Loch Ness & the Highlands!

The sound of death is surely someone wheedling out a hymn on faulty bagpipes.

Like a mixture of Dory, from Finding Nemo, bellowing in her best Humpback and a blunt hacksaw taken to a chalkboard. (You’ll want to take my word for it.)

There Jonathan and i were, enveloped by the mountains of Glen Coe. Probably the most famous of all Glens in Scotland – at least, cinematically speaking – Glen Coe boasts of a film C.V. including Hagrid’s cabin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the drive to the lodge in Skyfall.

highlands 02At our stop-off within the movie-star glen was a Highland lad, clad in full tartan regalia, muttering about a broken reed in between his attempts to play what i could only assume was meant to be “Amazing Grace.”

We’d made the decision to go with a tour bus, which is not my favorite way to travel. (The asinine teenage boy behind us who referred only to his mother as “Geez, WOMAN!” is a prime example of why American tourists get such a bad rep). But it was the most affordable way we could see as much as possible in one day, so we took it. As if the sights of Scotland weren’t enough to drink in, the sightseeing of thirty tourists in “Hairy Coo” fanny-packs certainly was.

Mr. Blurpity-Pipes was making a killing, asinine teenage boy posing for a sour-pussed grin as Grandma snapped a shot. Then went the Portugese Clooney-Lookalike, who posed for all his pictures like he was a supermodel: butt out, chin up, shades on, half-grimace sexy-grin. Behind him was a clattering group of Germans.

And so on, each plopping a fiver in Blurpity-Pipes’ tin, each encouraging him to play past that wonky reed. Granted, it’s a pretty stellar shot to bring home and make your profile picture: a real Scotsman in the Highlands!!1!!1!

I did my best to avoid the crowd, memorizing every curve of the mountains in our fifteen minutes of allotted time.

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The real event of the tour was to be a boating ride on Loch Ness, involving sonar technology to scan the deeps for the monster below. But as Loch Ness is some four hours north of Edinburgh, we got to see plenty of Scottish countryside along the way.

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After a lunch of disappointingly slim sandwiches (Jonathan’s face caved when he realized he had a what barely qualified as a tissue for his slice of ham) we were bound for the boat. I jockeyed my way to the front, rather than the sonar get-up, so as to avoid Asinine Teen and the Clooney Lookalike. Jonathan and i actually quite enjoyed the Loch, steep cliffsides and water so dark it was almost black really living up to its legend. This was my second time to Loch Ness, the first being a sojourn to Urqhart Castle with my Dad. It was my first time on the water, and we were delighted with the breadth of the sun.

Until, characteristic Scotland, the cloud bowled us over with pelting rain. Suddenly, all the fannypacks were clustered around the Sonar, making awkward small talk about flesh-chomping monsters.

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Our jaunt was over before we’d even made it two kilometers out, and in a pressure-cooker of a run back to the bus we made a pit-stop into a petrol station. Laden with cheese and breadsticks, we clambered back on the fannypack machine headed due south.

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And while we had to deal with the best of American culture and Blurpity-Pipes’ backdrop tunes, Jonathan is quick to say this was one of the best days of his life. Only the day before had he proposed, and i was desperate to see the Highlands one last time before i was stateside for the foreseeable future.

There is magic in those mountains, i tell you. Magic that still bathes the day as enchanting, even when set to the tune of Blurpity-Pipes.

in case you missed it: my sojourn through the highlands with my dad.

best thing: we took photos for our christmas card yesterday! who wants one?

Magical Montmartre.

I thought the magic of Paris was wrapped tight in the Eiffel Tower; intricately woven, measured but unexpected. Then i thought it was a potion concocted by the Seine wrapping itself around the islands in the middle of the city – the candles glowing in Notre-Dame casting a final color-coded spell. I suspected the secret ingredient to Parisian magic was the wine and the food, flavors bursting and lasting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But it was when we strolled through the mountainous alleys of Montmartre that i learned where the real magic of Paris is tucked away. And it’s here, the neighborhood once home to Ernest Hemingway and Vincent van Gogh and Satine. (Okay okay, Satine is fictional. But you can’t talk about Montmartre without the Moulin Rouge!)

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Montmartre is the Paris of absinthe stupor, of romanticized memory. It’s where my mother bought her most treasured keepsake from Paris: an acrylic painting of flowers in a vase. It hung on our dining room wall, the blues singing harmony with the white curtains. She’d told me over and over the place i had to go was Place du Tertre – a cobblestone square where street artists gather, luring tourists into buying caricatures and twenty-minute portraits. My favorite artist stall had done a series of cats sleeping around Paris (so out of character for me, i know) but since J and i had already bought our recreation of van Gogh’s sunflowers i was merely window shopping.

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But Place du Tertre is not the only place in Montmartre where art is to be found; the metropolitan signs themselves are works to behold, adjacent to ivy-colored buildings covered in graffiti.

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The Scottish flag hanging in Paris! Viva la Scotland!

The Scottish flag hanging in Paris! Vive la Scotland!

Hand-in-hand we strolled along the lanes of art on display, covetously sneaking glances at the cafés offering wine under checkered umbrellas.

Just up the hill we could make out the silhouette of Sacre-Coeur white against the blue sky. It was the last church on our list of Parisian places we wanted to see – making it the sixth church we’d see on our trip.

And it turned out to be our favorite.

Sacre-Couer is unlike anywhere else i’ve been; it has the enormity and grandeur of Notre Dame, but the intimacy and quiet contemplation of a smaller church. The windows are dazzling, bathing the whole place in the lux nova that made gothic architecture such a sensation in medieval France. No photography was permitted inside and, while i am sad to have no photos to remember it by, i was glad for the forced contemplative time. It allowed me the full breathing space of presence.

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Awed and quieted by the beautiful building, we meandered back to Place du Tertre for a final glass of wine. Our walk overlooked the whole of the city spread below, the Eiffel Tower stark against the skyline. Paris had enthralled us, the clutter of art and mash of accordion metro musicians just the backdrop to the hum of the city itself.

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“We’ll spend a whole week just in Montmartre when we come back, someday,” J mused. Our last Côte du Rhône of the trip was poised in his hand. In the Scottish wool scarf he’d snagged from my wardrobe, he looked downright European.

I scoffed-laughed, a knot of broke-soon-to-be-grad-student-woes clamping in my stomach. I knew what he meant, though. That Montmartre was the neighborhood you wanted to live in a little- learn the streets by heart, pick a favorite haunt for late-night drinks. I felt the same way.

And i knew that this trip was such a gift. A privilege to have the time and money at all to travel. But a gift to spend such time with J, who hadn’t been able to study abroad. A gift to be in love in the city most famous for romance. A gift to stroll alongside the Seine on a sun-dappled afternoon, with no agenda but being in Paris. I was grateful for all we’d seen – the snafus in getting to Paris, the chance to see my dearest Saran at the Eiffel Tower, the sore feet and the sappy smiles.

Mostly, though, i was simply grateful to share in it all with the dimple-faced man wearing my scarf sitting across from me.

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current jam: ‘lullabye’ billy jowl

best thing: freshly-downloaded boarding passes…

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!