Monday, October 24, 2011

Northumberland and Edinburgh: Part 2

Sorry for the delay in posting.  Dan and I just moved into our more permanent house and we don't have Internet yet.  We hope to get connected this week though, so I'll be back to posting more regularly soon.

So, where were we?  Oh yes, we had just finished a nice pub lunch outside the Bamburgh Castle and were headed to Edinburgh.  We used VRBO (vacation rental by owner) for the first time, and I have mixed feelings about it.  On one hand, it can be a lot less expensive than a hotel, but a lot higher quality than a hostel.  On the other hand, since you are renting from the owner, it is up to that individual what amenities to supply.  We heard from some of our friends who swear by VRBO that most owners provide some kitchen staples (bread, milk, eggs,etc.) and some other nice perks.  Our owner went really bare bones on us.  We didn't even have Internet, which I think is kind of basic.  But, that's why it's so cheap.  At least it was fairly close to downtown (1.5 miles) and we were able to get around really easily.

Getting to the actual flat was pretty difficult initially though.  We first had to drop by the owner's house to get the keys to this flat and exchange money.  This required us driving right through city center.  I had never been to Edinburgh before, so I wasn't prepared for the HUGE hills and tons of traffic.  Normally this wouldn't be a problem, but as new manual drivers, it was very challenging.  Fortunately, Dan did a great job and got us to the flat in one piece.

For our first night in Scotland we walked all around the Royal Mile just getting a feel for the city.  We went to dinner at one of the oldest pubs in town called "The World's End."  It got its name because it used to be built right against the wall of old Edinburgh.  For the people living inside the walled city, that really was the end of the world.

We tried the vegetarian haggis, which is a local specialty.  I think something got lost in translation.  I'm sure it would have been much more exciting if it were meat.  We also tried a couple of pints of the local beer.  Delicious!

After dinner we went looking for a whiskey bar and found a great one called the Albanach.  This bar had over 200 different kinds of whiskey!  We tried four different Scotch Whiskeys that averaged around 20 years old.  It's definitely an acquired taste, and I can't say that I've acquired it yet.  But it was a really fun experience.

The next day we went up to the Edinburgh Castle.  The castle is huge and beautiful!  As English Heritage Society members, we got in for half-off and also got a discount on the audio tour.  I'm glad we took the audio tour because there is so much history behind every stone.  We saw the crown jewels and watched a re-enactment of a criminal hanging.  It was very interesting (and gory!).

Re-enactment of hanging in Castle
 We spent the afternoon taking a walking tour of the Royal Mile.  It was billed as the "hidden secrets" of the Mile, and it delivered!  Our tour guide was fantastic and really showed us what life would have been like hundreds of years ago.  It was fascinating to see how much of the city has changed, and how much has stayed the same.

At night we got some incredible views of the castle and found a tiny little pub where folk musicians gather.  We stayed around a little while to hear some of the traditional Scottish songs.


The next morning we climbed up Arthur's Seat and were rewarded with spectacular views of Edinburgh!  We actually drove most of the way up and hiked to the summit.  Thank goodness, because just that little bit of climbing was very strenuous!  There aren't really any clear paths; you just have to climb your way up using your hands and legs.  It was challenging.  The views were awesome though.

And that's it!  Just a short, sweet trip to Northumberland and Edinburgh!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Northumberland and Edinburgh: Part 1

Dan and I just got home from a fabulous weekend up north and I can't wait to share some of the pictures with you!   A few weeks ago on a whim we bought a Groupon for an overnight stay in a castle in England.  I mean, why not, right?  The castle was around two hours north of us near Newcastle.  After doing a little bit of research, we realized that Langley-upon-Tyne (where we'd be staying) is almost exactly halfway between us and Edinburgh.  So we decided to make a weekend out of it.  We stayed in the Langley castle on Thursday night and in Edinburgh Friday and Saturday nights.

We got up early on Thursday morning and drove the two hours to Langley.  The drive went pretty well with no major stick shift issues :)  Right away we started sight-seeing.  We went to the Roman Vindolanda museum that had the most incredible Roman artifacts I've ever seen.  Apparently hundreds of years of ruins were preserved in-tact because the soil is anaerobic (doesn't have oxygen).  Some of the artifacts from more than 2,000 years ago included perfectly preserved leather shoes, hair combs, colored buttons and letters.  It was amazing to see how the Romans lived every day life.

We also climbed part of Hadrian's Wall.  That was awesome.  The wall was built starting in AD 122 and stretches for 72 miles.  We caught some incredible views of the landscape and livestock.

Hadrian's Wall

Roman Ruins

We also checked out the town of Hexam, which had a beautiful abbey and a delicious milkshake shop :)

After a long day of exploring, we made it back to the castle in time for dinner.  The castle was pretty small, but gorgeous.  There were even peacocks roaming the grounds!   The staff were so friendly and enthusiastic and were happy to show us all around.  They even took us up to the roof!  And, as it turns out, the castle is owned by a pretty well-known M.I.T. professor who happens to be Jewish.  We found this out because there was a mezuzah on the door of the castle!  Dan says this guy wrote the bible for computer science, and that he still has one of his textbooks.  Small world!

Langley Castle

View From Langley Castle

After an amazing night in the castle, we drove off to our next destination: Bamburgh Castle.  We didn't originally intend on stopping here, but while in Hexam we saw a beautiful photo of a castle and asked which one it was.  When we were told that we would be passing it on our way to Edinburgh, we knew we had to stop and check it out.  I'm so glad we did!  It was gorgeous!  It was gigantic, and right on the beach so it looks even more imposing. 

Bamburgh Castle

After a nice pub lunch in the village, we continued on our way to Scotland.  Stay tuned for part 2!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Our New Baby: Part 2

I'm back for Part 2 of our driving adventures.  I'll let the videos do most of the talking, but I'll fill in a couple of blanks for you.  As you recall, neither Dan nor I are expert manual shift drivers. This did not deter us from buying a stick shift car.  It did, however, make it a bit tricky and embarrassing while test driving our new baby.  Nevertheless, despite a couple of stalls, some terrible gear changes and a close call with a pedestrian, the car salesman did his job and sold us the car.  He did ask for a schedule of when and where we'd be driving, but I'm sure he asks that of everyone.

A couple of days later we came back to pick up the car.  Here's what happened:

Fortunately, we made it back safely and have since been getting lots of practice.  We even drove up to Scotland this weekend!  We definitely have a long way to go before we are seasoned drivers (especially me!), but we're getting there.  And in the meantime, try and steer clear of Harrogate roads if you can :)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Our New Baby!

I am so excited to announce that Dan and I have a new addition to our family.  That's right...we're new car owners!  Sorry actual babies here.  But here he is...isn't he pretty? 

Dan and I left our car back in the States so we were in the market for a British one.  However--as long-time readers may recall--neither Dan nor I had previously driven a manual car.  We took driving lessons to learn how, with the idea that we'd be competent enough to buy a cheaper manual car.  Well, we were able to buy a less expensive car, but I'm not sure that I'd go as far as to call us "competent."  Ha!

On the train on the way to buy our car!
One thing I definitely learned through the car buying process is that things here are really different than back in the States.  Dan and I did a fair amount of online research before going to look at cars.  We picked out around ten cars that were within our price-range and had the features we were looking for.  Our main priorities were that it had 4-doors and wasn't too big to drive or park on these tiny, twisty roads.  We narrowed it down to a Ford Focus, Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Astra or VW Golf.   I also saw one BMW that met all of our criteria, but I thought something had to be wrong with it for it to still be within our budget.

We went to a couple of different dealerships and found out right away that things are done differently.  On the positive side, the salesman are much less pushy than they are back home.  They let you take your time and look at the cars you want to look at, but won't try and push you into something that isn't a good fit or above your budget. However, you aren't really allowed to test drive the car until you verbally commit that you plan on buying it!  It seems so backwards to me!

Leeds--where we bought the car
Also, you don't get nearly as much information about the car as you would expect.  Case in point, when Dan and I got to the dealership with the BMW, we really liked the car and wanted to learn more about it.  It seemed like it was in really good shape so I wasn't sure why it would be priced the same as a Ford Fiesta.  We asked the salesman for the service history to see if there were any major problems.  He told us that everything was in order and we shouldn't worry about it.  In fact, he said that we should trust him because he wouldn't sell a car that wasn't in great condition.  When I told him that I don't know him and am not inclined to just trust him on the issue, he was really put out.  He was eventually able to find the car's history, but again told me that I should quit worrying because if we do buy the car, it would go to his mechanic before we picked it up.  We don't get a report of what the mechanic finds or fixes, but we should trust that they'll do it right.

I have lots more to say on this topic, but this post is getting a little long.  So, stay tuned for part two of the car buying adventure!  Trust me, that will be a good post.  It will even include two videos of Dan driving the car off the lot.  That alone is definitely worth the wait.

Leeds, England

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Just Call Me "The Dude"

I'm not quite sure how this happened, but it seems that Dan and I have joined a bowling league.  No one is more surprised than I am.  But I guess this isn't really much different from when Dan and I were on a kickball team  in DC.  Who knew we were so athletic?  Ha!

Anyway, back to the bowling.  It's a monstrous 32-week schedule, so in an effort to not go crazy, the team has split it up.  Dan and I committed to attend around 10 weeks.  It's at Dan's work at 6pm on Wednesdays and consists of three games with four bowlers per lane. 

Our first game was last night.  Two things to bear in mind:  First, I am a terrible bowler.  This is not new knowlege, but I thought I'd pass it on anyway.  Second, three games is two too long.  I enjoyed the first game.  The second game was ok, but I was starting to get tired of it and Dan's fingers started cramping (did I mention we're not athletic?  Ha!).  By the third game I was really ready to be done.  The law of diminishing returns is in full force on this one.

But, it is a fun way to meet new people and see friends, so I guess I'll be sticking with it.  At least we have a good team name: "So Close."  I definitely said that many-a-time last night as I watched my ball bounce into the gutter.  Oh, so close.

P.S. Kudos to those who caught the Big Lebowski reference. 

Our friend/teammate Brandon

Look at those moves...

So close!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Homemade "Big Breakfast"

Yup...I still love the big breaky.  We got adventurous and decided to try making it ourselves.  Verdict?  Success!

We used Quorn veggie sausage, baked beans, portobella mushrooms, tomatoes, eggs and a slice of bread.  It's not called "big breakfast" for nothing!

The veggie sausage was pretty good, but I think we'll try a different brand next time.  There were several to choose from at our local grocery store (Waitrose). 

Also, it turns out that store-brand baked beans are just not as good as Heinz.  So we'll be spending a few more pence next time for the quality stuff.  

 Overall though, this was a delicious breakfast that I'm sure we'll be having time, and time again.  Have I mentioned I love it here?

Homemade Big Breaky!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Happy New Year!

To all of my Jewish friends, happy new year!  I hope this year is filled with sweetness and joy.  To celebrate the holiday, I decided to use my new kitchen to its fullest.  I made a wonderful--if I do say so myself--Rosh Hashana meal.  Here was the menu:
  • Challah with golden raisins
  • Apples and honey
  • Roasted chicken with baby potatoes
  • Steamed veggies
  • Mom's noodle kugel
  • Chocolate babka

It was a pretty ambitious menu for a couple of reasons.  First, this kitchen is much bigger than the last temporary house, but it is still tiny!  The fridge is a mini-fridge and the oven is basically an Easy Bake Oven.  Secondly, we have no proper cooking equipment.  No measuring cups or spoons, no real pots and pans or even baking sheets.

With all that said, I think it turned out pretty well.  There were a few moments of doubt.  Like when I had to third the babka recipe because it wouldn't physically fit in my oven otherwise.  And, once I thirded the recipe, I completely misread the directions and put all of the sugar and butter in the dough, when really more than half of it was supposed to go in the filling.  I also didn't have a rolling pin to roll out the dough to 1/8 inch, so I just used my hands and did the best I could.  Neither Dan nor I seemed to mind one bit though.

Here's to many more home-cooked meals to come!

Raisin challah

Chocolate babka

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Small World

Three years ago Dan and I went on a two week Mediterranean honeymoon cruise to Italy and Croatia. The whole thing was fantastic! The sights were amazing, our ship was beautiful, and we made some good friends along the way.

We were assigned an awesome dinner table that consisted of four other couples--two other Americans, and six Brits. We actually kept in touch with two of the British couples, so as soon as we found out we were moving here we told them the good news. I know that England is a small country, but I didn't realize how small. It turns out that two of our friends live only 40 minutes from Harrogate! In fact, Carl regularly walks in the Yorkshire Dales, which are practically in our backyard (or, "garden" as the Brits say).

Cruise Gang 3 years ago

Last weekend we got to meet up with our Pam and Carl.  It was so great to see them again!  It seems like nothing has changed over the past three years.  They are such genuinely nice people.  They've invited us to stay with them for a long weekend so we can explore some of the world-famous Christmas markets and lights displays near them.  

As a side note--I think the British version of distance is so funny, and very different from the American version.  As I just said, they invited us to stay with them for a weekend because they are 40 minutes away.  Do they realize that is literally half the time of my last commute to work?!

It was a great afternoon and I'm looking forward to seeing them again soon!

Pam, Carl, me and Dan in the UK