Monday, March 30, 2009

Scotland: the land of haggis, kilts and stags

I've just discovered my new favorite country abroad.
It's the land of the savage, skirted Mel Gibson, locks, kilts, Harry Potter, whiskey and sheep (which equals cashmere). 

And world famous for haggis, a "meat" made up of sheep's lungs, heart and liver, cooked in a sheep's stomach. Stupendous.

We spent last weekend in Scotland, scoping out Edinburgh and then scanning the countryside on a tour.

Here are the top five reasons why I love Scotland:

1. Kilts. I thought these were only worn by bearded bagpipe players. Wrong. I learned kilts represent family clans and are quite expensive. Our countryside tour guide said he didn't receive his first kilt until he was 21, and that was a big deal. 

At Edinburgh Castle

There's something captivating though about watching grown men strut around town in plaid skirts with their hairy legs poking out.

2. Countryside tour. We went on a nine-hour tour led by Greg, a Scot with a lip ring and almost indiscernible accent, who told bad jokes involving "baby, mommy and daddy balloon." Don't ask.
Posing in front of Lock Lomond

Overlooking the countryside from the William Wallace monument

More pretty countryside

Greg drove us through the rambling heathers of the Scottish highlands in a dinky blue bus. Along the way, he pointed out important landmarks, like the Monty Python castle, where 700 women's bodies were found in a drained moat outside Edinburgh castle (they were supposed witches), a 16-year-old cow (pronounced "airy coo") named Hamish who has become a cultural attraction and may or may not have given someone on our tour Mad Cow Disease, and the building were his fellow tour guide lost his virginity. Highly informative.

Monty Python castle

Princes Garden, outside Edinburgh Castle, where the bodies were found

The famous 16-year-old Hamish

Kid who maybe received Mad Cow Disease from Hamish

3. Tea and scones. I have finally come around to this English tradition. Especially when you add raspberry jam. Yum. We tried some at the Elephant Cafe, where J.K. Rowling scribbled down the beginning of Harry Potter on napkins. 

We were hoping to see tons of Harry Potter paraphernalia, and instead found kid illustrations of elephants, shot down elephants, and elephant chairs. Bogus. What was I saying about scones again?

The coffee shop where J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter

4. Stag Night. We ran into two groups of "stags" or bachelor parties at the bar The Three Sisters while watching the Scotland v. Holland futbol match. The first bachelor we met was dressed in a Ken Barbie, neon pink spandex outfit, complete with pink tights and a belly shirt. Every time you said "stag" he had to do 10 pushups, which he did with tissues under his hands for cleanliness.

Posing with Bachelor No. 1

Full body shot

Just say "stag" and he'll do pushups-with tissues of course

The second group of stags were English 40-year-olds dressed as Sherlock Holmes (who by the way, was created in Edinburgh). They were more rambunctious, asking if we wanted to play a game where they could make our knockers move without touching them. Hmm...not remembering by I love stag night.

Bachelor No. 2

Jamie talking to the Sherlock Holmes clan

5. Haggis. Ok, not really. But I did try it.

My roommate about to try haggis

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

St. Patrick's Day in Dublin

Last weekend, I spent the weekend before St. Patrick's Day in Dublin-an Irish girl in a college kid's dream.

But it wasn't what I thought.

On my first night, I went to Temple Bar, a notorious breeding ground for booze-hungry tourists. We elbowed our way through college boys wearing Virginia t-shirts and drunk girls swaying to "Oh Danny Boy."

After ordering Guinesses, my friends and I met two friendly Irishmen who bought us another round and danced a jig with us to Van Morrison. So far so good.

But then, one of the Irishmen said, "Why did you come here? Don't spend your time in pubs."

What? This is Ireland! This is St. Patrick's Day weekend!

He explained he wanted me to see Ireland's history and not think of the Irish as drunkards.

And after that weekend, I don't.

Surveying the streets at 3 a.m., I saw huddled Spanish kids chanting and clapping, a U.S. girls' sports team booty-shaking to bongo drums and our American group singing S Club 7 songs.

Live band in Temple Bar

I saw drunk Chicagoans with shamrock tattoos stumbling around the streets demanding Subway and two Spanish men wearing wife beaters that said "Kiss Me, I'm Maybe Irish."

The Irish do go out, but Americans and other nationalities far outnumbered them this weekend.

In Ireland, St. Patrick's Day is a day of holy obligation and usually celebrated as a religious holiday-not like it is in the states.

Two years ago, I went to Savanna, Ga., for the world's largest St. Patrick's Day parade. In between kids clamoring for beads from floats and tripping over beers cans, a sea of green shirts poured out of every bar like a fresh Guiness tap. It was impossible to even enter a bar.

And back in Milwaukee, our college bar, Murphy's, opened at 6 a.m.

"I'm gonna open and close Murphy's!" one friend said.

What did you do this St. Patrick's Day? Was it filled with green beer bongs and 7 a.m. bar call times? Did it seem crazier than Dublin?

And one more thing-don't order Irish Car Bombs in Ireland.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"My New Air-cut" (in the Jersey accent from YouTube)

I just got the worst haircut. Think Marilyn Manson, a dread locked hobo and an aspiring 80's prom queen combined. Plus a little Golden Retriever. Ok, maybe it was just a lot of hairspray, but still. 

My roommate and I wanted to get a new European chic haircut, like Kate Moss or Amy Winehouse.

We heard about this "Salon Chocolat," where they give free hot chocolate, free chocolate samples and have such a French sounding name. 

We were all for it. The night before we picked out styles from a British hair magazine called "YourHair." Clever, I know. I gravitated toward Heidi Klum's sleek, shoulder-length haircut. It was no Amy Winehouse, but it would do.

We show up to the salon, which is in back of a chocolate display. My hairdressor's name was Brent. He lives in France, commutes to Canterbury twice a week, and spends the rest of the week teaching the latest styles from Paris to hairdressors in Belgium. Legit, right?

I told him about the Klum look, and he talked me out of it. "You've got such great curly hair!"he said.  Tell me about it. He convinced me of a look that's popular in Paris right now. The hair is cut to be angled behind the head, with a little fringe in the front draped back. Sick. But if it's all the rage in Paris and he teaches in Belgium...what the heck, I thought, I'll go for it. When in Rome...

He let his "assistant" wash my hair, which turned into a creepy thumb massage, and "assistant" blow dried my hair. My hair came out straight. I was praying that now Brent would work my hair like putty into something Parisian-fantastic.

Putty he used, all right. Brent applied gobs of wax and hair spray for my "wavy-fringe-Paris look." I peered in the mirror. I looked like a wet dog that had just ran through a tornado of dirty wax. Not joking. I sat in my chair fuming.

"Isn't my hair supposed to be curly?" I asked.

"Yeah, it is. That's funny. Hm..." he said. 

Apparently "assistant" used the bean-chocolate-whatever-conditioner, which is wrong. It makes dry hair very straight and flat. Smart. And "assistant" didn't curl my hair but blow-dried it straight.

"Well, come back in a few weeks and I'll blow dry your hair for free so you'll get your money's worth," he said.

My money's worth? What? Isn't that what I'm here for today? I asked if he could start over, which he did. I came out looking much the same, just with curly, individually sticky hairs. It was sick. I think if I fell over my hair would stick to the floor. And then they could use it to wax a speedboat. I sat in my chair on fire with anger. "Yeah, it's really great, nice how cuurly it is now," I kept saying.

My new "haircut"

From the back

Are these people delusional or just know they screwed up and are trying to sell it to you? I don't get it. I paid 40 frickin' pounds for my natural hair to be sprayed with a gallon of hairspray. 

I think he felt bad for me, because he gave me a box of chocolates, which I gave up for Lent. 

I ran outside and chomped them down like T-Rex, enraged. I then went into every single store on my way to the bus stop, looking to buy something, anything, to make me feel better. 

I kept saying to myself, people in Somalia are starving and you're ready to cry about your hair? But our hair is so personal. It says something about us. If you have a bob, you're not afraid to be different. If you have a mushroom cut, well, God help you. But whatever the style, it's a part of you. I did not want to cry to the world that I wanted to be Ryan Seacrest with moussed extensions. Shoot me. I'm still a little bitter. 

I ended up buying nothing and then dunking my head in the shower to wash all the goo out.  It actually wasn't a horrible cut, just bad styling. Last time I trust the French with style. 

Monday, March 9, 2009

Nuts for Nutella

I have a new obsession (it doesn't involve plucking eyebrows or black labradors): Nutella. 

Nutella on pretzels, toast, crepes with strawberries, celery, Carr's crackers, fingers, naan, anything I can find, basically. 

I feel cliche to pine over it, like Mary Kate and Ashley in Our Lips Are Sealed when they first discover surfers and nutella in Australia, but it is amazing.

I first tried it with my boyfriend in Rome on crackers, and since then, nutella and I have not separated. It's sweet, dependable, alluring, full of surprises--you can't go wrong. I even gave up all sweets for Lent, but reasoned that nutella is hazelnut and a spread, therefore, not a sweet.

Yesterday, I wandered through Portobello Road in Notting Hill, a trendy street with markets and American Apparel, and smacked on a warm nutella crepe with strawberries. I told the Italian woman who made it about my new obsession and she warned me.

"I used to have three a day and I was much bigger," she said as she gestured her arms in a big circle.

Yikes. Well, I'm willing to turn into Kirstie Allie for nutella.

No Sandwiches in Sandwich

Last Friday, I was bored. I looked at the pile of pamphlets on my desk like "25 Fun Things To Do in Kent" or "Flying Pig Amsterdam" (don't ask), and the little town of Sandwich caught my eye. 

The brochure said Sandwich was "the best preserved medieval city" and I thought I saw something about the ocean. It sounded like a small Cape Cod destination, where you can eat crab sandwiches on the sea. 

So I grabbed a friend and went. As we approached some wooded cottages on a river, I asked an old man where the city centre was. 

"Sandwich is not a city," he said as he shook his finger at me. "It's a town." 

Sandwich's "town centre"

It certainly was. We made our way through "town," looking to eat a sandwich in Sandwich, and encountered pubs, pubs, pubs and a flower shop. Since all restaurants in Britain seem to close from two till six (for siestas?) we tried to look for the sea.

We asked a purple-haired old woman for directions. 

"The sea? That's a long way off! We have a river..." she said.

Sandwich's river

Standoff by the river

So we saw the river...and the about half an hour. We then walked two miles through moorish countryside to an old Roman fort that's now an eroded pile of rocks. On the way, we got chased down by a horse, barked at by dogs and stood feet away from cows. Breathtaking, really.

At "Gallows Field" where they buried people alive

Sandwich countryside

The Roman fort/amphitheatre

We treated ourselves to a well-earned crab cake dinner on the river. We decided Sandwich was a retirement village for wealthy old people driving red porches, and then left. So much for sandwiches...

My friend Angela excited for crab cakes

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Our first Sunday Roast

In Canterbury, students have a designated going-out spot for every night.

Monday is The Works, a sleezy nightclub that had a "Sex" theme last week welcoming students dressed like prostitutes and pimps. The club also hosted a stripper, who wore gloves and professor-ish glasses. Classy.

Tuesday, Thursday and Friday students go to more bars on campus. Every academic building has a bar, which are surprisingly popular. It would be strange to go wasted into Johnston Hall dressed like a rejected 80's prom queen or a bloated cow, but here, it's the norm.

Massive Mungo's, in a school building

Wednesday and Saturdays are the Venue, the University of Kent's own nightclub. You'd think it would be like the Annex, where you get chili cheese fries on Sundays but otherwise wouldn't go. Not here.

The Venue on Friday night

Girls dress up in black Topshop tube top dresses (a popular store where Kate Moss has a line), with black tights and black patent leather heels. The Venue also has a swanky bar and a two-level dance floor with a semi-cage and people grinding to Girltalk. It's an experience.

But Sunday, Sunday is Roast Night. No, not a roast of Bob Saget (which my friend thought), but a legitimate pot roast dinner at a pub. My roommates and I have tried all the other weekday activities, so tonight we made our way to the Penny Theatre for a full-on roast.

I was expecting to sit down at a rustic dining room table with a skewered melt-in-my-mouth pot roast while a guitarist strummed Bob Dylan.

Ah, no. We walked into the low-lighted bar, where kids were playing pool and "Lady Marmalade" blasted. We walked into a cozy dark corner, sat on stools, searched for the non-existent pot roast, and settled on burgers and beer.

While you eat, they have Quiz Night, where every table receives an answer sheet filled with different categories like "Celebrities" and "Sports." An announcer reads questions and you write them down, hoping to win free pints or horse shoes (don't ask).

I was excited to participate, confident of my Trivia Pursuit skills. Question one: "What second-rate star recently got a boob job?" Ah, Audrina Partridge? Joan Rivers? Wait, we're in England, shoot. No idea.

We were clueless for the rest of the questions as well, and put answers like "Charlie bit my finger" and "Pete Doherty."

We left slightly tipsy and with a score of zero, but glad we finally made it to Roast Night. Now for more academic bars...