Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Summer Living

We're back to cooking the Blue Apron meals now that we're home again.

Yesterday we had a soba noodle salad, which was awesome.
Photo from Blue Apron

I did make one substitution, based on comments made by others (Blue Apron has a great comment section on each recipe, and it's so helpful to read what worked or didn't for others before you cook the meal). The spice mix that came with this recipe included a ground szechuan pepper. In reading the comments under the recipe, I found out that this pepper is called "numbing pepper" in China because it makes your mouth tingly and numb. That didn't really appeal to us, so we substituted some sesame oil and sesame seeds in the miso/vinegar/soy-glaze dressing. With fresh corn, lightly sauteed with minced ginger, it was just fabulous. This was another one we shared with Emma, so we split it three ways instead of two. We all liked it so much I'm probably going to buy the ingredients and make it again.

Today I'll be making Fontina and basil grilled cheese sandwiches with an endive salad. And the last two weeks have included blue potatoes, which impressed Emma quite a bit (they are hard to find in grocery stores here).

There has been only one failure so far, a barley risotto. I thought this recipe contradicted itself --you were supposed to cook the barley until it was al dente, but risotta is supposed to be creamy and soft. Plus, who likes barley al dente? I love barley in soup, so I overcooked this and tried to eat it. It also had Romano beans in it, which are really big.
The size of the beans wasn't the problem; I cut them into bite-size pieces to add them to the risotto. However, some of them turned out to be woody, which I didn't realize until I was eating them. That turned me off to the meal, but it was also really flavorless. So after eating a bit of it, the rest was thrown out. It's the only meal that hasn't turned out well.

Summer has also included lots of pool time for me. When the water is really cold, I walk in the pool. Now that its warming up a bit I've been able to swim. I love this time of year, when I can be in the yard (in the pool) and hear the cicadas. There is something about their sound that tells my psyche it's high summer.

I've been the only person really using our pool, because Emma has been doing other things that usually involve her boyfriend. One of the things she's been working on is painting the bottom of a longboard as a birthday present for Drew. In addition to enjoying longboarding, she and Drew share a love of certain bands, one of which is Pink Floyd. Drew's favorite album is The Division Bell.

So Emma decided to buy him a plain wooden longboard and paint this cover on it. This involved sizing the image to fit, and then lots of careful taping and painting. But it turned out great, and by tomorrow they should be able to get the wheels and "trucks" (whatever they are) on it.
I was really impressed with her persistence on this project --it was not an easy thing to plan out or complete, but she figured it out and worked carefully.

I have also found time to make some jewelry, and listen to the newest Jason Isbel album. Ah, summer :-)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Engineering Magic

I have to drive along a rural highway to get to the college (and it used to be the route to Emma's school). Its northern end (near our small town) is four-lane, and it's southern end (at Rockford) is four-lane, but the 8 miles in between were two-lane. The road was in bad shape and the traffic was frustrating, especially if you hit peak times (which, thankfully, was rare for me.) There was always some extremely slow driver you couldn't pass, just when you were feeling pinched for time. There were two busy cross streets without traffic lights with frequent accidents. And with only a tiny shoulder, and the wind galloping across the flat farm fields on the west side, there are often constant snow drifts across the lanes during the winter, no matter how often the plow went through.

A couple of years ago, the county found money to continue the four-lane highway from the southern end for about 4 miles. They actually made the four-lane highway alongside, and left the old road as an access road for the people who'd been struggling to turn out of their driveway on the too-busy two-lane version. I have some friends that are much more strident environmentalists than I am, and they were distressed that many trees were cut down to make way for the new road. After seeing an accident where a woman wrapped her car around a utility pole and it took an hour to extract her, I was fine with sacrificing trees to make that road safer. (Plus, the county promised to plant about 800 trees after everything was done, and they did, and spread wildflower seeds along the verges, and it's really beautiful in the summer.)

But I also found myself fascinated with the construction process. It must have been hell for some of the people living along the now-access-road, because of the noise and dirt, but for someone driving by each day, it offered such an education. I just had NO idea how much engineering must go into a project like this.

The machines that have been developed to grab a tree around its middle and then have two blades move toward each other to cut through it's trunk! The machines that then pick those trees up and line them up in piles like matchsticks. The enormous piles of mulch that were created, and the dirt that was transported from one place to another multiple times! Then came the machines whose sole purpose was to drive over that dirt, rough it up with a front-end attachment, and then roll it smooth and tamp it down with a back-end attachment. Imagine if your job involved just driving back and forth over the same four miles many times a day?

They had to fill up a small pond, and confine the creek next to it, then build a bridge over the creek. The main path where the two divided parts of the new highway would go became visible, as the lighter ag-lime was added, and more heavy trucks rolled over it to make sure it was well-compacted. Eventually they began to put down layers of asphalt, and create wide shoulders. 

Below is a Google Earth image of the area with the creek. This was near the end of construction, when one half was being used for the new traffic pattern, and they were finishing up the second half.

 Try as I might, though, I could not figure out how they were going to attach the new divided highway to the old part of the original road to the north. It just seemed that no matter what I could think of, it always required cars crossing over each others lanes, which was obviously not going to happen. Then they laid down various asphalt pieces and it was even more confusing. I'm not sure why they only did part of the road --money, or future planning, but here is a photo of where they finally tacked it back on to the old two-lane road. Look at that craziness! But it does work.
So now they are starting at the northern end, and making another section of the road into four-lanes. Here's what it started off as:
The trees on the right side of the road in the bottom half of this photo are now gone, and they seem to be working the earth on that side --it's almost like they have to knead it, to get it ready. I don't know how far south they're going --this short piece is up a fairly steep hill and obviously needs lots of prep work. A bit farther south and it's all farm fields, which is likely easier to massage into shape. 

There is a part of me that thinks I should be appalled --more trees gone! More asphalt! But honestly, it's like a guilty pleasure. I love to watch how they work their engineering magic to transform areas into something completely different. The stage is set for my commute when school starts up again in late August.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

It's Floral

I've been really enjoying my garden, now that I'm back. It didn't take too much to get it back under control, and because there was so much rain while we were gone, things have grown nicely.

We did recently have a rain that brought my cilantro down. I knew it would grow past harvest stage while we were gone, so my plan is to let it self-seed. But for that to happen, the flowers actually need to go to seed while over the bed, not lying on the mulch next to the bed. I've staked it back up, but in just a day of lying down, the flowers had all turned toward the Sun, and it looked like a waterfall of tiny white flowers.
The garden that I get to look out at when I'm at the kitchen sink has several different flowers I'm enjoying right now. Two are this combination of purple alium and a blue spiderwort. 
Next to this is the raised bed with strawberries around the edges, and this pink cleome that I planted from seed this spring. There are several more getting ready to bloom --hopefully they will also self-seed.
I have only one oriental lily left (I need new bulbs), with its heavenly scent. I was going to leave it in the garden, but then I noticed it on its side yesterday morning. I don't know if it had help (rabid rabbits, for instance), but it was snapped off low on the stem. So I was forced to bring it in. I hope the two remaining flowers will still open.

This afternoon Rob and I went back to the Nygren Wetlands, down the road from us, because it was his week to check the bluebird boxes along the trail. And it was gorgeous there too with lots of wild flowers in bloom, so I had to take some more flower photos.

The photos below are Wild Bergamot. The flower is very similar to Bee Balm (Monarda).
The Prairie Cinquefoil has such a buttery-yellow color.
This next one has a funny name, but it's a beautiful purple. It's called Hoary Vervain.
There was also plenty of yellow, one of which was Black Eyed Susan.
And then I caught a picture of Rob, standing in some of the flowers. He had to keep wandering off the mowed path to check the bluebird boxes, so he was often waist-deep in flowers, not a bad way to spend a warm July afternoon.
Ahhh . . . it's nice to be home :-)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Thoughts on Never Flying Again

Okay, maybe never is a bit of an exaggeration. But I certainly can't see flying anywhere that I can drive or take a train. (UK trains were great, it's a pity that in the US, cross-country trains are so exorbitantly expensive.)

Flying was the absolute worst part of the trip. I realize they were long flights (~8 hrs each), and that flying for a shorter period would be less difficult, but I still can't see myself doing it hardly ever. 

I flew frequently when I was in grad school, since I attended at least one professional conference a year, and they were mostly held in San Francisco or Texas (and I was in school in Michigan). I never minded it, I was often able to get a window seat, and the seats were relatively comfortable. Even in 1998, when Rob and I flew to Edinburgh, the plane ride was not uncomfortable. (There was the issue of changing planes in Laguardia, with two hours sitting on the tarmac. This was why we sprung for non-stop flights this time.) 

This experience was different. And I'm not talking about the increased security since 9/11. At O'Hare, the TSA agents were polite and efficient. Yes, we had to take off our shoes, but it really wasn't much of a disruption --certainly much less hassle than we were expecting. The same was true at Heathrow. The airports are big, and you have to do a lot of walking, or catching trams, but in general it wasn't at all difficult to figure out the signs and find your way. Whenever I was unsure, I looked around and was able to find some employee I could ask, and they were always helpful.

No, the difference in our experience really comes down to the fact that we were crammed like sardines into the plane. We are not a small family, obviously --I'm 5'10", Rob is 6'2", and Emma is 5'8". Rob has broad shoulders, and I have a middle-aged spread. So, flying might be easier if you're petite and thin. For us, however, there was no way to sit in our seats without being in constant physical contact (thankfully we know each other well), and my knees (I have the longest legs in the family) were in pain, smashed as they were against the seat in front of me. (And then the young woman in front of me leaned her seat all the way back. I know she's allowed, but I just couldn't do that to the person in back of me.) I felt more than slightly claustrophobic. 

So it will be a long time before I agree to fly again. Perhaps in 10 or 15 years, when Rob and I decide to rent a flat in Edinburgh for a month, sans a grown child, and just explore. And maybe we'll spring for first class seats :-)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Visiting the Castle

We had fairly good weather until the day we decided to visit the castle --it had been cloudy, with occasional gentle rain, and temperatures in the mid 50s to 60 range.

This was supposed to be a relatively relaxed day --coming after our day in Glasgow, where we got in late, and then Rob's and Emma's day in Perth, where they got in even later. So we slept in, had some breakfast, then caught a city bus up the hill toward Waverly station. This left us with a short walk to the Royal Mile, then uphill to the castle.

In front of the castle is the esplanade, the place where the Edinburgh Tattoo takes place each August. On the map below I've drawn a red arrow pointing to the esplanade. Behind it is the castle, while the buildings in front of it are part of the Old Town. (This map is a little deceptive: there is a street called Johnson Terrace to the left of the esplanade, and I know from my own experience that you have to go down at least 2 flights of steep stairs from the Royal Mile to reach that street! Then you can go down another 2 flights to reach the Grassmarket, another wonderful neighborhood with great pubs. Then, if you're really smart (like me), you suggest flagging down a taxi to take you back up all those hills to your flat, and your husband says to you "a taxi was a great idea!" as he happily hands over 10 pounds sterling to the driver. Edinburgh and its hills, and the joys of being older adults with a decent income, rather than poor recent grads.)

I took the photo below standing in the esplanade looking (over the group of tourists) toward the castle entrance. (I really think there should be a Facebook page where people can upload their photos of the castle and Royal Mile so that other tourists can tag themselves in your photos.)

The last time Rob and I were in Edinburgh, our friends got us tickets to see the Tattoo, and it was amazing. Rob took the following two photos at that time.

After traipsing across the esplanade, you enter and buy tickets. Then you encounter the actual castle entrance, with a portcullis ready to lower onto any enemies. (There are more-than-expected people in red in this photo, but that's because some of them are employees, and all of them were wearing red rain jackets.)
Soon after you enter, you reach the "Lang Stair", which is the original way that people accessed the upper levels of the castle. The wide road you can see winding around in the map was built much later, to accommodate larger military equipment.
In the photo above, and in the one below, you can see how the components of the castle are built literally into the rock of the (extinct) volcano. It seems so organic to me, like the rock just grew some stairs and walls. Another interesting feature that you can see in the photo below is the pavement in the center of the road. It's made of much smaller rock pieces, and was apparently created because it was easier for the horses to run on.
There are various things to see as you wind your way up --it feels like a city. We followed this turn and toured the prisons; there are two of them. A much nicer prison for soldiers who acted up, and then a really awful one for various enemies. They have a room full of the torture equipment used at various times.

At the top you have some of the newer buildings, and the oldest building. The photo below is part of the newer buildings, now the National War Museum of Scotland. It's part of a set of newer buildings arranged around a central courtyard.

Also at the top is the chapel of St. Margaret. This is the first building that was built on the volcanic hill, and dates from the 12th century. In 1314, Robert the Bruce recaptured the castle from the English, and ordered all the buildings destroyed to keep the English from re-occupying it. The only building he spared was this chapel. As you can tell from the blue skies in the photo below, I stole this picture from the interwebs. The reason for that: we encountered our first real rain just as we were reaching the top of the castle. This was not the gentle rain we had experienced before --no, this was horizontal rain which soaked us from waist on down as we tried to shield ourselves with our umbrellas.
We did go into the chapel and admire it, but then we retreated down the Lang Stair and found a chamber with a very cool model of the castle and some window seats. We waited out the worst of the rain there, then continued on down (and down, and down, as we made our way to the Grass Market and found a pub where we could have dinner and dry out.)

Before the rain hit, we were able take some great photos of the New Town from the castle. The Royal Mile is the center of the Old Town, with it's twisty streets, closes, and a whole warren of buildings built underneath street level. The New Town is quite different, as it was planned, and created in a grid pattern.
A map from 1819, illustrating New Town.
An areal view of New Town in 2001.
In the areal photo, at the very bottom, you can see the large green space known as Princes Street Gardens, as they run along Princes Street. Originally the buildings were houses, and the gardens were private gardens, but most of the street level along Princes Street is now fancy shopping, and the gardens are now public. From the castle, you are gazing out over the gardens into the New Town. I took the photo below before the rain had started.

So we did dry out during our dinner, and so did the city. After that rain moved out, we had two days of beautiful sunshine and blue skies for our last two days in Edinburgh.

When younger versions of Rob and I were in Edinburgh 17 years ago, we climbed Arthur's Seat, a volcanic sill that creates an impressive hill next to Holyrood Palace and Park. I took this photo of it from the Regents Street Bridge (see that sunshine?):
You walk up the gentle side, but it's a long, long, uphill walk. When I was looking for the photos of the Tattoo, I came across this picture Rob took of me as we were making our way up.

--so much younger, so much more energy :-)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Royal Mile

For those of you who are not familiar with Edinburgh, the Royal Mile is a mile-long street (actually a little longer than a mile --apparently it's an old Scottish mile) that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. Edinburgh Castle is up on a volcanic hill (built into the volcanic rock), and the Royal Mile runs downhill to the palace. This is part of what is called "Old Town", the original site of the city, which grew up slowly after the earliest parts of the castle were built in the medieval times. Edinburgh is actually called the city of seven hills, and I'm pretty sure we walked up most of them over the course of this trip.

The Castle is a working castle, meaning it still houses a military unit, a Scottish dragoon. There are areas that are not open to the public because of this. Holyrood palace is sometimes open to the public, but both times Rob and I have been in Edinburgh (17 years apart, last time in late July/early August, this time in June), the Queen has been in residence, so we have not been able to tour it.

We first visited the Royal Mile on Monday, enjoying the scenery and spending time in many little shops, looking for souvenirs. It was cloudy, but not rainy, that afternoon.

So . . . funny story. I'd been taking photos of the Royal Mile for a while, when Emma looked at my phone to see a particular photo, and then asked me how long I'd been taking photos in black and white. Between the gray skies, and the gray buildings, I hadn't actually noticed. But I think this black and white view looks kind of 1940ish.
Throughout the Old Town there are little alleys, called "closes", that run off the streets. These are still used for foot traffic. This is the photo I took that alerted Emma to my B&W setting:
So, I changed my phone setting and took another. But we both liked the black and white effect in the close.
The following view is down the Royal Mile toward Holyrood palace. In the distance you can see the Firth of Forth; Edinburgh was built along this estuary. 
The photo below was taken from much farther up, just before you reach the Castle. You can see that the road has narrowed significantly.
There are also adorable little twisty streets that run steeply down hill from the Royal Mile. We had already walked up so many hills that we often just peeked down these, without venturing too far, so we didn't have to walk back up again. To really explore all the charm of the Old Town, you'd need a month in Edinburgh.

After a while, of course, we needed refreshment, so we found a nice little cafe in one of the closes off the Mile. The view below is from their outside terrace, toward the archway back to the Royal Mile. Edinburgh is like a warren, but this is especially true in the Old Town. The cafe was actually behind one of the shops on the street, with the entrance located in the close. Some of the closes are steep steps, and businesses are often located below the main street level. Some, like this one, are terraced, and some open up once you get through the archway. To the right of this photo was a set up steps going up and down, to other businesses and presumably, residential flats.
One of the things that was different about being in the UK was the use of crockery. Everywhere you went, ordering a coffee or tea involved china cups, saucers, little milk jugs and sugar bowels, and silverware. After a short time, the table was so full of crockery that I felt scared I was going to accidentally sweep things to the floor. And the poor wait staff! Running around with piles of precariously balanced crockery! And another different thing --you never bus your own table, even when you order at the counter of a place that sells pre-packaged food. (When I asked Emma's friend Katie if we bussed our own table she looked at me blankly. Apparently they don't know the term "bus" --they would say "clear" the table. This made me wonder where the term "bus the table" had come from and I had to look it up. It was first used around 1913, and the "bussing" probably referred to the cart that was used to carry the dishes. You're welcome.) Of course, they also don't have trash cans --when we ate pre-packaged sandwiches, we were expected to just leave our wrappers on the table for the staff to clean up. This was impossible for us --we gathered it all up and brought it back to the counter and asked to put it in the trash can.

On this day, we walked up to the castle, but there was a possibility we'd visit it with a friend of Rob's, so we didn't go in. We eventually visited the castle on Friday, but this post is long enough, so I'll save that for another post :-)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Back in Edinburgh

Edinburgh is such a delightful city. It's used to tourists, so there is easy access to everything, but it's also home to its own large population, so you can feel the town's life flowing around you. We arrived Saturday evening, and while we were out looking for a pub for dinner, the streets were crowded, including a fair number of interesting characters. Each weekday morning as I look out the window of the flat, I see lots of people walking to work. Most of the locals walk with earbuds in, if they're alone. It's late June, but it's been cooler than normal, and many of them are still wearing winter clothing --heavy coats, wool sweaters, and tights under dresses. I found a short-sleeve shirt to be fine (especially when you're walking up some major hills), but 50s and 60s is much warmer than our Midwestern winter of teens and 20s, whereas for them it's just barely warmer than their winter. We have appreciated the cool weather, since we are walking so much. 

Our flat (on Hopetoun Crescent) is a 15 minute walk (all uphill!) to Waverley Station. Another 15 minutes south and you can get to the Royal Mile. There is light rain, on and off most days, so you quickly learn that a small "brolly" that can be carried in a purse is a must. The rain is very light --sometimes it's not actually worth getting the umbrella out, because you mostly dry off as fast as you get wet. But many days you end up using the umbrella for 10 minutes here or there. Of course that (and the lack of 80-90 degree days) is what keeps everyone's garden looking so beautiful.

There are several tourist buses, where you get a recording explaining the sights as you do a large loop, and you can get off and on multiple times in a 24 hour period. We got tickets the afternoon of Monday, and continued to use the bus through the afternoon of Tuesday. This allowed us to view various places, and get off to explore the Royal Mile (Monday) and the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens (Tuesday). 
This is a small square, near Waverley Bridge, where we caught our tour bus. Looking across the square you can see some of the Old Town.
The area around our flat includes Broughton Street and Leith Street. Broughton street was built in the early 1800s. 
Looking down Broughton Street.

Both streets have lots of little cafes and restaurants, so our first stop each day has been for coffee at a new cafe. One of the mornings we stopped into a place that is really more of a chocolate shop, but so far that's also been the best coffee.
Emma with her morning hot chocolate, in Coco's Chocolates. She got the window seat.
Coco's coffee cup chandelier.
A flower shop on Broughton Street
On Tuesday we took a train to Glasgow and walked and walked and walked and walked . . . we met some friends of Rob's through the vinyl community and they showed us around. However, while John (from the Peak District) is our age, these two are just 21. They are fabulous people, but they are also 30 years younger than us, and my legs just couldn't keep up. Many of the places we visited in Glasgow were music related, much to Rob and Emma's delight. Below you can see all four of them geeking out in Barrowlands Park, where the city printed the names of all the bands that have played at the Barrowlands concert hall.
Rob and Emma took another train today, up to Perth, to meet up with them again (they live in Perth). My legs needed a rest, and I also had some grading to catch up on (I'm teaching an online class while we're here). I'm sure they are having a great time, and it has rained all day here, so it was good timing. We have three more days here, and then we catch a train back to London, meet up with one more friend for a beer, and fly home on Monday.