Monday, March 31, 2014

Chasing the ancestors in Scotland

Today we are going back in time...almost twenty years to be precise.  In early June of 1994 I headed north to the county of Sutherland in the north of Scotland.  At the time I was very much into family history and wanting to know more about the Scottish blood than runs inside my veins.  My great great grandfather left Scotland for Canada when he was a young lad of 8 in 1815 - I suspect but I don't know for sure that it was as a result of the Highland Clearances. I assume he left with his parents but he could have been beamed down for all I know..finding his parents has remained a mystery for me.  I know several possibilities but nothing definite - the search goes on. (although I must admit it has been abandoned for quite a few years now)  I had been told by family members several years before that our family was originally from Dornoch, Scotland so off I went.

I didn't discover anything pertinent to my family but I certainly had a wonderful time and discovered a much overlooked but fantastically beautiful part of Scotland.

So here we go...let me introduce you first to the lovely town of Dornoch.  Yes, Dornoch is the town where Madonna married Guy Ritchie....don't hold that against it!

The beautiful deserted beach on the Dornoch Firth

While I was there RAF jets were flying over - it somehow added to the wildness

Dornoch Cathedral

I had based myself in a bed and breakfast in Golspie for several days as it was a good transportation base. (stay tuned for a post of the spectacular Dunrobin Castle which is situated there) Another day I took the train to Rogart via Helmsdale.  On the platform in Helmsdale I started chatting with a woman from Rogart and told her why I was going there.   She told me to get a hold of Johnny Ross in the village.  Once I got to Rogart I headed to a local shop and talked to a fellow named Sandy. He told me how to get to the local cemetery in New Rogart.  After a 25 minute walk I arrived but couldn't find any Rosses there.

Lovely scenery seen along my walk to the cemetery

 I walked back to town and went to the pub.  Sandy came in and introduced me to Malcolm Ross so we chatted about what I knew about my family and Malcolm bought me another G & T.  I liked the people of Rogart!   A bit later John MacDonald, the postmaster came in and Malcolm told him about my search for my family roots.  He offered to take me to see Margaret Ross MacDonald who was very knowledgable about local family history.  At first I was hesitant - my English roots were saying "you don't just drop in on people you don't know" but they all convinced me she would love the company.  So off I went in his little red postal van to visit Mrs. MacDonald.  She was as cute as a button and at 95 as sharp as a tack.  She insisted on making me tea but started me off with a sherry. (two G & T's and sherry - yes I was feeling a bit happy) When she brought out the tea it was on a tray with shortbread, cheese, crackers and cake.  Unbelievable!  As we chatted it didn't sound as if we came from the same family but you just never know....  Her daughter-in-law and grandson turned up to do some gardening a bit later and looked at me as if to say "what has she dragged him now"  My regret?  I didn't take any pictures of her...or if I did they didn't turn out.    The postmaster came back to pick me up and I bade Mrs. MacDonald a fond farewell.  I later wrote to thank her for her kindness.  John insisted I see the cairn dedicated to Sir John A MacDonald (first Prime Minister of Canada)  and took my picture there.  He then stopped so I could photograph the highland cattle and then dropped me off at the train station.  What an amazing day!  I hope to return someday. In my heart of hearts I KNOW I am from Rogart!!! 

This cairn dedicated to Sir John A MacDonald was built on the site of his grandparents - Sir John himself was born in Glasgow but the area is very proud of their connections to him. 

Hairy Coo...

Beautiful area around Rogart

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Life and art in the 7th ward of New Orleans

It's no secret that I am a big fan of Airbnb.  The opportunity to stay in local residents' homes and experience a taste of what it is like to live in a city is invigorating for me.   In fact when I do research for an upcoming trip I always check airbnb first. So when we decided to go to New Orleans we both wanted to do it on a budget.  I discovered a darling little shotgun house in the 7th ward that got rave reviews.  Both June and I thought it looked awesome so I went ahead and booked it.  We never regretted our decision.  Miriam, our airbnb host was a sweetheart and the house was spotless. We were able to walk or take a bus to the French Quarter.  In the evening we would normally get a ten dollar taxi ride back to our little home.  I loved the diversity of the neighbourhood.

So here we go on another walk...around the 7th ward and into the beginnings of the Treme neighbourhood.

 Above is the house where we full of character.  We loved it!!

What seems to be a typical duplex home in the 7th ward.

This was along Esplanade Avenue which is the division between the 7th and 8th ward.

 A quirky trio of colourful houses along Esplanade - technically the 8th ward...
An elegant home on the 7th ward side of Esplanade Avenue.

Alrighty then....

This was protesting something....can't remember what...but thought it was pretty cool.

Another artwork of protest

 Back in the 1950's when the suburbs became THE place to live (sadly destroying inner cities) they needed a way for the almighty vehicle to transport the suburban residents home quickly.  Thus was born the North Clairborne Expressway cutting through a neighbourhood described as the following:  Settled in the heart of New Orleans, a once thriving commercial district filled with cafes and restaurants, grocers, music venues, and other businesses sustaining daily neighborhood activities lined the streets of North Claiborne Avenue. Giant oak trees and greenery loomed in the middle of the boulevard, creating a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, acting as a congregation center connecting one side of the town to the other. The area became so integral to the surrounding neighborhoods of Tulane/Gravier, Tremé/Lafitte and the 7th Ward that some of the earliest Mardis Gras parades ended with large celebrations up and down North Claiborne Avenue. It was the ultimate display of public space. Source: Wikpedia  I have just read that there was damage sustained to the freeway bridge during Katrina and they are considering now tearing them down.  Whether that will restore the area to its former glory is anyone's guess.  In the meantime beautiful artwork on the pillars depicts what the area must have been like before this monstrosity cut its swath across the area.   

Interesting murals on a local music venue taken from two different angles..

While staying in the 7th ward isn't for everyone  I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing a local New Orleans neighbourhood.

How to get your eating on in New Orleans

Now I get to talk about my favourite!  We certainly didn't starve ourselves during my recent stay in New Orleans.   I have to tell you a sad little story here.  On my first trip to New Orleans in 2004 I was experiencing the beginning effects of gall stones (not that I knew that at the time) and was not feeling well (in fact I got out of my sick bed to fly there).  So needless to say I could not enjoy the food...can you imagine going to New Orleans and not being able to eat. (much).  It was tragic. I more than made up for it in 2010 and 2014 however!

Some of the "must haves" in Nawlins....beignets.  Beignets are fresh and warm donut type pastries covered with icing sugar.  YUM!  And of course that HAS to be accompanied by a cafe au lait. It is impossible (for me at least) to look the least bit dignified while eating these delicious little bits of heaven.  Icing sugar all over the face and clothes!  Cafe du Monde is the favoured place to go - this trip was the first time I have been there and while it was good I prefer the more intimate courtyard of Cafe Beignet on Royal St. 

Then of course there is Gumbo...a thick soup that contains meat, seafood, vegetables with strong seasonings....

It's alive!!!  Gumbo with half a shrimp poboy...
Poboys as pictured above are basically submarine sandwiches but the key ingredient to make them special is the french baguette used.  Shrimp (breaded & fried) poboys are probably the most popular...roast beef is another popular choice.

Then there is Jambalaya as pictured above.  I think everyone has heard of this spicy delicious dish. It usually consists of spicy sausage, shrimp, chicken, celery, rice and lots of spices.  

Below behold the famous Muffuletta....Central Grocery created this masterpiece and really, while it's sold other places this is the place to get it.  Beautifully fresh flat bread filled with Salami, mozzarella, ham, provolone, mortadella and the piece de resistance...olive salad.  Now you are talking to someone who hates olives..but somehow this works... The sandwich below was HUGE and no normal human being can eat one by themselves.  My friend and I shared one and struggled to finish our halves - it was a tough job but we were up to it!

Red beans and rice is another popular dish but sadly I have no photo to show you - guess I was too busy hoovering it down.  Just trust me when I say you should try it!!

We were usually too full to try dessert but one lunch time we decided to just order a dessert to share.  Bananas Foster and Bread Pudding are two signature New Orleans dessert...what happens if you combine them to make one dessert?  This!!!

Gooey ooey yummy delciousness!!!  Trust me on this!

While Pralines aren't exclusive to New Orleans as they are a typical southern treat.  I call them a cross between candy and a cookie....oh yeah.... We  got ourselves three each as a treat....I didn't think to take photos of mine as I covertly gobbled one each evening in my room in New York a few days later.  The reason? My airbnb host was a strict vegan who did not allow ANYTHING stolen from animals in her house - and these babies have a lot of cream in them!!!  So please excuse the poor photograph.

King cake!!!  King cake is a typical Mardi Gras treat.  Above was a mini king cake that we shared.  The little baby is on top.  Typically the baby is baked inside the cake and the person who discovers it in their share has to host the next Mardi Gras party.  It was fun to have a sample of a typical New Orleans tradition.

Last but definitely not least...the famous "Hurricane".  This one was from Pat O'Brien's where it was first "invented". Apparently the story goes that Pat O'Brien put it together to use up a huge supply of rum his Southern suppliers forced him to purchase.  And a legend was born!  Hurricanes are all over the place though - poured  into plastic cups so you can wander around the French Quarter popping into different bars to listen to the music. (been there, done that!) However why not have it in the place it was "born" - enjoying the awesome dueling piano bar.  You will get to know "Sweet Caroline" quite well!! What fun we had!   Hurricanes are a mix of light and dark rum, tropical fruit punch, orange, grenadine and syrup.  I guess you could try a virgin version of it...but really...why bother? 

And those are the culinary highlights of New Orleans...for me anyway.  I ate in ordinary restaurants - nothing fancy...and enjoyed all of the food immensely.  I don't think I've ever had a bad meal in New Orleans.....I have said this before and I will say it again.  Forget Las Vegas for a getaway..go to New Orleans...not only can you party hard if you so desire, they have awesome food, awesome music, so many sights to see, history....well can you tell I am in love with the place?   JUST GO!!!!  

Friday, March 7, 2014

A walk in Central Park in the snow

Central Park is one of the highlights of New York City - for me anyway.  In this city of concrete and skyscrapers there is this beautiful huge piece of white this time around actually. 

First of all though a bit of information about Central Park:  the park is 843 acres or 6% of Manhattan acreage.  It is six miles from north to south and half a mile across.  Approximately 40 million people visit Central Park every year, there are 24,000 trees and 9,000 benches which if placed end to end would go for seven miles.  Are you impressed yet?  275 species of migratory birds stop off in Central Park, there are 7 ornamental fountains (and 150 drinking fountains) and 36 bridges and arches.  Whew! 

So come for a walk with me in Central Park - but be's slippery!

Thought this would look cool in sepia!

Always the skyline in the distance...

I love this shot for some reason - I just wish the man had had a dog with him!

Wollman Rink

Ah...the Plaza hotel.  Our walk is done - time for a hot chocolate don't you think?  But better not go here or it will break our budget!  Hope you enjoyed our walk around Central Park in the snow. 

Visiting the 911 memorial in New York City

I think we all remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard about the devastating attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  It was horrific watching these huge towers crumble to the ground knowing the huge loss of innocent lives. None of us could comprehend how human beings could be so evil.  My heart ached for the innocent people on that plane who thought they were going on a business or pleasure trip with no idea they were being used as such a destructive weapon, the terrified people in the buildings who jumped to their deaths rather than burn, their devastated family members coping with such a tragic loss and the brave firefighters, police and dogs who lost their lives saving others. 

In 2005 I had wandered past the demolition/construction zone of the World Trade Center site.  I must admit I hadn't followed the progress too closely - hearing vaguely of a tower to "replace" the World Trade Center.  When a few friends suggested I go there I decided to do it. 

I booked online here.  The pass is free but you pay a two dollar processing fee. You can also donate however much you want on top of the two dollars and it goes to the victims' family.  I chose to do this.

The nearest subway station is City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge - as per usual I got a bit misplaced but finally found my way to the ticket pick up site on Vesey St.  There is a shop there where you can buy all sort of souvenirs...the proceeds go to the victims' families.   From there I was given directions to the actual site which was about six blocks away.

On the way I passed by the 911 Firefighters monument mounted on a wall...

From there I carried on to the entrance...

This is one of the two fountains that were created from the base of the original towers.  Thirty foot waterfalls cascade into the pools.   The museum (not opened yet on my visit) is in the background.  Still a construction site.

This was emotional for me as I stood on the top of one of the towers in the Spring of 1999. Now this is it... I still can't get my head around it.
Names of all the 2001 and 1993 attacks on the WTC are inscribed in bronze around the perimeters of both pools.  Family members/friends are invited to place flowers on victims birthdays.....

The soon to be completed Freedom tower. with the museum in the foreground.  
I imagine the area is pretty in the summer.
  Visiting on a cold winter's day had its advantages.  No line ups.  Once you go through security there is quite a long walk until you get to the memorial area.  

I found visiting this memorial very moving and emotional -I am very glad I went.  Highly recommended.  Just very sad it has to be there at all....

Gallivanting around Guernsey - part 3 - a beach, a tower or two and a cream tea

Day three (Monday, March 26th) arrived and the weather was pretty darn good so once again I took my local bus into town and hopped the #91...