Monday, April 28, 2008

A Wee Bit of Edinburgh

Before this past weekend, I knew relatively little about Edinburgh, and what I did know came mostly from Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels. The crime-filled, alcohol-drenched Edinburgh of Inspector Rebus is probably not the picture the local tourist board would choose to paint, but to my mind the books, and particularly the recent TV adaptations of them starring Ken Stott, added a level of film noir appeal that was one of my main inspirations for visiting in the first place. Apart from Inspector Rebus, nearly everyone we talked to before going seemed to love Edinburgh and wanted to go back.

Edinburgh sits on a series of sharply steep hills, remnants of ancient volcanoes, overlooking the sea. With its famous castle perched high on a cliff overlooking the city, spindly gothic spires, neoclassical memorials, towering obelisks, iron bridges crisscrossing the hills, and elegant Victorian parks, Edinburgh is a bit of an architectural hodgepodge, but it all works nicely together somehow.

A view of Edinburgh Castle from New Town

Emerging from Waverley Station, one of the first things you’re likely to notice (other than Marks & Spencer and all of the other stores that follow you everywhere you go in the UK) is the towering Scott Monument, a monument to the author Sir Walter Scott. The Scott Monument, despite being gothic in design, has a shape and ornate intricacy of design that is reminiscent of a Thai temple.

What most tourists probably fail to notice is that you can actually climb all the way to the top of the Scott Monument. From the outside, there doesn’t appear to be room for a staircase at all, but somehow there is the narrowest of narrow spiral staircases with 287 steps going up to the top. Without actually doing this yourself, it is nearly impossible to understand just how claustrophobic and scary the experience of climbing the Scott Monument is. At the very top, the staircase is so narrow, the ceiling so low, and the twist of the staircase so tight, that I could barely fit myself through crawling on my side. Even Maggie had trouble squeezing herself up this last bit.

One of the wider parts of the staircase in the Scott Monument

After the harrowing experience of getting yourself to the top, and paying £3 for the privilege, you emerge (if you're skinny enough) onto the tip of a 200-foot spire on a platform that could probably fit 5 small, and hopefully fearless, people. I hugged the stone wall for dear life for about 10 seconds, decided I had seen enough, and wedged myself back into the relative security of the stairway. Luckily we were probably the second group of people of the day to climb the monument, and there was only one group behind us, so we didn’t get into any traffic jams on the stairway. Emerging back on solid ground made us both extremely happy, and we were so dizzy from the stairs and our knees were so shaky that we had to go sit on a bench for a while to recover. Robert Louis Stevenson called Edinburgh a “precipitous city”; Ian Rankin said that “vertigo is in the nature of the place” -- after the experience in the Scott Monument, I couldn’t agree more.

Part of the way up the Scott Monument

We were hoping for Edinburgh to be somehow notably ‘Scottish’, whatever that means, yet it didn’t really strike us that way. My Scottish ancestors may disown me for even thinking this, but to a large degree Edinburgh felt like an English city but with more hills, an incurable plaid addiction, and a remarkable tolerance for bagpipes. Perhaps that is what makes it Scottish, but we were hoping for it to feel more like another country. Oddly, we were both reminded several times of San Francisco. The views from Calton Hill over the Firth of Forth were strongly reminiscent of San Francisco Bay, there was lots of seafood and ocean breezes, and sometimes the light Edinburgh accent would sound almost American.

Edinburgh or San Francisco?

Just a blink n' you might walk right by this memorial in Calton Hill Cemetery

We both really enjoyed wandering Edinburgh and loved the mellow pace of the city. Compared to London, Edinburgh is slow and comfortable with a bit of a small town feel, and the bus system is cheap and reliable (and the bus seats are, you guessed it, plaid). While I can't say that I connected with my Scottish roots or anything like that, Edinburgh was a fun and easy trip from London and I too would love to go back.

Calton Hill at sunset

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Maggie's Rock Climbing Adventure

A few years ago my company sponsored a team building day at a climbing gym in Cincinnati that was one of the most fun work events I can remember. I loved the challenge of scaling various walls and tall things - and even though the heights were scary, I remembered leaving with a real sense of accomplishment and a desire to try it again.

So I've always vowed to try rock climbing again, but I never got around to it when we lived in the Bay Area. Recently I finally did some research on climbing gyms here in London, and a few weekends ago I took a bus ride across east London to take a beginners' course at Mile End Climbing Wall.

My class consisted of 7 women and 1 (brave) man, and they started us climbing horizontally on a 'Traverse Wall' with lots of big holds that were pretty easy to grip. This was just to get us used to using the grips and comfortable with being off the ground - we weren't very far up. Here's a stock picture from the website - unfortunately I couldn't find a way to surreptitiously use my camera during this part of the class:

This was pretty fun and not too hard. I can see why they start you on this wall, as it helps build your confidence for the real climbing afterwards.

For the next hour we learned how to belay. I was intimidated at first because of my 5'2" size... could I really support an adult's body weight with just a rope? Luckily the mechanics of it all definitely works, and the instructors were very good because they taught us the right technique and gave us lots of coaching. And once I got the hang of it, it wasn't so scary. (Plus we were in a padded room the whole time - that definitely helped!)

The rest of the class was spent taking turns climbing vertical walls, and this is when it really got fun. I was the the third person to try this vertical wall below:

Due to my small size, I didn't have trouble getting right onto wall to start climbing. My instructors cheered when I began because apparently starting a climb is often tricky for beginners, so I had a moment of feeling cool. That moment quickly evaporated as my hands started sweating and I realized I had to make my next move. So I just kept looking at the wall and planning where I would step and reach next. It's a lot of coordination - you have to figure out where to put your both your hands and both of your feet all at the same time. The grips are color-coded for level of difficulty, but I just ignored that and went for whatever was in reach.

Things were going well until I was about halfway up the wall, and they suddenly put someone next to me who was also climbing to the top. We were very close to each other, so at one point I had to stop and wait because we needed to use the same grip. It was then that I realized how important it is to keep moving. All of a sudden I was scared and my muscles tensed up - there were a few moments when I felt completely frozen. Now I understand how people can panic and freeze in the middle of a climb.

I realized that the key to rock climbing is to just keep going and to not think too much. It took a lot of strength to start moving again, but I was driven to make it to the top, so I forced myself on. Luckily after I did, the momentum picked up again, and pretty soon I made it all the way up. It was such a feeling of accomplishment! Despite being scary it was exciting - I loved the challenge.

My funny climbing shoes

For the rest of the class we all continued to practice by belaying and scaling walls as much as we wanted. I climbed the same wall one more time and then took a break - that seemed like enough for my first day.

I definitely want to keep rock climbing. I like the way it pushed me to face my fear and keep going, and it was great exercise.

P.S. They have very different walls in France...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Beyond Eggspectations: The Results

The results of our Egg Survey are now in. There's no need to delay, let me whisk you away to the results...

Once again we got responses that were highly slanted towards American tastes. In fact every responder was American this time. Several responders were clearly very proud about being American, one hailing from “United States of America!”, another from “USA! USA!”, and one that quoted a memorable tag-line from Team America: World Police. Thanks for the enthusiasm everyone, but we were really hoping for “U-ru-guay! U-ru-guay!”, “Botswana is boss!”, or “Djibouti is totally righteous!”. I suppose we’ll have to settle for a bunch of eggstatic Americans.

Nearly everyone who took the survey was an egg fan of sorts, with only 2 people feeling neutral about eggs and no one disliking them. The big surprise to me was the fact that most people thought that eggs as a midnight snack were not at all appropriate. If I get out of a late concert or some late night event and I’m starving, all I want is breakfast food. Probably most Americans want a burger, and most Londoners seem to want kebabs and/or a banana, but I want eggs. On several occasions, the late night Crepes A-Go-Go cart in San Francisco’s SOMA rescued me with a 2 a.m. egg and cheese crepe, probably the best late night food I could imagine. Apparently eggs at midnight sounds eggscruciating to a lot of people, but bear in mind that Martha Stewart swears that her favorite midnight snack is a raw onion sandwich on white bread. Here is the final egg appropriateness by meal breakdown:

Average appropriateness rating for each meal, from 0 (not at all appropriate) to 4 (very appropriate).

Given that all responders were American, and because I admittedly biased the results a bit ahead of time with my rant against European-style scrambled eggs, it wasn’t a surprise that no one picked European-style scrambled eggs for their favorite or second favorite style of egg preparation. In fact, American-style scrambled eggs had the most votes for both favorite and second favorite, unless you count fried eggs as a category (including sunny-side up, over-easy, and over-medium to over-hard). No one was brave (or silly) enough to pick pickled or thousand-year eggs as their favorite.

Despite the fact that no one voted for European-style scrambled eggs, two people favored the bottom picture, which shows the typical cottage-cheesy European scrambled eggs (photos from, so perhaps there are some fans out there after all (I think they're cracked of course):

Eggsample Breakfasts: Top good, bottom bad.

Perhaps the still picture doesn't fully convey the soupy consistency of European-style scrambled eggs, so here is a lovely video from a Marks & Spencer ad (there is a 30 second leader, so just skip past this to the good part):

Friday, April 11, 2008

Snow Business

Just last week Spring finally seemed to be coming, with warmer weather and sunnier days. The flowers were blooming and the leaves were emerging on the horse chestnuts and sycamores. And then it started snowing. Over the whole Winter we only had a tiny dusting of snow, and then Spring comes and this happens:

Not so Springy


Forsythia surprised by snow

Wapping in snow

Doggies playing in the snow

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Eggs: A Mini-Survey

This week’s issue of London’s TimeOut magazine, for their round-up of the top 30 breakfast spots in London, features a giant blown-up picture of a buttery toast-point plunging into a soft-boiled egg. The soft-boiled egg is a national obsession here; a house in England without eggcups would be like a house in Iowa without corn-holders.

I like eggs nearly every way they come, including soft-boiled (although I have managed so far without the aid of eggcups). I have never dared to try a pickled egg from one of those giant glass pickle barrels that you see in dive bars, nor will I ever eat a thousand-year egg, but otherwise I’m a card-carrying member of the egg fan club. Eggs can (and should) be involved in any meal of the day in my book. Because of my egg-love and love of all things breakfast related, I have obsessed for years on the best way to cook eggs. I admit that I’m still fairly hopeless with poached eggs. My last attempt came out quite decent, but using red wine vinegar because we had no white or cider vinegar was an unfortunate move. As you might guess, a pink poached egg is not very appetizing.

My major source of egg cooking pride comes from my total mastery of scrambled eggs. Yes, it is true; I am The Master of Scrambled Eggs. So imagine my unpleasant surprise when I discovered that what they call scrambled eggs in Europe are not the same as what is called scrambled eggs in America.

When we first visited London, our hotel breakfast buffet always included a chafing-dish full of really unpleasantly soupy scrambled eggs that left a pool of water on the plate and made the toast soggy. We thought at the time that this was just the hotel attempting to keep the eggs from drying out. In actuality, scrambled eggs in England and elsewhere in Europe are nearly always soupy. It seems that the desired consistency is something akin to cottage cheese mixed with water.

Let’s analyze a recipe for ‘Luxury’ scrambled eggs from the BBC website to see why (my comments in red):

1. Break the eggs (two eggs per person) into the mixing bowl, taking care not to let any shell slip into the mix. Okay, so far so good.
2. Do not whisk the eggs, but mix them until the eggs are broken into the whites, retaining a streaky white and yellow look. Um, no, this is wrong. Why would you want partially mixed eggs?
3. Add two tablespoons of milk, cream, or water per serving. Too much liquid for my taste.
4. Add a knob of butter. Wait, shouldn’t you add this to the pan?
5. Add salt and pepper to taste. Preferably to your taste. I like the addition of “Preferably to your taste”.
6. Pour the mixture into a heavy-bottomed pan, put on a very low heat and stir slowly with the wooden spoon. Too much stirring makes scrambled eggs mealy.
7. After a few minutes the mixture will start to thicken; at this stage place in a heat-proof bowl and into a warm oven, or better still the cooler oven in an Aga. Okay, this is where it goes totally wrong. Plus I just had to look up what an Aga is.
8. Leave for five to ten minutes and serve. Ideally, it should be served hot and semi-solid, on hot buttered toast. Mmmm, semi-solid. Delish.

In my world, the eggs need to be whisked, the butter needs to be melted in the pan, and scrambled eggs shouldn’t be left in a warm bowl until they are “semi-solid”.

Andy’s Recipe for Perfect American-Style Scrambled Eggs
1. Break two eggs per person into a mixing bowl.
2. Add salt and pepper to taste.
3. Add a tablespoon of sour cream or crème fraiche per serving (I got this idea from Ralph Cifaretto right before Tony Soprano whacked him).
4. Whisk egg mixture together for a good thirty seconds until well mixed and a little aerated.
5. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a small saucepan (the smallest that will comfortably fit your eggs) over medium heat.
6. As eggs begin to set on the bottom, stir, folding the set parts into the liquid. Turn down the heat to medium-low for the remainder of the time. Don’t stir continuously - let the bottom start to set, and fold, and repeat, never letting the eggs brown.
7. When nearly done, turn off heat and let sit for 30 seconds, fold one more time and serve.
8. Remember, yours won’t be as good as mine, because I’m The Master of Scrambled Eggs, but they should be pretty darn tasty.

So, naturally, to follow this egg discussion, we have devised a short egg-based survey. The survey is now done - see results in this later post.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Switzerland 2

It's hard to choose my favorite part of our trip to Switzerland - we had so much fun and saw so much amazing scenery. What I can say is that Locarno was one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. The Alps surrounding the city were amazing, and the sky was a clear blue for nearly the whole trip. This was such a welcome change from the London clouds we're used to. Locarno itself was full of cute winding roads and brightly colored houses and buildings:

Cool random building (not our hotel, FYI)

We stayed at The Hotel Esplanade, which was wonderful - the rumors about the Swiss being the world's best hoteliers are 100% true. We didn't like the down pillows on the bed so they brought new ones; they helped us figure out the internet in our room; and for Easter they did an Easter egg hunt for all the kids in the hotel. They also had special fruits and muesli for breakfast, in addition to an extensive spread of breads, meats, cheeses, yogurts, etc. Here is me enjoying breakfast:


And here's Andy trying a strange Swiss whey soda - the bottle said 'serum of milk':

Hmm, tastes milky

From downtown Locarno you can look up and see the famous church in town, the Santuario della Madonna del Sasso. It's at the top of an incredibly high hill - we could have walked up to it, which would've meant taking a very steep winding path up the hill, passing shrines representing each station of the cross:

We weren't up for the suffering involved in that kind of a walk, so we took the funicular up the hill:

View from Above

It was interesting that basically all the churches we saw on this trip (and there were quite a few) were at the tops of enormous hills with paths leading up that clearly involved a religious form of suffering. It made me realize that some people voluntarily take that walk at least once a week - yikes.

By driving just a few miles out of Locarno, we found more beautiful country not far away. The Maggia valley (my favorite named place) is full of little towns with buildings made of stone, and waterfalls and large granite hills everywhere:

The little yellow dot at the bottom of the waterfall is a man!

We had fun driving around the windy roads of the valley in our tiny Kia Picanto. One thing to note about cars in this part of the world is that most are very small, and all are manual shift. So this meant I did all the driving and Andy did all the riding / navigating. Another thing to note is that many of the cars look the same and have the same features, chassis, paint colors, etc. Unfortunately for me, but much to Andy's delight, I once looked at a similar looking car in our hotel parking lot and called it a Firt.

Firt or Fiat, you decide.

Between the Firt and the local bus system called 'Fart', well, you can imagine all the fun we had.