Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Scottish delicacies

Made in Scotland, but not from girders

The other day I was tucking into a hard-earned Tunnocks Caramel Wafer when I started thinking about the wonders of Scottish cuisine. Scotland has some fantastic foods - wild game, fish, seafood, raspberries (best in the world, without doubt). But it also has some truly shocking foods - for every venison roast you have the deep-fried pizza supper. Gourmet foodie types might love nothing better than Cullen Skink, but plenty of regular Scots settle for Chips and Curry sauce. It's for this reason that Scotland leads the developed world in cancer, strokes, tooth decay, and heart disease - things we eat here can clog your arteries before you've put down the fork (or spoon, wrapper, bottle). After enjoying the Asian-themed fusion cooking they practically invented in Australia, not to mention the genuine Asian-themed food in Japan, the muck people eat here has certainly stood out.

Of course the classic Scottish stereotypical dish is the mighty deep-fried Mars Bar. You name it, the wacky Scots will coat it in sticky fat and cook it in liquid fat. Foods that are fat-based tend to work best. According to the BBC, it was 'invented' in Stonehaven - a permanently wintry port near Aberdeen, but are sold by 22% of Scottish takeaways - including one that sells 200 per week. 3/4 of them to children. I actually know people who've eaten one - and as far as I know they are all still with us - but wouldn't risk one myself. I actually found a recipe for them once, where it was described as "an excellent source of fat, sugar and calories. For a seasonal variation you could also try deep frying a Cadbury's Creme Egg." You don't get those off the Easter bunny.

When you go into a Scottish takeaway the options lettered on the board above the portly staff are bewildering - and not just for the disgraceful lack of mushy peas north of the border. When will they learn? Fish and chips, is of course the classic - but a fish supper usually gets you two bits of battered fish and enough chips to choke a horse. Also on the menu will be deep-fried haggis (I'm not a fan of haggis, but I do eat it now and again. It tastes like a meaty spice explosion), and the three coloured puddings - black, white and red. Being from Lancashire I'm familiar with black pudding - or blood sausage - but I never really found out what was in white pudding (I assume it's black pudding without the black), and red pudding is something I've only ever seen in a few takeaways - maybe you have to ask the server with a knowing wink to get one. They look interesting lined up together in the sweaty glass case above the frying oil - like organs from an alien dissection.

It's not just solid food either, we like our calories and fat in liquid form too. Take Irn Bru. According to Wikipedia, Scotland is one of only three countries where Coca Cola isn't the number one selling soft drink (the other two are, of course, Sweden and Peru). Irn Bru takes those honours. Invented in 1901, it's exact recipe is known to only two board members. To be honest - like haggis - I don't really want to know what's in it. I remember the old advertising slogan "Made in Scotland from girders" but amusingly Wikipedia counters this claim by stating that only 0.002% by volume comes from Ammonium ferric citrate, although I doubt many skyscrapers are supported by beams of that. It doesn't contain caffeine though, although the carcinogenic colourings that give it the distinctive orange hue mean it's banned in America, apparently. But it's good for hangovers, so we'll forgive it that. It has an odd, faintly metallic bubblegummy taste, which like haggis - indeed like all Scottish food - is an acquired taste. Now which pudding shall I have tomorrow?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Excitement at work

Friday snow! (That's my green chair there too)

I know, an odd concept. But as days at work go, Friday was well up there on the excite-o-meter. A few weeks ago I ordered a 5th Gen video-iPod from the Apple online website, and have been waiting in geeky agony for it to arrive. I've read a few blogs where some tekky bozo goes on at length about his (it's always a he) new iPod, so I won't say much about it - other than a) it's bloody brilliant, and b) it arrived on Friday. I've been following the Apple online order checking thing for the almost three weeks it took to get here. From Shanghai (hooray for sweatshops, eh?), to Amsterdam, to Nuneaton(?) to the mighty Edinburgh. On Friday morning I looked again, and joy of joys found it had been dispatched for delivery, in Edinburgh, at 9:04am. So I was planning to get my sweaty palms on it around mid-morning, giving me all day to play with it. And the iPod. Hoho! Well, crude innuendo had to wait, as in the end it arrived at 4:30pm, after a fun day being driven around Edinburgh in a van. Meanwhile, I was glancing at the clock and jumping every time the phone went. Oh, and working (ahem). Anyway, to cut a long and extremely dull story short - it arrived, I got excited, I have a new toy, people in my office now think I'm a geek. Well, more of a geek than before.

The other exciting thing that happened on Friday was (as you can see) that it snowed. Proper Scottish snow too - the sky turns an odd shade of yellowy/grey for ages, then massive amounts of soapy snow flurry around whiting out everything, before melting as suddenly as it arrived and everyone wonders what the fuss was about. The bright spark that decided to design our new building as a giant glass structure (with floor to ceiling windows) may have envisioned smartly dressed business types parading around from meeting to meeting bathed in natural light, but if they had turned up on Friday they would have seen an office full of people idly staring out of those large windows at the snow, absent-mindly wondering if it would stick or not (and one handsome devil in a t-shirt wondering where his bloody iPod was). Anyway, it snowed like crazy for a while, then slowed to a flutter, before ceasing entirely and melting away within an hour. Even so, Edinburgh traffic went bonkers and people struggled to cope. It's the British way!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bonus NZ photos

Some more photies from the trip - this bunch from those three distant islands of New Zealand. If you haven't been there - you owe it to yourself to go. I can't put it any simpler.

Akaroa again, the French settlement that lies about 70km south of Christchurch. This is the old jetty, looking out into the harbour where you can go dolphin watching. The water fills what used to be a massive volcanic crater, which rumbled out of the sea in pre-historic times creating the Banks Peninsula (named by Captain Cook after his botanist, Joseph Banks). The mountains in the distance are the opposite crater wall.

The Franz Josef glacier is breath-taking. We walked up it for about 4hrs, smashing down into the ice with our crampons with every step. It was - you'll be surprised - very slippery, but thankfully none of us vanished into crevasses like this one (and this was a small one). The guy with the ray-bans is Mike, a trainee policeman, and the other bloke is a wacky Korean called Minh who took a million photos. A chainsmoker, he forgot his cigarettes - and the thought of 8hrs without made him dig out a pile of till receipts from his bag, roll them up, and smoke them. I asked him if it tasted nice. "No." he said, shaking his head sadly.

This is the Haast Pass, a narrow strip of land in the South Island between mountain ranges. On the way to Thunder Creek Falls, I think this bit is Pleasant Flat. According to a website I looked at it 'frequently rains and the magnificent view may be obscured by fog or clouds. This is also sandfly territory, so have some rub on insect repellent available.' Named by an explorer with a sense of irony (or humour).

Queenstown, as seen from one of the many hills that surround it. The town reminded me of a Lake District or Scottish Highland town, only with utterly crazy stuff going on everywhere. Like Aviemore on acid. Want to pull on a wetsuit and roll down a slope inside a gas-filled rubber ball? Why not? You can't do it in Kendal, after all (as far as I know). Those mountains are the 'Remarkables' - so called because apparently they run in an exact line, North to South. They were also featured in Lord of the Rings - as was most of the rest of NZ.

The Moeraki Boulders, in Oamaru. Over 60 million years old, these enormous black balls are one of many rock-based attractions in New Zealand - indeed they actually feature as the photo on a major NZ credit card. The largest ones were about the size of a car, and all were formed in some complicated geological process involving heat and pressure, where a single tiny fossil was glooped on by layer after layer of ooze, like a giant profiterole. So in the middle of each one of those huge boulders is a microscopic shell or piece of wood. The Maori believe they are food baskets of the Gods, washed ashore from a shipwrecked canoe.

This is me and my old mate Edd, recently emigrated to Wellington from Edinburgh with his girlfriend Michelle and their wee lad, Jack. If you can see me straining to hold the little guy, it's because he's about a month old here. Well, 6 months. He's one hefty chap! I'd never actually held a baby before, as you can see - I didn't tell Michelle that of course - which is why I'm gripping the little tot with all my strength. This was taken just outside Wellington, where we went for chips. The main runway of Wellington Airport is just to the left of us, so we ate chips and watched the planes take off. Michelle calls this photo 'My two Dads' - although what she's implying there, I didn't ask...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Day of nothing

Princes Street on a Saturday

Venturing out into the centre of Edinburgh on a Saturday can be a hectic thing at the best of times - but seeing as the Christmas rush appears to have started already, on weekends the city is packed. If you go to either end of Princes Street, and happen to be reasonably tall, you can look along the entire street and see about a mile of heads - shoppers mindlessly charging along looking for bargains. So with nothing specific that needed doing today, it was time for a well-earned 'day of nothing' - general pointless mooching around that is the one true benefit of having no kids/pets/responsibilities. First off, it was a cup of tea - an Empire was built on it, after all. Then, a short but invigorating stroll to William Hills to pick up a football pools coupon, and to the paper shop. It was absolutely freezing today - I stepped out of the door and the cold hit me like a slap with a frozen fish. I could feel the heat start to leach out of my fingers and nose, so hurried off down the street, reading the obscene graffiti written on frosty parked cars as I went.

Back inside, it was another brew and a bagel - a weekend treat more exciting than toast - and the all important coupon selections. If you're unaware of betting on football in this way, you get a sheet with the day's upcoming matches divided into groups (sections) of 8. You pick one team out of each section to win (or draw), and then decide how much you want to bet. Some people play randomly, but I try to at least give it a sense of reason by consulting the division standings and matchups. This is easily over-relied on though, and you start obsessing about how many home wins Plymouth Argyle have this season, or because Ross County have yet to draw a game - will that be an omen for their meeting with Dundee? Very quickly you get all kinds of permutations, and having to narrow them down to one for each section becomes tricky. Still, I managed it eventually and selected 5 games at 14/1, 8 games at 81/1, and 4 draws at 69/1. £1 on each of those three, and suddenly meaningless matches like Stranraer v. Brechin take on a financial importance.

So it was back out into the cold for the ten-minute walk to the bookies to register the coupons, which I did in five minutes because it was so freezing. Looking at the darkening sky, it was threatening to snow - something I've not seen for a while, of course. The prospect of freezing winds and snow combined with crowded streets made it even less inviting to go up to the city. So it was on with the Xbox and a few games of Tiger Woods golf until the football results came in - again, I should stress this was a deliberately lazy day - not something I do all the time. Well, apart from playing on the Xbox. Once the football matches kicked off at 3pm, it was time for the excitement of updating scorelines on 'Super Saturday' on Sky (sorry Dad) accompanied by more tea, of course.

For the next two hours, the coupons were clutched and repeatedly glanced at as goals were scored across the country. In order to win a section, you have to get every game right - so I was hoping for 5 games to be won by the teams I'd predicted, and another 8, and 4 to be drawn. Of course, each time a scoreline flashed up it was a potential coupon-buster. Amazingly the football gods smiled on me, and in my 14/1 section all five teams I'd marked down actually won. So after checking the final scores at 5pm, it was back to the bookies to collect my winnings. It was long since dark by this point, and the buses were packed full of Saturday shoppers returning with their spoils of victory. After leaving William Hill, I had my own spoils in the form of £20.70 ($35 for my American readers) - not massive, but I only bet £3, so it was good enough. As I walked home I was struck with the thought that in my 'day of nothing' I'd left the flat three times - each time to go to the betting shop. I don't have a problem, honest...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Roond and aboot

Sometimes it is sunny in Scotland...

Last Sunday it was one of those cracking autumnal days - yes, I'm talking about the weather again - where you have to try and get outside. As luck would have it, I'd arranged to go and walk in the Pentland Hills with an old mate of mine who's off to trek some crazy trail in South America soon and needed practice. So by 9am we were strolling up weatherbeaten hills into the crisp sunshine, getting some stingingly-cold air into our lungs. Because of the weather, it was pretty busy up there, and we passed plenty of groups of ramblers with their trekking poles and expensive Goretex jackets. I'm sure they were nice people, but there's something about that kind of person that has all the latest and most expensive gear on show that I dislike. Golfers are the worst - with their £400 drivers and electronic trolleys. I think it's basically jealousy. When I play golf I hack round with my mismatched clubs of different makes - in fact, they are so rubbish that once I played a shot with my 9-iron and the end of the club sheared off and flew down the fairway. I bet fancy clubs don't snap in half. Actually I think the club head went further than my ball. Anyway, I think I've gone off on a tangent somewhat.

Moving on to something different - the bus I caught to work this morning was hit by a car, right under the window where I was sitting. I was almost at my stop, when we motored through the Broomhouse roundabout and I happened to briefly look up from my book. A red Astra came circling round the inside, and as we chopped in front - which I think is what's supposed to happen at roundabouts - it didn't stop, and ploughed into the side of us. I had that odd train of thought you get when something unexpected happens quickly - "Oh, that car's going to hit us...that car is hitting us!...why is that car hitting us?" It wasn't a major collision or anything, we just crumpled the front corner of the Astra and bounced it up onto the grass roundabout. In fact, our bus driver didn't even notice and carried on. It was only when we came to a halt at the next stop he found out. The irate driver had followed us, got out, and charged up to the door. There was a brief but amusing moment when our driver thought this bloke was wanting to get on the bus, so helpfully waited for him to run up and opened the door - only to cop an earful. "You just hit me with yer f*cking bus, pal!" shouted the car driver. "You shoved me right into the f*cking roondaboot!" No-one gets irate quite like a Scotsman - especially one who gets punted into a traffic hazard at 7am. Anyway, the driver got out and quizzically looked at the scratches on the side of the bus, and everyone had to get off so he could swap details with the Astra driver. I had to walk the rest of the way to work, but it was worth it.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

150 up

Amazingly, this is my 150th post on DUaB - something I started as a brief means of assuring people who had an interest in me that I was still alive when I was travelling. Now I'm back, and it seems to be gamely soldiering on like a shufflingly faithful old dog - except without the smell. I was thinking of a suitable way to mark my 150th post, especially as my 100th totally passed by without me realising (for you diehards out there it was the post about our washing machine getting zapped by lightning). Apart from writing something moving and profound (I've not managed it yet, after all), I thought that a collection of photos from my various recent travels would be as good a way as any. These are all new photos to the blog - I've avoided posting things that you've seen before. Thanks for reading, and see you for number 151...

The sun slipping below the buildings of the Rocks on Sydney harbour. This was part of my walk home from work in Milson's Point - out of the office and over the Harbour Bridge, along to Macquarie Street, through Hyde Park and up Oxford Street. There can be few greater commutes in the world, I think. This is the Cahill Expressway, which was bulldozed through Circular Quay and although it gives you a great view of the bridge and harbour (just off to the right) it's an utter eyesore.

I was in Sydney for over three months until I got a job, just living on what I'd scraped together and taken with me after doing months of overtime and 7:30am-6:00pm Sundays. Days out like this were my reward. I remember walking into the office thinking I was getting the finances purely so I could do things like sitting all day at a cricket match drinking beer, and it kept me going. This was taken at a rather dull midweek affair between NSW and the touring New Zealanders - as you can see the Sydney Cricket Ground was deserted. I didn't care though, I sat there for seven hours and it was bloody great.

Every year Sydney hosts an outdoor exhibition of modern sculpture called 'Sculpture by the Sea' - it takes place on the coastal footpath that runs from Bondi to Tamarama. On a typically lovely weekend day, I wandered around looking at the wierd and wonderful entrants trying to figure out whether I liked any of them. This elephant was one I did like - if only for the amazing amount of work that must have gone into it, and the details which you could see up close. Computer monitors make great feet - and the mouth is an old toilet.

Ahhh, WA. Now there's a relaxed state. I took four days to travel Northwards up the coast from the capital Perth to the small naval tracking station of Exmouth. On the way, we frequently stopped at places like this - Shell Beach. I was just about to take a picture of some of the guys from the bus wading into knee-deep water to find somewhere to swim, when one of the girls ran to the front and took a photo of us looking at them. The bay was so shallow (and salty) that they walked for ten minutes and the water was still only halfway between their knees and their waists - so they gave up and sloshed back to the beach.

This is the small town of Akaroa in New Zealand, just outside Christchurch on the South Island. In the European rush for the New World, the South Island was initially claimed by the French. Based at the natural harbour of Akaroa, they made a claim for the entire group of islands. The trouble was, the native Maori had signed a deal with the British to 'sell' them their land (under pressure, no doubt), so the British then dutifully evicted the French from the country and proceeded to suppress the Maori and generally take over. To placate the French slightly, the Brits let them keep Akaroa - so even today the street names are in French, and the tricolore flutters in the streets. It's part of modern New Zealand of course, but the French background keeps the tourists flocking in...

On the other coastline of the South Island are miles and miles of deserted beaches. I got a bus from Christchurch to Barrytown, and was supposed to get off at the Barrytown Inn to meet my Stray bus for the start of my tour. I asked the driver to point out the Inn when we got to Barrytown, as I didn't have a map and it wasn't in the guidebook. He started laughing, and when we got to Barrytown I got off and realised why - there are only five buildings in the town. The driver (who had a big smile on his face) pointed to the only building that wasn't a shack, and drove off. I spent four hours walking on this beach, and only saw two women on horses and this dog, that followed me around for about an hour before getting bored and wandering off.

We got some incredible rain on the circuit of the South Island - none more so than at Milford, where we got battered by heavy rain and gale-force winds. We got out in a rainstorm to look at a gorge on the River Cleddau near the fjord of Milford Sound. Signs at the start of the path had called it a 'Chasm Walk', so we were expecting something pretty good. When we got there, this was it - the guy next to me looked down and said 'This isn't a chasm, it's just a f*cking hole' - but I pointed my camera over the edge of the bridge and took a picture anyway.

One of my favourite places in New Zealand was the 'third island' - Stewart Island. Only a small one, it lies just South of the coast of the South Island - it's pretty remote, and most Kiwis haven't been there. It's a fishing and oyster farming island, with amazing natural bird life, and not much else. We stayed overnight there, and took a tiny bouncing boat to the bird sanctuary of Ulva Island where amazingly rare birds walked, hopped and flew around without any predators to worry about. At night we went to the only pub on the island and drank with some of the fishermen. This was taken at dawn the next morning, waiting for the ferry to be loaded so we could brave the rough Foveaux Straight crossing back to the mainland of the South Island.

The Japanese have a love of nature - but a very ordered kind of nature, on their terms. This is one of the reasons why bonsai is so popular, and this is a picture of the other extreme. The large park in Nara, just East of Kyoto, has hundreds (probably thousands) of trees - and all of the pine trees are carefully clipped and pruned to accentuate their shape. Gardeners have been doing this in Nara for centuries - it was the original capital of Japan. Apparently the men that do this are experts, and there are very few of them, as it is a difficult skill to master. They don't just wade in with the strimmer - this man was delicately balanced up a massive tree carefully snipping away, looking as if he could tumble out at any moment.

Seafood is king in Japan - at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo they sell an astonishing £15m worth per day. This picture is something you see quite often in smaller Japanese towns if they are by the sea - dried seafood for sale. In this case an octopus, but also all kinds of fish and squid were laid out on benches or hung on specially designed coathangers and fluttering in the breeze. At first, I thought it was a kite - but people do eat it, although I'm not sure how. I didn't try octopus jerky, although I did eat it raw, and it was lovely. The other thing I thought when I saw this was 'How did they flatten it?'

What do you think this is? It doesn't look like a ferris wheel, but that's what it is. In the Ebisubashi entertainment district of Osaka, it's a 'couples' ferris wheel, with enclosed bubble-like capsules that slowly revolve to give a panorama of the city. This part of Osaka was like something out of Bladerunner (although it wasn't raining) - the amount of neon and huge illuminated signs and billboards was staggering. You really feel like you're in a high-tec modern city when it dazzles you like this. I'm not sure why the front of the ferris wheel has a large man hugging a worried-looking penguin wearing a santa hat on it, but I'm sure there's an explanation.

The best view of the holiday - one of the three 'Best Views of Japan' in fact, as decided by the Japanese themselves. This is the o-torii gate of Itsukushima on the island of Miyajima, just off the coast of Hiroshima. We stayed there for two days, and saw this wonderful gate in all conditions - day/night, sun/cloud, high/low tide. Designed as an approach to a floating temple in 597AD, it's 16m high and lit up at night by the spotlight on the right. The temple and shoreline were really busy during the day, but deserted at night. I sat on a stone bench with a can of Kirin I got from a vending machine - something that would be inconceivable in the UK, and took this photo.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

...and back to the grind

The end of the trip

Two days back at work, but thankfully the novelty hasn't quite worn off yet. Being back at my old job in the routine I last slotted into 13 months ago is slightly strange. I see loads of people walking around at work that I recognise (open plan office), but they all seem slightly different. But because I've not seen them for so long, I'm not quite sure what it is about them that isn't the same as I remember. Anyway, they all seem pleased to see me and I've spent a couple of days having predictably similar conversations with everyone - which I enjoyed, as talking about what I've been up to brings it all back.

I discovered that the computer department hadn't removed my network setup at all - in fact when I logged on in a cheerfully hopeful fashion I got straight back into my desktop. How many emails would you get at work in a year? I had 2,121 in my inbox - that's a lot of cars with lights left on and broken vending machine notifications (two of the most common at our work). It took well over a minute to delete them all - I stared at the animation of the piece of paper crumpling in midair whilst flying into a bucket (as if guided by some mysterious unseen power) for almost two minutes before all 2,121 were consigned to the electronic dustbin of history. Ah well, it passed the time. Anyway, there are new people there to talk to, new things to do, and at the moment - a new route to work - so it's all fun and games. How long to the weekend again?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Back to the 'burgh

Edinburgh skyline from Calton Hill

My enormously long, complex and exciting circular journey ended at Platform 10 of Edinburgh Waverley station last Monday. After thirteen months, eleven flights and countless miles I was back where it all started. I can remember my last day in Edinburgh, dragging a huge bag to the station as the police helicopters buzzed overhead for the official opening of the Scottish Parliament. That had been a glorious early Autumn day, but as I walked back into the city last Monday the weather had turned cold and threatening. Of course, that's something of a novelty for me at the moment, so I'm in a kind of honeymoon period where the inevitably awful Scottish weather is rather charming. We'll see how long that lasts. At the moment I'm enjoying my last few days of freedom until I return to work on Monday morning, walking along the rain-slicked streets looking at my favourite city with renewed vigour.

I know there's that famous saying about only appreciating where you live when you've been away from it for a while (although the actual saying is probably more snappy than that). Based on these past few days, I would agree with that. I think if you are fortunate enough to live somewhere you truly love then after a long time there it loses something of it's magic. Inevitable, I suppose - like eating your favourite meal every night until you get sick of it. I was far from sick of Edinburgh, but the year's break has certainly had an effect on the way I look at it. Living in Sydney helped - undoubtably one of the world's greatest cities - indeed that was exactly why I chose to move there.

So the question I've been asked by almost everybody I've bored with my tales is - "Are you glad to be back?" My answer, predictably, is "Yes and no". "That's a cop-out answer" the person usually replies, at which point I tell them I don't need a new kitchen fitted and put the phone down. As I covered above, being back here removes a lot of the downside of returning to the UK from Australia. Surprisingly I'm also not too bothered about going back to work (and I'm not just saying that because my boss reads this). That's partly because I worked whilst I was abroad so haven't just been travelling. and partly because I don't really do much when I'm there anyway (that's a joke, Dorothy). I've spoken to people who had been on a gap year-style global jaunt for twelve months and the thought of returning to an office horrified them almost to the point where they were desperate to keep travelling. Thankfully I'm not up there at all. I always knew my time away was just for a year, so I prepared myself for the inevitable end. That end has come, but at least I've plenty of things to daydream about as I sit at my desk on Monday (another joke there, honestly....)