Rough and Tumble Beauty

My photo: Sunlight beneath a large fern ~ Isle of Arran
The National Flower: Scottish Thistle: Photo by Brian Breeden on Unsplash

Seven days of cycling through the Scottish countryside made my heart sing in so many ways which, to be truthful, I was not expecting. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting but I didn’t think–for example–that I’d find picture-perfect neatness among the rough and tumble landscape nearly at every turn. Honestly, my words here cannot possibly convey the beauty of Scotland! Countless times I remarked to hubby– as we cycled through tiny towns, over hills and dales, around castle grounds, on an island off the mainland, and also in Galloway Forest Park in Dumfries and Galloway–about how neat and tidy everything was. My Libra affection for all things beautiful was smitten indeed with the tiny white-washed cottages that dotted lush green and rocky landscapes. Framed by perfectly trimmed hedges and old stone walls, yards are neat and orderly with pots of flowers, thoughtfully placed here and there—their blooms vibrant against the backdrop of white walls. I was so enthralled with this neatness I felt compelled to ask one of our Scottish cycle guides, Craig, if there was some sort of monetary penalty for keeping a junky yard.

His look was quizzical to I explained my question. “In Alabama country, it is not at all uncommon to see discarded old toilets and bathtubs in the front yard, along with piles of garbage, bed mattresses, broken sofas, and other debris. Honestly you’ll see everything from thoroughly dilapidated houses to abandoned rusted-out cars to heaps of old farm machinery.”

“Aye, no…we don’t have that issue,” he said. We Scots simply take a lot of pride in our surroundings. We like to keep things neat and orderly and often we compete for the prettiest gardens.” He further added that his yard wasn’t quite as soothing to the eye. “I’m never home long enough to take care of things (But of course! He’s busy catering to cyclists like us!). I’d wager you’d be a wee bit disappointed with my yard.”

My photo: That’s some back yard!

“I think we need to overhaul our yard,” I said to hubby days after returning home. I could see a slight clenching of his jaw which made me quickly add:

“Oh…I know! That is not going to happen of course! We’ve got three bathrooms up next to remodel on the list of things to do to update our “fixer-upper.”

“It’s just that I can’t get those quaint tidy yards and all those flowers out of my head,” I explained. “Everything seemed so exquisitely manicured.”

My photo: Tidiness round every corner

Not only are yards and Cottages charming and prettily maintained the flora of Scotland didn’t disappoint the eyes one bit either. I wasn’t able to put names to everything that made my heart sing put I do know that there were lovely poppies at one lunch stop, as well as Heather, Thistle (the national flower of Scotland) and a profusion of purple rhododendrons practically in every nook and cranny. I found out later that those beautiful pops of purple rhododendrons everywhere are considered “invasive” and threaten the native biodiversity of the countryside. Ferns, large and small, from fragile to hardy, were everywhere too, even growing out of stone walls and atop barns and cottages. Vividly green moss was everywhere–on rocks and walls, on massive gnarled tree roots and lichen too, adding interest and color to the landscape as well. And who knew that there are some 1,500 varieties of Lichen in Scotland?! Interested in learning more, check out: https://www.nature.scot/plants-animals-and-fungi/lichens. Additionally, because the Isle of Arran enjoys the warming influence of the Gulf Stream and with it a mild climate, it is abundantly rich in diversity of flora and ferns. Incredibly, the small island of Arran boasts some 900 flowering plants and a host of interesting greenery to include the rather bizarre looking Monkey Puzzle tree.

Lichen: Photo by Kai Gradert on Unsplash

As I consider an afternoon walk with The Poodle you can understand, dear reader, why my head is still across-the- pond, in Scotland where temps are at least thirty degrees less sweltering and sheep (even the baa-bad ones) bleat in conversation roaming endless pastures of rough and tumble beauty.

There is bliss in that.

BAA-AH Bad

It only took less than twenty-four hours into our Scotland bicycle adventure to form a solid opinion of sheep: they are exceedingly stupid… and dangerous. 

Of course, there are opinions to the contrary.  In a 2017 BBC article one Harriet Constable wrote: Sheep are actually surprisingly intelligent, with impressive memory and recognition skills. They build friendships, stick up for one another in fights, and feel sad when their friends are sent to slaughter. They are also one of the most destructive creatures on the planet.

Before the morning of June 16th I knew nothing about the woolly wonders, thinking them incredibly cute…even sweet.  I mean, who doesn’t love those Serta® Mattress Sheep….or claymation sheep…..or…counting sheep to achieve a peaceful slumber.

Serta Mattress Sheep

So imagine the following scene that happened before my eyes….

Our group of nine cyclists were cycling along a lovely country road in Dumfries and Galloway.   We had already had our group meeting and first route briefing, fueled by cups of tea and coffee and freshly baked, mouth-watering scones along with tiny jars of a lovely assortment of sweet jams.  As we headed together for our first ride we stuck together.  This particular ride would be our day-one orientation ride to work out potential kinks in our bike fitting and to orient ourselves to riding on the left.  The latter naturally a critical skill to master, like…um… immediately!   All of us had a moment of forgetting to look to the right and not the left when entering an intersection (as that’s where cars would be coming from).

We were all pedaling along nicely, getting into a lovely rhythm whilst oohing and awing over greener than green fields partitioned here and there by old dry stone walls (many are centuries old) as well as modern hedges and low wire fences. The stone walls were a marvel to me as there is little to no cement to hold them together. How they have managed to stand over hundreds of years through the fiercest of weather is astounding to me. A major feature of the Scottish countryside these stone walls serve as property boundary lines as well as keep livestock (cows and sheep) from roaming away.

Dry Stone Wall – Dumfries and Galloway

In theory that is.

As we pedaled in a mostly leisurely fashion for this first ride, we rounded one corner to come upon farmland to our left. There were plenty of sheep, of course and for the most part they were preoccupied with eating…grazing. Some bleated in the distance and some who were closer to the rock wall looked up as we approached ….

Several woolly fellows crossed the road quite a bit ahead of our guide leader Jeff and my husband. They happened to be cycling side by side while the rest of us followed single file. They slowed their pace to allow ample space for the sheep to pass slowly, in a manner that suggested they did this every day, as if they were on their afternoon errands.

Then, in the space of a nano-second two sheep grazing on a spot of higher ground looked up, taking notice of us… and for some unfathomable reason they decided to hop the fence.

The incident unfolded before I could blink.

Together….in perfect synchronicity….the two hopped over the old stone wall and directly into the cyclist just inches in front of me. This would be Dr. G. a pulmonary critical care doctor from New Hampshire.

The sheep literally took him out.

I screamed as the sheep ran into Dr. G. causing him to crash and land with a heavy thud to the pavement. Our bike guide, Jeff, literally flew off his bike, as did I.

In that split second I honestly thought that the writing was on the wall for our fellow cyclist. Surely our next stop would be at a hospital.

Aye….you just had to be there dear reader….

But our Dr. G. was spared that afternoon! Miraculously he suffered only a broken helmet, road rash to one arm and a seriously large bruise that took several days to develop. And incredibly, not even the bike was damaged. But, even more remarkable to me was he did not quit his bicycle adventure. After we all calmed down over the ordeal he was given a new helmet and off we went finishing our first days’ ride of nearly 43 miles. Little did he know that he became my hero for the week. I was but a breath away from hanging up the bike before the adventure really began. The country has over a gazillion sheep after all; I wasn’t keen on the now real possibility of another sheep attack.

You can do this…came the whisper on a breeze. And so I did.

Yes, there is bliss when you’re scared sheep-less.

More to come, when time permits.

Enjoy a few photos (click on them for a better view).

AWFUL, Offal

Scottish Sheep, Photo by Andreea Popa on Unsplash

Start Yer Day The Offal Way!

Surely this must be emblazoned on a t-shirt somewhere and if not, it should be as indeed that is what most Scots do.

So let it be known that I tried it too and I can unequivocally attest that the Offal way–or more precisely Haggis— is…..drum roll…

disgusting.

No offense to the kind people of Scotland.

So, you take some sheep pluck (that would be heart, lungs and liver) and mince it up nicely. Then, cook up this awful offal adding minced onions, beef or mutton suet, oatmeal, herbs and seasonings (like that would make a difference!).  Then, you stuff the disgusting “savory” concoction into the lining of a sheep’s stomach (excuse me whilst I stifle a vomit).  The final step is to then stitch up the delicately sautéed organ stuff into a nice ball and boil it for at least three hours.

And that my dear reader is Haggis, which is also described as a pudding.

So, I’m assuming at least one of my seven dear readers is scratching his/her head.  Why on earth would I ingest one morsel of the awful offal stuff?  I can blame it on fellow blogger extraordinaire Neil of Yeah, Another Blogger: https://yeahanotherblogger.com/ who recently vacationed in Scotland.  He said, and I quote:  …” Yet I regret one thing, culinary-speaking: I should have given haggis a try, even if only one or two forkfuls.”

He had no idea that he laid down the gauntlet, in a manner of speaking, plus I was determined to “do as I say” with respect to my nephew Alexandre-the-Greatest.  I’m ever pushing him to give things at least one try instead of opining without experiencing.

So Neil, I am forever grateful to you now that I’ve crossed this experience off my list of things to try (adding it to the list of things to never try again).  IMHO, Neil, you can sleep soundly –and without need of counting sheep!  Trust me when I say you need not regret not giving Haggis a try!

Still, It’s a wonder indeed that this national dish of Scotland— has, by some accounts—been around since the 1400’s and is on the Scottish table for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  And, incredibly, in recent, modern times, popularity has grown so much that there are Haggis potato chips, Haggis arancini balls, and even Haggis Bon-Bons. I wouldn’t put it past the Scots to have created Haggis ice-cream. 

Hmm….wait a minute; let me Google that.

Holy Hairy Coo (hairy cow)!  There is Haggis ice-cream! Don’t believe me?  Watch here:  https://youtu.be/WfjJxe30tdM

Another piece of believe-it-or-not trivia: Haggis is used in a sport called haggis hurling.  Honestly, As God is my witness, I did not make this up.  The “sport” involves throwing a haggis as far as possible.  And get this…the kicker is that once the flung Haggis lands it must still be edible.  The world record for haggis hurling was achieved by Lorne Coltart on 11 June 2011, who hurled his haggis 217 ft.  I’m passing on a YouTube search of haggis- hurling, thank you very much.

Still, I’m close to hurling up my morning Scottish shortbread cookies just thinking about it. 

More on my Scottish adventure when time permits 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿❤️🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿

Me, Holding my nose and giving Haggis a try
Haggis Potato Chips provided as a snack by our cycling guides

Low Country High

Bonaire Sunset

I’m back.

Mostly.

Part of me lies at 40 feet where moments of awe and joy are with me still even after returning home late Sunday. I’ve got a raging head cold which fortunately began on the  day of our return –literally mid-air–from our “low-country” island paradise.  No worries though; honestly, my pounding head has not dampened my spirits one bit.

So….we are back from six days of scuba diving in the Caribbean;  the lovely island of Bonaire to be specific. The last time I visited this pearl was seventeen years ago.  Discovered around 1499, this tiny gem lies 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela and is neighbor to nearby Aruba and Curacao (together, the three of them form what are called the ABC Islands which are the western Lesser Antilles).    Boniare is roughly 24 miles long and between three and seven miles wide.  It is said that the name Bonaire is derived from the Caquetio word Bonay, which means low country.  The Caquetio, a branch of now extinct Arawak natives (indigenous peoples of South America and the Caribbean) who lived in northwestern Venezuela along the shores of Lake Maracaibo are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of  Bonaire (as well as Aruba and Curacao), arriving in dug-out canoes around 1000 A.D.   Archeological evidence of the Caquetio culture has been found in Kralendijk (Bonaire’s capital) and near the shallow, glass-like Lac Bay.   Alas, we were too consumed with scuba diving to visit the caves where rock paintings and petroglyphs from this ancient civilization are still evident.  Perhaps a third visit?

The diving, though not without challenges (namely equipment failures), was simply amazing.  However, I’ll have to admit to an irritation that nearly made me come un-done.   I completely bombed on my first day the one skill that I thought I had mastered during my pool refresher class.

Yep.  I could not clear my mask!

And yes…full disclosure….I had a panic attack.

I didn’t see that coming…..

Fortunately for me (or rather, my ego) no one witnessed the frantic, flailing red-head just of off the pier in scarcely twelve feet of water.  I couldn’t see a blasted thing through my flooded mask, so I panicked because not only is mask-clearing a necessary skill, it was one that I had thought I had pretty much mastered.  Now, moments before we are set to embark on our first boat dive to about 60-70 feet, I clearly was not prepared.

My mind was clear enough in my panic to inflate my BCD (Buoyancy Compensator Device) full throttle (filling it with air) so that I could float on my back and chill myself out.  It took a moment or two of floating in the turquoise blue water before I got my head back on straight and tried again….and again, and again.    It wasn’t until day three of our trip that I found out my mask was–in a word–defective: Rocket-man, a skilled mask clearer, could never get it to de-fog (clear) either!  Turns out it was a brand that made the company that developed it to go belly up some seventeen years ago because, well, the mask didn’t work for folks! How I was discovering the problem now after using it all those years ago perplexes me to no end.

The issue was finally remedied by Marcos, one of the dive guides.  Heavily inked and with zero body fat, this quiet soul left his home in Venezuela some twenty years ago to live in Bonaire.  “Hugo Chavez ruined my country,” he said.   He would be correct as it certainly paved the way for the state of affairs in Venezuela today.  Marcos aches for what is happening in his home country but acknowledges that life has been infinitely better for him since leaving it.   Anyhow, he heard me complaining to Rocket-man and came to my rescue (as it pertains to me, it would be the first of two damsel-in-distress moments, but that’s for another time).   He kindly let me use another mask for the rest of the week without charging me a rental fee.  We certainly appreciated the small break as we had already racked up rental fees since we had to ditch some of our own gear which, for the record, had been serviced just before our trip and worked in the pool session but strangely malfunctioned on day one of our scuba adventure.  Go figure!

Anyhow, I practically did  somersaults of joy at sixty feet as I was finally able to see clearly all the spectacular underwater sights.  For instance, there was the vibrant orange seahorse like this fellow:

Image courtesy of DesiBucket.com

….and, there were Moray eels and Flamingo Tongues (brightly colored sea snails).  There were also pretty Parrot Fish, schools of Sergeant Majors, and beautiful Butterfly Fish as well as Angel Fish, menacing-looking Barracuda, Flounder, enormous Tarpons, Trumpet fish, and even a turtle sighting. And that’s just fish.   The dizzying variety of underwater landscape from different types of coral to sea fans, etc. …In all, simply too many spectacular beauties to recount.

For all the sea life to love there is one fish however, that while strikingly cool in appearance, is cause for a certain loathing.  It’s a fish that is causing a great deal of harm to the reef system –not to mention the pain that can be inflicted from their venomous spines.   That would be Lionfish.  These fish are not native to the lovely Caribbean waters.  They are threatening  the ecosystem in the Caribbean as well as the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast coast of the U.S.   Unfortunately, we saw lots of these fish which are actually natives of the Indo-Pacific.  In fact, every time we saw a Lionfish, fellow diver, Karen–who was positively amazing at maintaining neutral buoyancy I might add–would flip the bird at it.   I’ll confess to laughing in my mask the first time she did it because… well…it’s not everyday you see someone flipping the bird underwater.

Cool but dangerous

Certainly striking in appearance, Lionfish have no natural enemies.  One of the most aggressively invasive species on the planet they are carnivores, feeding on small crustaceans and fish, including red snapper and grouper which obviously affects commercial fishing.  While it’s not entirely known how these fish wound up so far from their natural habitat it is speculated that people have been dumping these fish from home aquariums.  Now there is sanctioned hunting of Lionfish (permit required) and in 2010 the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) even initiated a campaign, “The Lionfish as Food,” to get people to eat the fish.  Apparently, though the fish as some eighteen venomous spines when properly filleted, the naturally venomous fish is safe to eat.

I’ll stick to Salmon, Tuna, and snapper thank you very much.

My words in this blog-space simply cannot capture the magnificence of what I saw….what I felt.  But when I close my eyes I can still see in surprising vividness, the sun subtly filtering through the water some forty feet above me… and there I am in a moment of quiet stillness, not affected one bit by sensory overload of a million things to see, but rather taken completely out of my head, stripped of past and future…in the now… and my soul is bursting with bliss and wonder as my body is surrounded by a school of stunningly brilliant  Blue Tang  (image from: By Tewy – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1382534).

Blue Tang

Parrot Fish

There’s more to recount of my island week to be sure.  In fact, I’m holding tight to every experience, even those moments of high anxiety.  As I sit here at my desk staring out the window bracing for another cold-front set to come our way, I’m certain dear reader that you’ll understand…. I’m in no hurry whatsoever to let go of my low-country high.

Island time bliss

 

Head Wins (for now)

 

I was in my Sis’s kitchen twenty minutes or so before my nephew’s first day of 5th grade. Knowing that I’d be over to witness the event, Sis had a hot cup of strong, perfect coffee ready for me. As I take my first sips I watch as she gathers lunch items for her son’s lunchbox.  She finishes by nestling a sweet note under his sandwich.  I think about the days eons ago when I did the same thing for my kids.

I joke with my nephew saying, “So…what’s up with a yellow bus in the neighborhood?”

He rolls his eyes.  He’s not ready for summer to end.

Truth is, I feel the same.  Honestly, my entire being is still back at the beach.  My toes are in the sand and the book I brought but never open is cast off to the side as I gaze out at the ocean.

Apparently, some of the kids I queried while standing less than a half hour later at the bus stop with my nephew feel the same.  They aren’t ready for what seems like an abrupt end to summer.  “It’s not even labor day and we are back in school,” says one youngster.   There were seven or eight kids all with new backpacks, lunchboxes, and noticeably of course, new shoes, along with their parents waiting for the bus.  It’s not yet 8:15 and we’re all sweating as we stand waiting with the kids.  The Poodle had plopped himself down on the sidewalk and is panting too from the heat.  The humidity level is already high for what will be another scorcher of a day.  For one little one it would be her first time on a yellow school bus.  Wearing a blue dress with pretty pink shoes she was, understandably, a very nervous kindergartener.  Both mom and dad were witnessing this milestone day for their daughter.  Mom carried her little pink backpack while dad did his best to reassure.  It helped that her big brother would also be on the same bus.

As the kids broke off into their own circle the parents stood together and chatted about their summers.  Most everyone went to a beach over the summer.

Ocracoke morning

“We went to Ocracoke,” I say to one dad.

“Where is that?” he asks. I was not surprised at the question as it isn’t necessarily a hot Outer Banks destination.

So off I went only too happy to babble on for a good five minutes about our beach week in rustic Ocracoke.

“…and at one point,” I continued, ” I could look as far as the eye could see on my right and again to my left…and as God is my witness…I was the only person on the beach!  I felt like I had been deposited on uninhabited island!”

“Really?”

“Yes, really! There are no houses or high-rises on the beach.  In fact, there are no high-rises anywhere on the island.  The only structure you’ll see on the beach is a small wood lifeguard stand” I replied.

“Wow, I’ll have to check that out for next year,” he said clearly interested.

Later back at the house over my second cup of coffee and a delicious banana muffin that my nephew had made the day before, I thought about our first beach evening just two weeks ago.  At the time, we were dining at the Ocracoke Oyster Company, one of the larger restaurants on the island.  As we sipped on wine, Sis and I had our wheels seriously turning and our heads high in the clouds about ditching city life for Ocracoke Island living.

Hmm.  We’d add five to the population of roughly 591, eight if you count the pets,” I say wistfully.  “But where would we shop?  I don’t even see a real grocery store around.  I mean, there is an elementary school and at least one church but I don’t see any non-tourist stores here.”

At that moment our young server comes with our appetizers.  Oysters, calamari, and a basket of onion rings.   Without a pause I begin peppering her with questions (something I’m more bold at doing now that I am in my 60’s).  She is happy to answer our questions as she refills our water glasses.  Coming from New York, she answered a help-wanted ad for Ocracoke and left on the spot.  She’s been living on the island for most of the summer.  She’s not sure of her future plans but she’s having a blast so far.

Sis and I marvel at her fearlessness.  Oh to be young again….

“So, where on earth do you shop for stuff?” I ask.  “I mean, it’s not like you can order from Amazon all the way out here.”

“Actually, I order stuff all the time from Amazon,” she replied.

“Seriously?”  Seriously.

I asked another person, an older guy, who has lived on the island for twenty years.  He confirmed that he gets most of what he needs from Amazon.  He even joked that being a Prime member doesn’t help the Ocracokers much as purchases obviously don’t arrive next day.  I imagine a UPS truck on the ferry and think that must be one uberly cool route for that driver.

But here’s the thing:  I’m not sure about my Sis but after four days on the island, as charming as it was, my island-living dreams lessened considerably.  I asked any local that would spare two minutes how they liked living year-round on tiny Ocracoke.  While most folks were very upbeat it was unanimous that winters were particularly brutal.  “It takes a special someone to like our winters,” said one.  “Winters are downright dead with nothing to do,” said another.   One spirited woman that worked in a tiny gallery summed-up what most people said: “It’s freaking bleak here in the winter plus, I’d be as big as a barn eating non-stop and watching Netflix 24-7.”  She added that she leaves the island every winter spending a month or two away, traveling to exotic locales.  Last year it was Thailand.  This year it will be somewhere in Europe.

Though we enjoyed, unexpectedly, an Italian white wine from Venice during one of our nights, I start to dwell on the remoteness of Ocracoke island living not to mention the memory of that terrifying lightening and thunder storm which sounded to me as if the world was coming to an end.

Wine from our neck of the woods in Italy!

Ocracoke has its unpleasant side then.  Dramatic weather, bitterly cold winters, dreary, depressing, and dead for months on end.  Ah…Reality bites.  My romantic bubble has burst.  Sigh.

So yeah…realistically, I don’t have the luxury of the peripatetic life of a twenty-year-old and truthfully, even when I was that age I didn’t live free and footloose.  My heart says one thing…my head says another.  And yes, often –admittedly, perhaps too oftenmy head wins.

Though I am not ready for the proverbial rocking chair just yet, as boring as it may sound, my head now is all about quick access to a good hospital, preferably by car or ambulance and not by helicopter.  And I need the fun of a zoo, lots of museums and the promise of attending concerts, cultural events, wine tastings, and so much more.  Plus, I like touching and feeling stuff before I buy.  How would I manage without Target (weekly), REI (frequently) and Nordstrom’s (once in a blue moon)? Not to mention reliable internet access!

Yes, my head wins, for now.  All is good.  As I sit here with my heart at the beach I acknowledge that it will just have to be enough.  At any moment I can sit back, relax, and close my eyes and…with a slow and steady breath…the ocean is right before me.  I can hear the crash of waves on the shore and the gentle peeps of Sanderlings skittering about looking for food….

My only Ocracoke shells

It will do, I think… until next time. 

And there will be a next time.

There is bliss in that.

 

Blissed-out (mostly) on Ocracoke

It’s been a little more than a week since returning from our second summer adventure yet it feels more like months ago.  I’m lamenting already but hopeful that more adventures will spring up in the fall and winter.  For now, though I am still tackling the sand in the car, memories of a lovely week with my sis and family will have to calm the itch to pack another bag and be off somewhere….anywhere.

I’m listless and finding it hard to get back into the groove after truly doing nothing. The beach does that to me every time.

This time our destination was a bit more rustic than other beach trips: Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.  We’re no strangers to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. We’ve done a fair amount of vacationing there, mostly on the northern part of the barrier chain in Duck and Corolla. Admittedly, we haven’t really explored a lot of the 130 miles of the thin strip of these barrier islands; we tend to drop beach chairs down into the sand and veg for the duration of a week.  We hadn’t for example, ever driven beyond Nags Head and Roanoke Island, the very spot where I married Rocket-man years ago. Yep… The Lost Colony island of Roanoke.

Sis is the one who suggested this particular beach destination.  She and her husband, on a whim, spent an overnight on Ocracoke last year when returning from a beach stay near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.  They were immediately smitten with its rustic charm.

“How do you get there,” I had asked at the time.   “Isn’t it the most remote island in the Outer Banks?”

“You take your car and ferry over,” she said.  “It takes about an hour.”

Away we go to Ocracoke!

“Wow…you put your car on a ferry?” I said in wonder.  I’ve taken ferries before.  It’s not that I don’t know the concept of vehicles on a ferry it’s just I’ve just never put my car on one.

Before heading to our Ocracoke (pronounces just as you see it: like the vegetable Okra and the soft drink Coke) adventure we made a pit stop in Manteo, on Roanoke Island. Sis and I wanted to see our great-aunt, family historian, Auntie Lou and her husband, our Uncle Jack. Auntie is in her 80’s and now needs a cane to get around but her mind is still pretty much sharp as a tack. Uncle Jack sat mostly quiet as sis and I peppered auntie with questions. It was lovely to spend a couple of hours catching up on life and listening to some family-tree stories. 

After we said our goodbyes we explored the area a bit, shopped, and decided on an early dinner as we planned an zero-dark-thirty departure for the Hatteras ferry the next morning.

The early morning sun shined happy as we drove through the little towns and quaint villages along the thin strip of land flanked by the Atlantic ocean on one side and the Pamlico Sound on the other.  I was excited to pass through the tiny town of Rodanthe, the locale featured in Nicholas Sparks 2002 tear-jerker Nights in Rodanthe, which was adapted into a film starring Richard GereWe also inched out way through Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, and Frisco finally arriving to Hatteras where we would take the ferry over to Ocracoke Island.  I was positively energized with excitement as we pulled into the Hatteras ferry station.  As we queued-up behind a long line of cars sis stepped out of hers which was several cars ahead of us. I thought for sure we’d be the first ones here given that we woke up before the roosters.

How long is this going to take?” I asked sis.  “There seem to be so many cars!”

“The line moves pretty quickly,” she said.  “You’ll see…maybe a half-hour, tops.  We’re just waiting for another ferry-boat to pull in.  Don’t worry…this is going to be fun,” she added as she hopped back into the car.

Ah.  She caught that hint of nervousness in my voice.

And fun it was! I was amazed that some folks stayed in their cars for the ride. The weather couldn’t be more perfect with the wind calm enough to be gentle on the hair…and yet there are people, sitting in their cars, sleeping or on their devices. I had to catch my myself in that moment of judgement: who am I to critique these folks?  Perhaps they make the ferry trip often enough that the novelty of it all has worn off.

Standing at the front of the boat, rows of cars behind me, I inhaled the experience into memory. I breathed in deeply, feeling the subtlety salty ocean air far to my left and the Pamlico sound air directly to my right. As I strained to see land I caught sight of flying fish which makes all of us watching ooh and aah at the spectacle. Before an hour is up we are slowly pulling into the Ocracoke ferry dock.

At sixteen miles long, and at its widest point, three miles across, Ocracoke is barely five feet above sea level so flooding is always an issue.  In fact, it rained two of the four days of our stay and large pools and lakes of water sprouted everywhere. There are no high rises or beach mansions so it’s mighty rustic as beach towns go.  As of 2014, an estimated 591 people live on the island year-round.  This “sand bar” of a place has some interesting history too.  For example, It was, understandably due to its remoteness, a favorite hang-out for pirates back in the day.  Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, frequently anchored just off the island.  Apparently it was his favorite anchorage spot and it’s where he ultimately met his demise in 1718.

Vowing not to let rain spoil our time, we managed to get to the beach everyday.   We frolicked a fair amount of time in the water on day two of our stay. My nephew had oodles of fun body surfing with his father and Zio “Luigi.”  I also spent more time than usual in the water thanks to the peace of mind of my newly purchased Sharkbanz, a device intended to deter sharks by way of upsetting their electroreception.  On advice by my dear friend, Miss Cookie who used the product during her beach week, I purchased one literally three days before our trip with only a quick perusal of the official website and a couple of YouTube videos. You can check out their site here: https://www.sharkbanz.com/pages/how-it-works

I had my Sharkbanz strapped to my ankle which, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for an ankle bracelet monitoring device for someone on parole or under house arrest.  “HA….let’s give ’em something to talk about!” I thought as onlookers noted my accessory as I played in the water on my boogie board.

Of course, it was only after my trip that I delved into more YouTube videos to see that on occasion the device doesn’t work!  Miss Cookie, had warned that Great Whites appear to be unaffected by the strong magnet device.  They stalk from a distance and then purposefully aggressively strike to kill. Still, Ignorance is bliss, I say. Even if it was but a placebo effect, my “fashion” accessory allowed me to spend hours in the water without worrying much about what lurked below the surface.  Later that night as I tossed and turned in the motel bed to the loud drone of the window unit air conditioner, I thought about my Starkbanz safely back in its proper box for storage.  How about similar devices to deter snakes…and spiders…and frogs that fall atop one’s head?!   Alas, sleep eluded all of us that night as powerful thunder and lightning tormented the tiny island for what seemed like hours.

Foggy-brained in the morning due to lack of sleep, we were all dragging just a bit.  At a quaint coffee shop around the corner, the Ocracoke Coffee Co., people were all a-twitter about the terrific storm of the night and all the rain that came with it.  As I stood in line for my java fix I caught bits and pieces of conversation from folks coming and going.

“What a night, eh?” said one guy who looked to be in his fifties.

“I know, amazing right? I just love lightning storms!” gushed the barista gal behind the counter. She sported Shamrock green braids gathered into a loose bun at the base of her neck. While I don’t have green hair I think I am stylin’ with my well-worn Chacos and Lululemon capris.  Still, I feel like a fossil in that moment as the general consensus of the morning chatter in the coffee-house was just how “freaking cool” that lightning show was.

Am I the only one on the planet who doesn’t find it particularly soothing to be squarely under a thunder and lightning storm?  As a side note, By chance I happened to read that last week severe lightning damaged the steeple of the Ocracoke Methodist church.  It took out the wooden cross.

Ocracoke Methodist Church – now missing part of its steeple and it’s cross.

 

Ponder on the meaning of that weirdness whilst I think of more Ocracoke tidbits to share….

A Roanoke relic in the brackish marsh….

Forget “Bella Figura”… Mangia!

Fresh on the heels of a two-week European adventure I’m tired beyond belief. My body feels like a ton of bricks and my mind is in such a jet-lag induced fog that I cannot even add two plus two.

Wait.

What was that?  European adventure?!

Yes!

So folks, it was pretty much a spur of the moment deal. If there isn’t a “rule” there ought to be. Let’s say rule # 43, just for fun: When a business trip takes a husband overseas then wife gets to travel along too.”

OK. So he’s had a number of overseas trips in these past four years that I’ve had to sit out for a variety of reasons but this time presented an opportunity to visit my Italian roots once again (the last time being 2008), something that was necessary for me to do in the recent aftermath of my mother’s passing. So invoking rule #43, a business conference in Vienna morphed into a side trip to the Czech Republic (only about four hours by car) and a six-day jaunt to northern Italy. My mission in Italy was to lay a few things to rest…or attempt to at the very least. I was marginally  successful there. Suffice it to say that more time is needed. I did accomplish one goal however. I ate. A lot. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

I seriously kick myself for not writing much of anything during these past couple of weeks but honestly folks, I was too busy eating my way through three countries. Every morsel of food that I put into my mouth was fresh, wholesome, fabulously delicious food. Food sans preservatives that thrilled the taste buds in ways too numerous to count. In the days leading up to my trip I’ll admit that I swore up and down that I would be a “good” girl and fight to keep a semblance of  una bella figura (a nice figure) for a gal pushing sixty.    I knew I wouldn’t be doing my normal gym workouts for two weeks so managing my caloric intake would be important.

“I’m not going to pig out,” I said to Rocket-man as I threw stuff into my suitcase in giddy anticipation at the prospect of traveling overseas again.  (Full disclosure: I will confess that I was, at times, a nervous ninny about travel given the rise in terrorist atrocities.)

As I prattled on whilst deciding on which shoes to pack I vowed to Rocket-man that I would absolutely restrain myself from overeating.  Translation: a) I will not order dessert, and b) I will leave food on my plate.

Ah…you guessed it. That did not happen.

Forget the whole bella figura thing.  Mangia was my mantra.  Eat! (and drink).  And I did both with joyful abandon.  I enjoyed desserts (but managed to restrain myself in this department!) and I practically squeegee-cleaned my plate at every meal. Except for once that is. In that case, the schnitzel was positively ginormous. No doubt I’d still be sitting in that Viennese restaurant attempting to finish it. Still, I gave it my best effort; who knew when I’d be in Vienna again, if ever…right?

But here’s the thing:  Freshly prepared, real food with good olive oil, fresh spices, and herbs straight from the garden is enormously satisfying in smaller portions and for the most part, smaller portions are the norm in Europe.  With the exception of the schnitzel, everything I ate arrived on a smaller-than-U.S.-size plate.  And European sweets?  They are not loaded with sugar and sickeningly-sweet icings.

Pizza, Quattro Stagioni....so good it brought tears to my eyes.

Pizza, Quattro Stagioni….I ate the whole thing!

Perfect Papardelle in a lavender purple, lavender everywhere roadside restaurant.

Perfect Papardelle in a lavender purple, lavender everywhere roadside restaurant.

 

Though too much to cover now, here is a short account to make your mouths positively salivate:

In the Czech Republic I had the best pappardelle dish I had ever eaten during a roadside stop just off the highway en-route to Vienna.  It was a curious place nearly smack dab in the middle of a field of lavender.  Inside the modern decor was awash in white and varying hues of purple with dried lavender bouquets hanging everywhere.   My pappardelle dish was laced with grilled vegetables and topped with delicately shaved Parmesan cheese. I didn’t leave so much as a parsley sprig on my plate.

Schnitzel.  Divine...but I absolutely couldn't eat the whole thing!

Schnitzel. Divine…but I absolutely couldn’t eat the whole thing!

 

Oodles of noodles...a lovely spinach dumpling dish

Oodles of noodles…a lovely spinach dumpling dish

Sachertorte...a Viennese chocolate cake that is not sickeningly sweet.

Sachertorte: a Viennese chocolate cake that’s not overly sweet

 

During our five days In Vienna I dined on schnitzels (highly recommend schnitzel at Figlmueller’s) and an assortment of dumpling (Austrian noodle) dishes. Folks, I’m not even a dumpling person but as the saying goes… when in Vienna!  Therefore, in my quest to try all things Viennese I gushed over one particular plate of spinach dumplings, using pretzel bread to soak up the last bit of sauce.

 

I ordered Sachertorte (A Viennese specialty) with the intent of sharing it and didn’t!  I mean really, share this specialty chocolate cake….who does that?!   Later in that week we enjoyed lunch, in a quaint courtyard restaurant off the beaten path.  I groaned with pleasure over my plate of velvety smooth polenta topped with a lively peperonata sauce. If I could, I wouldn’t have left my chair that afternoon and I would have stayed on for dinner.

In northeast Italy–in my mother’s neck of the woods (and mine as well), I was transported to another universe with melt-in-your mouth Frico, a specialty dish of the Friuli-Veneto region. Originally considered a peasant dish when Friuli was a poor region, this fried (or baked) dish of potatoes, grated onions, and Montasio cheese comes together in a marriage made in heaven.

Mangia!” urged my cousin, as the dish was set before me on the table.  No urging necessary, by the way.  Frico is the ultimate comfort food, far more comforting than mac and cheese in my humble opinion. Add a bottle of red-wine to the table and it’s easy to say “God, take me now.”

In Udine, my mother’s home town and the place of my childhood memories,  I refused to miss lasagna (which did not disappoint) nor polpette (Italian meatballs).  A gnocchi dish with sage and butter nearly made me faint with pleasure.  My order of pizza Quattro Stagioni (four seasons) brought a tear of joy to my eyes…it was that good.  Only Italians know how to do pizza! Fabulously thin crust, very little sauce and even less cheese and a plethora of wholesome toppings to choose from. I didn’t feel one bit guilty for eating the entire pizza set before me.

There were more fabulous meals to be enjoyed while in Udine, particularly at my cousin Rinella’s home.  We dined on bruschetta and insalata caprese, followed by an absolutely perfect frittata (I’ll admit to having seconds!).  At a family reunion picnic just outside of Udine there were mountains of home-made bread to sample, a divinely delicious radicchio tart as well as grilled meats prepared by grill-master Marco (owner of Martha, the chicken-killer dog.  Story to follow at some point!).  He masterfully prepared sausage, ribs, and thickly sliced pancetta.  This meal was topped off with gelato for dessert along with glasses of ice-cold limoncello to go around, and fruit marinated in grappa. Fabulous food…wonderful friends and family…. How could life get any better than this?! 

Marco, the grill-master and owner of Martha- the-chicken-killer dog.

Marco, the grill-master and owner of Martha- the-chicken-killer dog.

 

After Udine, we made our way to elegantly decaying Venice.  I’ve been to Venice at least five times–perhaps more, during my toddler years–and it is still as magical as ever.   At lunch, I ordered a signaature Venetian seafood pasta dish, Bigoli in Salsa, at my mother’s favorite restaurant, Trattoria Alla Madonna ( It’s off the beaten tourist path).

Bigoli in Salsa. A Venetian signature dish

Bigoli in Salsa. A Venetian signature dish

Bigoli is a long, thick tube type of pasta. Traditionally, it used to be made of buckwheat flour but now it’s more likely to be made with whole-wheat flour. The Salsa consisted of a pureed blend of onions and a salt-cured fish, anchovies. As I had done numerous times in the preceding days, I groaned with pure pleasure, savoring every bite.  I didn’t leave a drop of sauce on my plate.

On our last night in Venice I was conflicted over what to order.  There were so many wonderful choices to be had.  This is not the end!  It will not be my last meal in Bella Italia. Again, I ordered pizza…this time with prosciutto, peperoncini, and arugula. It was huge and at first I thought I couldn’t possibly finish it given that I’d eaten pasta for lunch. But it was my last night in a magical city–until the next time— and I was determined not to disappoint the plate!

I ate with gusto as gondolas slowly inched past our table and the water lapped at the sides of the bridges and walls. I ate to lively music, laughter, and people chatter, with wine glasses clinking at table after table to animated cheers of salute and buon appetito…with the sun settling down low into the eastern sky and a million twinkling lights reflecting in the water.

In less than eight hours my heart would be sad to leave the land of my roots.  I’d miss Venice, where my mother lived as a child to escape the threat of bombs in World War II.  I carried little flashbacks throughout that last day in Venice:  Venice…where over thirty years ago I pushed my son’s stroller in St. Marco’s square among a sea of pigeons.  Venice, where I walked for hours one late July day in sweltering heat while pregnant with my daughter.  Venice, where my ex and I had a day of sightseeing and then found ourselves (by choice) at Harry’s Bar, Hemingway’s hangout.  We had no idea that we’d be way under-dressed. Blanching over the menu prices for lunch we still ordered. We had to…it was Harry’s Bar!   Ah…Bella Venezia: It’s is where I ran my one and only international marathon and it’s the birthplace of my favorite composer, Antonio Vivaldi.  Despite the throng of tourists, Venice never disappoints.  I feel blessed to have another beautiful memory of my days there to take home with me; memories that are sure to make me smile during inevitably blue times.

So….back in middle-earth land now, another universe (or so it seems) away,  I recall a magical moment in Piazzo San Marco, under the night sky.  There is a slight breeze, welcoming after a hot and humid day and a lot of walking.  I’ve got a glass of white wine in hand and it is wonderfully refreshing.  The sound of live music from a quartet just a few feet from our table makes the moment almost impossibly romantic.

Yes.

I will be back.

P.S.  For inquiring minds, I did hop on the bathroom scales the day after my return. I didn’t gain a pound!  Seriously.  That’s a testament to eating real food….and lots of walking.