Exploring Eilean Donan Castle!

The cap off to our first day of road tripping through Scotland was the quaint, no-stop-lights-needed town of Dornie. A jig step away from the Isle of Skye bridge, Dornie promised us two conveniences: the ridiculously beautiful Eilean Donan Castle and ease for traveling to our next big destination: Skye itself.

Our first glimpse of the castle!

Our first glimpse of the castle!

So cute!

So cute!

The only place, really, to stay in the Highlands is in a B&B (we passed all of three hostels in our lengthy afternoon wander through the hills). Fortunately for travelers, these wee little stop-offs dot the towns of the Highlands in high numbers – and it means you get to have a more personal experience when traveling (and less expensive!). Our host, Jim, was a lovely and chatty man who boasted of being “born and bred here.” Our room, as the only guests in for the night, overlooked the exquisite castle itself – a serious, jaw-dropping treat!

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Jim laughed at my hop-stepping glee over the castle, saying he couldn’t even see the glamour of it anymore. But he also was quick to assure us the most beautiful time to capture the castle in photographs would be in the evening, at twilight. As far north as we were, that wouldn’t be much before 9:30 PM.

So to dinner we went, at “a pub just down the path from those wee blue gates” at the end of the B&B’s driveway. (We’re pretty sure it was one of two options in the part of town we were in). Feeling particularly British, i ordered a fish pie with a local ale.

pub

After dinner, we walked back through the we blue gate to drink in the blue-ing sky enveloping the castle. Just as the sun stretched its last farewell over the mountains, i snapped this photo:

Pretty excellent suggestion for a photo, Jim!

The view of the castle from our room!

It was a pretty remarkable ending to a pretty remarkable day!

The next morning we made our way into the castle itself, marveling over its pivotal role in the Jacobite rebellion and laughing at the most excellent wax sculptures in the kitchen. The castle bears a long history of Hollywood, too, having been featured in a James Bond film and a number of other Scotland-themed movies. While the interior is tremendously cool to see, it’s easily the exterior of the castle that makes it so enchanting. Seriously, the castle on an island on a loch thing never gets old.

Our first-morning look at the castle!

Our first-morning look at the castle!

Within the walls!

Within the walls!

Best photo of the day.

Best photo of the day.

And the surrounding landscape isn’t too shabby, either. In misty rain (as it was when we first set foot on the island) or in basking sun (as it turned into, ten minutes later) the castle retains a sense of awe and glamour. What a treat to see in all shades of sun and moonlight!

Barely twenty minutes passed between these photos.

Barely twenty minutes passed between these photos.

Arms laden with postcards from the giftshop, we made our way back on the road. It was only the start of the day, but it was a wonderful way for it to begin!

current jam: ‘skyfall’ adele.

best thing: kind shopkeepers.

The Seven Year Pursuit of a Parisian Hot Dog (Which is Not a Metaphor)

I picked a French name for myself on the first day of French 1 – Céline, because it had an accent in it which made me feel tremendously exotic and française. Within two weeks we’d covered hellos and how-are-you’s in Mme Kelly’s sunflower yellow room. I was already amassing a small collection of Eiffel-Tower-themed housewares.

But it was chapter two of my 8th grade French textbook that captivated my imagination. The chapter on French gastronomy.

A textbook geared towards American students detailed simple translations of cuisine famous in the USA; french fries and milk and hamburgers and hot dogs. It was the hot dogs that got me. Madame Kelly’s curly bobcut bounced as she flitted about the room like a fairie, petite and clad in an ascot like a true American-gone-Parisian. “En France,” she began, “the hot dogs are très delicieuse! They come inside a baguette, so that the ketchup or mustard or whatever you like is wrapped all around the meat! What a treat!”

My parents heard nothing but je voudrais un hot dog, s’il-vous-plaît! for the subsequent month. I talked endlessly of how my first meal in Paris would be un hot dog without ketchup, because i am allergic to processed tomatoes (i am aware that this is really very odd, trust me).

Seven years later, i was with mon amour and we were going to Paris. As aforewritten, our first meal was a collapsing into the first restaurant we could find in Montmartre. Though it was, admittedly, a gourmet pizza place, it was still pizza in PARIS, i am in love, and la vie était belle. The hot dogs could wait.

The next day was gloriously filled with seeing the Musée d’Orsay, red wine, the Louvre, more wine, Notre-Dame de Paris, and a romantic stroll along the Seine (with wine).

But nowhere were the hot dogs to be found.

I wasn’t bothered, really, because the aura of Paris basking in azure sky warmth and sunny day smiles had me totally enamored (the wine may have had something to do with that). I also figured that hot dogs were, after all, really an American thing and the more touristy spots around the Eiffel Tower would be my best bet.

Turns out, i was right.

eiffel tower at night, watermarked

J and i arrived at the Eiffel Tower, glittering in all its golden splendor against a purpling night sky. I’m not lying when i say seeing the Tower up close literally takes your breath away (asthmatic, remember?). In our haste to get in the queue to the second floor elevator (the top was closed – frozen elevator cables) i didn’t even notice the hot dog stands dotting the massive space beneath the tower. It was only after we had un-frozen our hands from the outer railings and gone back inside the tower that J saw the café on the second floor.

On the second floor of La Tour Eiffel!

On the second floor of La Tour Eiffel!

My big moment was here. J was fumbling in his pocket for the 2 Euro fifty as i proclaimed the most practiced phrase i know in French: “Je voudrais un hot dog, s’il-vous-plaît!

Désolée,” replied the clerk. “Nous n’avons pas des hot dogs. Ran out this afternoon.”

My look of disappointment must have told non-Francophone-J all he needed to know. They did not have hot dogs, so a pretzel it was. Down the stairs we went, catching sight of the glittering Seine and far-off Sacre Coeur.

Until we reached the bottom, where, not twenty feet from the elevator, stood a sign that read HOT DOGS HERE. I skipped my way over, the words out of my mouth before i could catch my breath. The guy at the stand grunted a yes, and set to work making my hot dog. I was ecstatic, i was elated, i was ready to fulfill seven years of waiting, when the clerk handed me -

a hot dog smothered in ketchup.

For the second time that evening, my eyes were painted in shades of forlorn as i shared a look with half-laughing,-half-sympathizing J. I handed him the hot dog, walking back to the  stand to ask for one without ketchup. For whatever reason, the guy refused to make me one. J tried not to tell me how delicious the snack was, and i tried not to let the inner-thirteen-year-old throw an entirely inexcusable tantrum.

I had given up, prevented by my weird allergy and longing for the magic that made Mme Kelly dance in her sunflower-yellow French classroom.

J, however, is not one so easily defeated. The next morning, we took the metro to Trocadéro where there is a large platform from which you can see the entirety of the Eiffel Tower. Lo and behold, where there are tourists in Paris, there are hot dog stands. At his encouragement, i walked up to this stand-man and asked i could have a hot dog gratine (with cheese) and sans ketchup.

His affirmative reply literally made me yelp with glee. At last, in my hands, was a hot-off-the grill hot dog encased in a baguette swimming with cheese. So there i was, overlooking the monument that had adorned the posters of my walls since i first learned how to say bonjour, when i at last had my Parisian snack.

un hot dog, s'il vous plait

It was scrumptious and cheesy and so worth the wait (in case you can’t tell by the enormous grin). I don’t even like hot dogs all that much in the States, but there was something so magical about remembering Mme Kelly and the first time i fell in love with Paris. And maybe i was always destined to have to hunt for the snack – after all, it makes for an absurd and ridiculous Parisian tale to tell.

current jam: ‘la foule’ édith piaf.

best thing: l’amour à paris!

(also also, there will be a full blog solely on the eiffel tower coming soon!)

Répéter: Trois Jours.

I should be writing my paper on sexuality and nationalism.

I’ve spent my afternoon making spinach-and-artichoke dip for my mojito chicken nacho dinner tonight. (The whole cooking thing? Yeah, it’s taking off with frightening fast elevation.  I think i’ve watched three or four hours worth of Sorted videos in the last two days alone). Before that, there was a stroll around The Meadows and the library under the ruse of “returning my books.”

You get the idea.

My restlessness is not unfounded, if resiliently unproductive. In a mere three days (THREE DAYS) J will be here for his spring break. I can’t breathe, i can’t focus, and i certainly cannot think about anything else (much less worrying over the intersection of sexuality and nationalism in a 2500 word essay).

So here am i, procrastinating in my most favorite way. Writing to you. My current second-favorite means of not-doing-homework is reading up on restaurants in Paris and London, where we’ll visit in the twelve days J is here. (If you have suggestions, please do leave them in the comments!)

As if seeing him were not enough, i’m finally realizing my thirteen-year-old dream of scaling the Eiffel Tower and downing more wine and cheese than i can imagine. Maybe the wine part wasn’t so influential in my eighth-grade-doodles. Whatever. Je voudrais deux baguettess’il-vous-plaît, i practice. Mademoiselle Kelly would be proud. I’ve come two inches in my French grammar since my middle school days. But i can rock the all-black-clothing with pouty-red-lipstick look like Amélie personally loaned me her wardrobe. My sense of fashion has certainly progressed since then

I have a running playlist of the strangest juxtapositions: Zac Brown Band (for him), Edith Piaf (for Paris), and the Hunchback of Notre Dame (for the guise of focusing, the reality of pretending to be Esmeralda in the famous cathédrale). Rinse, remix, repeat.

Rinse, remix, repeat. Mojito chicken, library, repeat. Three days, three days, three days.

current jam: ‘la vie en rose’ édith piaf.

best thing: affordable airlines.

Self-Reliance & Southern Fried Chicken.

My inability to cook anything more than rice and eggies-in-a-basket has been a running joke in my family since my brothers learned how to grill steak circa age eight.

I called it my feminist anti-domesticity clause. “I don’t cook because i don’t adhere to gender roles!” i’d stomp and snap. Meanwhile, all my self-prepared dinners consisted of frozen pizza or my tried-and-true favorite eggie snack.

So much for self-reliance.

I knew, in spite of my claim to anti-domesticity, that cooking is not inherently an anti-feminist thing. Obviously, all people have to eat. And i was growing older and pizza for dinner was getting to be repetitive and unhealthy. When i moved into my own flat for the first time on January 11th here in Edinburgh, i knew this was to be the semester of learning and growth abroad.

Fundamental to the growing pains? Learning how to make a balanced meal for myself.

It started slow, tortellinis cooked in slightly salted and oiled water. A few days in i was making sautéed spinach salad, and my first foray into baking chicken was an endeavor of it’s-still-pink-so-five-more-minutes? (For the record, it turned out pretty moist and edible and non-salmonella-filled). I then tried my father’s go-to: honey mustard chicken. A few rounds into those baked delights, i was feeling more assured of my own abilities.

The time had come. My friend Megan and i decided to undertake cooking what we Southern ladies missed the most: fried chicken.

Merlot is the most important part of any well-cooked meal.

Merlot is the most important part of any well-cooked meal.

It was a semi-disaster. We knew, vaguely, that it was best to soak the chicken in some kind of egg-or-butter wash before slathering it in flour and bread crumbs. I always hated how warm the milk was after my mom had kept it beside her while frying up her famous Second-Helpin’ recipe, so i figured milk went in there somewhere.

With a decidedly eff-it-we’ll-make-it-work attitude, we threw all the ingredients together in one bowl. Which turned into dough.

Oops.

Half an hour of packing dough onto chicken legs ensued. Merlot was drunk. Potatoes began to boil. At last, dough dripping off those once-running legs, we threw our concoctions into a pan of oil and prayed to the Almighty Steal Magnolia that She would help us make our mothers proud.

Having no tongs, Megan expertly wielded chopsticks to flip the chicken over until, all but surrendered, we popped them into the microwave to ensure they were fully cooked.

In the pan floated the remains of our dough.

As we sat down to the table, we contemplated our creation. The mashed potatoes and corn, if nothing else, looked exquisite. Bravely, we took a bite of the chicken. Not bad, i thought. Not too bad at all, for making up the recipe on the fly. Sure, it was no Hannah’s Second-Helpin’ but it certainly was good enough for the bone to be licked clean. Megan and i exchanged smiles of victory.

Round 1.

Round 1.

When i told J, the other fried-chicken-master-maker of my life, how our endeavor had gone i think he actually wiped tears from his eyes he chortled so much. My pride mildly wounded, i emailed my mother for her Most Secret Recipe for Hannah’s Second-Helpin’ Fried Chicken.

A Tesco trip later, i was armed for round two.

And this time, i must say, it went peach-pickin’ perfect. I’d had to improvise slightly, because Bisquik isn’t exactly available in Scotland (to my knowledge). But one sizzling pan later, i proffered the generously full plate to one of my flatmates, a hopeful grin tucked into the corner of my cheek.

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Round 2.

“Daaaa-aaaamn!” she exclaimed. There was a pronounced diphthong in her reply, even with a mouth full of chicken. Paula Dean would be downright green in the face.

I’m not sure which was more satisfying: the fact that i’d finally made something worth craving (and not just edible) or the chicken itself. As delicious as the food in Amsterdam was, nothing really compares to the warmth of my Southern Mama’s cuisine.

I’m sure there are immeasurable numbers of my peers who scoff at my simple pride in learning how to balance a budget, much less cook a meal (again, my brothers could grill sirloins before middle school). But i think growing up sometimes can be so taken for granted it’s hard to remember a time when you didn’t know what you know now.

So i’m taking time to appreciate the learning, even if it involves clumps of should-have-done dough and try-harder-next-time chicken. Because nothing tastes so sweet as knowing my own capability, domesticity and all.

current jam: ‘kiss you’ one direction (unashamed!)

best thing: self-reliance is the new sexy, ya’ll.

other cookery blogs: cheese buns & rice.

Markets and More Eating (Amsterdam, Day 2!)

If the Albert Cuyp Market was a field, i was a plow.

I’ve never been surrounded by so many sumptuous and tempting things to try – from the wafels to the hot chocolate to the small bucket of olives i purchased. Plus, as a mayo-loving french-fries eater whose allergic to ketchup, i just adored the frites stand that sold paper cones stuffed with fries slathered in mayo. And the cheese, sweet Holy Mary the cheese! The displays were utterly intoxicating.

(Note the bicycle!)

(Note the bicycle!)

We’d decided, for our second day, to set aside the whole morning to explore the oldest street market in the Netherlands: the Albert Cuyp Market. Lining the block were some of the most eclectic stalls i’d ever beheld (including my experiences in pre-burned-down Owino Market in Kampala). There was an entire pharmacy spread wide under a tent and in the cold, more lingerie shoppes than i could count, a plethora of places to purchase scarves and the like, and a few stalls reserved for Amsterdam-themed souvenirs. Interspersed between the flower stalls (oh, the tulips!) and garter belts were the main attraction: street food.

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(Van Gogh had followed us, even here!)

(Van Gogh had followed us, even here!)

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It was as good as it looked!

It was as good as it looked!

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Making the famous frites!

Making the famous frites!

frites!

Frites!

I love street markets – the chaos, the food, the cool vintage things you can find, the food, and the experience of feeling like a local. As much as i may love doing silly tourist-y thing (see me in a large wooden shoe, below) i always try to find at least on thing per travel destination that gives me some sense of what it would be like to live there. Naturally, we were not the only tourists strolling about the market. But tourists were in a serious minority here, amongst the clamor of Dutch-speaking voices selling flowers and toothpaste and lingerie. I’d easily say this was one of my most-favorite things we did in Amsterdam!

Having sufficiently eaten our way through the market, we made our way over the Dam Square for more sightseeing. At the sight of THE LARGEST SHOE i have ever seen, there was a lot of squealing and leaping in to take pictures. So much for trying to blend in!

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About a block or so up from Dam Square is the (in)famous Red Light District. We chortled our way through all the funny little shops and such surrounding the red-lamped alleyways, but they definitely are not the reason i’d wanted to go to the city. And the whole district is clearly geared for people visiting the city, not the residents themselves. The gift shops are certainly amusing to visit, but once i’d cracked up at enough genitalia plastered on velvet hats (et cetera) i’d had my fill. Definitely would not say this was the family-friendly place to go on a holiday to the city, but as two young women walking around in the middle of the afternoon we felt pretty safe and took the whole thing in with a sense of humor.

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This is not the Red Light District, but it IS a picture of a red lit sign at night, so it metaphorically serves a purpose!

This is not the Red Light District, but it IS a picture of a red lit sign at night, so it metaphorically serves a purpose!

By then it was high time we ate, again. Utilizing a combination of my Lonely Planet guidebook and the MOST EXCELLENT TripAdvisor City Guide App, we arrived at the quirky and chic van Kerkwijk. With whitewashed, wood paneled walls and candles adorning the tables, we knew this promised to be a unique place to dine.

Turned out there’s no written menu at van Kerkwijk, so our gracious waitress just plopped right down at our table and talked us through the extensive list of their eclectic combinations. When asked what was a truly Dutch thing to try, she explained that the port-city-nature of Amsterdam meant all Dutch food was really a mash-up of European and Indonesian cuisine. We asked for an appetizer that involved bread and cheese, so she brought out a bleu cheese paté-type-thing that was incredible. For our entrées, Abby had steak with strawberry cream and goat cheese, and i had Indonesian chicken. We split a salad and (of course!) frites with glorified mayo.

The incredible cheese-and-bread combination!

The incredible cheese-and-bread combination!

It was an exquisite capping off to two days and three nights of fabulous dining. But, alas, the next morning we were whisked off to the airport leaving behind Amsterdam’s canals and bike lanes for a flight home to Edinburgh.

Though we’d only had an all-too-short time in Amsterdam, i was utterly entranced. It is a beautiful place (even in the cold!) and i am ever grateful for the opportunities i had to visit.

current jam: ‘day that i die’ zac brown band.

best thing: productivity. back to dale martin, for now.

of interest: i’ve added a new page at the top of the screen! it’s still a work in a progress, but have a look if you like!

Maps & Gastronomy: Eating and Reveling in Edinburgh

Edward Tufte says maps are metaphors. I’m no infometrics whiz, but i like this idea – if, for no other reason, than my affinity for maps. Splayed across my wall before me is a map of Edinburgh i peeled out of my guidebook. Adjacent to it is a map of Durham, North Carolina that i plucked from a visitor’s desk downtown. Though these maps are from far-away places, the greens couldn’t be of a more identical hue.

I love this metaphor within a metaphor: a town that is known to me and a town that is new are not so very different that they are required to clash. Durham’s streets are reminders of the world that has nurtured me, and Edinburgh’s closes and squares nurtures the at-times-overwhelming feeling of falling in love with a new world.

Yet falling in love with a new place means i need to share this love with the people who make up the home in the map of my heart. I sometimes fear my noticing of the very-matched greens will be a noticing only for me. That while this world i’m coming to know in Edinburgh is vast and exciting and beautiful, it starts to make my own dot on the globe all the farther from the world i knew.

This fear, though, was deeply assuaged this past weekend: i had the delight of sharing my budding romance with Edinburgh with one of my dearest, dearest friends – Nora!

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As she is also studying abroad in the UK, Nora and i threw together a weekend excursion about the city on a whim – a marvelous, serendipitous, and delicious whim. Because i’ve been so focused on making myself feel at home in Edinburgh, i haven’t necessarily done all the typical tourist-y things one might explore on holiday. Having a guest, though, was the perfect excuse to give myself full permission to go light on the schoolwork and heavy on learning all the reasons you should holiday in Edinburgh.

And easily ranked in the top ten reasons to visit Edinburgh would be the food! Thus, this is the first of two blog posts chronicling our weekend together. And it’s all about the food. (Don’t worry, the latter will be about the actual tourist-y things we did!)

Our gastronomical tour began with the comfort food haven, Mums. “Top nosh at half the cost,” according to the website, Mums boasts of a vibrant and edgy charm: they’re home-cooked comfort mixed with urban attitude. I mean, the mac & cheese has a spice kick to it and comes with chips!* Who doesn’t love drowning in cheese and carbs? Their food is locally sourced, their service impeccable, and the deal incomparable to anywhere else. Eating there with Nora was my first time, but it will so most definitely not be my last.

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Having sated our need for traditional fare, the next evening’s meal was one reminiscent of home: Southwestern American cuisine. Living in North Carolina for so long spoiled me, with taco stands and sit-down Mexican restaurants on every block. So to tend to my poor, burrito-deprived needs, we ventured to the local Tex-Mex joint: Illegal Jack’s. It was all i wanted and more, guacamole included.

Our final dinner was at a place i’ve frequented before: 10 to 10 In Delhi, a Halal Indian restaurant with excellent chicken roti and even better student deals. If you’re looking to stretch your pounds, three quid will get you a belly-stretching meal here. We particularly loved the pretty tapestries stretched across the ceiling and the cozy couches!

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Easily the best place we visited, though, was no foreigner to me: The Elephant House Café.

I met Nora in the fall of our first year at Mount Holyoke. She was wearing a Hogwarts crest t-shirt, it was love at first sight, and the rest (as they say) was Hogwarts, A History. Nora and i are no strangers to Harry Potter-themed adventures; in the winter of the subsequent year, we attended the Brooklyn Yule Ball together. On the last day of finals. In Christmas-themed ball gowns. We’d skipped dinner in an effort to catch the last train into the city, downing rolls of bread and Dr. Pepper’s in a convenience store outside the venue as substitutes.

There aren’t many people you can romp about New York City in a gold petticoat with, but Nora has always been an exceptionally genuine and beautifully adventurous friend.

I remember gleefully turning to her, as Harry and the Potters crashed and roared over their keyboard and guitar on stage. “I’m so tired, but i am having so much fun!“she mouthed over the din. It was a magical moment to share with a dear friend then, and it was just as magical to share the “Birthplace of Harry Potter” with her this weekend over elephant-shaped shortbread and excellent cups of tea.

We were sure to leave our own note in the bathroom – signed, as ever, with our nicknames for each other: Padfoot & Prongs.

(note the painting of JK Rowling writing in the café behind us!)

(note the painting of JK Rowling writing in the café behind us!)

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Feeling known is an immense gift. I feel known by this city – but part of this feeling known comes from sharing it with an old friend. Nora and i have a history of adventures (gastronomical and literary alike!) and to make this weekend a part of that map of stories was such a treasure. My green maps still match, and the loves in my life make the most beautiful harmonies when sung together.

current jam: ‘good morning sunshine’ alex day.

best thing: a beautiful place to be with friends.

p.s. you can always find my reviews of restaurants and attractions on my tripadvisor profile!

*for friends in the states: chips = french fries, just in case your daily dose of the BBC hadn’t kept you abreast of British slang!

The Elephant House Café & Greyfriars Kirkyard!

For lunch today i met up with a group of ladies from my flat for lunch at (you guessed it!) The Elephant House Café. Over cups of tea and coffee we gabbed about our love for all things Potter, marveling at the view of the castle from her customary chair. The food could have been horrendous and we’d have loved it (because, you know, Rowling). Much to our delight, though, the sandwiches and tea were all exquisite. The café is bathed in a warm light and bedazzled in elephants; everywhere, there are petit statues and large posters of the gentle mammal. It’s an eclectic and comfortable place to be – with tremendously reasonable prices for American exchange students trying to stretch the pound as far as it can go!

Having a cuppa where Jo used to dream up the inner-workings of Hogwarts, no big deal.

Having a cuppa where Jo used to dream up the inner-workings of Hogwarts, no big deal.

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the view from our table!

the view from our table!

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Afterwards, some of us went to explore the graveyard at Greyfriars Kirk where we’d heard a Tom Riddle was buried. The search was a long one, before we finally found the grave on a wall in the rear of the garden.

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I’ve always had a peculiar fondness for graveyards; they’re steeped in history, usually quiet, and endlessly inspiring. The search, then, for the mysterious Thomas Riddell was not at all unenjoyable – particularly because it was made in the company of new friends!

Besides, i even found a grave adjacent to Thomas’ with an Elizabeth Riddell. Perhaps Voldemort had a long-lost aunt bearing the same first name as me?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGreyfriars, the street, is most famous not for ancient relatives of You-Know-Who, as it turns out. At the helm of the road is a statue of a small Skye Terrier, Greyfriars Bobby, who loyally waited for his human every day even after the human had long died. Both the human, a man named John Gray, and the dog are buried in the kirkyard.

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bobby & john

 

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It was lovely to explore this little corner of Edinburgh – and especially to do so with new friends! Days like today, even when my toes go numb, are making me fall in love with this enchanting city.

current jam: ‘i will wait’ mumford & sons

best thing: new friends!

Hometown Tourist: Merritt’s Store & Grill

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Should you ever think Chapel Hill, NC, is filled with too many misplaced Northerners to be truly in the South, look no further than Merritt’s Store & Grill. Located at the crossroads between 15-501 and 54 West, this small white-washed building promises one of the best Carolina experiences you could hope to have.

it's not carolina unless you've had cheerwine.

it’s not carolina unless you’ve had cheerwine.

My first exposure to Merritt’s goes back to lunch-box days spent at Frank Porter Graham Elementary school. Sometimes, when my Dad would pick me and my brothers up, we’d go for an “old-timey” soda: a coke in a classic glass bottle. Since living in Uganda where most sodas i drank were in glass bottles, the novelty of a coke in a glass casing has somewhat worn off. But the memories, and Merritt’s, remain very much something to be reveled in.

The soda bottles in glass containers, though part of the charm of this grill, are certainly not the main attraction. The reason to go to Merritt’s is the sandwiches – and most especially, for the BLTs. Though i’ve oft contemplated going off pork, the main reason i stay a pig-eating machine is so that i can continue to bask in the wonder that is a mayonnaise and salt-n-pepper doused slab of bacon, lettuce, and tomato on sunflower bread.

the best BLT you'll ever have - i recommend trying the single on sunflower bread.

It’s unreal. Like, the crunch of the bacon and the sweetness of the mayo blend perfectly with the salt and pepper to make this amazing bite that fills you to the toes with Southern meaty goodness. (Really, though, when they say their BLTs are world famous, this is not false advertising at all!)

accurate advertising.

accurate advertising.

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The food, which is served to you in the kitchen by the drink stands, is really only paralleled by the delight of the grill itself. The building has the feel of a small home converted into a country store, and on any given Saturday you’ll find a bluegrass band pickin’ out heartbreaking tunes in the corner. That’s the thing about Merritt’s: the fixings are the real deal. You get your food from a kitchen, you eat crammed into a tiny but delightful storefront, and there is no escaping the music. Merritt’s is nothing if not authentic!

local bluegrass bands making a scene!

local bluegrass bands making a scene!

I thought it apt, in my last few days in the States before the Big Departure, to head over to Merritt’s for lunch. It was something of a clandestine moment; clearly, Merritt’s has enough longevity that it will still be around when i come home at the end of May. But it also is a place so rich in culture and memory for me, i couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. And then, like magic, some women in the corner began to do this Appalachian-style dance to the music. Clearly, i’m not as informed about Appalachian culture as i’d like to be, but i’ve often seen this sort of stomping-and-clapping and easy-to-do dancing that gives bluegrass percussion through bodily rhythm. It’s very cool. It also has (this i am fairly certain of) roots in Celtic music and Scottish dancing.

So as i sat there, snapping photos with my new iPhone for the last hometown tourist blog for a long while, and feeling oddly connected to my new home-to-be.


current jam: ‘as long as our hearts are beating’
best thing: making music.

Giving Thanks.

Having survived another round of baggage claims and poorly packed suitcases, i’m back at Mount Holyoke after a wonderful excursion home to Carolina for Thanksgiving. My nine days in dixieland were spent with such beautiful people it was impossible to go un-reminded of how blessed i am to share in their company. And, with a family that is expanding and beckoning, i was thrilled (and stuffed with) no less than three Thanksgiving meals to partake in. This misplaced Carolina girl has had enough sweet tea and sweet potato casserole to survive forty days in the desert tundra of the impending finals season.

(from thanksgiving #1 out of 3. spoiled and privileged and ten-pounds-gained am i!)

 

I hope, for those of you who celebrate Thanksgiving, that is was a bountiful time for you. I hope especially that this bounty in heart and spirit continues in the coming weeks!

Thank you for being.

current jam: ‘beautiful things’ gungor

best thing: journey mercies.

 

The Devil is the Details: Crook’s Corner

(Part 3 in my Hometown Tourist Summer Blog Series!)

After occupying a permanent address in North Carolina for almost fourteen years, the fact that i only made my first sojourn to Crook’s Corner this past Sunday is, frankly, embarrassing. Crook’s is more than one of the most hallowed restaurants in town – it is something of a local landmark, the pig on a stake soaring above the traffic clouding the corner unction of Franklin and South Merritt Mill. The New York Times was so bold to describe Crook’s as “sacred ground for Southern foodies,” so to have gone neglected on my budding-foodie palette is a travesty.

My first impression of Crook’s was from afar, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. The pig-on-a-stick is pretty unmistakable on this frequented crossroads in the town of Chapel Hill, and the word-of-mouth rumblings over the delectability of Crook’s shrimp & grits had me salivating at the opportunity to enter this hive of thieves and villainy.

(Crook’s Corner is so highly decorated as a restaurant that i suspect, were it to have served the U.S. Military, it would be a five-star general by now. Above is just one of many awards lining the walls).

Apparent to me now, in retrospect, is the trueness and spirit present in Crook’s Corner that was then salient in my first impressions. Crook’s is a place of quirks found in the small places; the sign is unusual, distinct, and very much detail-oriented. In much the same way, the hullabaloo over the food wasn’t over the breadth of the menu – it was over, most famously, the flavorful and well-attended grits. They say the devil is in the details and, in a place named (in double entendre) for crookery and criminality, it makes sense to me such attention to particularities transitively carries through.

Such attention to distinction is displayed for all to see when entering crooks on the walls lining the way to the door – walls lined with hub caps of fascinating patterns and sizes. I’m sure to someone who knows (or cares) about cars, there is a story to be told here, but i mostly find them intriguing because of their geometric intricacy and characteristic quirk true to this restaurant.

Once inside, the artistry is unceased. Lining the interior surfaces are works of art that fill the inside dining space with color and vibrancy. And on every surface there are pigs – along the tiled walls around the booths, above the bar, and in some of the artwork. Alas, from where we were seated i couldn’t really get a good enough picture to share! And though Crook’s has been awarded for its phenomenal patio seating, we opted for the indoors to stave off the heat. I suppose, then, that shall require a second visit to experience the outside dining adventure!

In such idiosyncracies the nature of Crook’s southern cuisine shines through; the Tabasco sauce on the table, the tea served with a minty simple syrup to sweeten to your preference, and a menu dripping with fatty foods and more grits than you could swim through.

So when it came time to place our order (from a wonderful and attentive server, i might add), i went for the “Eggs New Bern” which are a (true to form) bit of a twist on your standard Eggs Benedict. The company i was with went for a myriad of selections; to name a few, my mom went with the bold choice of the renowned shrimp & grits, and J went for the steak tenderloin omelette.

(the steak tenderloin omelette)

(the famous shrimp & grits loaded with goodies!)

(my selection of the eggs new bern!)

(my side of cheesy grits)

For me, the food certainly did not disappoint. Ever a fan of Eggs Benedict, i loved the twist of the doughy biscuits with the thinly sliced ham, hollandaise sauce, poached eggs, and topping of some kind of yummy spices. J was singing the praises of his omelette, exclaiming that the steak was cooked through the way he preferred but magically retained its tenderness and delectability.

My mother, however, did not care for her shrimp & grits, claiming they were “too salty.” Both J and i found them to be perfectly satisfactory; they were loaded with flavor and bursting with this (now beloved) Crook’s southern comfort with a quirk. So i suppose, future crooks and hog villains, be warned if you’re no fan of MSG or salty shrimp!

All food consumed and details considered, i would highly recommend this corner of the world should you be looking for something quintessentially Carolina with a subtle kick of unconventional flavor! Though the atmosphere is not nearly as entrenched in memory and feta cheese like Elmo’s, or urban-nerd like Bull McCabes, Crook’s has certainly won a corner of my foodie heart in the Triangle area of NC. The savory menu and pig paraphernalia makes it worth the wait!

(the deed done!)

Condensed McMizziview:

Price: 1.8 – 2.5 (0 being fast food, 5 being somewhere super-fancy and of multiple courses (this menu is also contingent on size of portion & time of day))            Atmosphere: 3.8 (0 being fast food boring, 5 being the full experience of delicious things for eyes and mouth and ears!)                                                                                      Delectability of Food: 4.0 (0 being fast food, 5 being mouth-explosion crazed-good)

For future Crooks: the website, the menu, and a yelp profile. (Of note: the menu is changed daily, and though some staples are pretty consistently present on the menu, i recommend going to the website for the most up-to-date munchies should you be reading this in the far-distant future!)

current jam: “free” zac brown band.

best thing: top gear and good tips.