An American holiday in Scotland

Mike and I were lucky to have Mike’s family visiting us from Michigan to help us celebrate the Fourth of July, our first major holiday together in Scotland. Our happy band was also fortunate to include Megan, another American expat living in Glasgow, whom I met through the social networking project called CouchSurfing. Together we cooked a tasty meal of simple but hearty food and spent the evening sharing family stories and talking about the rewards and challenges that uprootedness brings. Mike described what it was like to move around frequently as a child–from Ohio to Phoenix to Michigan–and how this has helped to inform his experience relocating to Scotland. Megan talked about staying with long-lost relatives in China and discovering how much she was able to communicate with them other despite the language barrier. I told a story of how community activism forged strong bonds of friendship and brought recent transplants together in my old neighborhood in Washington, D.C. As we passed steam bowls of bean stew and crème fraîche, all of our conversations in one way or another led back to the transformative effect of food and the important social experience of preparing and sharing a meal with others. Whether in America, China, Croatia, or Scotland, we found that there is something special indeed about the space around the shared table and that it may yet be the best place to create and strengthen a common understanding.

Latin Bean Stew with Bacon and Onions

1/2 lb thickly sliced bacon, sliced into matchsticks
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
Salt
3 15 1/2 oz cans of Roman or small red beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 bay leaves
1 tsp sugar
Freshly ground pepper
Chopped cilantro, crème fraîche, and lime wedges to serve

Put bacon into a large skillet, cover, and cook over moderate heat until crisp, about 7 minutes. Transfer bacon to a paper towel to drain and pour off all put 2 tsp of fat from the skillet.

Add sliced onions, cover, and cook over medium heat until onions soften and release their liquid, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 tsp salt and cook, uncovered, stirring frequently until onions are golden brown–about 20 minutes.

Add bacon, broth, vinegar, bay leaves, and sugar to the onions and reduce to a simmer over moderate heat. Reduce the heat to low and cook stirring frequently until thick and stew-like, about 20 minutes. Discard bay leaves and adjust seasonings. Spoon beans into bowls and serve with freshly chopped cilantro, crème fraîche, and lime wedges.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night

Nor delayed flights nor failed car bombs stay the Harrison women from their appointed travels, apparently. Mike’s mom and sister arrived in Glasgow yesterday, two days late and (thankfully) five hours before the now infamous S.U.V. slammed into the entrance doors of the airport terminal. The Harrisons were originally scheduled to arrive on Thursday morning, but their flight was cancelled due to severe weather over the Atlantic. They were successfully able to make alternative arrangements and arrived Saturday morning instead, a little tired but none the worse for wear. Imagine our shock to learn about the strange attack on Glasgow’s airport yesterday afternoon, at exactly the same spot where the Harrisons hired a taxi to take them to our flat.  After living in Washington, D.C., for several years it feels odd for something like this to happen here.  Glasgow is the least place that I’d expect terrorist activity–it feels so removed from the frenzied security concerns that are now routine in our nation’s capital. Thankfully, according to recent reports, no civilians were seriously injured and the attack seems to have been perpetrated by amateurs. Unfortunately, the recent outbreak of car bombs suggests a large-scale problem amongst certain Muslim groups in Britain. The homegrown element of this is what is especially disturbing. Still, there is not much that we can do except to remain calm and exhibit a certain amount of stoicism–and of course extend a warm, heartfelt welcome to our visiting guests.

101 Dalmation islands

At least it seems as though there are at least that many, and each scintillatingly more beautiful than the last. After flying from Zagreb to Split, Karen and I took a connecting ferry to Supetar, the largest town on the Dalmatian island of Brač. To the tune of the David Bowie song Young Americans on Croatian radio, faintly amused but fairly clutching each other, we careened over the Vidova Gora mountain and arrived in Bol bruised but none the worse for wear from our vertiginous taxi ride. “All the way from Washington,” indeed. Oh boy.

The rolling landscape of Brač is peppered with piles of grey stones cleared away to facilitate the cultivation of olives, figs, wine, and sour cherries. The island’s principal export is the the brilliant white stone used, most famously, to build the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian in Split. Bol is a popular tourist destination and is the oldest settlement on the coast of Brač. Fragrant with citrus trees and lavender, it’s most famous for its magnificent horn of pebbly beach, the Zlatni rat or “golden cape” that stretches out into the Adriatic just west of the main town. There are a few Roman ruins near the prominatory, including the foundations of a villa rustica and piscina, a farm house and bath, and pieces of an ancient water reservoir. One of Bol’s hidden jewels is the 15th-century Dominican monastery that lies east of the harbor and its excellent archaeology collection and beautiful chapel.

Vinko, one of Karen’s friends from Washington, D.C., grew up in Bol and has recently moved back to be the head chef at one of the restaurants in town. We made arrangements to stay in one of his family’s self-catering apartments and spent much of the next few days relishing his amicable company and truly amazing cooking. One afternoon Vinko invited us to his parents’ house for a delicious mixed grill lunch and wine made from the grapes of the family vineyard. The meal was assembled in the family’s backyard smoke house, which was filled to bursting with centuries old heirlooms and wine-making equipment. Afterwards, Vinko’s father gave us a memorable tasting tour of his wine cellar and a few precious bottles of his prized homemade olive oil, for which I’m most grateful!

Holiday in the Balkans

After several steamy days in Zagreb, I took the train to Donja Stubica, a small town 40 km north of the city where my friend Karen’s conference was being held at the Hotel Terme Jezerčica. Founded in the 13th century, the town was the site of the Croatian and Slovenian peasant revolts led by Ambroz Matija Gubec, a folk hero who was later embraced by the anti-fascist Tito and his Partisans. Today the town houses the Museum of Peasant Revolts (quite naturally) and is the site of a popular local spa (of course).

Ironically, I set out for Donja Stubica on 22 June, the Croatian national holiday set aside to celebrate uprising against the fascists in 1941, and the trip was scenic but harrowing. Stations were not always well marked and it was an adventure to figure out how to change trains in Zabok without speaking a word of Croatian. Still, my luggage and I eventually arrived safely in one piece, and, with the help of two friendly locals who guided my way, I followed the railroad tracks to the spa hotel where Karen was staying.

That night featured a terrific evening of music and traditional Croatian cuisine to celebrate both the end of the conference and, not least of all, Karen’s birthday. It was especially kind of one of the event’s organizers to include me in the night’s festivities even though I wasn’t part of the academic programme. (Thanks again for your kind hospitality, Željko, and for making me feel so very welcome, hvala!) There wasn’t much nostalgia for Marshall Tito expressed over dinner that night and most topics expanded instead on some of the papers presented at the conference during the week. Some of the more interesting tidbits discussed that evening included:

  • Tradition has it that flies buzzing around a corpse shouldn’t be killed as they might actually be the person’s soul.
  • Sleeping in the light of a full moon was thought to put one at severe risk for becoming a werewolf, as was being a seventh son.
  • Many early folk medicine recipes include feces as a primary ingredient. (As strange and gross as it sounds, this is actually an early form of vaccination and perhaps an example of early homeopathic thinking.)
  • In certain parts of central Europe, pieces of coal and charcoal were traditionally thought to have cleansing properties and were ritualistically used to ward off the evil eye. (Interestingly, we still use charcoal in this way today, to filter water for example.)
  • Dante’s grandson owned what is now the oldest apothecary shop in Zagreb.

Summer and smokes in Croatia’s capital city

Canned heat for sale? It’s to be expected that Croatian summers are more broiling that those in Scotland, but the mild Glaswegian spring had me completely unprepared for the sweltering 38°C temperatures beyond the Alps–that’s over 100°F for you Americans out there. Hot, hot, hot! Without the ample supply of cold Croatian beer and Mitteleuropean hospitality this trip would have been brutal. I flew to Croatia’s capital to meet Karen, a good friend who had travelled from the States to attend a museum conference. While she and her colleagues learned about medicinal folk remedies and how to avoid being cursed by werewolves, I was left to myself to discover what Zagreb had to offer. Thankfully, the capital is known as a city of museums–much of them air conditioned–and abounds with generous cafes and shady tree-lined esplanades for when things heat up.

I began my trip by exploring the Gornji Grad, the twinned upper towns of Gradec and Kaptol that make up Zagreb’s historic nucleous. Connected by a spit of land known as the Bloody Bridge, these neighbors (and former rivals) contain the best preserved medieval buildings in the city, including the famous St Mark’s Church and ancient Lotrščak Tower. I made a point to stop at the Stone Gate, the only entrance to survive from the city’s 13th-century fortifications. It contains a popular shrine to the Virgin Mary who is said to have appeared in a vision at this spot in the 1760s. (I almost had some heat-induced visions myself.) After a well-deserved apertif at a cafe on Tkalčićeva Street, I bought fruit and a spicy smoked sausage called kulen at the Dolac Market, a large open-air bazaar near the cathedral and Trg bana Jelačić, the main square. Brilliant oranges, juicy melons, and jars of Dalmatian honey spilled out over the cobbled sidewalk.

Many of Zagreb’s museums are situated in the Donji Grad, or lower town, which was planned in the late-nineteenth century on the Viennese model and is centered on a “green horseshoe” of public parks and promenades. This series of squares and parks would be difficult to traverse even in optimal weather conditions, but over several days, while visiting some of the museums and galleries enroute, it’s a great guide to understanding what Zagreb is all about. Broad boulevards are lined with impressive pastel-colored Habsburg buildings. Quirky shops and innumerable restaurants and cafes fill this area of the city. Since Croatia is where the necktie was invented, I made a point to stop and buy one at Croata Cravata, the famous boutique.

Farther from the town centre are two green oases, Maksimir Park and Mirogoj Cemetery. As luck would have it, the youth hostel where I was staying was located in the Ravnice neighboorhood close to the Kraš chocolate factory and Maksimirska, the largest public park in Zagreb. Designed in the 19th century, the park contains the city zoo, numerous pleasure pavillions, and several lakes. Its secluded winding paths are ideal for shaded, lesiurely walks, and when a rest is in order the hilltop cafe is the perfect place for flâneurs to sip cappucino and watch strollers on the promenade below.

Designed in Neo-Renaissance style by Austrian architect Hermann Bollé in 1876, Mirogoj is said to be one of the most beautiful cemetery parks in Europe. Charming cupolas, arcades, and ivy-covered walls lend the place a romantic atmosphere, and, although it’s situated some distance from the city centre, the cemetery is well worth the extra effort to explore.

Back in saddle

I’ve got my marimba packed and ready to go! This is a pretty close approximation to how I feel this afternoon. A little goofy, a little giddy, and totally thrilled to be travelling to Croatia tomorrow. I’m beside myself with excitement to meet my friend Karen, who is travelling from the States to attend a museum conference in Zagreb this week. After we spend a few days in the capital together we’ll celebrate her birthday in style by flying to Split and explore the islands of the Dalmatian coast by catamaran. Stay tuned for a full update.

As if this isn’t enough, I have other news to be excited about. We have guests! Mike’s family will be arriving in a little over a week to spend two fun-filled weeks with us. And next month, our friends Kelly and Imogen will be our guests over a long holiday weekend. Hooray!

Thank goodness for good friends

While I’m not going write a comprehensive update on everything that’s happened in the last two months, I did want to make a point to say how fantastic it was to see my friend Ludivine while visiting Paris in April. The two of us met last year while working at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. and we’ve remained in touch despite the recent twists and turns our lives have taken. Ludi, it was terrific to see you and I hope that you’re able to visit us in Glasgow sometime quite soon!