Saturday, September 30, 2006

Get thee to a Carvery! (Niagara part 2)

Casinos are designed to get you lost. You go in for a bite to eat and maybe a quick game of Blackjack and all you find is aisle after aisle of slot machines. Disorientated by the the bleeping and whirring and ringing you wander deeper into what could well be the circles of hell (everything is red: lights, carpets, faces).

So when we turned a corner and found the serious hush of the baccarat tables we were as relieved as desert wanderers reaching an oasis. Relief turned to joy as we saw, a little beyond the tables, a noodle bar. Seating ourselves in a corner with a splendid view of the falls in sunset our mouths watered as we saw the treats waiters brought to the tables of the casino's Asian patrons. Golden sesame tofu, dark beef with greens, and a beautiful fish scored fragrant with ginger all passed us by. There was no menu, and no one brought us one. Perhaps we order at the bar?

Politely, we asked the chef for a menu. He gestured brusquely to a small sheet of paper listing 4 dishes of the fried rice and sweet and sour chicken variety. No tofu, no beef, no fish with ginger and, most tellingly, no prices.

The subtext was clear. The noodle bar was provided by the Casino for the high-rolling Chinese prepared to lose fortunes at baccarat, not timid tourists. Suitably chastened, we slunk away into the bowels of the casino, to Lucky's Steakhouse, where our unrefined gaijin palattes were satisfied by meatloaf and a burger.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Isn't it Romantic? (Niagara part 1)

Despite it's cheap and tacky side (part Picadilly Circus, part Funderland) you can see why Niagara Falls is such a honeymoon hotspot. When the moon came up over the falls it was just breathtaking. For future reference the Horseshoe Falls (Canadian Falls) are the more spectacular falls to see by daylight but the American Falls look better by moonlight. You can have dinner in one of the nearby Casino's while you wait for dusk to fall (more on that anon).

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

It's easy to be cool when someone's watching you

I have a raft ‘must blog about this’ items in my mental ‘to-do list’ but what with preparing classes and getting my life in Canadia together (not to mention a number of marathon sleeping sessions) it’s becoming quite the guilt-burden.

But today I jettisoned the blog-list because today something genuinely blog-worthy happened. We had an anthrax scare.

And it was genuinely scary. There were policemen, firemen and paramedics in droves. People were decontaminated and carried away in ambulances. They closed off two floors of the building I work in, but oddly enough didn’t close the library that occupies the floors directly beneath the contaminated offices. The elevators share the same shaft system and while they closed off the ‘public’ one they didn’t close the library elevators.

Guess who spent most of her day in the library?

At first I was pretty blasé about it; bomb scares were regular enough back in my early college days. It was only on the drive home that I found myself getting a little freaked out. I think it’s because I’m really focused at work, and there’s lots of people around me. Then I drive for an hour and come back to a dark, silent, empty house.

Anyway, I just got the latest update and the ‘mysterious substance’ has been identified as whey powder. So it was just the work of deranged looper rather than a sociopathic looper.

Still, I would have been happier if they had just evacuated the entire damn building.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fear and Loathing at Saranac Lake

Majestic mountains, heartbreakingly romatic lakes, a remote and mysterious wilderness, are these the memories we take with us as we leave Adirondack National Park?

Is it buggery.

Welcome to the worst meal I have ever eaten in my life. So bad that even JB felt complaints were justified. “This is as bad as Warsaw in 1990, and actually that was better.”

It started innocuously enough. We arrived at the famously picturesque Lake Saranac after a long day of driving. Although it was a holiday resort, it had less in way of eateries than one would expect. I guess people mostly rent houses and barbecue, with the occasional pizza night thrown in. We didn’t fancy pizza and the retaurant at Hotel Saranc had an empty and sad feeling. But just across the road Il Corvo looked cheery and had people in it.

The first bad sign was the filthy carpet. But being down at heel doesn’t necessarily mean terrible food. After all, we were in a national park. Buisiness is seasonal and small restaurants can’t always renovate when they want to.

I’ll pass over indifferent bread and watery salad. Problems started, appropriately anough, with the starters. Mine was a portobello mushroom sodden with Balsamic vinegar. I had one bite and then gave it to JB and asked him what he thought. ‘Hmm…Vinegary’.
‘How’s your soup?’
‘Shall we cut our losses and send just go?’
‘No. We’re tired and want to eat now. Send the mushroom back and move on. They can’t do much to eggplant and pasta.’

Little did we know. The proscuitto billed in my eggplant rollini was, when excavated from the thick layer of Ragu covering the entire plate, thick slices of leathery, surgical pink ham. After one bite I pulled the rest out and pushed it to the side of my plate. Some pork products are not worth taking the risk on. I contemplated the slimy mess that was left with distaste. Across the table, JB’s was dubiosly cutting into some evil-smelling meatballs that turned out to be cold in the middle. That’s it, we thought, we’re out of here. We sent back our plates, from which only one bite had been taken and asked for the bill. ‘We’ll pay for the beers and the soup,’ I told the supremely uninvolved waiter. ‘But nothing else has been edible.’ We waited and waited. When the bill finally arrived it was 28 dollars. I took it to the bar to sort it out. Our waiter ignored us and finally a subdued waitress took the bill and disappeared with it.

Out from the kitchen came a short, mean-faced, East-European woman with straw-coloured hair. She immediately launched into an attack:
“12 years I run restaurant and you first that ever complain! What’s wrong with meal?”
We explained that the meal was inedible.
“Eat whole meal and then say not edible!”
No, we had one bite and sent 3 of four dishes back to the kitchen. We will pay for the 2 beers and the soup but nothing else. At that point, she began to shout at us, accusing us of trying to cheat her and demanding payment of the bill.
“You eat meal and cannot pay! I phone the police.”
Go right ahead, phone the police.
“I’m phoning the police now, but first leave restaurant! You’re distubing my customers!”
No, we’re waiting right here. You’re the one screaming and making and scene.
At this point, she made a great palaver of asking all her waitpeople to gather around her and asking for the number of the police station. Realising we weren’t about to meekly leave the premises she changed her tactics.
“You’re so mean and petty you cannot pay $20 bill? You fight over tiny bill?
Weren’t you going to phone the police?
“You so poor, you’ve never eaten at a fancy restaurant! You don’t know what good food is! Get out of my place now!”
This is not a fancy restaurant, it is not good food, we did not eat the food, and we are not going to pay for it. Call the police if you want.
What then followed was a farrago of threats and insults screamed at the top of her lungs. We were poor, we were Canadians, we were cons and finally, to JB: “I feel sorry for you, you spend all your life with her!”
And then to me: “I have good looking husband! You want, he will sleep with you!”

Then she crumpled up the bill and we left. The original plan had been to make our leisurely way through the Adirondack Park but after that experience I drove through as fast as I could. The next night we left stayed in a motel off the highway and went to a truckstop place. The food was excellent.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Sometimes, All I Need is the Air that I Breath, 2d6, and to Love You

T-19 now and I’m thinking more and more about what I’ll miss about my old life. This week brought one issue starkly to the fore: who will I game with? This was a great week for gaming, with not only a session of San Juan (motto: Gringoes, Exploit the Natural Resources of Puerto Rico!) and High Society with Ian, but also a blasting session of SingStar Popworld with William. Finally, I see the point of Sony Playstation. You select a song from a playlist of about 30 options. You sing competitive karaoke against an opponent with a microphone. You start off strong and then fall to pieces during the rap-o-meter section of Outkast’s ‘Roses’. Good clean fun. My only quibble with the scoring mechanics would be that fact that there’s no accommodation made for originality of performance. The complete unsingability of some songs on the playlist required some fancy footwork and JB’s inspired ‘Dirty Grunting’ version of Joss Stone’s eminently forgettable piece of pseudo-funk ‘Yeah’ was the highlight of the evening.

Which really begs the question, how can I go about building a new game-playing peer circle? It’s very much something you keep separate from PFW. Role playing games are immediately out, I don’t see myself easily settling into another group of like-minded individuals with whom I can pretend to be a talking prawn. There’s a certain level of intimacy at work when playing Call of Cthulu, you know. Will I find myself submitting personal ads that read ’30-something girl-nerd, seeks m/f gsoh for Settlers of Catan?’ Actually, that’s not a bad idea.

Anyway, to round off this post here is a list of games that have provided me with some of my most memorable evenings:

Backgammon – A sublime combination of strategy and chance, backgammon is the ultimate grownups’ game. Sexy and sophisticated, it’s a game you play with a glass of smoky Lagavulin. It’s also the one game I’m pretty sure I can keep playing on a regular basis, if for no reason other than my father and I are locked in mega tournement that started when I was about nine years old.
Pit – shouty! shouty! shouty! If you like grabbing, screaming and slamming things down on the table, this is the game for you. I’m surprised there isn’t a toddlers’ version available.
The Sherlock Holmes Card Playing Game –The Game is Afoot, Watson! Players race from City to Country and back to the City again while traying to hide their villanous secret identity. Thick Fog!
Family Business – All together now, ‘Take it on the Lam’. Who would have thought the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre could provide so much entertainment?
Mah-Jong – Pung! Kong! Chow! Poker with clattering. The only problem is you need a regular gang of four [people] to learn the subleties of an ‘all orphans’ hand.
TransAmerica – I love games where you build things, in this case, Railroads. Because it’s over pretty quickly it makes a good nightcap to a long evening of gaming.
Settlers of Catan – I’ve never had much of an interest in video games where you shoot things, preferring the set up the social infrastructure in Civilisation and Alpha Centuri. So it’s no surprise to find this on my list. Quite addictive.
Jenga/Bausack – A variation of buiding things: stacking things!
The Cooking Game – In essence this is a fairly dull collect-a-set game. But it involved food and introduced me to the most beautiful phrase in the English language, Sussex Pond Pudding
Buccaneer – Oh, the little pieces! This was the first game I remember playing. Again, the mechanics were pretty dull but the little gems, pearls and treasure chests were highly coveted. Of course, I lost the pieces by burying them for real in the garden.
Once Upon a Time – A good exercise in ingenuity as you try and work a plausable reason for a Fairy Godmother giving a Dragon a Magic Barrel of Fish. The story will eventually go south.
Tell Me! – My favourite game of all time. So simple, and so addictive. Cards give a subject such as ‘An animal/Something that scares you/a movie star’. You spin a wheel and have shout out an answer that corresponds to the letter of the alphabet indicated on the disc. Then you have to convince people that you are genuinely frightened of cheese. For full value you have to get one of the original sets from the 1950s with subjects like ‘A wireless star’.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Little Sparta

'Some gardens are retreats, but they can also be attacks' ~ Ian Hamilton Finlay

Actually, I'm paraphrasing. I could give you the exact statement but I shipped my work books on Wednesday. I feel strangely unbalanced without them, it's like I'm missing some vital part of myself. I'm consumed with anxiety. What if the boxes burst? What if they get dumped in the sea? Hey, freight guy! That's eight years of my life you have there. Be gentle with it.

Back to IHF. I visited his garden this week. I had a conference in Glasgow and realised that I could combine the two. The garden is only open to the public three months a year, Friday and Sunday afternooons from 2.30 to 5. I've been wanting to get there for years but never got round to it and, as with other parts of my life, I realised that if was ever going to do it, now was the moment.

And it was everything I hoped it would be. Little Sparts, the garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay, has been described as the most important garden of the 20th century. It's a masterpiece of poetry, sculpture, and landscape, combining gardening, philosophy and history to provoke and tantalise your imagination as you walk its coiling paths. IHF was (he died earlier this year) a poet and artist deeply interested in how we have engaged with the environment over the last two millenia. Little Sparta explores themes of territorial expansion and personal liberty, control and freedom through it sculpture and decoration; it alludes to Ovid, Virgil, the Roman Empire, Scottish land clearances, the French Revolution, the Industrial revolution, and WWII. I realise this makes it sound rather earnest and didactic but it's not; it's actually a very playful garden, eveything is on a small and personal scale, and it's great fun to visit. And, since the garden represents a work in progress, not everything is a success, which makes me like it all the more. Every artist produces some duds, and some of the conceits in Little Sparta work better than others. I like that unfinished, patchy quality. You find yourself having mental conversations with IHF as to why you think some things work and some don't.

Anyway, I strongly recommend that if you get the chance, you should visit Little Sparta. You need a car, but the caretaker told me that they were about to start a regular minibus from Edinburgh

I love the fact that walking through a garden on a beautiful summer's day counts as research for me. And it's tax deductable!

Monday, May 29, 2006


Is there anything tastier? I used to hate the stuff, but now I can't get enough of it. I love its deep, rich colour when raw, its velvety texture when perfectly cooked.

Anyway, by popular demand here is my recipe for liver cooked in the Syrian style:

1lb (500g) Lamb's liver
1 large lemon
Olive oil
2 heaped teaspoons cumin
Chopped Parsley/coriander
Sliced shallots/spring onion/radish

Slice liver into strips approx. 1-1.5cm thick
Marinade in the juice of 1/2 a lemon and 3-4 tblsp olive oil for 10-40 minutes
Heat frying pan with a little more oil. get it good and hot.
Lift the lamb out of the marinade with a slotted spoon and place in the hot pan. This will give a dry dish. if you like sauce, add the marinade (but be careful, it will spit).
Fry for 2-3 of minutes until just about done, then turn off heat. The liver will finish cooking as it sits in the pan.
Sprinkle with cumin, garnish with herbs, onions, radishes.

Serve warm or cold with wedges of lemon

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dark(ish) Secrets

Am I a bad wife? I'm occasionally haunted by this thought. Not because I'm demanding, conflict averse and contradict everything my husband says. This is par for the course with all married couples (I think). No, its because I feel worse about leaving our cat than my husband. Joe Black (JB) is not thrilled at my leaving to set up a new life abroad, and it's going to be a huge wrench for him, but he can at least understand why I have to do it. Pancho on the other hand...

How can you explain to a cat that you're leaving him? 'Ah', I hear you say, 'as long as he's fed he doesn't care.' This is partly true, what cats hate most is to have their routine disrupted, and that includes regular feedings. But the thing is, Pancho is one of the few cats who does care about people. No, really, he does. I have the evidence of a year's absence to back me up. Apparantly he wandered about, miaowing peevishly. And he was delighted when I came back. Who else knows to make the bed just so for him every morning? Who else does he trust to hold his paw when he's snooozing? Who else knows when he's feeling frazzled by the presence of kittens in the garden and needs to be picked up a reassured? Who else suddenly pushes the bedroom door open, putting and end to any potential kitten-producing activities of which he strrrongly disapproves. Who else-actually, it's probably a good thing I'm going.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Beginnings and endings

I'll be leaving Dublin in 8 weeks. I came here in 1989 and was never so happy. It has been one of my greatest loves.

But now it's time to go. This blog is to help me keep in touch with all my friends, and perhaps make new ones (this is unlikely, I was prickly 15 years ago and time has not mellowed me).

So, over the next 3-5-indefinite years, keep an eye on this blog.