Christmas, Trains & Inverness

It's been a great Christmas, there's much to update and the holidays aren't even quite over yet! Stephen arrived on Christmas Eve to join us for about a week, we took him out to a couple places on Union Street, including everyone's easy favorite, Soul Bar. (We took him back to check out the casino over the weekend, of course!)




Christmas day was leisurely and cold and much of the snow that had fallen over the weekend had stuck around. (Texas also had a white Christmas, can you believe it?!) The only bad part was venturing outside bcause all the sidewalks were literally solid sheets of ice, so most pedestrians were walking on the edge of the roads to keep from falling. We watched several movies and I cooked a huge dinner of ham, green bean casserole, corn, stuffing, gravy and mashed potatoes. Everything turned out great!





On Saturday, the sun came out and warmed the ice just enought to turn much of it into slush again so we were able to cram ourselves into the little Micra and drive out to Stonehaven. Mike and I have been there a few times already, it's fairly easy to access and is only 15 miles from Aberdeen. The town is small and mostly known for its picturesque harbor and boats and the Dunnottar castle--one of the most beautiful castle ruins near us. It was still freezing cold and the wind was blasting right through our coats so we didn't stay out there too long, just enough time to snap a couple more pictures and I can't resist posting them here as well! (When early springtime comes, the distilleries and castles will reopen so we'll plan to venture to some new ones with guests, but we figured one last trip to Dunnottar wouldn't hurt!)






Back at the flat we had a couple drinks, crackers, wine, salamis and cheeses and then headed to Union Square to catch a showing of the new Sherlock Holmes movie. I thought it was really good and always enjoy seeing Robert Downey Jr on the big screen... his Iron Man 2 movie preview looks amazing, can't wait! After the movie, we ate dinner at Frankie & Benny's. I've mentioned that place on here before, it's like a Chicago knock-off restaurant with decent food from baked potatoes to ribs and salads to Cajun pasta.

Sunday we all slept in and enjoyed having such an easy holiday weekend. It was a bit unusual to not have a string of houses to visit or presents to give this year, which made things feel only a bit odd. But we did appreciate having a stress-free Christmas, though we'll all be looking forward to celebrating with family again in 2010. We decided to try out a local church service Sunday evening, mom and LD had found one conveniently located on Union Street that held more modern services (meaning actual praise hymns, instruments and sermons!), then me, Mike and Stephen went to a service of our own... playing roulette at Soul!... while mom and LD stopped off at the Foundry for a drink or two. It was a good chance for us to show Stephen the rest of our favorite places on Union Street and we had a lot of fun.

Monday (yesterday) we were at the train station by 10am to catch our ride to Inverness. It was the first time for all of us to ride the rail in the UK (Mike and I successfully mastered the one in Paris and Stephen will be traveling by rail quite a bit the remainder of his trip). It was a gorgeous sunny day with blue skies, which was perfect for catching glistening glimpses of the snow-covered countryside during the 2.5 hour ride. We weren't able to check into our hotel just yet so we stowed our bags at the front desk and went next door to a little Italian place for lunch. It was really good! After I warmed up on hot tea, we ordered some wine to go with our lasagna, pizza and garlic bread.




TRAIN RIDE TO INVERNESS


EATING LUNCH IN INVERNESS

Next we walked over the bridge spanning the River Ness and checked out a few local shops, finding some cute Scotland t-shirts, hats and gloves to stay warm. Mike and I have been stocking up on winter weather gear for our trip to Edinburgh tomorrow, since much of our time will be spent outdoors in the cold! Plus, Aberdeen's winter will continue well into February and I'm sure there will be some hard-to-bear days in there somewhere when I'll be glad I can bundle up in six layers.


INVERNESS CITY CENTRE

Our hotel in Inverness was perfect, it only took 15 minutes to walk there from the train station and it was situated right on the River Ness, across the bridge from the city centre. The Columba Hotel had been recently renovated so the rooms were very nice and modern with high ceilings and a giant window with rustic window panes, from where we watched the falling snow.






The favorite part of our trip was that evening, we walked over to a place recommended to us called Hootananny for Thai food and live music. AMAZING! The original band scheduled to play (something about bagpipes and drums) had fallen through, so the bar had called up a fiddle and guitar player to sub in for the night. Turns out, they were really well-known in the area and extremely talented and the show was awesome! After we finished eating, the bartenders moved the tables out of the middle of the room so people could pull up their chairs and watch the players. The whole bar was rapt with attention, mesmerized by the gorgeous Celtic tunes and waltzes and foot-stomping chords. They played for close to two hours, when it came time for their last song, the fiddle player said "We're going to play faster than a dog can hear!" and they did! I've never seen someone's fingers fly so fast and so lithely over the chords. He played so hard and fast he even popped a string on his bow, but it didn't seem to phase him. The guitar player also did a bit of occasional singing and had a great voice.





The whole night couldn't have gone better and Louis Dean LOVED sipping his Guinness and listening to the music. He hooted and hollered with the rest of us after they were done with each song! We enjoyed chatting with some of the people seated next to us and even ran into some more friendly souls on our way home. When we parted ways, they told us to have a great trip and Mike said, "Hell yeah!" They whipped around toward us and started laughing and trying to mimick his accent, any time we ever say that phrase here the locals just think it's great. It's so funny the things that catch people off guard.




We had planned to spend the early part of today catching a boat tour out on the lake that supposedly houses the Loch Ness monster, but we opted for a leisurely lunch and a little more shopping instead. Poor Stephen has been feeling a bit under the weather as well and since it was soooo cold out, we figured we'd had enough fun to last us. We stopped at the Filling Station for lunch then meandered around town for a couple hours before catching our train. I found a cute black and white sweater and black puff vest with a faux fur-lined hood at the Primark in Inverness, perfect for staying warm this New Years!


RAIL STATION AT INVERNESS

Now we're back home and mom and LD are all packed up and headed to the airport early in the morning to see if they can catch a stand-by flight back home. I think it will be a bit emotional to tell them goodbye, Mike and I have absolutely loved having them here for such a long visit and I'm still not ready for them to be gone! Thankfully we'll be home for a visit in February, so it won't be long before we see them again, however it'll be another six months after that before we're back. My mom said she loved getting to see our flat, my office, the places we go on the weekends, the stores we shop at... just all the everyday things we have become familiar with in Aberdeen. It will help her have a better mental picture of what we are up to when she's gone! And I think my step-dad, Louis Dean, loved getting to see so much snow and turns out he really likes Guinness! But I know that his favorite time, hands down, was the live music at Hootananny last night. He's an avid music player himself and he said all he needs to do is fly home to get his own guitar and then he'll be back!

I'd better sign off and get some sleep, it will be a sad goodbye in the wee hours of the morning and then Mike, Stephen and I will be on the road by 10 to Edinburgh. Hope everyone stays safe and warm...



Food for the "Soul"

The weather worked to our advantage today, the sun came out and thawed the icey streets to slush so everyone was out and about in their cars, getting in the last work day for 2009, finishing Christmas shopping or flooding the grocery stores for dinner supplies. Mom and I started off our day with a walk up to Union Street, enjoying the blue skies on the way, and grabbed some lunch at Soul Bar. I ♥ their oriental beef and spicy noodle bowl, it's one of the few things I can get here with tons of flavour and spices! Mom got an Italian BMT Parisian Baguette, also a good choice. You can't really go wrong with food or drinks at Soul, they've pretty much got it all. On crazy fun nights, we like to kick things off with their pitcher of TVR (tequila, vodka and Red Bull). And the inside of the cathedral church-turned-bar is just gorgeous. The original stained glass windows on the walls act as stand-in works of art, while a smartly-lit modern square bar takes center stage in the space. Low-slung tables with banquette seating line the dark wood walls and dark brown high-tops take up the remaining space surrounding the bar. They also keep tons of red jar candles lit day and night, which adds a sort of cozy, sexy feel to the place. And on weekends, the DJ leads the services, spinning tunes atop his center-stage pulpit!




After Soul, we walked back to the flat and dusted all the snow off the car for our trip to Asda. I'd been so worried that the roads weren't going to clear up before Christmas and we'd have to walk to the main grocery store on Union Street for all our supplies... which also means you have to carry it home! Asda was super busy so it took us about two hours to make it down all the aisles, but we got everything loaded fine and made it safely home.

For dinner tonight, I made my Greek salad (I included the recipe in my "Who's Hungry?" post) with herb marinated chicken. Delish! We watched Die Hard 4--I deem any of the Die Hards a must-watch during the holidays--and Louis Dean laughed through the whole thing. We are so happy to be sharing such a great time with them! I'll leave you with some pictures from our dinner Saturday night at Ferryhill.





Winter Wonderland

"Baby, it's cold outside" is an understatement. It looks like a blizzard! The snow began falling yet again last night, blanketing the ground with a cool 4-5 inches. Then it snowed again in the wee hours of the morning and yet again as we were preparing to leave for work today. Now it's coming down in thick succession, a steady curtain of fluffy white snowflakes.



We watched from our flat window as several neighbors attempted to make their escape by car, trying their best to get to work. One Porsche made it all the way to the end of the parking lot, ready to jubilantly turn onto the muddy, slushy street, when his car got stuck. (Pretty sure that's the second time this week he's done that!) Another car had returned from an unsuccessful venture, sliding through the parking lot before deciding to swing into the nearest feasible parking spot. One lady came out and spent a good 15 minutes brushing all the snow off her car while her little dog pounced and prodded the powder covering the asphalt.


Alas, I was able to get to work, stuffing my dress pants into my boots and bundling up like it was an artic blast. The snow melts onto your hair and clothing, leaving you wet and worse for wear, and I hate being cold!



Mike was sweet enough to walk me to the office since the company bus wasn't running today and he wasn't about to convince our little Nissan Micra to brave the roads. The snow over the weekend wasn't as thick as this is, we actually have powder to crunch through and your feet sink down several inches as you search for the pavement on each step. By the time we reached my office, Mike had rolled the ultimate perfect snowball in his hand, but I'm not sure who he was saving it for...


Scottish Attraction

I realize that there's a number of times during all my rants and raves and posts on this blog (and in conversation, Facebook status updates and general feelings of absence) that I go on about all the things we miss about Texas. But there's quite a number of things we've come to appreciate and enjoy about life in Scotland and it's high time they got pointed out, so here they are in no particular order:

Fish and chips.... they are always fresh and nutritious delicious.

Whisky and wine... the quality of these two items here far surpasses the "average" bottles found at home.

Snow... our newest infatuation, since we've never lived in a place where it's actually supposed to snow. Seeing how we are about as far dang north as you can get, Aberdeen's winter has us chattering our teeth.

Social scene... granted there's one in every town, but we've really come to enjoy Aberdeen's. People are pretty friendly and we have a good group of folks that we frequent the bars and pubs with. I also like that all of these joints are located on Union Street, so the idea of barhopping isn't a pain at all. It's a hop, skip and a jump.

Lack of traffic... Aberdeen's idea of 5 o'clock traffic is the fact that it takes you 20 minutes instead of 10 to get home. Mike doesn't have to drive far to get to his office and, well, we all know I reach mine on foot. If there's ever a day I complain of traffic, all is lost.

Coziness... cold or warm weather, the UK and European scene have a way of accomodating this word to its fullest. Cafes, shops, pubs, restaurants, they all tend to be on the small side and naturally the buildings and establishments are older and more weathered giving you a sense of being quite cozy inside.

Travel... this could easily top the list. We never thought we'd be in a setting that allowed us to easily access so many amazing parts of the world. This coming spring and summer we'll be travelling our socks off!

Scenery... the country here is beautiful. It's gorgeous in the summer when the flowers are in full bloom (the country takes pride in its flora), the fall is incredible as sharp hues of foliage announce the changing of seasons and the winter is crisp and laced with icey tree branches and white fields covered with frost or snow.

Calmness... our life has changed drastically since we moved to Aberdeen. No more are we fighting Galleria traffic, struggling to keep dates and events or burning up the road to Dallas or College Station every other weekend. All of the sudden, we've been blessed with peace. The opportunity to literally enjoy each day for what it has to offer, to spend time with each other, to concentrate on small portions of family or friends as they visit and to casually explore a new world. (Though I must thank the caretakers of our 4 pets, as they've taken on a huge one-year task! It also provides us peace of mind knowing they're so well cared for.)

Wit and banter... it's extremely entertaining listening to the Scots speak. Their choice of phrases or wording is often very humorous. And as we travel abroad more and more, hearing French, Italian, German, etc., our ears are enriched with the fantastic web of culture we weave.



Let it Snow!

It's Christmas, it's Christmas and the snow is falling!! Aberdeen has literally been transformed into a Winter Wonderland overnight. The snow first began falling on Friday evening. Mike, me, mom and Louis Dean had driven down to the beach to get a look at the North Sea and grab some lunch. When we visited the beach in the fall, Mike and I had walked down onto the sand and dabbled our feet in the freezing water. But this time, the waves were crashing hard onto the shore, and the tide has risen dramatically with the change in seasons. It was an ominous thought to be out in the water but before we left we spotted a lone surfer struggling to drag his board over the forceful waves out to sea. He was in a wet suit and all, but I still can't even imagine how cold it must have been. We were shivering after just 15 minutes outside!






For lunch, we decided to try TGI Fridays. I have only been to Fridays a few times in the States and every experience was a terrible one: bad service and worse food. But our visit to the Aberdeen location was perfect! It was nice and warm inside and the service was fantastic and the food even better (ribs, fries and onion rings, yum-o!). We grabbed a table right by the window overlooking the sea and chatted and ate and watched the waves and the beginning of the snowfall fluttering down. It was what Mike and I like to call a great "American experience in Aberdeen."




Later that day my mom and I went shopping at Primark and then Union Square. When we came outside, it was absolutely pouring snow! On our walk home, the wind wasn't blowing and it wasn't unbearably cold so we enjoyed crunching through the snow, reminiscing about memories from skiing in Colorado. 





Mike and I went to the park across the street from our flat and had a snowball fight and took pictures of the powder!






There's still quite a bit on the agenda and I can't believe that this week is CHRISTMAS! We are looking forward to cooking another good holiday meal and then Mike and I will both be off work until after New Years. Because of the attempted strike with British Airways, my mom and LD will likely be staying until a week or so after New Years... it's a blessing in disguise as we'll get to spend just a little more time with them!


Last night, the four of us ate dinner at Little Italy's, just a few blocks from the flat. It's continued to snow off and on since Friday, and quite a bit at that, so we bundled up and slipped and slid our way to the restaurant. I walk by the restaurant all the time on my way home from work, and alway see people laughing and sipping wine, huddled over their bowls of pasta. It seems as though we enjoyed an equal experience: I got the most delicious penne pasta with garlic and marinara sauce and spicy Italian sausage, Mike got lasagna with creamy sauce, my mom some hot, delicious minestrone soup and a parmigiano reggiano and avocado salad and LD ordered a pizza margherita. The boys ordered pints of Italian beer at the rustic eatery, decked out in Italy's white, green and reds with tall, single red candlesticks propped in old wine bottles on each table. 








Afterwards, we went to College Bar for a couple drinks, sitting in a comfy booth on the second floor overlooking the bartenders at work with prime view of the football game on the flat screen. Mom and LD took their leave after a few drinks before they turned into pumpkins, and Mike and I headed down Union Street to The Grill. They're known for their selection of more than 500 whiskeys from all over the world, even Japanese whisky and good ole American stock like Crown Royal. We had them dust off the bottle of Crown and pour a couple drams, savoring every sip since we hadn't had any since we left the US and it's one of our favorites. The Grill also lays claim to what is possibly the oldest dram on sale anywhere in the world, a 65 year old Macallan distilled in 1938. I would assume you drink that one very slowly...




COLLEGE BAR



CROWN AT THE GRILL


We have yet to check out Aberdeen's Maritime Museum, a nearby castle I have picked out and possibly a drive to Dufftown, home of Scotland's many distilleries and the Malt Whisky Trail. That's the town where Mike and I toured the Glenfiddich distillery back in September. It's the most distillery-saturated place in the world, and supposedly raises more capital for the Government per head of population than any other place in the UK. Though most of the distilleries are now closed until the early spring, it's still a scenic little town to visit, with antiquated book shops and small cafes occupying the town center. When the foliage is better, it's also an extremely beautiful country drive. 



TOURING GLENFIDDICH


London and Paris have received lots of snow and many of the airlines and trains have been shut down due to the weather. With the holiday, it's putting a big strain on all the Christmas travelers. We're hoping Stephen is able to arrive in Aberdeen on Christmas Eve without any problems, he's currently touring around in Ireland and will join us for a week in Scotland to celebrate New Years in Edinburgh. 



THE LATEST SNOWSTORM OUTSIDE OUR FLAT WINDOW
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