A Week in Scotland

On July 2nd, we packed up our suitcase, car seat and 1.5 year old for a trip to visit my father in Scotland.  He's been living there for about a year, working at the International School of Aberdeen.  After a long layover in Frankfurt, we finally touched down at Aberdeen's tiny airport.  Aberdeen is known for its granite buildings... pretty much every building is made of the stuff!  Its a very, um, grey material... so it gives you the impression that the houses are ancient, massive and solid.  Its a good thing that Aberdeen also has a great tradition of gardening, so the summer months are enhanced by gorgeous blooms of every description.

On our first day there, we went down to the cold north sea at the Aberdeen Esplanade and walked along the windswept boardwalks.  Its July, but you still need a hoodie and several layering options incase it rains.

We walked down to Footdee, a little outcropping of small, carefully decorated houses all set around interior courtyard-style promenades (to avoid the blustery ocean winds, I imagine.)  They all had a lot of character!

The next day we visited the stately Crathes castle, complete with pruned hedges, secret gardens and tapestry-adorned rooms.

Torin very much enjoyed getting galloped around the grounds and chasing bunnies.  And one afternoon we stopped by a roadside farmers stand and he got to run in his first wheat field.  Much fun was had by all.

Another day, another castle!  The light at Dunnottar Castle was spectacular as some leaden clouds moved in from the mainland.

We went for a nice drive down the coast to a small fishing village south of Aberdeen called Stone Haven.  There we enjoyed dark beers overlooking the water, and you could really sense that the locals were taking in as much sun and warmth as they could given the long streches of grey that are common here.

 

In Stone Haven we also

 enjoyed what was named the best fish & chips shop in the whole UK.  It was, infact, delicious. 

We were fed very well throughout the trip, though frequently we inhaled the delicious grub before I could document the dishes...


Clotted cream and scones at the Bridge of Feugh.... mmmmm.

 And the hydrangeas around town were spectacular and varied...

We really enjoyed Scotland.  We will be back... someday.

Costa Rica for a Week

On the first week of January we all packed up our flip flops, swimsuits and t-shirts for a much needed week in a tropical climate.  Here's a taste of what we'd been dealing with in Pennsylvania:

Waking up at 3 AM to dress and dig the car out of the snow, we were running behind even with the best intentions.  It took awhile to dislodge the wheels from the frozen mess and make an expedient run down to Philadelphia International Airport. It was Torin's first time on a plane, and for a 13 month old I think he did exceptionally well.  I only got a few disgusted stares from nearby passengers and I think they were individuals with no personal experience with small children.  10 hours later we touched down in a bright, mountainous landscape.  Coastlines jagged and lined with pale blue bays encrusted in white sand.  Yes.

We were ferried to a nearby car rental pavilion and picked up a white Toyota SUV that we drove about an hour north to our destination in Tamarindo.  Torin enjoyed having shorts on after months and months of my dressing him in 2 and 3 layers to fend off the cold.  Arriving at the villa we had all voted for months before, it definitely lived up to expectations.  With our 8 adults and one toddler, it seemed ready for professional vacationing.  There were frangipane flowers and towels artfully arranged in our room when we got there....and palm trees outside the window.  Double yes.

The pool was awesome, the view was awesome, and I immediately set to creating a signature drink.  Corona mixed half & half with Squirt (fizzy citrus soda), a squeeze of lime.... and you have the Kir-Beer.  Or the Beersten.  Either way, a favorite was born.  Add a lounge chair and this is truly how most of us spent most of the week!

 

The beach was lovely and dotted with unselfconscious Central Americans.  Banana hammocks and muffin tops abound.  Very refreshing coming from the self-shame capital of the world.

Iguanas were everywhere, so much so that the staff often shooed them away from the tables.  There were also many gorgeous birds.  Bright yellow ones, whip-smart looking crow-like birds with beautiful long tails, and the beaches had sand dollars, tons of crabs and live shellfish rolling around in the surf.

Midway through the week, a few of us decided to go for a spa day up in the mountains (including us new mothers who have been working 15 hours a day, 7 days a week for the last year). Triple YES!

 

A staff member came down and picked us up in a van.  He drove us about 40 minutes away and up a dusty, windy gravel road to a little resort in the jungle.  We all got 3 treatments from scrubs to mudwraps to massages and afterwards they fed us an amazing meal with white wine and ceviche.  It was followed by a delicious passionfruit dessert.

While it was a pretty sizeable splurge, this has to be the best spa experience I've ever had.  No question about it.  I left feeling like a cloud.  A well massaged, slightly buzzed cloud. 

Torin, or 'The Bibble' as he is affectionately known, very much enjoyed the surf and had no problems being pummelled by waves as tall as he is.

(Photo credit Alan Allum)

 

And he is a big time water lover... not much fear there at all, which is key. (Photo credit Alan Allum)

Our last delicious meal before flying out the next day.  

 

Oh, and watch out for the ant eaters.

Christmas in Denmark

Admittedly, I was a very lucky person this year.  Because of a confluence of several events, 2010 turned out to be a year of traveling.  Pretty much all of my family on my mother's side live in Denmark and while I have been there many times throughout my childhood during the summer months, I've only spent a handful of christmas holidays there.  I visited with my family in 1989, once in 1999, and in keeping with an every-10-years theme, I felt it was necessary to visit this year and see the family's new farm (recently moved into and renovated), my cousin's fellow and growing baby bump (due in May) and my mother who ended her months long traveling stint in Denmark for the holidays.

I have to say, it lived up to all I'd hoped for.  Jason and I arrived on the morning of December 23rd in a snowstorm.  We figured our way out of Copenhagen and onto a crowded train, full of folks on their way home for the holidays.  The stark overcast landscape wizzed by outside our traincar, a repeating scroll of snowcovered fields, stands of black barren trees dusted with snow and sweet Danish architecture with windows full of red hearts, plants and yellow light.  We arrived midday in Middelfart (yes, such a giggle-worthy town name does exist), and we were picked up promptly by Jeppe and Tina doing some last-minute Christmas shopping in town.

Upon arriving I saw that while all my memories of the old farm were still indellible, the new family home was just as cozy and familiar as it could have been.  All of the family's pictures and ambiance were still there. 

We arrived around dusk and were plunged into what can only be described in a Danish word not really directly translatable to english - Hyggelig - roughly meaning "cosy, welcoming and enticing - with scores of candles flickering around the open-plan sitting room".

After so much traveling it was great to finally be there, on the inside watching the snow still swirling outside.  The yellow indoor light and the almost electric dark blue tones outside were so stunning against eachother, I had to take some photos.

On the evening of the 23rd, it's tradition in Danish households to put together a dish of rice porridge covered in butter and cinnamon with a mug of beer to take to the Nissen (or gnomes) that typically live in your hay loft (if you have one), or other remote parts of your house like an attic.  Their tradition doesn't so much focus on Santa Claus during Christmas, but on these Nissen who are present and hiding out of human sight at all times of year.

The family farm now no longer houses rows and rows of pigs like it used to, but 3 Icelandic ponies that are let out during the day to play in the fields behind the house.  We all tromped out through the garage and past the farm equipment to the horses pen, gingerly stepped through the hay and navigated up a ladder to the hay loft.  We all sang a few traditional songs and shouted out the presents we all wanted for christmas.

In the morning, all the porridge and beer was gone and a large basket full of handmade items (could only have been made with natural materials on hand!) and a letter from the Nissen was inside.

On the day of the 24th we all decorated the tree with Danish flags and live candles, then generally lounged around to our heart's content.

Jeppe, one of the several talented cooks in the family, began preparing christmas dinner...  The kitchen preparation room and pantry in the background is jokingly referred to as "Jeppe's Office", since he spends so much time in there!

On Christmas eve, the main event in Danish tradition, we sat down for a dinner of duck and potatoes (candied or plain) with a fig salad and red wine, followed by rice porridge for dessert where everyone raced to find the whole almond in their bowl.  The winner with the whole almond traditionally receives a gift.

And after the feast that left most of us completely over-full, the singing and dancing around the christmas tree began.  After several songs, we snaked our way throug the house hand in hand, singing another raucous round of holiday songs before the present giving and receiving commenced.

On the 25th I bundled up and took a long walk outside.

We made a trip to the family cemetary in Ejby to see my grandmother's grave, and saw some nice still lives along the way.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Denmark in the waning days of 2010, it's definitely something I want to repeat again.

Thailand visit 2010

At the end of October 2010, I went to Thailand to visit with my dad.  Going to Thailand is an every-few-years or so ritual for me as it holds some significance as one of my childhood homes (Chiang Mai Thailand in 1988-89), and as my father's home over the past 15 years or so.

Each time I arrive in Bangkok, I am hit with the smell of southeast Asia shortly after stepping off the plane.  It's a scent that's hard to explain, but it's some delicate combination of jasmine, wetland swamp water, motorcycle exhaust, spicy cooking, sewage and a hint of incense all steeped in the humid atmosphere that is Bangkok.  It's become very familiar over the years, and so for me it's pretty soothing.

Bangkok is such a dichotomy in many ways.  Old world temples and traditional Thai architecture sit side by side with glassy new structures, linked together with messes of black and multi-colored electrical wires that stretch down every street.  Over the years Bangkok has become a pinnacle of modernism, with skyscrapers popping up like mushrooms, fancy glittering malls, gorgeous interiors decked out in all the most fashionable colors, textures and accessories; your pupils practically dialate to take it all in.  To say that you can get anything here is an understatement.  From Dior, the passport of the Asian youth elite, to locally made designer creations, to any knock-off cell phone case you could possibly imagine, this city can offer it.... however, finding a specific thing can be a major challenge.  Aside from the staggering amounts of purchasing available, the city life is as active and never-sleeping as NYC, only with more nooks and crannies to peer into; like the network of city canals which were at one point the only way to get goods around the city, or the back alleys filled with a litany of small shops of every sort and specialty.  You're never bored in Bangkok.

As is my tradition when visiting Thailand, I made an appointment to go to one of the internationally renowned hospitals in Bangkok for my semi-yearly physical and checkup.  The staff and nurses are always extremely helpful, the waiting rooms pleasant, the wait times predictably short, the doctors professional and the actual checkup - as good as I always thought I deserved.  Oh, I have health insurance in the United States, but fighting them to justify getting all of the tests and checks that I can get here for a few hundred dollars would be like pulling teeth. 

Shortly after my medical holiday, my father and I took off south out of Bangkok to a rural area called Samut Songkran, famously known for it's floating market.  We stayed at a small inn called The Boathous where the rooms are arranged inside actual antique rice barges, propped up on land and surrounded by lush tropical foliage.  The small restaurant overlooking the canal has menus all in Thai, so my dad and I had to guess (or get by on his very basic Thai) to order food.  It's all great - but the most important phrase to learn in Thai is "Mai phet", or "Not spicy".  What comes out is usually still a little spicy, whch is good.

We hired a guide to take us down the intricate network of canals (or "Klongs" in Thai) on the two days we stayed at the Boathouse.  The water was at an extremely high watermark from several floods that hit the area that month, so the longtail boat had to squeek under a few of the bridges along the way. 

We walked around the crowded sweaty markets, filled with tons of foodstuffs, flowers, fruit, clothing, hats, t-shirts, souvenirs, velvet paintings, bags, knockoffs, shoes, and so much more.

I was amazed at the strength of these ladies, rowing along in the hot sun on precariously loaded boats.  They weaved in and out of other boat traffic adeptly, though I'm sure it's not as easy as it looks.

 

 

And of course, all the things on display for purchase:

After leaving Samut Songkran, we went to Hua Hin, a beach town on the eastern coast which is well known as a retirement spot for many sorts of European and western seniors.  We ate decedantly, italian mushroom soup, imported danish cheese and rye bread, thai fried rice with lime squeezed over it, chicken and cashews... I had foot massages, back massages, so many massages I started to feel guilty.  Oh, ok not really.

When we returned to Bangkok, I joined my dad and my stepmother to the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, a very exclusive spot taking no new members for the forseeable future.  At the end of every October they host an Oktoberfest, complete with authentic sausages and kraut, mashed potatoes and beer.  You get a mug at the door are are expected to use it.  There were sausage eating contests, and log sawing contests which were both hilarious...

All in all, it was a great trip.  Can't wait to visit again someday.

San Miguel de Allende

At the end of May we took a plane down to San Miguel de Allende in south central Mexico.  The town is a world heritage site and is known for it's historic architecture, art institutes and quiet atmosphere.  We stayed in a villa in the old town and spent our time relaxing and touring the surrounding countryside and the shaded squares in the town center.

Some things that struck me about San Miguel and Mexico: the high-desert plants including succulents and various cactuses, the friendly nature of the folks there, the inexpensive food, the nice weather (hot but not muggy), the colorful solidly constructed art style reminiscent of picasso (seen at the instituto), the beautiful courtyard gardens inside almost every house and the absolutely amazing abundance of lovingly cared for Volkswagen Beetles!

 

The roof of our villa 

Out in the countryside (campo)

The bathroom in the villa

Mountaintop Church

Downtown Parade

 

 

Down the coast

These are pictures from the 3 day boat delivery we made down the eastern US coast from Connecticut to Delaware.  It took us 3 solid days of sailing, some queasiness, some exhilaration, some fear and lots of frozen fingers and toes.  Overall it was amazing to experience sailing down the coast, to feel the wind take the 57 foot Nautor Swan and lift it just slightly further out of the water and propel it forward, getting pushed along by the big rollers along the eastern seaboard.

Now that the boat is in Delaware, we can start moving our belongings onto it for what promises to be a really interesting summer.  Getting used to having less stuff, fixing up a home that's 'ours' and discovering a whole new set of challenges.

Dawn

Approaching Manhattan

Big tanker passing us on the Delaware Bay

A Dose of West Coast

Spent last week in San Francisco being blown away by the west coast aesthetic and natural landscapes.  Whenever I go someplace new, I am always struck by the different sorts of plants and natural indigenous things first.  And so that's mostly what I take pictures of!

Crazy awesome tree that reminds me of Dr. Seuss

Order in Nature

Aquarium of the Bay

The view from Angel Island

 

Plane Beautiful

On my flight back from Seattle last week there was some crazy gorgeous land scrolling past below my window.  It was hard for me to edit these down because I took so many stunning views.  All I have to say is America's natural landscapes are gorgeous.

cameo

Hahaha, this is hilarious!  My father just sent me this page from a recent Thai drag racing magazine.  When we visited Thailand last July we spent one Saturday night at my dad's race shop listening to the unmuffled sounds of engines roaring and watching motor bikes and race cars shoot down the rubber-blackened strip. He said we got a cameo in the magazine and sure enough, there I am standing next to my dad's race car (the turquoise one) with Jason in the foreground.  

A Random Assortment...

The Most Gorgeous Bathroom I Have Ever Seen (!!!)

While we were exploring the neverending maze that is Chatuchak market, we stumbled upon the pet section.  Do they really think that painting the cages pink will make it any less sad to see a bunny confined in such a small space!?

 

Requisite novel reading by the pool.

  

We donated some money to a Thai Temple and bought a ceramic tile to write our names on.  Somewhere in Thailand our names will become part of a new temple roof.

  

A very common tradition in Thailand.  Most everyone buys fresh jasmine wreathes and various lucky or blessed rear-view mirror bling for safe and swift travel on the Thai roads.  This was taken inside a minibus.

Inexcusably Swanky

Though it may make some well up with disdain, I can't help but share the awesomeness of our hotel bungalow at the Sofitel.  We've kept the budget pretty practical...but decided to stay here in the lap-o-luxury for a few nights before heading back to the United States, where we will have to reacquaint our noses with the grindstone.

This bungalow on the beach has its own pool and an outdoor bathtub filled with frangipane flowers.  It also comes decked out with daily replenished fresh fruit and orange juice, plus a license for hedonism!

I've spent a lot of time by our pool reading and having a swell time.  We've eaten really well - from mushroom soup to die for from the italian spot down the street, to the real good and real cheap local food restaurants which can be found by the dozens down many a charming street in this popular beach town south of Bangkok.

I don't really want to think about going home : (

Beach Wedding

We attended a beach wedding last Thursday for a friend of the family who's name is also Kirsten.  Her parents, like mine, were teachers in the Congo in the 80's.  How opportune it was that we just happened to be in Thailand for the occasion! 

The ceremony took place in the afternoon in a grove of palm trees next to the beach.  It had been raining all afternoon...then stopped...then started raining again as soon as everyone thought it was safe to start the ceremony!  We all huddled under umbrellas as they exchanged vows.

We broke for a few hours of relaxing while the beach tables, chairs and large pots of orchids and palm fronds were set out for the evening reception.  Luckily by then all the rain had stopped and the dusk temperature was perfect.  We all toasted with Kir Royales and ate chicken satay with peanut sauce and other tasty Thai dishes.  The whole scene was lit with tiki torches and the green glow of squidding boats anchored close to shore.

After the meal we all began lighting special paper lanterns used in Thai celebrations (particularly Loy Kratong which takes place in November) and let them float up into the atmosphere over the ocean.  We lit so many, they eventually looked like a constellation of stars sitting high in the sky.  It was a really cool wedding.


Quintessentially Thailand


 1) Extreme optimism in load-bearing machinery

2) Limitless incarnations of snack food - unidentifiable yet so tasty!

 

 3) A prevalent Thai phrase, "Mai Pen Lai", translated roughly as "Ehh, everything's cool" or "It's alright" or "Life goes on", distilled in this free-form staircase landing at a monestary in rural Thailand.

Medical Tourism

As an American without health insurance, I've experienced first hand how difficult it is to take care of one's health with a system like ours.  Like most of us, I will only go to the hospital if there is something really, really wrong that I can't avoid visiting the hospital for (a.k.a - taking the serious financial hit).  Of course...this is the crux of the problem!  If all Americans were able to go in for yearly physicals with bloodwork and the whole 9 yards, would as many people be forced to visit the emergency room with problems they had no way of knowing they could prevent?

In the past, I've had some experiences with the American healthcare system that have seriously soured me to setting foot in U.S. hospitals at all.  

Then there's Bamrungrad International hospital in Bangkok.  Newsweek magazine recently named it the best hospital in the world and more and more middle class Americans are making the long journey to Bamrungrad for surgery of all kinds. Its so much cheaper to have involved surgery here that the airfair and a week or more of recooperation on some Thai beach is still cheaper than to have the surgery alone done in the states.

Jason and I just had full physicals at Bamrungrad, and I must say its very civilized.  We didn't wait more than 20 minutes to see specialists, and at the end of the bloodwork, EKG, ultrasound and chest x-ray, we got all the results bound in a nice book.  And I could afford it, which is saying a lot.   Jason also had a couple of wisdom teeth pulled...and it cost him a fraction of the U.S. price.

So one of the pictures below is a hotel lobby in Bangkok.  The other is a picture of a waiting room at Bamrungrad.  Can you guess which one is which?

24 hrs. of travel

Last Monday evening we took off from the United States and flew to the other side of the globe!  We stopped briefly in Alaska (to refuel, I guess) before resuming the gruelingly long flight to Thailand.  We stopped early in the morning in Taipei, Taiwan to change planes...and I was amused to discover that a few of the boarding gates were decked out in a Hello Kitty motif!

We arrived in Thailand's newly minted airport at around 11:30 AM on Wednesday.  We wisked through immigration and picked up our bags on the carousel and went to meet my father and stepmother at the arrivals hall. About 10 minutes into the drive by minivan to their neighborhood, the van suddenly lost momentum and began making a very strange noise.  Then the driver nervously imparted that there were no longer any breaks, and finally the minivan wheezed to an abrupt stop in the middle of four lanes of crazy Bangkok highway traffic!  A van hit us from behind, though not very hard...and then there we were, marooned like a traffic island with two lanes of cars squeezing past on either side of us.

After a call to the tow company, we hailed a passing cab which pulled in front of the steaming minivan to let us in, and we were again on our way. 

That afternoon I had a 2 hour massage which cost all of $9 US, and we were very very very tired trying to stay up until at least 8:30 PM so as to avoid jet lag.

Newport, R.I.

Over memorial day weekend I made a trek up the east coast to join an old friend in Newport, Rhode Island where she has a beach house.

We drank margaritas, lounged on the beach and had lobster at dusk by candlelight.  In short, I was spoiled rotten!

before.....

...and after.


Making the rounds

After a very nice brunch with my brother and fam on Sunday, I headed west out of Richmond to visit my mother in Charlottesville.  The corridor between Richmond and C'ville hasn't changed much.  Its still a long concrete strip cut out of the forest and flanked on both sides by a very close curtain of evergreen and deciduous trees that can, at times, feel very claustrophobic.  Though my mother lives outside of town and it is possible to avoid going in to C'ville altogether, I was low on gas and stopped off at Pantops for a refill.  I was shocked to see so much development, so many new shopping centers, so many cars and bustling Charlottesvillians in a place which used to be the edge of town and rather sparse with people.  I did much of my schooling in C'ville in the '90's, so it holds many happy/strange/awkward/nostalgic/funny memories for me.  And it appears after I left for good in 1999, the small town which used to feel rather like an easy-moving river is now busting at the seams with large SUV's, Starbucks and other accoutrements of progress.    

It is very early spring here, and the peach tree in my mother's garden is in full bloom.  She lives in a magical little house which sits in a clearing surrounded by the sounds of running water and moss floors.  I got to visit my old cat Quaxo, who still after all these years remembers that I'm the one who picks him up and slings him over my shoulder.  He has always loved this.  She was not feeling well, so after dropping off her birthday presents and staying to chat for a bit, I set off north driving all afternoon through the gorgeous rolling hills of central and northern Virginia to another rare locale in a rural part of Maryland.

Sophia's house is surrounded by gorgeous lakes, forests of bamboo and hillsides covered in kitchen herbs, which were all readying themselves for spring. 

 All in all, it was a great trip. 

the beach we found with Google Earth

So my other half was in line the day the iphone came out to get his hands on one ASAP, and I had my doubts about its worth. The thing's won me over a number of times since, but this particular instance illustrates *just* how useful it was to us one day in Puerto Rico.We had been using it frequently to search the web for translations while on the road in the middle-of-nowhere and to find hotels in the general vicinity we were headed and so on. One day we stopped at a nature preserve and walked up towards the cliffs of Rojo Cabo to see the old lighthouse up there. The spit of land was hilly enough that you wouldn't be able to see what was on the other side. We were both kind of hot (it was really muggy), and were wondering whether we should just push on down the road when Jason pulled out the iphone, deciding to google earth our location. Once we saw the picturesque moon-shaped bay on the other side of the hill we were standing on, we had no choice but to exploit the swimming possibilities.Now, had we not been able to access a sattelite image just then....we would never have known..... I felt so modern.

Afterthoughts

What's that thing called...the crazy little hallway that the plane pulls up to and allows you to get on without having to experience the outdoors? The raised accordian pipe that injects humans into a waiting fueled-up aeroplane? Well, anyway, whatever that thing is called, I saw this image in. Right before stepping onto a plane bound back to Philadelphia I saw that the control console that allows an airport employee to correctly align the plane to the hallway was there for me to marvel at.  It had a self help book purched on top next to the window "The Courage To Change", and those two things seen together set off something in my brain that made me smile. It was a nice juxtaposition - that one could feel out of control...while being in control...maybe not knowing you're in control...of your life or your accordian-style hallway.  It made me think about how blind a lot of us are of the presence of our own power.