Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Paris: Further Observations

We have witnessed more acts of human kindness over this past week in Paris than we can remember ever seeing in any city before.  Desi spent a day in New York City in May 2008 where she was the recipient of several acts of kindness but otherwise nothing comes close to what we've witnessed over this past week.  Parisians are kind people.

Outdoor seating options are plentiful and so well designed that they are full even during freezing temperatures.

Pay phones are every where and used often.

Fur is still considered an option and appears to be quite popular.

We have been confused for Spaniards a couple times and perhaps English once but no one has identified us as Americans yet.

Everyone has been very forgiving with our attempts at speaking French.

Although there appear to be successful supermarkets throughout Paris, we have at least four within a few blocks from our flat, there are also many separate and independent boulangeries, pâtisseries, boucheries, and fromageries which leads us to believe that, barring legal obstacles, either the people reject the supermarket as being everything to everyone and/or the supermarkets refuse to crush the little shops by offering competing items for less.

Most people we've encountered are at least bilingual.  Even the rough sleeper at the Gare du Nord was able to switch to perfect English when we couldn't understand him in French.  We are now more convinced than ever that we need to become fluent in another language.  It's embarrassing at this point.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Paris: First Impressions

Paris reminds us a lot of Kaohsiung because of the store fronts, left turning vehicles, and scooters.  It reminds us some of Vancouver, Washington DC, and New York City, too.

People here seem polite.  Even on a very crowded Metro ride, when we were pressed up against the door, there was no pushing, shoving, or yelling to get out.  Just a simple ‘pardon’ every once in a while which would cause everyone near the door to get off, allow others off, and then get back on.  It was very orderly and civilized.

There is dog shit everywhere and apparently no guilt about not picking your dog’s shit up.  It’s disgusting.

The food and coffee is amazing.  Simple street fare is delicious.  The coffee, even instant, is delicious and Desi, who usually requires her coffee to taste like ice cream, is able to drink it without sugar and may even drop the crème.  Oh, and mulled wine (vin chaud) is amazing and should be available and popular everywhere civilized people gather.

There are no fat people here.

There is a sense of classiness to the Parisiens. 

The city exudes art.  Not only are there more museums than one can name but everything has seemingly been done with an eye towards art.  The street signs, the architecture, the intersections; everything feels like the whole was considered when addressing a piece. 

Paris is very diverse, perhaps another reason it reminds us of Washington DC, Vancouver, and New York City.

Walking through the city’s streets easily ate up our entire day and we’re looking forward to weeks of doing only that.  There is so much to see and walking is the only way to do it.  We wouldn’t drive or be driven, even if we had the option.  The Metro is fun, too, but only when one’s feet are tired.

Bonjour Paris, Take Deux

We started this morning still a bit grumpy from our previous day’s shenanigans.  Adding to our poor mood was the state of our accommodations.  The morning allowed us a better look at our home for the next 24 days and left us thoroughly unimpressed.  It felt dirty and there were items we expected which were not available.  There was no Wi-Fi, the clothes washer was broken (with clothes still in it), the three bathroom towels were all dirty (one was soaking wet), and the blankets on the bed smelled of stale cigarette smoke.  We were not happy.

We decided to get out of the flat, which we hoped would help to improve our mood, and experience Paris.  Hopefully upon our return we would no longer have the biases formed from our rocky introduction and be able to start again with the place.

We started at the boulangerie down the street, grabbing a pain aux raisins and a croissant for our breakfast.  Then we stopped at a café for a café crème and a café noir for our walk to the Seine.  We arrived at Place de la Concorde and saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time, which was actually quite underwhelming.  But, walking along the Champs-Elysees we experienced our first Christmas market and vins chauds which thoroughly improved our moods.  We reached the Arc de Triomphe and headed left towards the Eiffel Tower.  Reaching the Trocadéro first, we were greeted by the best view available of the Eiffel Tower and one which really caused us to pause.  Suddenly, we were very impressed by the tower.  The Trocadéro also had a Christmas market where we grabbed another couple of vins chauds before heading over to introduce ourselves to the tower.

We wandered underneath the Eiffel Tower for a bit, opting against venturing upwards, and then walked along the Seine to the Pont d’Orsay where we broke left, back towards our flat.  We grabbed some delicious lunch at a neighbourhood boulangerie, stopped at a grocery store for some very good €1.95 red wine, and headed back home to rest.

We’ve decided that we like our flat.  It’s in a great neighbourhood and internet is available, though not Wi-Fi.  We have to clean it a bit and wash the towels before we feel too comfortable but we’ll tackle that tomorrow.  On the whole our flat in the 17e is fine and will definitely work for us over these next few weeks. 

After taking a break for a bit we headed back out for dinner.  We wanted to visit the Christmas market in Montmartre and then check out the Sacre Coeur Basilica.  The Montmartre Christmas market was smaller than we expected but we did grab some vins chauds, a jambon fromage crepe, and churros before heading up the bluff to Sacre Coeur which was stunning.  We’ll definitely make that trek again in the daylight for the full stained glass effect and when there is better visibility so we can see the amazing view of Paris.

We had several successful transactions today and our French has already improved.  We’re happier than we were when we awoke this morning and no longer convinced that Paris hates us.  And, although we are bewildered as to why Paris is considered so romantic, we’re feeling the romance and happy to be here.  Bonjour Paris!

Bonjour Paris

The day we leave for Paris is the same day Britain experiences record freezing temperatures and all London airports close causing delays throughout the system.  Luckily, the train from Dundee to Edinburgh was still running and Edinburgh airport was still open.  Our flight wasn’t until 5:30PM but we decided to head to the airport early just in case the trains decided to stop running.  We started our journey at 11:45AM. 

We caught the 12:35PM train to Edinburgh and arrived at the airport at 2:30PM.  Our plane still claimed to be on time but all other planes were either showing a delay or were cancelled altogether.  At approximately 5:30PM our plane switches to a 6PM departure time, delaying departure by 30 minutes.  We wind up leaving at 7:30PM, two hours later than planned.  

As an aside, Easyjet had horrible communication throughout this process.  When we got on the plane the pilot apologized for the delay (the only apology received all day, which he did often) and said it was due to delays earlier in the day throwing off the whole day's schedule.  Apparently, Easyjet knew our plane was delayed much earlier than initially communicated and for longer than originally stated but didn’t tell anyone; terrible communication.

We landed at Charles de Gaulle at 10PM but didn’t have a gate assigned.  We were finally able to deplane an hour later, reaching the terminal at 11PM.  By the time we reached the train to Paris, RER B, and purchased our tickets we had just missed the last train due to inclement weather closures.  In our hunt for other options, we missed the last Roissy Bus into Paris.  We were told by the Information desk that the night bus would be coming along in about 15 minutes, at 12:15AM.  We waited until 12:45AM before asking another couple to share a taxi into Paris, splitting the €60 fare.  We finally arrived at our flat around 1:30AM.

This whole adventure would’ve been stressful by itself but we had the added stress of knowing there was a guy waiting at the flat, since approximately 8:30PM, to give us the key and collect the final half of our rent.  He had threatened to leave at least twice, taking our night’s accommodation with him, but Mike had talked him into staying.  Needless to say, he was not happy when we finally met him at almost 2AM.  The check-in process was tense and when he left we were not in the best of spirits.  We tucked in for the night almost immediately and hoped the morning would convince us that Paris didn’t hate us.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Looking Back

As we prepare to depart for our winter break holiday we wanted to take this opportunity to review our first four months in the UK.

Arriving a few weeks prior to Mike starting school made for a smart move.  We were able to explore our new surroundings while waiting for internet and phone connections without anxiety.

While we lived in Seattle we would enjoy long walks along Lake Washington or from the light rail station to our home.  During this past summer we especially enjoyed walking around our temporary home on Queen Anne.  Happily, our walking tradition continues here in Dundee.  Mike walks Desi to work every morning for her 6AM start time and is usually there to pick her up when she gets off in the afternoon.  These walks will vary as Desi changes jobs but we enjoy this time together and are happy our walks have survived the move.

It took us a few months to get settled but we think we've begun to form a comfortable groove.  We've got friends whom we can go to with our cultural questions and we're even beginning to have a social calendar again.  Desi is enjoying the last few days of her first job in the UK and Mike is celebrating the end of a successful first semester.  Best of all, we didn't experience any catastrophes, which is something we're always grateful for.

As far as the Purge of 2010, there are many things we miss having but overall we're enjoying living simply and light.  When we first moved here we wrote down all our possessions, which didn't amount to much.  We think that list has stayed about the same over the months, a few more kitchen necessities but a few less clothing items.  There are also a number of items we wish we hadn't brought.  For example, Desi has a couple of lovely pairs of stilettos that she chose to keep but that she'll never wear.  Perhaps keeping her hiking boots or trainers would've been wiser?

In just a few months we've been able to visit a fair number of Scot cities and towns, places we probably would never have seen if we didn't live here.  Because our time in Dundee is limited we really want to make every day memorable, which we were really good at in the beginning but have since slackened a bit, allowing life to take over.  We've been consumed with adapting to our new location, which has provided us with a good foundation but not necessarily with memorable experiences, more just general knowledge.  Hopefully, upon our return in the new year we'll get back to making each day memorable.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

One More Week

One week from today we leave for Paris.  The flight is just under two hours long but we have an hour and 15 minute train ride from Dundee to Edinburgh beforehand.  Regardless, total travel time is still minimal.  We can't believe we live so close to Paris.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Lonely Planet

We just bought our Lonely Planet French phrasebook online at www.amazon.co.uk for £3.32.  This price is for a new book and includes free shipping.  We'll receive it within 4-5 business days.  We love how everything ships quickly here and usually for free with no minimum purchase required.  Seriously, £3.32 total for a new book to arrive within a week.  Amazing!

We're big fans of Lonely Planet.  Their brand is aligned with our travel style and over the years we've developed a loyalty for their product.  We used Lonely Planet for our Taiwan trip, we own their Scotland guidebook, and Desi used the Costa Rica phrasebook, which was especially helpful, for her trip in 2006.

Although we're travelling without a guidebook this time, we decided to grab a phrasebook for our Paris trip because we recently realized that our combined knowledge of French is very rusty and very small and often confused with Spanish.  Hopefully with our trusty Lonely Planet phrasebook by our sides we'll be able to communicate without causing too much offence or embarrassment to ourselves or compatriots which is always our goal when travelling to a foreign country.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Summer in the UK

This abnormal winter weather has us looking forward to summer and planning our next move.  Our original plan was to go wherever Mike won a summer internship, especially hoping for Barcelona or Berlin.  But, with salaries significantly lower in Dundee than we predicted, Desi is going to have to work this summer which means we have to stay in the UK.  Happily, London is in the UK and also possesses many possibilities for Mike's summer internship.  Thus, we're moving to London for the summer.

Our plan right now is to move south in late May and then return to Dundee in late August or early September stopping in Edinburgh for a week to catch the Military Tattoo along with the other August festivals.  Mike will begin applying for summer internships in the new year but, worst case, volunteer opportunities no doubt abound in the big city and Mike will have many opportunities to continue his professional development whilst on break from his educational pursuits.

We're really excited to have our summer plans sorted and are looking forward to exploring London and the southern UK.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Snow Behaviours

We had a pretty amazing snowstorm Sunday evening, including thunder and lightning which roused us from sleep a few times throughout the night.  The amazing thunder crashes and flashes of light which lit up the sky made us hopeful for future snowstorms during an otherwise dreary season.  Disappointingly, the next morning we learned that thunder snowstorms are rare and should not be expected in the future.  Too bad because it was quite a show.

Although the thunder and lightning only lasted that first night the snow has continued on and off over the last two days and Dundee has seemingly shut down.  One would think snow would be common in all of Scotland but apparently it's as rare in Dundee as it was in Seattle.  Just a few inches on the ground have caused school closures, including Mike's university, businesses closing early if they were able to open at all and, something we thought isolated to Seattle, the abandoning of cars on the roadside.

Abandoning one's car has always seemed a bit drastic to us.  Perhaps on a side street when near home but, both here and in Seattle, abandoning one's car on the motorway, where no easier walking route is apparent, seems to be common.  After 11 years in Seattle and now our first winter in Dundee, this behaviour still proves perplexing to a couple from Salt Lake City, Utah where snow is used more for recreation than as an excuse to park one's car on the freeway.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Words

I'm enjoying a few new words lately.

Knackered - tired

Skip - large rubbish bin or dumpster

Brilliant - lovely or great

Veg - vegetable(s)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cultural Exchange at the Bake Sale

Desi: "What's that," whilst pointing at something resembling peanut butter fudge.

Baker: "It's 'tablet'."

Desi: "Is it like fudge?"

Baker: "It's similar to fudge but more like tablet."

Desi: "I don't know what tablet is."

Baker: "Are you American?"

Desi: "Yes."

Baker: "Have a Snickerdoodle."

Friday, November 12, 2010

Almost Back To Normal

Okay, I'm almost back to normal.  I'm quickly realizing that I have nothing to complain about.  Yes, my job sucks but I'm leaving in just over a month for 25 days in Paris and a new job (hopefully) when I return.  Additionally, let's not forget that I also have a proper office job where I enjoy working, although I'm only there about five hours per week.

But, more importantly, my depression and homesickness is not really about my job.  It's really more about my old one, which was more than just a job but something I truly enjoyed and was good at and something I miss, plus just general mourning, which goes along with any life change, and maybe a bit of bipolar disorder (self-diagnosed), the days are getting darker, colder, and shorter.

To help combat these challenges I've started attending Pilates classes on Monday evenings and I'll look into fencing classes when we return from Paris.  Speaking of Paris, we've also added Dublin, Italy, and London to our calendar, all trips that would take us years to accomplish if we still lived in the States.

Living in Scotland, although not as exciting as I had envisioned, is still amazing and enlightening.  It's too soon to say if I've learned anything or changed as a person but I have great expectations for my personal growth throughout this journey.  Hopefully this initial downturn is just growing pains and I'll come through it stronger and wiser, ready for the next challenge this adventure throws at me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On The Road Again

This past weekend we rented a car for some good old fashioned road-tripping.  We were a bit worried about driving on the right side of the car and on the left side of the road but we were excited about experiencing this aspect of UK culture.

We had planned to spend Saturday touring Speyside distilleries but during our planning we found most of them would be closed for the winter (or at least no longer offering weekend hours).  Undeterred, we headed north to Dufftown to tour Glenfiddich, one of the few distilleries still offering weekend hours and the only distillery we really wanted to see anyway.
Dufftown

The scenery up north was beautiful and we were able to experience a lot of the picturesque side roads coach travelling does not allow.
View from the road
On Sunday we had planned to visit the modern engineering marvel that is The Falkirk Wheel.  Sadly, but unsurprisingly, whilst planning this day trip we learnt the wheel would be closed for maintenance during the month of November.  We rationalized, however, that although this closure meant we wouldn't get to take a boat cruise through the wheel we would still be able to tour the grounds surrounding the wheel, which includes Antonine Wall and what's left of a Roman fort (nothing but hilly landscape), visit the museum, and see sights we have not yet seen.  Thus, Sunday morning we headed south to Falkirk.
The Falkirk Wheel
Although the museum and cafe proved wholly unimpressive, the wheel was pretty cool.  We're looking forward to visiting again when its working so we can see it in motion.  The grounds were also very lovely.  We spent a long while wandering Antonine Wall and taking pictures in the lovely landscape.  It was a very nice walk.


Antonine Wall (on the left) and the Roman fort ruins (everything else)
On our way back home we stopped in Airth to see Airth Castle (now a hotel) and The Pineapple, a semi-eerie former Duke's home.  We took the scenic coastal tour back to Dundee, driving through Aberdour, Elie, and St. Andrews before crossing the Tay Road Bridge into Dundee.
Airth Castle Hotel
The Pineapple
It was a lovely weekend of scenery and although everything we attempted to do seemed to be closed we still enjoyed ourselves immensely and would do it again.

By the way, Mike did all of the driving and handled himself like a champ through all the roundabouts and other obstacles the UK road system threw at him.  Even hitting a pheasant on the Fife scenic coastal route didn't break his concentration.  Well done, Mike!

Friday, November 05, 2010

Struggles

I've been having a few struggles since moving to Scotland that are mine to suffer alone since Mike entered a community of like-minded people as soon as he started school.  Usually my days are good, bantering with strangers and enjoying my new city, but sometimes I'll have a bad day, where all the difficult things about moving away from everything I knew hits me all at once and beats me down.  Today was a bad day.

People think I'm stupid.  For the first time in a long time, I'm having to deal with people assuming I'm an idiot and constantly talking down to me.

My job is ridiculous.  I know my identity is not tied to my job.  I've always said I work to live not live to work.  But, I've always said that whilst immersed in a fun, high-paying office gig where little to no physical effort was ever exerted.  Now that I have a bullshit retail job - on my feet all day, lifting boxes, slamming my fingers between metal cages - I'm having a hard time believing everything I used to espouse.  Am I really not better than this?  My job is only temporary, and super bullshit, and it doesn't matter that I work there...and yet I'm depressed about it.  I have good days when it's fun but on the bad days, when everyone thinks I'm stupid or I screw something simple up, I'm back to feeling sorry for myself.

I miss routine.  Moving to Scotland was and is an adventure.  The next 5-7 years of my life will be an adventure.  But, I miss the daily routine of my past life; knowing what tomorrow will bring.  There's a certain comfort that routine affords and a certain discomfort associated with adventure.  Right now I'm wading in the sea of adventure and I'm up to my elbows in discomfort.

I know these are all temporary issues and as time passes I will become more comfortable with my new and exciting life.  But, today was hard and has me longing for the comforts of home.  Tomorrow I will be happy to wake up in Scotland.  But, today I miss Seattle and my former life there.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hostel Travellers

Our recent stay at the Castle Rock Hostel was our first hosteling experience.  We weren't sure exactly what to expect - we didn't know if we'd make friends or be murdered in our sleep - but, we did our research, found a highly recommended hostel via our trusty, go-to travel website, www.tripadvisor.com, and planned to stay only one night so we wouldn't be forced to spend too much time in a bad situation.

Luckily, from our previous day trip to Edinburgh, we already knew our chosen hostel was in a great location so we weren't gambling as far as that was concerned.  Additionally, staying only one night meant we could survive without using the shower facilities, so that really wasn't too much of a concern either.  The sleeping situation, however, did cause us some anxiety.

The available room options were either an all female dorm or a co-ed dorm and we chose co-ed because we wanted to be in the same room even if we couldn't share a bed (all beds were twin bunk-beds).  For safety, Desi would take the top bunk and Mike would sleep on the bottom.  In a room of 10 people, had something sinister happened it would have happened to everyone so we're not sure why bunk ownership was a concern but it sounded good at the time.

The verdict after our first hosteling experience is positive; we have become hostelers.  For less than £30 per night for both of us, it's a good option to have.  But, at around £30 per night there are also other contenders.  When travelling on a budget multiple options are always a good thing.  Additionally, for a couple who tend to be loners whilst travelling, staying in a decidedly communal environment would be a good way to shake up our travel routine.  It's always a good thing to challenge one's comfort zone every once in a while.

For more information regarding our stay at Castle Rock Hostel, Desi wrote a review of our experience at http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g186525-d189265-r85027005-Castle_Rock_Hostel-Edinburgh_Scotland.html.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Edinburgh, Take Two

This past Saturday morning we headed down to Edinburgh for our first overnight stay since becoming UK residents.  We took the bus down, leaving Dundee around 9AM and arriving in Edinburgh about 1.5 hours later.  We dropped our bags at our evening's accommodation, the Castle Rock Hostel, before starting our Edinburgh Castle tour.
view from our hostel

our tour guide at the castle
We began our castle experience by taking the free guided tour which provided us with some history and context for what we were about to see.  The tour took us from the base of the castle to the top of Castle Hill and then left us in the square to continue exploring on our own.  The most exciting parts of the castle were the crown jewels (there was quite a huge build up to the display room, much like the wait for the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland) and the amazing views of the city.
view of Edinburgh from the castle
We spent about two hours at the castle and then headed into town for some lunch before exploring some new parts of the city.  We stopped for a photo op at the Elephant House, where J.K. Rowling wrote parts of the Harry Potter series, and did some charity shop browsing but otherwise just enjoyed being in Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful cities we've ever seen.

The Cadies and Witchery Tour
Later that night we had an appointment with The Cadies and Witchery Tours.  It was a fun tour around Castle Hill highlighting areas related to Edinburgh's history of witch trials.  Edinburgh has many tours to choose from and we chose this one because it was rated highly at www.tripadvisor.co.uk.  Although we enjoyed it, next time we'll choose a tour with more of a focus on Edinburgh's reputation as the most haunted city in the world.

view from our hostel
The next morning we awoke to a beautiful view of the castle, just in case you forgot where you were.  We set off at around 8:30AM, down the Royal Mile to Holyrood Palace, where the Queen resides every summer.

Pictures at Holyrood were only allowed in the outside areas of the front courtyard, abbey ruins, and palace gardens.  The tour included areas of the palace still in use today but also some historically significant areas, like Mary, Queen of Scots private rooms.  It was fun and interesting touring a royal palace, especially one with such historical significance.
front courtyard at Holyrood Palace
After our palace experience we headed next door to Arthur's Seat for a hike and some amazing views of the city.  It only took us a couple hours to hike to the peak, where we stayed for only a few minutes before beginning our descent.  The hike seemed very popular, especially with dog owners, but we were very glad to have talked ourselves into doing it.  On such a beautiful day, we would've regretted passing up the opportunity.
Palace and Salisbury Crags
Holyrood Palace from the hike to Arthur's Seat
Castle, from summit at Arthur's Seat
Fried Mars bar
The rest of the day was spent wandering Edinburgh and taking advantage of things found in the big city which Dundee doesn't have, things like sushi, fried Mars (and Snickers) bars, and car boot sales.  At 6:45PM we were headed back to Dundee, exhausted but happy that our first mini-break had been such a success.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cheap Flights

One of the many reasons we wanted to relocate to the UK was because of its proximity to the rest of Europe.  We thought exploring Europe would be a lot easier if we lived in it and, with the plethora of cheap fare airlines available, exploring Europe might also be financially feasible.  For example, we recently found airfare to Frankfurt-Hahn, Germany from Edinburgh for only £42 (including taxes and fees).  Sadly, and something we never would've considered possible when dreaming of our life here while still in the states, we didn't purchase the flight.

One of the reasons we passed on the trip was due to time constraints.  With Mike's school schedule our travel dates aren't flexible at all, only allowing the weekends for travel.  Leaving Dundee on a Friday afternoon or evening and returning that Sunday, best case this still gives us less than 48 hours at our destination.  Of course, we must also consider travel time to/from Edinburgh airport.  Plus, since discount airlines often use rural airports to keep costs down (Hahn is about 2 hours outside of Frankfurt) we need to consider time to/from the destination airport to the destination city, too.  Given these details, in this example an additional 6 hours taken up by travel to/from airports, we would have less than 36 hours at our destination.

Another reason we passed on the fare was due to cost considerations.  We budget £50 per day trip (any admission costs, food, travel) when we explore the area around Dundee.  Applying that number to a mini-break and adding lodging, our budget would need to be about £200 per trip plus airfare.  So, that £42 airfare to Frankfurt-Hahn would wind up costing us £242, if we stuck to our budget, for less than a day and a half in Germany.  Is that enough time to do more than say you've been there and is it worth the price?

We've decided we're going to hold off on any weekend flights for the time being.  With plenty to see around us in Dundee we can explore more for less by just renting a car or jumping on a bus or train.  We'll allow ourselves this first semester to acclimate to our surroundings and reconsider taking advantage of these fares after our return from Paris in the new year.  £42 for a weekend in Germany (or anywhere for that matter) is hard to say no to.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Going Out

Last night we headed across the street to Fat Sam's, where all the kids go dancing and whose inebriated aftermath often wakes us up around 3AM each morning when the venue closes, to catch the Eliza Doolittle show.

Eliza Doolittle sings "Pack Up" which was the first song we heard played with any consistency upon our arrival in Scotland.  Much like "Who Let The Dogs Out" is the soundtrack to our Hawaiian vacation from July 2000 (it was ubiquitous during our time there; we'd never heard it before and thought it was an island thing until we returned home and found it had infiltrated the mainland too) this little ditty is the soundtrack to our Relocation 2010.

We're not sure what we were expecting Fat Sam's to be like but we were surprised to find something more akin to Seattle's Showbox than Salt Lake's Vortex; more acoustic live music than dance club with cages.  Also, the crowd was very mixed, with kids still going through their awkward years to adults old enough to have kids (or grand kids) going through their awkward years; some may have been with their kids but most seemed to be with other old people, gangs of clubbing pensioners.  Everyone seemed to be very welcome, though; the kids weren't creeped out by the old guys and the old guys weren't doing anything to creep out the kids.  It was all very different than anything we've experienced in the states.

The room was small and the acoustics were good and Eliza, having only her debut album to sing from, was through within an hour.  We were home in bed by 10:30PM.  It was fun to do something new and different and although Desi - clearly unable to multi-task walking in heels, managing a curb, and watching for traffic - fell to the ground on the way home, bruising here knee, we look forward to our next night out at the club.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Further Observations

"Ta" or "cheers" are used more often than "thank you" and "no bother" rather than "you're welcome"

It is an odd night if we're not awakened by screaming and/or singing and/or yelling at or around 3AM.  No doubt due to the clubs closing around 3AM and pubs closing around 2AM

It is also an odd morning if we don't have to dodge piles of vomit on the pavement.

The Scots are not early risers and the streets are usually deserted until at least 8AM.  Even the university enables this behaviour; Mike's earliest class doesn't begin until 9:30AM

Clouds move very fast here

Bank holidays are frequent though mysterious

Everyone here has been abroad

Desi's first Scots-ism was "wee" instead of "little" which she uses often at her day job ("Would you like a separate wee bag for your trifles?")

Mike's first Scots-ism was "bit" instead of "part" ("I really like this bit here.")

Other vocabulary exchanges include using "sorted" (after a question has been answered it has been sorted), "half five" rather than 5:30, "bin" instead of "trash can", "rubbish" instead of "trash", and "crisps" instead of "chips" although chips is used when discussing the tortilla variety

Time passes slowly in Dundee

Monday, October 11, 2010

Glamis Castle

Today we went to Glamis Castle, located about an hour north of Dundee via bus.  The ride cost £5.50 per person for an all day Tayside bus pass and took us the scenic route through Forfar, a small town we have yet to explore, before dropping us at Glamis' front door.
Glamis Castle from the formal Italian garden
The £8.75 admission price per person included a guided tour of the castle, where the Queen Mother was raised and where Princess Margaret was born, and access to the vast castle grounds.  The castle is still in use today as a family home for the Earl of Strathmore and as a venue for weddings and other private functions.  
Highland cattle
In addition to a few lovely gardens and a nature trail the castle grounds contain a small to medium sized herd of Highland cattle.  Highland cattle are shorter and longer than the cows we're used to, not to mention hairier.  They are truly adorable.  Desi was so happy when she was able to pet a calf grazing near the fence for a few minutes before having to leave.

In addition to the cattle we saw a rabbit, some large birds (we're not sure whether they were herons, kingfishers, or storks but they were blue/grey, long, and thin), a grey squirrel, and a few elusive red squirrels.

Glamis Castle
After spending four hours visiting Glamis we're really looking forward to our next castle experience which will be Edinburgh Castle in two weeks.  Edinburgh Castle is much larger than Glamis and most likely contains a dungeon which Glamis is lacking.  We have high expectations for the guided tour and history lessons provided there. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Three Years

Mike confirmed this past week that he was accepted at university as a 2nd year student.  This is great news because it means that he graduates a year earlier than planned, 2013 instead of 2014.  However, we find this news puzzling because none of his previous college credits were transferable nor did he receive any notice of this until after matriculation.  But, we're not questioning it.  If they want Mike in his 2nd year they can have him.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Christmas In Paris

Yesterday we bought our winter break tickets to Paris on easyjet for £122.61.  We'll be travelling from Edinburgh and staying in Paris for Christmas and then travelling around France and into Spain.  Our trip is just over 3 weeks in duration, so we should have plenty of time for sightseeing.  We're thinking 6 nights in Paris and 6 nights in Barcelona then maybe along the French Riviera returning to Paris through Provence?

We hope to have a few mini breaks before our winter break, including a Halloween adventure to Edinburgh where we've booked a Halloween themed walking tour.  Apparently, Edinburgh has the reputation for most haunted city in the world.  We'll definitely report back about our experience.

We're on a pretty tight budget for our trips but we'd rather travel on a super tight budget than not at all.  For instance, Edinburgh will be our first hostel experience.  We'll be staying right outside the castle, though, so location will be ideal.  Plus, the hostel is highly recommended on tripadvisor and only costs £28 per night.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dundee Favourites

Sadly, and until Mike's student loan is credited and Desi begins receiving a pay check, we don't have much to show for our first month and a half in Dundee.  Happily though we have been able to explore a few local establishments and our heretofore Dundee favourites are below.

The Nether Inn was our first meal in Scotland and as such it holds a special place in our hearts.  We've just recently returned for our second visit and it reminded us how lucky we were to have found it so early on.  It's spacious, fun, and has great deals.  The Beer + Burger for £3.95 deal is one of our favourites within a favourite.

The Globe is near our flat and right next to the university campus.  We've only eaten here twice but the first time was on their opening (er, reopening) night and everything was 75% off and the second time was celebrating Desi's employment success.  This was our first haggis experience and the place where Desi learned to love mushrooms (she craves their fried mushrooms).  The pricing is simple and displayed on the wall with the ordering instructions (order at the bar), two features which eliminate the intimidation of possible cultural miscommunication and allow us to just sit back and enjoy ourselves.

Duke's Corner is right down the street from us and a great venue for live music.  We've been here three times already, all free events, and check their calendar often for upcoming shows.  Though the drinks aren't cheap and the service is slow we haven't found any other venue in town offering this type of scene.  Bizarrely, the Dundee scene seems to be club focused and even though Mike's an undergraduate now neither of us see ourselves entering that scene again.  No one wants to be the creepy 30 year old in a room full of kids, dancing and sweaty.  No one.

Tally's is a new find.  They offer pitchers, or jugs, of cocktails for £6 plus a free burger with a drink purchase of £2.50 or more.  This pub is big and cosy with lots of wood and benches and the free burger is very tasty.  We've been here a number of times over the past two weeks, when we first discovered it.  Additionally, the bartender's brogue is almost unintelligible so we get some language skills training whenever we order, which is definitely a bonus.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Glasgow

On 2 Sept we travelled to Glasgow via bus to spend a day getting to know the other large city in Scotland.  We had heard some pretty hard stories about Glasgow - industrial and dirty, rough people, unintelligible accent - thus we were unprepared for the lovely city we found ourselves in upon disembarking the bus on Buchanan Street. 

It was a beautiful day in Glasgow, warm and sunny with clear skies, and we were greeted with grand buildings, both old and new.  We started the day with the intention of heading straight for the Mackintosh Willow Tea Room, near the Glasgow School of Art, but were distracted by the grand buildings along Renfield Street.  So, instead of heading west we headed south and this is how our day was spent, just wandering the vast city.  We stumbled upon the River Clyde, the Glasgow Necropolis (where we spent a good deal of time), Buchanan Street and Argyle Street palisades, the Clyde Arc, and Kelvingrove Park (another place where we spent a good deal of time) and we fell in love with everything we saw.
George Square
Clyde Arc
fountain in Kelvingrove Park
river through Kelvingrove Park
Buchanan Street
Upon initial review, Glasgow is a much more spread-out city than Edinburgh.  It also feels more modern, probably due to the mix of old and new buildings. If pressed we would both choose Edinburgh over Glasgow simply because Glasgow felt like any big city whereas Edinburgh, given the palace and the castle, is unique. However, Glasgow is a fine city and one we hope to explore further over the next few years.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Proper Office Job

On Thursday night I was in another unemployment panic so I sat at the computer and thought about all the places I'd passed on the high street and which of those I might want to work at.  Although I have a part-time job at Marks & Sparks (beginning tomorrow) I still need another job to both pay me more as well as occupy more of my time so I'm not taking Mikey away from his courses.  Anyway, I was thinking of these shops, finding their websites, and applying for any posted vacancies.  I did this for an hour or so before getting so frustrated with the lack of website sophistication, the British don't appear to rely on websites as much as I do, that I quit.  On Friday morning my meagre efforts had produced a result; I received a call.

This process was a bit ambiguous from the start.  For instance, there was no job description on the website, just an email address and instructions to forward your CV.  Then, when I received the call on Friday morning the caller said, 'I received your CV and would like to talk with you about it'.  Does that mean interview? We set up a 'conversation' for 3PM that afternoon; we were scheduled to meet at a local café.

I had expected to talk over coffee or tea so when I arrived a bit early at the café I ordered some tea. He walked in a few minutes late, asked if I was done with my tea, and then said, 'let's go'. We then proceeded to drive around Dundee in his Smart car talking about what he does, what the company does, and what I would be doing. He dropped me back at my flat and said, 'I'll see you Monday at 11AM'. Did I have the job? What was the pay? Is it temporary? I was so confused.

I went to the office this morning at 11AM, hoping for a job but expecting another 'conversation.'  In either case, I was very dubious about the prospects of a legitimate job coming from this experience.  But, to my surprise, I arrived at a proper office, with a proper desk, and a proper computer, with proper co-workers.  He put me to work right away doing data entry and that's what I did for 4.5 hours today.  Before I left I was given new hire paperwork to complete and told how much I would be paid.  I'm supposed to report back on Friday at 11AM.

I'm thrilled to have another job!  I'm not sure exactly how often I'll be working, or exactly what I'll be doing, but I was told my job description is 'marketing' so that's something.  I am still hoping for an evening job though, hopefully in a pub on the high street.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Edinburgh

On 24 Aug we ventured south to Edinburgh.  We had purchased our bus tickets a week in advance to take advantage of the Super Saver price, which was £18 for two return tickets.  The ride took about 2 hours because we went west to Perth before turning south but we had left at 8AM so we arrived in Edinburgh just in time for breakfast.

We found the Royal Mile, the path between the castle and the palace, almost immediately and just started walking.  We were hoping to head towards the castle first but we found ourselves at Holyrood Palace instead.  We took a short tour of the new parliament building, enjoying a photography exhibition installed on the main floor, before heading over to the gates of the palace.  After just a few minutes of pictures we turned back around and headed the other direction on the Mile.

Before too long we found ourselves at the Fringe Festival, a month long arts festival and one of the main reasons we wanted to head to Edinburgh before the end of August.  Not really knowing what to expect beyond just free entertainment we found that it wasn't very crowded and basically consisted of a whole lot of street performers, some simply performing for the crowds and others trying to entice you to their show at a proper venue later in the day.  It was all very interesting and exciting.  
Fringe Festival
We resolved that next year we would spend at least a few nights in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival so we could attend some of the proper venue events.  One of the main events we want to attend is the Military Tattoo, which seems to be a bit like the opening ceremonies of the Olympics but occurs every night right outside the castle.  Tickets sell out months in advance and go on sale in December.  Not having TV or Internet at this time yet, our only exposure to this event was in print media so again we don't really know what to expect but can almost guarantee it will be a good time.

After walking through the Fringe we arrived at the castle, which is even more awesome in person than we had expected.  We were able to cross the moat and enter the castle walls for free but the tour of the castle interior cost money so we're saving that for another time.  The castle on top of a hill in the centre of the city makes Edinburgh one of the most beautiful cities we have ever seen.  It was amazing!
Edinburgh Castle
After the castle we went to explore the rest of the city.  We were drawn to a tall structure on the New Town side.  We were expecting a church but it turned out to be a memorial for Sir Walter Scott.  It was quite something.  
Sir Walter Scott memorial
After a bit more exploration we decided it was time to rest.  We wandered back towards the Fringe and found the Prince's Street stage, situated just under the castle.  What better venue could there be?  The stage was showcasing local talent and the first act we heard was Kat Healy, which we really enjoyed.  We also heard a middle school orchestra from the Highlands before leaving the comfort of our venue.
view of the castle from Prince's Street
We headed back towards the bus station, stopping to grab dinner before boarding our 8:45PM bus back home.  Overall, our introduction to Edinburgh was wonderful.  It would've been nice to have been able to call this beautiful city our home for the next four years but we've said that about every place we've seen in Scotland thus far.  There is no doubt, we love our new home.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Arbroath to Auchmithie

Arbroath
Arbroath is a small coastal town a bit north of Dundee, home of the 'Arbroath smokie', smoked haddock famous in this area due to their protected nature; one can only be an Arbroath smokie if smoked within 8 km of Arbroath, the same type of name protection both whisky and champagne enjoy.  According to our Lonely Planet guide book, 'an excellent walk follows a path along the top of the cliffs for 3 miles to the quaint fishing village of Auchmithie'.  On 22 Aug, a lovely Sunday morning, we decided to check out this coastal cliff side walk.

We took the train north to Arbroath, which is a lovely 20 minute coastal ride and, upon arriving, we found that there was a festival taking up most of the pier which also contained many of the tourist attractions.  We didn't want to pay the £2 entrance fee because we knew we wouldn't be staying long so we just walked around town for a bit.  We purchased two smokies from one of the many adorable fish shops and ate them on the beach.  They were delicious but difficult to eat, with the wind and all the bones (the fish are served whole, sliced down the middle).  Next time, if there is wind we'll find a shop with indoor seating.
Arbroath smokie
After our picnic we started on our walk.  It was a lovely day, except for the temperature fluctuations and occasional wind.  Luckily, we each had hoodies to take on and off as needed and the wind didn't blow anyone off the cliff.  Whew!

The scenery was just gorgeous and after the first mile we had it virtually to ourselves.  Besides the landscape, we were also on the lookout for sea creatures.  All the signs were mentioning whales, dolphins, and seals so we expected to see something and, luckily, we did spot a seal swimming about.  This was definitely turning out to be an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday.

We arrived at Auchmithie just before 4PM.  The bus to Arbroath would be there at 5PM and the only establishment in town, the But'n'Ben Restaurant, was closed until 4PM.  We went to walk around the town for a bit but then quickly realized that the town was only one street and we could see the end of it from where we stood at the bus stop.  Nevertheless, we walked down the street and back again.
At 4PM we went to investigate the But'n'Ben.  Although they were technically only serving high tea, which we weren't interested in, the lovely bar wench offered us a couple cups of coffee to enjoy in their front sitting room while we waited for the bus.

Auchmithie
At 5PM we caught our bus back to Arbroath and then jumped on a train for the rest of the journey to Dundee.

Monday, September 13, 2010

St. Andrews

On 20 Aug we ventured a bit farther from home and headed south to St. Andrews.  This required purchasing a coach ticket rather than a bus ticket (long distance versus inner-city) and leaving from the bus station rather than a bus stop.  The ride wasn't too long though, only about 20-30 minutes, and it was lovely.

St. Andrews is amazing!  The town is adorable and the cathedral ruins are just breathtaking and quite astounding to see.  St. Andrews quickly became our most favourite place in Scotland.

St. Andrews, outside the bus station
ruins in the city centre at Madras College
The St. Andrews Cathedral ruins and neighbouring cemetery are immense.  The cathedral was destroyed as part of the Reformation, led by John Knox.  It's sad to think that people caused this destruction, especially after reading how beautiful this cathedral was and the amount of spiritual tourists it attracted.  Probably a lesson in there somewhere about religious zealots, but we digress.
St. Andrews Cathedral
St. Andrews Cathedral
St. Andrews Cathedral
The cathedral is near the North Sea and just outside its walls is a cute little harbour and lovely beach.
St. Andrews harbour
St. Andrews beach
The castle ruins are a bit north on the coast from the cathedral.  We walked past them but didn't venture into the gates because it was about to close.
St. Andrews castle
After walking about the town we popped into the Central Pub where Mike had a pint of Duechars and Desi had a half pint of Strongbow.  The Scots are mad for cider and every pub has at least one option on tap.  Strongbow appears to be the most popular brand.

After enjoying a bit of the local scene, we hopped on a coach back to Dundee and in a few minutes we were home.  It's amazing that we live so close to such a beautiful place.  We're looking forward to returning and to further explorations.

Friday, September 10, 2010

And So It Begins

The Monday after arriving in Dundee Desi visited a couple of the staffing agencies in town.  She learned that she would need a National Insurance number before they could help her but while she was waiting for one she provided them with her CV to review and hopefully they would have something available for her when she received her NI number in a few weeks.  Unfortunately, since receiving her NI number, neither staffing agency has been helpful at all in Desi's job search so she started applying for jobs on her own.  Yesterday she went on her first interview and got the job, a part-time position at Marks & Spencer.  Her first day is Tuesday 21 Sept.

Desi still hopes to get at least one more job.  Right now she's trying for a part-time job at the BT call centre down the street.  If that doesn't work out, hopefully she can find something else that will keep her entertained and help pay what financial responsibilities we still have in the States with maybe a little left over for fun and travel while in the UK.

Mike is finishing up Freshers Week and begins his studies on Monday.  He received his schedule today and he's pretty excited about how this semester will be structured.  He'll get a whole lot of studio time and only one day of lecture.  His first paper is due in early December though he'll probably have art projects due more often.  

We're looking at October for our first Ryanair mini break.  Once Desi confirms her new work schedule and Mike gets his syllabus we'll be able to actually purchase tickets, which is something we're really looking forward to.  It'll mean the plan is really working.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Broughty Ferry

After a few days exploring Dundee we were anxious to check beyond the walkable boundaries.  We were ready for our first city bus experience.  We decided our first trip would be to Broughty Ferry, described in our Lonely Planet guidebook as "Dundee's attractive seaside suburb, known locally as 'The Ferry.'  It has a castle, a long, sandy beach, and a number of good places to eat and drink."  Thanks to the Journey Planner station set up near the High Street bus hub, we were able to coordinate our journey rather easily.  The ride was only about 15 minutes, not too far away to walk if we happened to get stranded but far enough to test our skills on the public transportation system.
Dundee city bus
We had lunch at Fisherman's Tavern and then walked along the river for a bit until reaching the castle.
Fisherman's Tavern
This would be our first castle experience in Scotland.  The interior spiral staircase was tight but each floor would open up into what would've been a nice living area but has since been turned into an art gallery and museum.
Broughty Castle
The beach was very nice.  The sand wasn't cold, though the water certainly was, and there was a good stretch of it to walk along.  We read that this is one of the more popular beaches during the summer, though clearly we had missed the busy season.
Broughty Ferry beach
After a few hours spent at The Ferry, we made it safely back to Dundee via city bus.
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