The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Solo travelling, loneliness, and singleness.

Sunday 6 Sep

Time to head for home.

I make a mid-morning stop in Stonehaven. Sit on a sunny café balcony overlooking the harbour, with a substandard coffee and an A+ traybake, and read about lighthouses.

Read about the prolific Stevenson family – how four generations of them built most of the lighthouses in and around Scotland and the Isle of Man.

About how one of these Stevensons – Thomas – was greatly disappointed when his son Robert Louis announced that he would be pursuing a career in writing instead of lighthouse engineering. Perhaps he forgave him after he wrote this:

“There is scarce a deep sea light from the Isle of Man to North Berwick, but one of my blood designed it.

The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather; the Skerryvhor for my uncle Alan;

and when the lights come out along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.”

And, y’know, when he forged something of a successful career in writing.

This has been a great trip. I have not, generally, enjoyed solo holidays. When attempted in the past I have found myself longing to share the experiences with someone. But this time I was surprised by how rarely feelings of loneliness overtook me.

And in this I need to acknowledge the positive effect of social media. It helps with this. It really does. Sharing photos of places visited and sights seen via Instagram, and Facebook, and written experiences via this blog, and seeing people respond, help provide that sense of connection that otherwise is missing.

Strikes me now, fourteen years on, that this was probably the main driver for me starting this blog in the first place – keeping a record of my trip to Australia in 2006-7, a diary of my travels for posterity – of course – but also a means of staying connected with friends and, in a relatively non-immediate way, sharing those experiences with them.

Big shout out to Nicola and Disco, my virtual travelling companions on this trip. 

But on the occasions when feelings of loneliness did catch up with me, I found the best way was to embrace them. Briefly. It’s perfectly normal to experience feelings of loneliness at times. No sense in pretending they’re not there. So I embraced them, and even dwelt in them, for as long as I needed to. 

And no longer than I needed to. Any longer, and I get lost in a miasma of self-pity and spiralling thoughts that take me nowhere good.

I sometimes view families in a curiously detached way. It doesn’t escape my attention that the parents are my age or younger. I sometimes idly wonder what it’s like. I know, cognitively, what it’s like. I have enough friends who have told me. Told me of the sleepless nights. The constant demands for your attention. The tears and the tantrums. Balanced with the joy and the pride. 

And I have experienced these things in a detached way, as an uncle and a friend of the parents. But I don’t really know.

Nor do I want to. Not at all. And yet there’s a fascination, which is similar to the detached fascination I experience when I see couples on the bus. Or in the street.

I wonder what it’s like. I know what it’s like. But I also don’t.

And so I walk the road less travelled. Viewing couples and families with detachment. Wondering how one decision can make life, ten years down the road, say, so different. So very different. 

Sometimes I feel like Peter Pan. Like I’ve never grown up. Proper grown ups enter into committed, lifelong relationships. Get married. Have children. I haven’t. I go to the cinema a lot. Sometimes at antisocial hours on a school night. Frequently on my own. It’s ok, going on your own. It’s actually pretty good.

I invited my friend (married, with young children) to the cinema the other day (pre-COVID). He didn’t come. “Our lives are very different,” he said. It was a 9:30pm showing on a Sunday night.

The first times I ate out in restaurants alone, I was on training courses with work, far from home. It felt weird. I was in a strange town, far from everyone I knew, and it was just weird. Now, eating out alone is as normal as breathing. 

I have great friends. I love hanging out with them, going to films, eating pizza, ice cream, meeting over coffee. I love these encounters. But at the end of the evening, we wave goodbye, and go our separate ways. 

Sometimes I think it’d be nice to have someone who would still be there tomorrow.

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Sunrises and Smugglers.

Saturday 5 Sep

After yesterday’s full and busy itinerary, with its 6:17am start, I resolved to take things a little easier today. I gave myself an additional two full minutes in bed and got up for the sunrise at 6:19.

I can’t quite remember the last time (before yesterday) I witnessed a sunrise. And the thought of having seen two on consecutive mornings is frankly mind-boggling.

Singing along to Justin Townes Earle in the car later

Ain’t seen a sunrise
Since I don’t know when

I (with, I admit, a dash of smugness) change the words to

…since THIS MORNING!

Which doesn’t, I confess, fit the song rhythmically or thematically, but I’m on holiday.

Faced with a plethora of beach choices, I settle on Balmedie Beach, on the basis that it’s the closest, and thus will maximise the good weather beach time, given that the forecast is for it to cloud over by the afternoon.

Walking from the car park, I crest the final sand dune to discover a massive sandy beach stretching away to the north and south, but my heart sinks just a little at the eleven wind turbines rising up out of the sea just offshore.

I am not entirely proud of this reaction, since I know that wind-generated energy is clean and green, and therefore A Good Thing, and also subsequently discover to my dismay that my views are momentarily aligned with Donald Trump on something, finding out that he complained to the Scottish Parliament in 2012 that the turbines would spoil the view from his golf resort.

And, what’s more, just yesterday I was eulogising over the beauty of a lighthouse in the middle of the sea.

I kick off my flip-flops and carry them, walking northwards through the fringes of the surf, away from the turbines. It’s breezy, and clouds frequently obscure the sun, but it doesn’t rain.

I come across a bunch of sandpipers scuttling backwards and forwards with the incoming tide – it looks like they’re playing chicken with the water.

After a few miles, with the beach still stretching endlessly off into the distance, I park myself on a sand dune once again, make coffee, and eat my lunch, pondering the difference between wind turbines and lighthouses.

It’s a curious one. Both the lighthouse and the wind turbine are entirely man-made. Both are there for laudable reasons. Both are brilliantly conceived and (especially when built in the middle of the sea) genuine feats of engineering.

But the lighthouse is somehow more beautiful to me. The achievement of the lighthouse engineers is also considerably more impressive when one considers that they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, without the assistance of modern shipping and helicopters. But, purely from an aesthetic perspective, the turbine is too sharp, too angular, has too many edges for me. But like them or not, I guess they’re here to stay.

I walk back the way I came, with the wind getting up and the tide coming in. The beach is deserted. I take the opportunity to run, and fling my arms wide, and sing at the top of my voice. And maybe even skip and dance a little. Then I notice there are two people sat back on the dunes, watching the antics of a crazy person, no doubt preparing to call the police if I turned in their direction. Ah well, I’m on holiday.

I drive a little further north, to Collieston, purely on the basis that it has an ice cream shop called Smugglers Cone, and in doing so stumble across perhaps the most glorious find of the trip – another gorgeous little seaside fishing village, built in a natural cove, flanked by cliffs on one side and dunes on the other, with a great little harbour and a rich gin-smuggling heritage.

In the late 1700s an estimated eight thousand gallons of foreign spirits were being landed here, and the surrounding area, in a given month.

I eat ice-cream and read a book, sitting on a bench overlooking the harbour, where wet-suitted youngsters are jumping off the harbour wall, and a young family paddle-board their way around the cove.

In the evening I attempt to eat local (at Brewdog!) but they’re fully booked, and so I walk along Union Street to the familiar surrounds of Pizza Express, a chain in some trouble even pre-COVID.

With sparsely-arranged tables and furniture stacked in the corner, it looks like they’ve just moved in. With so few diners, it was a fairly soulless experience, if I’m honest. Made me wonder: how much of our enjoyment of a meal out is conditional on the atmosphere?

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Lighthouses, but still no dolphins.

Friday 4 Sep

I rise early, with the forecast having promised a clear sky in the morning. The Airbnb I’m staying in is about 50m from the beach, and right beside where the River Dee flows into the North Sea. There is a steady stream of ships making their way into port as dawn breaks.

I walk down to the beach to watch the sun come up. There are several mad Aberdonian women swimming. And a guy with a drone. 

The sunrise is beautiful. On returning to the flat for coffee, my Airbnb host asks if I saw the dolphins, which were frolicking off the end of the pier. I didn’t.

I head north to Cruden Bay, and hike along the clifftop to Slains Castle. Before that I stop off in Boddam for a quick photo of the lighthouse.

Lighthouses. They fascinate me. Sometimes short and stumpy, but more often slender and elegant, beautifully engineered, and yet capable of withstanding the worst that the seas and the elements throw at them. For hundreds of years.

I grew up with the light from St John’s Point Lighthouse in Co. Down illuminating my room every night. It’s the nostalgia, no doubt, which has fostered an ongoing fascination with them for me.

The locals here have funny accents. The facemasks aren’t helping. I find myself, in conversation with a local person, hearing a full sentence and fully recognising it as English, and having a vague sense of understanding, and yet they get to the end of the sentence and I haven’t a scooby what they said. I adopt a ‘nod and smile’ approach at these times.

The locals here also have fast cars. I am losing count of the number of high-performance cars that I find agitating on my rear bumper, harrying like a sheepdog at my heels. And I’m not a slow driver.

The next stop on the Harbours, Castles and Lighthouses tour is Rattray Head. This, I reckon, is positioned at the most north-easterly point of Great Britain. There are no signs to tell me that, indeed there are no signs to advertise its presence at all, which is refreshing.

Rattray Head Lighthouse is what I later learn is called a ‘rock tower’ – a lighthouse built on a rock out from the coast, not on land. As such it sits in the sea, and looks all the more dramatic for it, I think.

It takes a bit of getting to, mind. After a long-ish drive down an increasingly ropey lane, I abandon the CR-Z on a grassy verge (avoiding sheughs) and walk the remaining mile or so, past a French campervan (of course) and over the dunes.

When I crest the final sand dune, there it is, rising out of the sea like a lone sentinel. And there’s only one other person to share the beach and the view with. I park myself on a sandy slope, facing the sea and the lighthouse, and make espresso, like the UK’s most northeasterly coffee hipster. There are seals, and crashing waves, and the sun is shining. 

I spend a large part of the afternoon in the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh. Thanks to COVID, all tours (which I have booked ahead on this time) are for bubbles only. Ergo I get a personal tour at no extra cost. My very own personal tour guide – Michael – is interesting and engaging. Although clearly a local, as from time to time incomprehensible phrases float past me, like a cloud of random syllables. I can only wave at them as they drift past. And smile and nod, of course.

The lighthouse at Kinnaird Head, where the museum is based, was built in the 18th century, inside a castle. It was the first one owned and run by the Northern Lighthouse Board, which used to be called the Commissioners of the Northern Lights. I think they should have kept their old name.

The original lighthouse at Kinnaird Head has now been replaced by a newer automated one. Which prompted the question – are lighthouses really necessary these days given the effectiveness of modern navigation systems? I was desperately hoping he’d say yes.

‘Yes.’ 

Turns out sailors have more confidence in an actual lighthouse showing them where they really are, than a GPS system telling them where it thinks they are.

I continue west, picking my way along the coast, taking every right turn that looks like it might have something interesting at the end of it. It always does. I visit Pennan, and Crovie – both not so much villages as single rows of houses, squeezed into the space available between the cliffs and the sea. It’s a massively steep gradient to get down to both villages, and back up again. How do the residents get up those hills in the winter? 

Westwards again, accompanied all the while by Natalie Merchant…

Hypnotised 
Mesmerised
By what my eyes have seen

Through MacDuff, and the best fish and chips of my life in Whitehills, near Banff. My faith in the region’s fish suppers is restored. I eat it in the car while watching a farmer gathering up round bales and stacking them in groups. It’s that time of year. Already I have driven past many fields of wheat, or barley, or corn. Or hay. Or something. I am a little fuzzy on the horticultural specifics. It’s golden, at any rate.

This farmer is whizzing around his field in what looks like an agricultural sand buggy, with a front loader pincer thing which carry the bales. It’s all a bit different from my childhood, when bales were almost always rectangular (round bales were a new-fangled thing) and they were small enough that they could be lifted and stacked by hand.

I drive on to the iconic Bow Fiddle Rock, hoping it would be catching some late evening rays from the setting sun, but the sky is overcast. Still, it’s an awesome rock formation. I’m the only one there.

A long day over, I drive a cross-country route back to Aberdeen. Halfway through the journey I come across what I now believe to be Aberdeenshire’s only slow driver. I am stuck behind them for 10 miles.

[Update: apparently Duncansby Head, near Wick, is the most northeasterly point on the GB mainland. I do apologise.]

The 2020 Staycation Diaries. Castles and Hipsters.

Thursday 3 Sep

Heading north, I make my first spontaneous unscheduled “saw the sign and made a snap decision” stop at Glamis Castle. I do love a good castle, and the Shakespearean connections are a bonus.

It’s closed. Covid. I console myself with a completely scheduled stop at another place referenced (I imagine) in classic literature – McDonalds (Forfar).

Arrive at Dunnottar Castle mid-afternoon. It’s only open these days if you book ahead on the website, but (without ever having actually been in) I reckon Dunnottar Castle is best experienced, and certainly photographed, from a little bit away – like Edinburgh Castle. So I take photos from a little bit away. From every conceivable angle, except “from the sea” which would be tricky.

Drive on down into Stonehaven, meeting a combine harvester on the road in, which takes up the ENTIRE road. It’s a nervy moment. I nearly end up in a sheugh, but the combine driver gives me a cheery wave, so I felt better.

I’m aiming for a couple of coffee shops, both of which turn out to be closed (flooding, not Covid). Seems like either Ellen or Francis did for them. I find another one, and take a coffee and a traybake down to the harbour.

Discover the compact little harbour to be unexpectedly picturesque. Translucent blue water, a sandy beach, and – beyond the walls of the harbour itself – grassy cliffs which provide a gently spectacular backdrop. And the sun is shining.

There’s even a hipster, complete with flat cap and man-bag, on the sand.

I bite into a traybake large enough to sink one of the boats on the water, and feel like I’m in the Med. With the exception of the traybake and the hipster.

Later that evening, I phone mum from the car, while parked at Torry Battery, where I’m eating fish and chips and watching the ships leave the harbour. She tries to impress me with her knowledge of Doric. It seems to be confined to “Quines” and”Loons”. I remain unimpressed. Am also unimpressed with the fish and chips, which I imagine would generally be of high quality around here. I must have picked a dodgy place.

Apparently Torry Battery is a great spot to watch dolphins from. I discover this afterwards. I didn’t see any dolphins.

The Nashville Diaries, part III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’ll help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nashville Diaries, part 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 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.

Almost New Year

We’re midway through the festive season, in that strange lull between Christmas and New Year, when some have gone back to work and some haven’t. It’s an odd time of year. All through December I look forward to the time off that comes at Christmastime, and then when I get there I’m not always sure what to do with it.

Late on the eve of Christmas Eve, I began packing for my early morning flight the next day.

Packing, I find a relatively straightforward business, when going somewhere for a decent length of time – heading to the US for 10 days, for example. Or when going skiing. In both of these scenarios there is a lot of underwear to pack, not to mention a shedload of compassionate chocolate for my American friends in the former instance, and thus the which-bag-to-take decision is an open and shut, er, case.

When one is flying down to London for only four and a half days, however, there is much opportunity for vacillation. And when there’s an opportunity to vacillate I like to grab it decisively.

It seemed easy enough, initially. I had the option of checking a bag into the hold for free. It was a no-brainer.

So I dragged out the big guy, and started to fill it. Got everything in, room to spare. Looked a little under-filled, frankly. Began to wonder if I could have got it all in the carry-on-appropriate little guy. 

Vacillated.

Got the little guy out. Decanted everything from the big guy into the little guy and packed it to the gunnels. It fitted, just. Although there remained the ‘morning of’ items that would need added. Would be tight. Decided it was going to be ok.

But now… all the toiletries needed to be in 100ml containers. Dug out some clear plastic bags and began to fill them. Realised my Travel Size tube of shaving gel is probably 4 years old now. Wondered if I’d made the right decision. Would I have to re-check in?

Vacillated.

What settled it in the end was the thought…

“What if I receive a gargantuan Christmas present this year?”

And that did it. There was simply no space for a gargantuan present. 

Everything out of the little guy, back into the big guy.

Arrived at London City Airport, and my sister picked me up, with my oversized suitcase, at what we both thought was the pick-up point.

Cue the arrival of an Official at the driver’s window.

“I’m terribly sorry, madam, but I need to inform you that you haven’t got a ticket YET, but as soon as you drive away you will incur a £400 charge. This is a drop-off area only.”

My sister protested her innocence. No signs, she said. This is where she’d always come to pick up people, she said, channeling a classic Northern Irish argument for right-of-way. I was waiting for “My father and my grandfather ALWAYS picked up people here y’know” but it never came.

The Official, as Officials are wont to do, failed to acknowledge anything she was saying and simply repeated the script.

“…as soon as you drive away you will incur a £400 charge.”

With the option of ‘driving away’ now effectively off the table, I began to think we might be spending Christmas there, just me and her, in the car. Maybe Deliveroo could bring over some turkey sandwiches to keep us going. I had some Christmas tunes on my phone. It might not be so bad. Just four and a half days, then I could leave the car – mildly odorous and slightly itchy I would presume – and go back into the terminal to fly home, and she could safely drive off, having legitimately dropped me off at the drop-off point.

Mercifully, a compromise was reached, which involved me guiltily exiting the car, walking a few hundred metres to the official pick-up point, where my sister picked me up again, legally, for £397 less than she might have had to pay, and Christmas was saved. Hurrah!

Christmas Day duly arrived. Christie (6) declared to anyone who would listen that he had seen Santa and his reindeer flying into the garden the previous night.

“I literally saw Blitzen fly down into the garden.” 

“Oh really?”

“He nearly crashed into the SHED!” he proclaimed, joyful and triumphant.

I need to have a conversation with Christie about his use of “literally”. Maybe next year.

Over Christmas much turkey and many pigs in blankets were consumed. 

Of course, no gargantuan presents were received. However, I did receive a triple-pack of white hankies with my initial embroidered in the corners, which made up for the slightly disappointing absence of socks.

After a muddy visit to the park, and a family outing to see the wonderful Mary Poppins Returns, having been warned in a dream, I returned to the airport by another route (the bus and the DLR). This foxed the Official completely.

Back in Edinburgh Friday evening, it being the last Friday of the month, me and the gang were at an unusually-quiet Akva for a festive G&T. Or two. Or three, in some cases, but no names will be mentioned.

Post-Akva, there was an ill-conceived and ultimately abortive attempt to go clubbing by a few of our number. Once again no names will be mentioned. On our initial foray into an establishment on Grindlay Street, we appeared to have stumbled upon an underground table-tennis club. For children. 

Bemused, we beat a hasty retreat and retired to a nearby bar, where there seemed to be some other over-16 revellers, and we shouted at each other at close range for a couple of hours. It was great fun, although I really don’t know what anyone said, and just nodded and smiled a lot. 

Last words of the year go to Over the Rhine

Happy Almost New Year. There is still so much music left to be made.

 

Camping and Emergency Loo Roll

A week or two ago we welcomed an old friend back to Edinburgh – the traditional Scottish Summer.

The greatest, hottest, driest summer since records began, or at least since 1976, is on the wane, it seems. No more unprecedented experiences like selecting the second button on the electric shower, to make the water cool enough to step into. On a number of recent occasions, my thirty minute drive into work has necessitated the use of the holy trinity of sunglasses, windscreen wipers and headlights. Sometimes all at the same time.

With spectacular timing, our old friend has reemerged just in time for me to go camping for the first time in over twenty years. Admittedly a mere nine years ago I did go camping with my Sister and her burgeoning family, but that doesn’t count, since all the camping infrastructure (and a great deal of stately-home-infrastructure to boot) was laid on.

On this occasion I have had to give a great deal more thought to the supply and provisions.

Wiseman, after hearing of my camping intentions, and slowly lowering his eyebrow, kindly loaned me his tent, and camping stove, and various other arcane implements, the usefulness of which, I imagine, will become apparent at around 2am.

After one tutorial on the camping stove, and none on the actual tent-building, I reckon I am ready.

I wandered through Tesco, looking for camping-style easy-to-cook meal solutions, pretending to myself that this was vastly different to what I normally look for in Tesco.

In a flash of inspiration, I picked up some loo roll, for emergencies. Shea Butter ‘flavour’. Four rolls. You can’t be too careful with these things. And some paper towels. And a dustpan and brush. Must return the tent in good nick to Wiseman, or I’ll never hear the end of it.

My companion on this particular trip, to the Openskies worship festival in N Ireland, is Ickle Bef. We conferred about what we were bringing for the first time at 10pm last night. This was possibly leaving it a little late. Ickle confided she was bringing two camping stoves. I feel this is overcooking it slightly.

Loading the car at 6:15am this morning, I noticed that Ickle had her own dustpan and brush. I suspect the duplication, some of which is important for decency’s sake, like having our own tents for example, won’t stop there. I do hope she has her own Shea Butter loo roll, though, because I might need all four of mine. Depending on how the cooking goes, on our multiplicity of stoves, I guess.

Now, on the ferry, halfway across the Irish Sea, the sun is shining, and I wonder what could possibly go wrong. Ickle Bef is out on deck, wisely banking some solo time.

Openskies’ website states that campers have access to showers, charging points, and the presence of the Lord. You can’t ask for more than that, really.

Camping? I feel recklessly optimistic. Bring it on.

Did I remember to pack the tent?