Last night was Robbie Burns Night in Scotland. Burns is revered here as the national poet, and his life and work are celebrated annually on January 25th. To the Scots, Burns Night is kind of like Guy Fawkes Night to the English — except instead of lightheartedly burning an effigy to commemorate a 17th century terrorist, the Scots eat a large dinner in honor of a fellow whose only known acts of terrorism were against the English language.

The menu for Burns Night dinner is tightly prescribed by tradition: it must include neeps and tatties (mashed turnips, or “swedes”, and potatoes), a “wee dram” of scotch, and the centerpiece: haggis.

You may be wondering, “What is a haggis, exactly?” and well you might wonder, because I need a rhetorical question like that to introduce this section. One of the few dictionaries willing to discuss the subject defines haggis as “a Scottish dish consisting of a sheep’s or calf’s offal mixed with suet, oatmeal, and seasoning and boiled in a bag, traditionally one made from the animal’s stomach.” There may be a few words in that definition that are not revolting, but none of them are nouns. Essentially, a haggis is a sausage made of sadness. As I had never before been sufficiently reckless to try it, Burns Night would be my first tasting.

Our splendid host Susan worked through much of the day preparing the supper, while Carol polished her pronunciation for the address. An important feature of Robbie Burns night is “addressing the haggis,” which I at first assumed to mean that we would select an address at random from the phone book and send them our haggis — rather like a Secret Santa at the office, when you’ve pulled the name of someone from Internal Audit out of the hat. But as you will no doubt have surmised, addressing the haggis is instead the act of making a speech to the insensate lump, in the manner of addressing the troops or a joint session of Congress (more like the latter, I should think).

Fortunately, lest one have difficulty summoning appropriate words for an encomium to a tube of entrails, auld Robbie himself composed the official address to the haggis, which would be repeated down the ages over tables throughout Scotland. The only challenge for Carol would be to pronounce it.

At the appointed hour, Sue laid out the serving dishes atop the hob, and we loaded our plates. We trooped single-file into the living room and sat for Carol’s recitation. Rather than burden you with the entire text, which is full of admirable words like sonsie, thairm, kytes, and luggies, I’ll offer a very free prose translation of the most important passages:

In elder days, the wisest of our ancestors sailed from these shores to discover tropical lands with umbrella drinks and Reggae music. And they stayed there, leaving the rest of us poor bastards to muck around in the peat bogs and eat shite like this here. At least they didn’t take all the scotch. Hail, hail and l’chaim.

Solemnities done, it was time to turn the sound back up on the television, and eat.

I feel complete confidence in saying that nothing else in the world tastes quite like haggis. Upon first sampling it, one understands immediately why the traditional Burns Night menu specifies whiskey as a chaser. Short of refined petroleum, nothing less robust than a good belt of single malt is capable of scouring the flavor of haggis from the palate. Pairing haggis with wine or beer would be like trying to smother a dumpster fire with a moist towelette, or unclog a rest area toilet with an eye dropper.

At this point, you are no doubt wondering, ‘So, why do the Scots eat haggis?’ I will tell you the answer: God alone knows. Why do the Scots live in a place whose climate makes Seattle seem like Morocco? Why do they wear short wool skirts into battle against bladed weapons? Why did the inventor of the highland bagpipe not receive jail time?

It’s a mystery, my friend.

Public Notice: The author of this article has been sacked due to gross misrepresentation of Scotland’s cherished institutions. Against all reasonable surmise, haggis is in fact quite pleasant to eat, and as far as we know may even be good for you. And no one has a go at Robbie Burns except over our cold corpses. Accordingly, you should regard the entire content of the essay as complete rubbish. Except the part about wearing kilts into battle. Even we admit that’s just barking mad.

The Scotland Tourist Board


Royal Mile

Last week-ish — I don’t remember the exact day (sue me, I’m retired) — Carol and I went out for an afternoon and evening on the Royal Mile. That’s the street that runs from Holyrood Palace, one of the Monarchy’s royal residences, up a long steep hill to Edinburgh Castle. It was typical Scotland “good times” weather, which is to say damp, chilly, and overcast. (At this point I’m sufficiently dialed into the local Weltanschauung that I welcome such weather as a good excuse for investigating pubs.)

We started out with a self-guided tour of Holyrood. I’d like to be able to show you what it looked like inside, but unfortunately the palace is one of those historical sites where you’re not allowed to take pictures. Carol and I speculated it’s probably for security purposes, since the Queen lives there for a short time each year. One doesn’t want terrorists to get ahold of some tourist photos and triangulate the mortar coordinates of Prince Philip’s place setting in the formal dining room. Which could absolutely happen.

So in lieu of visual aids, I’ll describe the palace for you.

I want you to imagine a lofty, square room, with a tall window set in a deep stone embrasure. The interior walls are covered in dark wood paneling, rather resembling Littlefinger’s brothel in Game of Thrones. Throw in a couple very large, faded tapestries; some paintings of people with trowel-shaped faces in Renaissance Fair costumes; and a massive square bed decorated so as to ensure vivid nightmares.

Right. Now read that paragraph over, ten or a dozen times. There you are, you’ve just toured Holyrood Palace.

Yes, yes, I’m joking of course. There was also a dining room.

Every great house needs a murder story, and Holyrood is no exception. In 1566, David Rizzio, faithful private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, was stabbed to death in her presence by henchmen of her husband, Lord Darnley, who was also on hand. Presumably this made dinner conversation awkward between them for some time thereafter. Signage in the palace is unclear as to the motive for the secretary’s murder, though at the time rumors swirled that his typing was execrable and his shorthand even worse. His body was dragged away to Mary’s Outer Chamber, where the blood stains are still visible on the floor, owing to the sixteenth century’s lamentable dearth of effective liquid floor cleaners.

For me, the highlight of my Holyrood visit was seeing the Queen’s Gallery. What I expected to find was a dolorous lineup of portraits of the usual royal suspects; but instead, the gallery was given over entirely to artifacts brought back by Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Albert Edward (later King Edward VII), from an expedition to the Indian subcontinent. The precious items were gifts from local potentates. There was no prohibition to photographing them, so see if you can spot them in our extensive and growing Edinburgh Gallery. Hint: they’re nearly all sharp. It is said that you can tell a great deal about someone by the sorts of gifts they give; but in this case it may say more about the recipient and his forbears, that the crown prince came away with enough knives, daggers, and pikes to take on an entire army of private secretaries.

After exhausting all the possibilities of Holyrood, Carol and I ascended the Royal Mile to find a place for dinner and suitable liquid refreshment. And this being Scotland, by “suitable” I obviously mean “whiskey”. I’m not a professional drinker, but a draught of excellent single-malt scotch from the land named after it is something to warm the haggis of any reasonable person, especially on a raw Edinburgh evening.

And since it was to be my birthday present from Carol, we felt we had license to look out a nice place, even if the price was a little beyond our usual guidelines. Despite the chill, there were plenty of people on the streets, window shopping and enjoying the old town vibe. We stopped at several pubs, previewing menus and scouting ambience, before settling on The Whiski Rooms, a cosy place on the Mound. (Crossing the Mile a few blocks down from Edinburgh Castle, the Mound runs down steeply on either side toward the parallel streets below.)

We both opted for a safe food choice with fish and chips, and saved our adventuring for the drinks menu — though the fish turned out to be a bit unusual in its preparation, and quite tasty. With some trepidation for what I was getting into, I ordered a flight of four whiskies. I needn’t have worried: the pours were quite modest and I was able to walk unaided by the time we were ready to settle up. All of the four scotches were excellent, but the Glenfarclas 15 and the Glendronach 18 were the stars.

We left the Whiski Rooms with a lovely feeling of well-being, and strolled the rest of the Mile up to the castle. Looking out from high parking lot over the brightly-lit city below, I felt a real affection for Edinburgh, and a sense of growing familiarity. We have spent time here off and on since last August with our wonderful host Sue, and it has come to feel like a second home.

Turning our faces back down the Mile, we directed our steps through the colorfully-lit streets and into the night.


Flashback: Malta

Beginning in late April of 2016, Carol and Pip and I spent a month in Malta. The presence of His Fuzziness ruled out the easy route to get to the island nation (flying). Instead we packed up our redoubtable Skoda and took an overnight ferry from Genoa down to Sicily, then a high speed ferry from Pozzalo to Malta.

Only about 60 miles due south of Sicily, Malta nevertheless feels surprisingly remote. Its two next closest neighbors are Tunisia and Libya to the south, and Arabic and North African influences are evident in the architecture and language of the islands. While its official first language is English, the native Malti is widely spoken and found on signage. With roots in the speech of the ancient Phoenicians who came to the islands around 750 BC, Malti has been shaped over the centuries by the many peoples who have fought over and inhabited the land since, including the Arabs, the Crusaders, and the English. It is the only Semitic language written with Latin characters, which is cool if you’re a language geek like me.

Malta encompasses three inhabited islands. At an overall length of about 17 miles, the largest island, also called Malta, hosts the national capital, Valletta. A short ferry ride to the northwest is Gozo, about 9 miles long; and between them is the tiny island of Comino, whose glorious main attraction is the enchanting Blue Lagoon. In total extent, the country is about twice the size of the District of Columbia — but surrounded by over 250 miles of spectacular coastline.

Visit our extensive Malta gallery! »

It’s astonishing how much history and architecture you can shoehorn into such a pint-sized place. Beginning as early as 3600 BC, settlers in the islands were erecting megalithic temples and monuments that would survive the ages. The millennia thereafter saw restless cycles of conquest, settlement, consolidation, and re-conquest. As late as World War II, Maltese under British dominion were still making their imprint on history — sticking a thorn in the side of Nazi military dominance in the Mediterranean, while withstanding constant attack from sea and air.

The most famous episode of Malta’s history was the Great Seige of 1565. 700 Knights of Malta (the Order of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller) and about 8000 Maltese footsoldiers fought off 40,000 invading Turks commanded by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was a near thing, the defenders suffering cruel losses and barely hanging onto their last few fortifications before outlasting their exhausted foes. In the decades after, the wealthy Order of St. John healed the country, pouring money into magnificent churches and other public works, including the sumptuous Co-Cathedral of Saint John. The city of Valletta takes its name from Jean de la Vallette, the Knight commander of the Maltese forces that faced down Suleiman.


[Above] Nave of the Co-Cathedral of St. John. In addition to its rich decoration and stonework, the cathedral features two paintings by Caravaggio, who was briefly a brother of the order until he fled after spilling the blood of a prominent knight.

Today, Malta is a thriving, friendly business hub and tourist destination. It is also a surprisingly reasonably priced place to live, where you can find a furnished two bedroom apartment in a nice stone building — practically everything on Malta is built from the lovely local stone — for under 100,000 euros. That won’t buy you waterfront; but given that you almost have to try hard to find a place farther than walking distance from the sea, it’s not much of a hardship. Mediterranean warmth means that you pay little for heat in Malta, while the cool stone buildings and ubiquitous swimming pools help you chill in the hottest months.

I should mention that if you want to buy a detached house, you’ll need to bring along a truckload of money. In a country as small and populous as Malta, land comes at a premium, if at all. The overwhelming majority of homes are apartments, townhouses, and maisonettes. (Where you see a “farmhouse” advertised for sale, it’s nearly always an attached house with a tiny yard.) New construction is virtually all multi-family or attached dwellings, and existing detached homes, when they come on the market, go for an order of magnitude beyond an attached home of similar square footage.

Medical services on Malta are excellent, and out-of-pocket payment for routine office visits is cheap compared with the US, though buying into the national health service as an expat is unfortunately not so inexpensive. The country is also statistically one of the world’s safest refuges from violent crime. With regard to food, despite its tiny acreage, Malta manages to produce a nice variety of gorgeous local produce, and grocery prices generally are about average for Europe. Eating out is quite reasonable, and usually very good.

You will pay a lot for a liter of gas. That, along with the narrow, congested roads, is why most cars on Malta are tiny. If you’ve ever wondered why you rarely see any Suzuki Sidekicks on the American road anymore, it’s because they and their older siblings, the Suzuki Samurai, all emigrated to Malta. Maltese owners love their tough little Suzukis not only for their parsimony with gas, but also because they stand up to the potholes, ruts, and washboard ripples of the infamous roads on the islands. In any case, between the small scale of the country and the daunting aspect of most backroads, you won’t be blowing through a tank of gas very quickly.

Quality of life in Malta can be quite good, though where you choose to live will depend a lot on what you enjoy. If you want world-class culture, thriving night life, great shopping, and fantastic multicultural cuisine, the main island is your huckleberry. Just be prepared for lots of traffic, a very high population density, and a dearth of quiet places to get away from it all.

On the other hand, if you value a slower pace of life, less congestion, and more opportunities to explore the outdoors, you’ll opt for Gozo. You’ll still be able to enjoy plenty of fascinating history and beautiful architecture, as well as outdoor cafes and local color — but you’ll also enjoy wide-open vistas out to the sea, and long, quiet walks on deserted trails. And if you buy a place there, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that those lovely open spaces outside the villages will remain unbuilt by law; the Maltese government has wisely recognized the value of maintaining its remaining green spaces, and so it protects them from development.

It would be overselling Malta to say it’s a place that “has everything.” It’s too small for that. If you’re looking for downhill skiing, or theme parks, you’re pretty much out of luck. Golf begins and ends with the 18-hole Royal Malta course. But if you’re looking for the kinds of things Malta offers in abundance — sailing, hiking, fishing, history, culture, beaches, and the rest — you’ll be hard-pressed to find them better anywhere else that mortals can afford.

I can’t wait to go back.

Germany don’t make pancakes.

Remember those cooking skills you had in the US? Don’t count on them surviving a trip across the ocean.

A couple weeks ago, I served my family hockey pucks for dinner. Not that I used that description when I touted the meal I planned to make. What I said was words to the effect of “I’m gonna cook up some pork loins tonight, with maybe some lemon green beans.”

But what they got was hockey pucks. Actually, I guess they were more like rubber drink coasters. With a side of rattan sticks.

There was a time not too long ago when I was sufficiently competent to prepare a dish of juicy, appealingly-spiced boneless pork loins, and accompany it with crunchy green beans lightly pan fried in olive oil with lemon and sea salt. But now, not so much.

Once you’ve been cooking a while, you come to depend unconsciously on your local milieu. In the US, when I bought pork loins, they were always a certain thickness. The Germans apparently like theirs cut thinner. So they cook a lot faster. And turn to leather a lot sooner.

Also, it’s surprising how disorienting it can be to use a different system of measures. Your favorite recipe requires a cup of flour and a half pint of buttermilk? Buwahahahaha! Say hello to Mr. Millilitre! And that carton of butter that used to come helpfully packaged in 8-tbsp sticks is now a featureless hexahedron. Which helps explain why my Alfredo sauce from Wednesday night resembles a yellow slag pond.

Of course, that’s all assuming the store even has the ingredients your recipe calls for. We are currently staying a couple blocks away from a massive supermarket that sells maybe a dozen different types of muesli. Want some oatmeal instead? Then you better be prepared to pick it out of the muesli by hand, ’cause otherwise you’re not finding any.

And pancake mix. (Yeah, I make pancakes from a mix. Sue me.) After combing the store seemingly for hours one day, I finally came across the one miserable little plastic bottle of pancake mix in the store. It’s the kind you add milk to, shake, and pour out to make sad, vinyl pancakes. It paired perfectly with the ampule of industrial maple syrup I winkled out from its hiding place in the pickle aisle.

When you cook, do you have a set of favorite “go-to” spices you depend on? Of course you do!  When you come over here, you’ll be unusually lucky if you find them under the same names in German (or French or Polish).  Ever try to tell the difference between Oregano, Basil, and Marjoram just by eyeballing piles of dun-colored leaves in different glass bottles?  I didn’t think so.

Finally, there’s the equipment. For some reason, I can’t seem to master a stove (or “hob”) on this side of the Atlantic. The burner knobs are demarcated with ascending numbers — from 1 to 6, or 1 to 10, or 4.73 to the square root of 59, or whatever. The higher you go the hotter it gets, right? Except it never seems to work quite right. On the hob I was using tonight, pretty much every setting from 3 to 9 had the same heat, which was roughly the equivalent of the fusion-powered inferno at the heart of the sun.

Anyway. I’m hopeful that before too long I’ll get comfortable with my new culinary environment and begin once again to produce edible meals.

Meantime, want to join me for some Chewing Gum Casserole with Patent Leather Pie?