Musings, Whisky and the Country

It’s cold and rainy outside and I’ve made an afternoon of catching up on a movie, some hot tea and some writing. So you get a dose of my philanthropic musings on this entry. Apologies in advance.

I’ve been thinking about how amazing it is to get on a plane and be in a completely different country in less than 12 hours. One where you may or may not speak the language, one with completely different ways of life, different culture, places, food and people. It’s amazing the opportunities that modern technology provides! But as easy as it is to get from one place to another, it’s just as easy to stay within one’s comfort zone. Which is why I’m so proud of Mike and I for taking the initiative to leave the US for a one-year adventure in Scotland. (Granted it’s not some five-year excursion, but still an experience none the less.)

The truth is that we were comfortable. We weren’t sure we wanted to leave our house in Houston, much less our four pets that we’ve become extremely attached to, and our family and friends in Houston and Dallas for a whole year. But we decided that if we were chosen, we’d pursue the opportunity 110% and be excited about the chance to experience life in another country, no matter where it was. (When you apply for this program, you don’t get to pick when or where you go, they tell you.)

Now that we’ve seen some of Scotland in the less than two weeks we’ve been here, we couldn’t be happier that we made it over. I think if most people got a taste, a teaser, of what lies on the other side, they would be more prone to take it. That’s part of the risk though, the unknown results of decision making. My point is that it seems important to remember to take risks occasionally. To jump out there and do something that challenges us, to take a step out of the box, out of our own little worlds and into something larger.

If we had been given a preliminary trip to Scotland to check it out and look around, we would have totally decided that we wanted to do the program for a year. Because we are having a fantastic time and there’s so much to do. We know that now. And if Scotland had been horrible and we hated it? Then Mike and I would have learned how to cook amazing meals every night, we’d catch up on books and movies and spend more of our time and energy looking for trips to Europe for a change of scenery. The point is that we would have dealt with it, we would have made the best of things no matter what. And probably still come out better for it. But to get to that point, you have to take the risk.

Now on to actual doings at hand, enough musings for now. We had an absolutely wonderful weekend taking a short road trip (huddled up in our Nissan Micra) to Glass, by Huntly to visit some new friends. Paul and Amber Poole are two of the sweetest people we’ve ever met. They welcomed us into their home, an adorable cottage in the country (cottarton.blogspot.com). There were cows and sheep and dirt country roads and more green grass and trees than you can imagine. For our first excursion outside of Aberdeen, we definitely wanted it to be an easy one and it was perfect.

We have a GPS with a UK and European card plugged in, and it’s been a huge help in getting around. It even tells you which exit to take on a roundabout. Amazing! When we arrived at their cottage, there was a wooden box at the front gate with a hand-painted sign advertising fresh bunches of flowers for £2. You leave your change in the little tin box attached. Another cottage a few hills over turned out to offer eggs for sale in a similar fashion, tin box attached and two small trays of eggs left. Where else do you see things like that!?

(image from Amber P's blog at cottarton.blogspot.com)
Amber waved at us as we pulled into the gravel driveway and made our introductions. Then we settled in and they offered us cold Perla, a Polish beer, which I did taste later and found delicious. I also discovered that I get extremely car sick in mini-sized vehicles. So it took me a while to recover from the ride and I will literally have to take Dramamine any time we go somewhere further than 10 minutes away.

Paul and Amber have successfully planted two large gardens, from which they mostly sustain themselves on fruits and vegetables of every kind. There’s cabbage, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, berries, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and more. Paul pointed out a very small patch of lesser looking plants, which he explained was his first attempt at corn. Scotland’s cooler temps and misty rain might not be as ideal as Texas’ blazing sun and dry heat.

We drove to Dufftown, which is the home of the Glenfiddich distillery, known for their 12, 15, and 18-year-old single malt Scotch whisky. Pronounced “Glen-fiddick,” the distillery is a gorgeous establishment of hand-assembled stone buildings and loads of flowers and well manicured lawns. We took the free tour offered (one of the only free distillery tours in the area, actually… there’s other well-known distilleries here like Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Oban, etc.). The distillery was built in 1886 by its founder William Grant (pictured below with the funny hat), his wife, seven sons, two daughters and a stonemason. The whiskey derived its name from the valley, Glen of Fiddich, which is Gaelic for Valley of the Deer. Thus the company’s stag trademark logo.

The distillery’s first spirit was poured on Christmas Day 1887. Glenfiddich uses crystal clear water from the nearby Robbie Dhu Springs, which is mixed hot with malted barley in huge copper containers. This produces “wort,” a very sweet and fragrant liquid. The wort is then moved to the distillery’s traditional wooden washbacks—huge barrel like containers—where yeast converts it to a weak form of alcohol. From there, it’s taken to copper pot stills. These are extremely small compared to most modern-day distilleries. Glenfiddich has preserved the original size of its stills, which William Grant designed, otherwise it might alter the taste of the whisky. They even employ their own coppersmith to maintain the stills.

At the end, we had our “whee dram” of whisky, which I would have loved with a mixer, but at a distillery it would be considered blasphemy! Paul and Amber took us on a scenic route back to their cottage. We stopped and looked for mushrooms on the way home (“the American way of mushroom hunting,” Paul joked, since we were looking from the car windows), saw plenty of wild rabbits and even more of the gorgeous country side.

For dinner, Amber made fresh salmon and cheesy polenta with wild mushrooms and salad from their garden. It was great! Mike has had salmon a few times since we got to Scotland, but it was my first and it really is good here. We drank South African red wine (which, along with Spanish and Italian, is becoming one of our favorites) and a Glenfiddich liqueur not available in the States. Just before dinner, while I was talking to my mom on Skype, we heard a commotion outside. There were men herding a flock of sheep down the road into a new pen. Apparently these were the young ones they’d just separated from their mothers. I held the laptop camera out and my mom watched from her house in Irving with us as the sheep were herded right by the cottage. I wanted to reach out and touch one so bad but wasn’t sure if sheep bite, ha.
After dinner, we drank more wine and liqueur and played a game of Balderdash, which Paul victoriously won. And during the night, we could hear the sheep baaing in the field next to us. Like Paul said: Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore! It really was the perfect getaway and we invited Paul and Amber to come visit us in Aberdeen anytime they want a true Texas meal of fajitas and guacamole! And I’m sure we’ll be back to see them again when we have visitors.

Next on the agenda will be a short trip to Edinburgh, which everyone here can’t seem to stop talking about. It’s a culturally-loaded city and I’m sure will be another great experience. Of course, everyday here is all about trying something new…


Falling for Aberdeen

So I knew it would happen all along and it finally did. My truest moment of grace and composure. I was walking along the strange streets of a new country all by myself, trying my best to look confident and knowing (versus intimidated and on the verge of being lost). I was wearing skinny jeans tucked into long black riding boots—flat footed ones, I’ll add—with a cute black trench coat tied smartly at the waist just like I’ve seen everyone else doing. Oh yeah, I totally looked like I belonged. That is until the bottom of my fantastic left riding boot made contact with the slick wet surface of a metal panel in the sidewalk. My foot went flying and I completely sprawled out into an awkward slide split, catching myself inches before smashing into the ground. I was thankful I hadn’t actually face planted so I made my best effort to regain my footing but instead slipped again and fell, wildly and arms flailing, into the wall of the cute little gift shop behind me. Great.

I was on a fairly busy street but still hoped that no one had seen me as I raised my head to look around. (We all hope for the best, right?) A totally crowded bus was at a STOP at the light right in front of me, providing a front row seat for all the amused onlookers. I ignored the bus and began walking when I saw two guys headed toward me doing their best to muffle a laugh. So I smiled and decided to be thankful that I’d come away without any bruises or torn clothing.

I met up with Terri and we enjoyed drinks and dinner on a cute little patio of a bar near her work. I had spicy Moroccan chicken with some kind of salsa-like aioli and mashed potatoes with a glass of house red wine. The “house” wine or cheap wine here is so much better than in the States. I got a bottle of red for £4 the other day, which Mike and I split over salad and pasta, and it was absolutely delicious. A 2007 cabernet sauvignon from Italy. I can only imagine how the wines must taste when you actually get into Europe.

From that bar, Terri and I went to The Grill on Union Street, which is known for its more than 400 different kinds of whisky served up properly, warm in temperature and the likes. But unfortunately they never play music and the lights are awfully bright so we walked in the front and right out the back, saving the whiskey tasting for another day. Soul has already become a favorite of ours… the bar and casino inside the old church. I know some people have mixed feelings about it, but it’s definitely one of the nicest and most fun places to be in the area. I was so excited to discover that Jack and coke or diet coke is often the drink du jour here. I suppose all along I’d assumed I’d have to drink some local whiskey instead, since Mike and I are big fans of Makers Mark and Crown. Needless to say, I overdid it a bit and dived into the Jack and diet a little too enthusiastically and paid for it all the next day. But we did have fun.

From Soul, we went to Star & Garter. Now this is the kind of place that you would totally picture when you think of a Scottish bar. Its front door opens right onto the street corner, so when you’re inside you have open views through the large glass windows that run full-length down each of the streets it’s positioned on. Not something you see very often anymore. The ceiling has ornate panels in cream and maroon with gilded three-light chandeliers. There’s empty barrels resting far above on top of the liquor cabinets and the stained mahogany wood bar is as aged and worn as some of the whiskey they serve. There’s bar stools if you want to chat with the bartender or high tops or sit-down tables if you want a more private conversation. The place is one long hall and in the very back there’s dart boards and a pool table. The floor creaks when you walk and the music blares, but you can still hear people clinking their glasses and laughing whenever you walk by. Terri and I got to know the bartender, Alex, who’s 22 and just started working at Star & Garter 2 ½ months ago. His aunt and uncle own the place, along with a few other bars around town. Perfect, we say, we’ll be back again soon!

Mike has really enjoyed his induction week. Last night we went to Soul with a bunch of the guys in from the US for a short stay and enjoyed a little gambling at the casino.

One of the group’s biggest excursions was the outdoor adventure day. Here’s the summary in Mike's words: “We drove out to Braemer and had three activities. We split up into groups and the first activity was mountain biking. There was an experienced group and a non-experienced group so I decided to join the more experienced group. I was completely dying but I managed to mountain bike cross-country over 10 kilometers! The 35 recruits that are part of the program are all fresh out of college and in great shape and I’ve been working for 4 ½ years, so pride definitely got in the way. We rode through the valleys between the mountains and it was raining and really cloudy but you could see the small mountain ranges and pretty views. And we rode out to this shooting lodge, where people in the old days used to camp out and during the day they would hunt red stag. Now it’s all part of the national reserve.

Then we ate lunch and put on full-body wetsuits and a wetsuit jacket, a lifejacket and a helmet and we went gorge walking. There’s lot of rocks and boulders in the river and they’ve found all these places in the river where you can lay down on carved-out rocks and it makes a slide. The water’s current pushes you down the slide, but the water was freezing cold and the further upriver we walked, we found more difficult chutes. Kind of like Wet N Wild rides but with rocks and a river. So when we got to the top of the river, there were a few big waterfalls where the water’s eroded all the rocks away, so we did cliff jumping into the waterfalls. It was only about 25 feet high but you had rocks all around you and you jump in and go through a shoot… it was pretty badass! There’s a bunch of different kinds of jumps, one where you jump in between cliffs and it was really narrow, like 10 or 15 feet wide and 25 feet down.

The third activity was a zipline that went across one of the gorges. It was a puzzle-type team building game where everybody had to work together, but you had to use the zipline to send everyone back and forth. The gorge was probably 30 or 40 feet down. After all that, we went and had a really nice dinner in a small country town. They served huge pieces of salmon, potatoes, carrots, vegetable soup and breaded pudding balls. It was definitely an outdoorsman adventure; we were completely exhausted but had gotten to see some really pretty parts of Scotland.”

Mike is also now the proud one-year owner of a Nissan Micra. He passed the road familiarization course with flying colors, even though he had to practice driving on the instructor’s manual, which means switching gears with your left hand. The Micra is actually quite convenient, because instead of parking it we just fold it up and put in my purse. Kidding of course, but I really wanna know why the Nissan people decided that it was big enough for four seats. The edge of the rear seats comes all the way up to the back of the front seat, leaving absolutely no room for third or fourth passengers to sit. Unless they assume the fetal position or lie sideways. And then on top of that, they actually added a “trunk” space which isn’t a trunk at all. It would have made more sense to just make it a hatchback, but I’m sure we’ll make do. We still walk just about everywhere, but now we can drive ourselves to Asda for groceries and Mike can get himself to work. I asked him if he thought I’d be able to drive here okay (you can use your international license for up to one year) and he said “yes, but first we’ll need to get in some practice in an open area.” Hopefully there won’t be any buses full of people to watch…


The American Take

Let’s talk culture. First off, I’m starting to get the feeling that Scots don’t wear shorts very often. I’ve seen a mere handful of guys in cargo shorts and only ONE woman in regular shorts. Everyone else has been in jeans or pants. I know it gets cold here but Saturday was so warm a t-shirt and shorts was more than sufficient. So Mike and Steve wore cargo shorts and I wore khaki shorts… I’ve never gotten so many looks in my life! Not sure if they were all meant to be flattering or not, but I might as well have been prancing down the sidewalk in a string bikini and high heels. Fortunately I’ve still got a bit of a tan from pool days in Texas, so perhaps it wasn’t the legs that shocked everyone so much as the color. Meaning they’re not white because everyone here is pretty pale.

So when we ventured out for our first grocery-buying excursion yesterday—we went to Asda which is Scotland’s version of Walmart and actually owned by the brand—I toned it down and wore Bermuda shorts for the trip. Still got a couple of looks, like one guy that was unlocking his door and did a complete 360 on his stoop, but hopefully this time they were just noticing my chiseled calves. Which leads me to my next point…

The walking is a pain. I know I’ll get used to it but we walked over two miles just to get groceries. Granted there were stores closer to us, but even then you still have to carry home everything you buy. No flat screen TV for Steve until we get our cars and can drive to Asda and load up on goods. It’s the one place in town that seems to have a parking lot. A concept non-existent anywhere else in Aberdeen. (We joked that our Nissan Micras we’ll be driving are almost the same size as the buggys we were pushing around in the store, and that we should’ve just pushed the Micra to Asda and loaded our groceries in it.) In fact, the parking is so scarce that it’s pointless to drive just about anywhere. So it’s back to the walking, which everyone seems just fine with except me. I think I got passed by an old man with a cane today.
Next is the space concept. For any of you that been to the UK or Europe, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Everything is downsized instead of supersized. And being a Texan, it’s pretty noticeable. My Avalanche I drive at home could easily eat its way through the mini coopers, Nissans and bug-sized sedans crowding the streets here. And our house we left in Houston, which is a humble size compared to the average home in Texas, seems likes a monstrous mansion compared to many of the flats here. I spotted my first actual full-sized home yesterday and wondered how much the homeowner sold his soul for to acquire that much real estate. It even had a tiny front yard which had been freshly mowed and sported a mini, thigh-high fence that I could have easily hopped over if I’d felt so inclined. Must be to keep all those pesky yard gnomes out.

I just got word that our shipment has arrived and will be delivered to our flat on Wednesday morning. Hallelujah! There’s some things in there that’ll definitely make us feel more at home, most notably the curtains I packed to replace the flowery, antiquated ones in the flat right now. (Our flat is a little better off than Steve’s though, he’s got fringe-laced lamps, turquoise green velvet couches and old-lady china hanging on the walls.) I did make our first home cooked meal last night… fajitas! We spotted some Old El Paso tortillas in the international aisle at Asda (more like the international corner) and bought avocados, garlic and tomatoes for guacamole. Add the Pace salsa and HEB fajita seasoning we brought from home and we were golden! Terri and Steve grabbed Sauza tequila and Jose Cuervo margarita mix for some delicious ‘ritas. After dinner, we started talking about country bands and stand-up comedians and ended up listening to Mitch Hedberg on Mike’s laptop. It’s nice to know we can get a good dose of home when we need it.

It’s such an odd feeling to be disconnected. After we bought our cell phones the other day, we were walking down the street when Mike’s rang. He didn’t notice it all and kept walking, then suddenly we all three realized we now had phones and frantically scrambled to find them to see who was lucky enough to actually get a call. I will begin a job hunt soon. My plan is to find something simple, easy and close. I’ll probably start with some boutiques in my area, but first I’ll need to apply for my NIN (national insurance number). Something I’ll hopefully get to this week. Mike just got home from his first day at the new office and things sound like they're going to go great. He's already being recognized for his more extensive work experience with Mustang and should be placed well on a project. He has to wear a tie to work every day now, but it just makes him look all the nicer when he gets home!


We've arrived!

So we made it! It’s been a bit odd being totally disconnected with no phones or internet. We tried and tried to find a connection on Union Street last night but with no luck. So today we ran into McDonald’s for a quick lunch and discovered they had free wifI and called the parents on Skype. I know, I know, we’re really stretching our wings with Mickey D’s! But I’m battling a sinus infection and not feeling quite as adventurous as I’d like, so more of that to come later. But now to write a novel for my first entry…

Yesterday we were blessed with a very smooth day of traveling. Mike and I usually travel well, but with five humongous suitcases to tow, a nine+ hour flight and a new country, it could have easily gotten ugly! We flew KML Airlines, which was great. The plane had individual screens for each seat and you had your choice of more than 20 movies, TV shows, games, etc. We watched movies and played a little Blackjack, drank some wine and relaxed. After our whirlwind trip to Dallas, it was definitely nice to sit still for awhile and chill out.

Our plane reached Amsterdam right on time and we made our connecting flight with an hour to spare. The Amsterdam airport is huge. Between the airplane food and being exhausted (we slept only an hour or two), we weren’t feeling at our best. But we forgot about all that when we landed in Scotland. It looked just like we expected… dreary gray clouds, green and brown square blocks of land dotted with sheep, vintage architecture and cottage-like homes. The rain was barely drizzling as we took a taxi to our flat. (Taxis here are BMWs, sedans and small mini vans, the drivers obviously take pride in their rides!) Our driver was super nice and sounded just like William Wallace from Braveheart. I flinched every time we drove through a roundabout or down a narrow street. It’s like they suck in the sides of the vehicle when they drive through needle hole-sized spaces in the road and somehow we miraculously get by! Keeping in mind that the drivers are on the opposite side of the car and the cars are on the opposite side of the road. Thankfully, Mike will get driving lessons next week for the car we’re getting—which is a Nissan Micra, by the way. I saw it today and it looks big enough to put in my pocket.

According to the few people we’ve talked to since getting off the plane, our flat on Albury Mansions road is in a prime location and very good area. It’s a gated apartment-style complex and the flat we’re in is pretty nice. It’s so small compared to spaces we’re used to in America but still large for Scottish living quarters. It’s two bedroom, two bath and comes with the basic furnishings. We should get our shipment soon (it’s already arrived in Aberdeen and is waiting to clear customs) and once I get the place fixed up, I’ll post pictures. We have a washer and dryer but haven’t tried them out yet. They look like a set of two dishwashers under the kitchen counter. The HR lady that picked us up at the airport said she’d gotten us milk, bread and “washing powder” for dishes. It took a bit of time to figure out how to lock the front door, apparently we weren’t turning the latch far enough right. How many engineers does it take….

Steve, the other Mustang guy that got selected to be in Scotland with us for a year, arrived about 5pm Scotland time (Scotland is six hours ahead of Texas) on Friday. Mike and I had just woken up from a life-changing four hour nap. The landlord of Steve’s flat decided the bathroom needed to be repainted today, so Steve crashed with us for the night. He didn’t have as good a day of traveling, his flight out of Houston was delayed, he missed his original connection from Amsterdam to Aberdeen, the airline lost one of his suitcases and his taxi had to drive through traffic and pouring rain to get to the flats. Poor guy. But we all showered and cleaned up and put on our walking shoes and headed to Union Street. It’s part of the city center that we’re located just off of, and contains pretty much everything we need on its one-mile stretch. There’s a pizza place, Italian food, KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King. All the comforts of home, right?

For our first Scottish dinner on Friday night, we walked into Soul, which is a bar and casino located in an old cathedral of a church. It’s so cool and pretty inside! Mike had a BBQ chicken melt sandwich and I got fish and chips with warm, mushy peas. Didn’t eat much of the latter, but the fish sure was good. Washed it down with a San Miguel beer, which was a bit bitter for my taste but I know I’ll need to learn to like a LOT of new things while we’re here. We ate at a slick black bar table with flickering red candles while the cloudy light from outside streamed through a stained glass window depicting the Last Supper, which was only a little weird as I sipped my alcohol…

There’s so much to see and tell! We’ve been exploring today and got pay-as-you-go cell phones and next I hope to get cable and internet going. Me home alone in our flat with no connections or a car equal serious boredom! But we’re at my friend Terri’s apartment now, which is only just over a mile from us, so I hope to spend some time hanging out with her while Mike is busy with his first week.

I know our parents are checking this, we were fortunate to talk to them earlier on Skype. It was so cool to see them right there on video! We were able to show them the big cemetery across the street from our perch at McDonald’s. Much of the city is built with granite, including the sidewalks, which sparkles when the sun’s out. But when it’s misty and gray, like yesterday, it’s not so pretty. More later… cheers!


It's Time!

I can't believe today's the day. We've been preparing for our move to Scotland for about three months. And now it's done.

Mike and I woke up this morning a little tired, a little anxious but very excited. Apparently "boredom" is a word that simply doesn't exist for us. We've spent the last two weeks getting in some quality time with family and friends. My mom and I drove 1,200 miles to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to leave my sweet old cats (July, 16 and Snowball, 12) with my cousin, Sara, and her wonderful husband Scott. Mike flew to Tulsa, Oklahoma to spend time with his older brother. And we've made countless trips to areas around Big D for lunches, dinners and drinks with all our favorite folks. But now I cannot wait to step foot in Aberdeen, Scotland and begin our one-year adventure. It's an opportunity of a lifetime for us. Who ever knew we'd be spending 2009-2010 living in Scotland?! I am as proud of us for having the courage to take on the trip as I am for all the work it took to get things ready. And let me tell you, I've never seen Mike do so much paper work in my life. ;)

My suitcases are a little questionable, they barely shut and probably each weigh 100 lbs. Hey, I packed as light as I could. So my master packer (aka the husband) is about to go see what he can do to get my last one zipped up. Then we're off to the airport!

We'll arrive by 10:25am Friday morning, Scotland time. I'll do my best to find us some wifi so we can get online and let family know we made it in, and maybe get a few pictures posted of our new neighbors! Until then, cheers and safe flying, right?
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