Haggis

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

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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.

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Yeti

When Carol and I decided to move to Europe, we knew we would need a car right away — so we made the unconventional (and possibly mad) decision to buy one in advance, online. Since we didn’t want to spend any more money than necessary, we decided to get a used car.

And since we were going to be using it for the first couple months in the UK, but thereafter on the continent, we decided to buy a left-hand drive car from a British dealer (i.e., in a place where right-hand drive cars rule), thus limiting our selection of both cars and dealers.

Oh, and the brands that we were most interested in are generally not sold in the US, so we had had no direct experience with them.

What could possibly go wrong with this scenario?

Improbably, as it turned out, nothing.

The car we settled on was a 2013 Skoda Yeti. From a couple previous European trips I had seen a lot of Skodas on the road, and they looked attractive and well-built. Researching them a bit, we found out that although Skoda is made in the Czech Republic, it is part of the Volkswagen Auto Group. Most of the internals come straight from VW (the Yeti is basically a Volkswagen Tiguan underneath). While Skodas are priced quite reasonably, they are well crafted, and indeed are often better-reviewed than their VW-logoed cousins.

More Yeti photos, please!

When Carol found out that the UK’s Top Gear guys loved the Yeti in particular, I was there.

After about 15000 kilometers or so, I’m hugely impressed with our little brown beast. It gets good fuel mileage, has nice acceleration and handling, and despite the many ways we have tried to break it — such as exceeding the max load by a few hundred pounds and, in an early blunder, fueling it with gas instead of diesel — it has performed brilliantly without a complaint.

Given my last car, the Ford POS that nearly ruined me in the US, I couldn’t be happier. A couple hours ago, as Carol and I passed the car on our way in from a walk, I hugged my Yeti.

Have you hugged your car today?

Herzlich Willkommen

Or, how I came to be in Freiburg writing this entry

If you’ve read our About page, you have a clue why we’re in Germany on this fine sunny day in August. On the first of the month, we installed Randall at the Goethe-Institut here in Freiburg, where he’ll learn the German language for 10 months or so, in order to attend university here next fall (2017).

Most German public universities are tuition-free, outside of a modest administrative fee, even for international students. You still have to pay for books and supplies, of course, as well as all your living expenses in this not-inexpensive country. Still, when you consider the caliber of the schools here — the university Randall is aiming for is rated something like number 14 in the world for his specialty, Physics — it’s still a screaming bargain.

I’ve read that the reason Germany does this is to attract motivated, well-educated young people in the hope that many will stay and contribute to the country’s success once they graduate. Which makes a lot of sense.

Meantime, our route here has been a bit circuitous.

In May, Carol left the US to take the Queen Mary to the UK, in preparation for Tamsyn’s graduation from the University of Edinburgh. Why the boat trip? you may ask. It was all for Pippin the Wonderdog. Slightly too big to fit in an under-seat airplane carrier, and too old and fragile to travel in airline cargo, His Fuzziness’s only transport alternative was a kennel on the QM2.

Randall and I joined them after his high school graduation in early June, taking a more prosaic approach via Icelandair.

After spending a couple months in the UK, we took the Chunnel and raced across France to Freiburg. Check out the photo gallery links below for an idea of what we’ve been up to.