of your digital multi-room wireless bluetooth remote app-controlled streaming devices here. Proper music, without too much bass OR treble to speak of, and, Continuous Play™ notwithstanding, the periodic need for a staff member to come and turn the tape over. 

Wake up it’s a beautiful morning // The sun shining for your eyes // Wake up it’s so beautiful // For what could be the very last time

I had a Sharp twin cassette deck myself, back in the day. Featured hi-speed dubbing as I recall. But what sold it to me way back then in 1989 was a fully separate subwoofer speaker, positioned on top, slightly off-centre, pointing upwards. “X-BASS” proudly emblazoned on the speaker grille. This speaker could be activated by pressing the almost magical X-BASS button, which brought a definite and noticeable additional boominess to the music, without any extra bass as such.

It was such an amazing machine that someone’s made a Youtube video about it.

Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere // That I can find you // Oh, now, // Billy, Billy don’t you lose my number // ‘Cause you’re not anywhere that I can find you, oh no

It cost £100, and I saved up for it with my own pocket money. I remember using it to play Def Leppard’s Hysteria on repeat, and used it to record U2’s 1989 New Year’s concert – broadcast live on Radio 1 – as they brought in a whole new decade at the Point Depot, Dublin. Heady days.

So take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // ‘Cause I don’t remember // Take, take me home // Oh Lord, // ‘Cause I’ve been a prisoner all my life

It now seems to be Phil Collins on repeat. Nostalgia can put a gloss on only so much. Take me home, indeed.

Snowmageddon and Bacon Rolls

Tuesday 27 Feb

Went into town to see the movie Lady Bird. With the internet promising apocalyptic weather over the next few days I wasn’t sure when I would next get out of the house. The Beast from the East was on the way, they said. Freezing temperatures and shedloads of snow, they said.

Not likely, I thought. Winter after winter we get these predictions, and they do happen, somewhere in the UK, I’ve seen it on the news, all those drivers stuck on motorways and whatnot. But never in Edinburgh. Too close to the coast. Snow doesn’t really lie here.

I exited the flat into a shallow carpet of tiny hailstones. Drove into town. The Beast, it seemed, had made a preliminary foray into Edinburgh, and the old girl was clad in a thin veil of ghostly white. The wind was gusting a little. I parked up on London Road, and walked/slid up to the cinema.

Lady Bird was a great film. At some stage I experienced the gradually-dawning realisation that I was watching an American teenage girl’s coming-of-age movie. However, it was frequently hilarious, and often touching, and only spoiled a little by the fact that it was subtitled. This is the second Tuesday in a row I have been ambushed by unwanted subtitles at the cinema. Is Tuesday Subtitle Day at Vue?

I left the cinema. Some fresh snow had fallen in the meantime. Scraped the windscreen clear and headed home.

Wednesday 28 Feb

From 3pm today until 10am tomorrow, a red weather warning is in place from the MET Office. I normally drive into the office around lunchtime on a Wednesday, but today it seemed sensible to stay and work from home all day.

Working from home has benefits, some of which are bacon-and-egg-roll-shaped. I followed up that lunchtime benefit with a simpler, more austere second course of bacon-only-roll. One has to take one’s bacon roll opportunities when they present themselves.

Just recently I found myself in town on a Friday morning. A narrow window of bacon-roll-opportunity presented itself, so narrow it was more like one of those windows you get in castles, just wide enough to shoot an arrow through, but it was enough. I marched, expectant, into the New Town Deli.

The barista had tattoos. I was reassured.

“Do you do bacon rolls?”

She looked unsure. I scanned the blackboard. It was all smashed avocado and crushed fennel seeds.

“No, sorry,” she explained, after a short conversation with her supervisor. “That was yesterday.”

That was yesterday? Is Thursday Bacon Roll Day? I’m an Anglican, and thus primed to celebrate feast days on the appropriate occasion, but have now missed Bacon Roll Day AND the memo about Subtitle Day.

Anyway, back to the present. My boss has also decided to work from home today. We communicate via email, with Snowmageddon updates via WhatsApp.

14:17 Definitely worsening here. People are panic buying at the local shop. 

My boss lives in The Sticks. If the local shop gets cleaned out they might need to do food drops by helicopter.

I put it to him that he wouldn’t know they were panic buying there unless he was there panic buying himself. He is unable to effectively deny this. Meantime I am quietly panicking myself, as my coffee beans have almost run out.

14:59 One minute until Snowmageddon.

The wind picks up. Within an hour the snow is coming down hard. I do what work I can from home and eventually stop for tea. In the interests of a balanced diet, I eschew more bacon, and instead have sausages. And potatoes.

Flatmate returned from work with the disturbing news that our local McDonalds had shut.

Thursday 1 Mar

More snow overnight. Car looks like it’s not going anywhere for a while. I pulled back the curtains to see neighbours pulling their kids along the middle of the road in sledges.

No buses running today. Fresh coffee beans now gone. Had to make an emergency raid on the reserve coffee bean jar this morning.

Sky cleared a bit in the morning. My flatmate’s work is closed today, but he was asked to go and put up a sign on the door to say this. He wrapped up and walked into town.

Main roads are ok. Just passed one guy on skis!

He asked if I wanted anything. I realise that I have bacon, but no rolls, so ask him if he could stop off for some at Sainsbury’s. Apparently the panic-buyers have got there first.

Brioche only!

A bacon brioche doesn’t sound terrible, and he agreed to bring the brioches. Meanwhile I decide to revisit Morrison’s to see if it was open today.

It was. I stocked up on bacon, rolls, and other essentials.

Climbed the steep street back towards my flat, and say a cheery “Hi!” to a snowboarder going the other way.

Safely back in the flat, I reestablish WhatsApp communication with the boss.

Local shop is out of milk and bread…

And I used up all our bacon for breakfast

He sends a picture of his back garden, complete with snow ramp, and sledging daughter. It’s all happening in The Sticks.

After lunch the Rector’s Administrator emails. She is working from home in Morningside, and all is well – she has plenty of Prosecco and Waitrose hasn’t yet run out of quinoa.

H texts. H loves the snow, but not the cold. The heating in her flat has two settings: Clay Oven, and Old People’s Home. I suspect it’s on the latter today.

The blizzards continue all day. Looking out on my back “garden”, I realise that if the snow continues, it won’t be long before even the weeds are completely submerged. This is a non-trivial amount of snow.

I put the kettle on, and pop some brioches under the grill. Get momentarily distracted and before you know it, the brioches are smoking.  Who knew brioches toasted so quickly? I flip open the kitchen window, and the Beast makes short work of the smoke in the kitchen, before it even has a chance to reach the nostrils of the Loudest Most Sensitive Smoke Alarm in the world.

I have Blackened Brioche with marmalade. Surprisingly tasty.

Followed that up with a bacon-based tea. One has to keep one’s energy levels up at times like this.

Stay safe out there, Britons.

Slowing Down to Catch Up

When you walk into a coffee shop for the first time, and they have 3 grinders, a La Marzocco espresso machine, and both baristas have beards, you know everything’s going to be ok.

And it was. I made my first visit to Century General Store this week. I have no idea how long it’s been there, and I may have never even known it was there, if the kindly City of Edinburgh Council hadn’t rearranged the roads again, such that my bus into town is diverted up Montrose Terrace past its characterful front. Thus it was that I spotted it from the top deck last week, and resolved to pay it a visit at the earliest opportunity.

The coffee was outstanding, so I had another. I think I sat there for a couple of hours resting, reading, and journalling. As well as coffee, they sell food and wicker baskets. And other things, but I was particularly taken by the wicker baskets.

There’s a particular joy in discovering something great organically, without having first being recommended to go there by the internet.

My post-coffee bus wended its way into town along London Road and up Leith Walk. Onwards, slowly, onto Leith Street, where a proliferation of signs forewarned the impending closure of the street for a whole year. A whole year. The closure of this main artery into town for 12 months has provoked strong opinions from locals, to the point where someone stood as an independent candidate in the recent Council elections principally to oppose it. I voted for them, too, not because I’m particularly invested in getting along Leith Street easily, but they seemed like they cared about the city and would work hard on behalf of people. They didn’t get in.

There are things that are only visible from the top deck of a bus. It’s a marvellous place for people-watching, observing new places, and even new views of the city. Today it afforded me an excellent view of the rubbly concrete-and-rusted-iron remains of the St James Centre, which is partially demolished already. The Centre will soon be rebuilt, and has already been rebranded, as Edinburgh St James. As we passed the mounds of rubble, I found myself wistfully remembering good times at the St James Centre, until it occurred to me that I didn’t have any good times there, apart from getting a few keys successfully cut.

On up onto Princes Street briefly, and then onto the Bridges.

On North Bridge we pass the shop that used to be H Samuel, back when H Samuel was a thriving jewellery chain, before its owner famously explained to a business conference that the reason why their products were so cheap was because they were “total crap”. H Samuel actually survived, but the group lost £500m off its share price, and 300 of the group’s jewellery stores closed within 2 years. So much for the belief that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

More importantly, I got my ear pierced there in Freshers Week 1992, much to the consternation of my parents. I subsequently discovered that the ear one chose to have pierced (presuming only one was pierced) was a way of communicating one’s sexual orientation. Added that to the Things-I-Should-Have-Checked-Before-Acting-On-Impulse list.

Onto South Bridge, past what used to be Ripping Records, which was in existence until surprisingly recently. Ripping was the place to get concert tickets when I was a student. Concert tickets, and overpriced CDs and records. I remember buying a Little Angels CD single there. Can’t remember what its main track was, but it had a decent cover of The Mighty Quinn on the B side. Not that CDs have B sides, but you know what I mean.

Turned right onto Chambers St, and more student-related memories aplenty if I allowed my mind to go there. I decided not to. This part of town has been a hub of the Edinburgh Fringe for the last 3 weeks. Last night was the fireworks concert that marked the end of the Festival and Fringe, and there’s a distinct morning-after-the-nights-before vibe in the air.

Left onto George IV Bridge, up Bristo Place, and then a right turn onto Lauriston Place, past George Heriot’s School (where the BBC set up shop for the duration of the Fringe) and the old Royal Infirmary, where I had a broken wrist put back together in 1996.

I got off the bus, and met Wiseman on the steps of the Edinburgh College of Art.

“Ah, the smell of fireworks and singed squirrel…”

I couldn’t smell anything myself, but you have to doff your cap to his word-pictures.

The ECA café is a great place for a cheap lunch, and at this late summer pre-semester stage, is deserted, and we have the place more or less to ourselves.

We share some thoughts, on a yearning for a simpler life, and the importance of quietening down, finding God in the silence. And slowing down to catch up with God.

“You only see thing things that are moving at the same speed as yourself,” offered Wiseman. You miss those travelling slower, they tend to be the old, weak or those hurting.”

Was reminded of how parents of young children find their walking speed dramatically reduced when trying to get anywhere with the youngsters. Not to mention the time it takes them to get out of the house. Strikes me that, while this must be frustrating at first, there’s something to be said for it. Without these natural braking systems in life, would we continue charging onwards in the pursuit of greater efficiency, and getting More Things Done In The Time Available?

One summer I paid a visit to my sister in London. I flew to Stansted, and got the Stansted Express into Liverpool Street Station. There I found the entrance to the Tube, and joined the throng of London commuters through the turnstiles. It was busy busy busy. After a minute or so I became aware that my walking pace had quickened to match those around me, and realised I was rushing to catch the next train. Even though I was on holiday, and had no need to rush anywhere. I gave myself a good shake, and deliberately slowed down.

A variation, perhaps an extension, on Wiseman’s gem is that you’re inclined to move at the speed others around you are, unless you make a conscious choice not to. Not a fresh revelation I realise, but something I, as a city-dweller, need to actively remind myself of from time to time, as I drive past billboards encouraging me to post all the details of my life on social media.

Technology has dramatically assisted our drive towards greater efficiency. Once, a movie could only be watched by making a trip to the cinema. Then we got VHS rental stores, which still necessitated a physical visit. Now you can download and watch a movie without leaving your seat.

Playing music in your home could once be done only by getting up and putting a record on the turntable. And getting up again to change sides after 20 minutes. Now, again, you don’t need to leave your seat.

Same for switching on and changing channels on the TV. Not to mention not having to watch programmes when they’re aired anymore – they can be squeezed in anytime you have a spare 30 minutes.

Much is made of the inactivity all this technological wizardry promotes, but consider also how the time taken to do the thing is reduced. Much more can be done in an evening. Rather than essentially devoting a whole evening to going out to a movie, it can be watched while eating your dinner, and then you can get on with something else.

Is this helpful? I wonder sometimes. I’m a practiser of most of these things that I’ve described, and I’m not about to sell my car, buy a horse and cart, and move to the hills. And 20mph speed limits are still anathema to me.

But I am also consciously trying to slow down, notably by taking a proper day off each week, and choosing to rest. And discovering great coffee shops, and blogging a bit more, ha…

Starbucks drive-thru fail

Decided to try out the Starbucks drive-thru this morning. Was on my way to the DMV (American DVLA) to ascertain how I might perchance obtain a Tennessee driver’s licence. Having been warned by Alyn that this could take some time, I realised that skipping my coffee this morning at breakfast might not have been such a good plan, and resolved to visit Starbucks.

Now, a word here about Starbucks, since earlier in these pages I have been, um, forthright in my condemnation thereof. I am still not a fan as such, but have now had three Starbucks coffees in the States, and they have all been OK. Not outstanding, but definitely ok.

But Starbucks is on the way to the DMV, and they have a drive-thru, and getting out of one’s vehicle for anything other an emergency is frowned upon here.

And so it was that I arrived at the window, where the nice lady asked me for $4.32. I did wonder if she might be prophetic, as I hadn’t ordered anything yet. And it transpired that somehow I had managed to avoid ordering anything at the intercom-thing earlier in the drive-thru queue and she was charging me for somebody else’s venti iced triple shot pumpkin latte extra soy decaf. I am conscious that I was listening to WSM country music radio, but not *that* loud. This basic inability to use a drive-thru was kind of mortifying. It’s not as if we don’t have drive-thrus in the UK. Anyhow, the rest of the exchange went like this.

“Not a problem, so what can I get you?”

“Black Americano, small please”

“Where are you from?”

“Uh, Ireland”

At this point she screwed up her face and banged her hands on the counter, exclaiming “DARN YOU!”

I looked appropriately puzzled. She apologised for darning me.

“It’s only my favourite place!” she explained.

“Oh,” I said, “Have you been?”

“No.”

I love this.

“But it’s top of the list!”

I warned her to lower her expectations.

She gave me the Americano on the house, because “it’s not every day we get someone from Ireland in here.” I might have pointed out that I will be in there every day for the next 9 months if they keep giving me free coffee, Starbucks or no…

John Mayer and Costa Coffee

As previously confessed, I’m a big fan of John Mayer. So when a friend said he’d been on Jonathan Ross’ Radio 2 show a few Saturday mornings ago, I fired up the iPlayer with a certain amount of anticipation/apprehension. Meeting your heroes, it’s said, can be a disappointing experience. I find that even listening to your heroes on the radio, or seeing them in concert, has a certain amount of risk attached to it – how can you fail to be disappointed? Your expectations are so high. When I saw JM in Hyde Park a few years back, I was disappointed, because he didn’t set anything alight (I mean metaphorically. Although it’s true to say that he didn’t physically set anything alight either, this didn’t disappoint me). I consoled myself in the knowledge that he only had a 45 minute set, which didn’t allow him to express himself fully. And this was vindicated by his Hammersmith Apollo gig a few weeks ago, when he torched the place. Metaphorically, of course.
Anyway, back to the radio show. I’ve never found Jonathan Ross compelling listening, not because he’s not funny, because he usually is (IMHO), and not because he gets paid ridiculous amounts of money, because I don’t hold that against him. I find his show irritating in the extreme because there’s this bloke who sits in with him every time (possibly his producer) and laughs at everything he says. Everything. In a nauseating, sycophantic kind of way. Drives me crazy. Or at least it would, if I listened more.
I steeled myself for the sycophant, and tuned in. However, it was Ross himself who wound me up early on by first of all introducing the guitarist JM brought along to play live (Robbie McIntosh) as “his (Mayer’s) dad”, and then proceeding to either forget, or pretend to forget his name, and make up new ones for him every time he referred to him. Serious lack of respect for a fine musician. He then confessed that he knew of Mayer only through his appearances in gossip mags and the like, and expressed surprise when it transpired that he really could play guitar. Which is, quite frankly, lazy. Any small amount of research would have revealed that Mayer has played guitar with Buddy Guy, BB King, and Herbie Hancock. Oh, and Eric Clapton. And that he’s done stand-up, and writes well too. And he features heavily on my iPod. But I still don’t like his new album. Only two songs of any worth, I reckon. Neither of which he played at the Apollo, naturally.
I created an ‘evening’ playlist a few years back, containing songs of a more, um, reflective nature. Melancholy, some might say, and I wouldn’t contradict them. It’s my favourite playlist, by some distance. Wiseman’s response to my musical taste is usually a despairing kind of snort when yet another miserable track comes on the car stereo. On one occasion, I was driving Nasty Jen somewhere, and as Bill Withers wailed “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone,” I realised I was listening to the melancholy stuff. Jen is a teeny-bopper really, and should know better at her age, but I thought I would humour her and switch to my ‘pop’ playlist, which contains songs of a generally more upbeat nature. After a few seconds delay while the iPod found the new playlist, the opening track kicked in.
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…” lamented Bill, again. I resolved to get some happier music on my iPod.
On a more recent occasion, Wiseman and I found ourselves listening to some tunes from the 70s on the car radio. Wiseman took great delight in identifying, usually incorrectly, the year of each track from these, his formative years. Sometimes he has even been heard to sing along to seventies tunes. It’s quite a sonic experience.
The car radio has been employed more often of late, since I neglected to remove my iPod from the seat pocket in front on arrival in Geneva last month. The airline was Jet2, and to anyone flying with Jet2 in the future, I would strongly encourage you to follow their advice and take all your personal belongings with you, as contact with said airline afterwards can prove a touch elusive. All “post-flight communication must be in writing” (that’s letters, rather than emails) and so far they have failed to acknowledge either of mine. Which rather stymies my as yet unborn insurance claim, unfortunately.
After lunch today I made the trip to Arbroath to see a client. Having plugged the postcodes into Google maps, China’s least favourite internet company advised me it would take 1hr 50 mins. For some reason I read this as 1hr 30 mins. Tapping the details into my sat nav as I prepared to leave, 90 minutes before the appointment, I was somewhat startled to note that it was predicting a journey time of 2 hrs 13 mins. I made haste for the M90. Once over the bridge, I encountered another problem. My body sometimes thinks it’s somewhere in the south of France, or Spain, and takes an involuntary siesta shortly after lunch. I was falling asleep at the wheel. This is never a good thing, I find, and so I have a couple of strategies to combat it. One is to pull over and close my eyes for forty winks (I find five minutes almost invariably does the trick); the second is to stop for a coffee, or any sort of break. I had time for neither, but having pondered the pros and cons extensively in the past, I have arrived at what I believe is a rather sensible conclusion. No matter how late you end up being for your appointment, and possibly all your appointments for the rest of the day, and whatever you were planning to do in the evening, annoying and stressful though this can be, it’s still better than killing people, possibly including yourself.
So I stopped at the Kinross services, and ordered a double espresso at the Costa outlet. Now, Costa. They’re not quite Starbucks, and their coffee certainly tastes better to me. But I don’t really like them either. They’re “Italian about coffee”, or so they claim. Now, I’ve been to Italy, once. I stayed in Milan for a week with my good friend Slid. It was June, it was hot, and humid. I remember sitting in a park with Slid watching some locals play football. Had it not been so hot, we might well have taken them on and shown them a thing or two. But it was very hot. They were playing in a classically slow, Italian style. It struck me that in these temperatures and humidity, there was no other way to play. And I immediately made a connection between the climate and the style of play: Italy and Spain – slow and languid so as not to get hot and tired too quickly, Scotland – fast and frenetic so as not to get cold by standing around in Baltic temperatures. It all made, possibly perfect sense. In that sense, Costa are very Italian. They are chuffin’ slow. Far too slow when you’re running late for an appointment in Arbroath. I lost eight minutes in the service station, although admittedly I had to take a pee as well.
Apart from the speed of service, I find nothing about Costa remotely Italian. Every time I had a coffee in Italy it was outstanding, and it wasn’t supplied by a chain, in an enormous bowl of a cup whose diameter is so great that the coffee sometimes dribbles down the sides of your chin. But perhaps that’s just me.
I was late for my appointment. And the next one. And my evening ‘appointment’ back in Edinburgh. But nobody seemed to mind too much. And what’s more, I’m still alive!