Tag Archives: culture

A (Wee) Taste of Edinburgh.

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If anyone had told me that my first meal in Scotland would be porridge, I’d probably have said, “Yeah, right.” But after a night flight from Newark, I needed some comfort. The June solstice may have been looming but that early Edinburgh morning greeted me with raw and rainy weather. I suppose that was my first Scottish experience.

History, fishing, golf, hiking the Highlands, pubs, whisky, kilts, haggis, Outlander. All of these things—and much more—are part of the Scottish experience. I didn’t particularly have one in mind when I arrived but it was so nice to see tourism alive and kicking here. If you’re looking for a large helping of history and culture, with a generous side of fresh air, wonderful hospitality, good grub and beautiful scenery—Edinburgh has it.

After taking the tram into the city center (and spying all the motorway traffic from my comfy £5 seat), I dumped my bags at the hotel and went in search of breakfast. I didn’t have to look far. A few steps from the hotel a sidewalk chalkboard beckoned me the message, “I would walk 500 miles for CAKE.” Warm and welcoming, Pep and Fodder serves up fresh-baked goods for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A cluster of croissants and other assorted goodies flirted with my attention but when I saw porridge with honey and cinnamon on the menu board, I just went for it.

You know when something is downright delicious? Well this was it, pure comfort food perfection. As my spoon swirled around to catch every creamy bit it struck me that on some future cold and crummy day I’ll be saying, “I could murder a bowl of Pep and Fodder porridge.” So that was my first tasty Scottish experience.

Edinburgh Castle, the jewel in the city's crown.

Edinburgh Castle, the jewel in the city’s crown.

The majesty of Edinburgh is striking. From my tram seat I saw the giant rock of Edinburgh Castle. Staying in the New Town area, it was an easy 15-minute walk to the city’s most famous and glorious attraction. I’d hooked up with a friend from Ireland and our visit coincided with the setup of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual extravaganza of historical ceremony and entertainment. Scaffolding and bleachers were underway with the castle serving as the backdrop to the grand celebrations that will unfold in August.

After paying an entrance fee, we opted for the do-it-yourself castle tour. The majesty of this fortress, which dates back to the 12th-century, happens outside as much as inside its walls. Entering through a clock tower door, we joined a moving stream of visitors gazing upon the Crown Jewels. America doesn’t have this kind of history. After hearing the term used as an expression for so long it was a wonder to see the real deal gleaming, the oldest crown jewels in the British Isles.

Secrets of the Royal Mile, a small group walking tour with Mercat Tours, provided a fun intro to Edinburgh’s history. Led by a cheeky historian who accented our route with tales of crime and culture, this 90-minute journey offered a bit of a workout as we navigated through the Old Town’s steep stairs and hills. For commitment phobic travelers, it’s an easy way to dive into history without blowing your day.

Sweet songs on a summer night from Daniel Docherty.  (Photo: C. Reilly)

Sweet songs on a summer night from Daniel Docherty. (Photo: C. Reilly)

The ancient cobblestone streets call for walking shoes, my ankles were glad I’d worn mine.  This road runs the length of the Old Town that surrounds the castle and bustles with pedestrian, buskers and souvenirs. It’s very “ye olde” and close alleys tease your curiosity. Chasing history down the tiny lanes wedged between buildings that squeeze out the light is a good way to explore the area. Colorful candy shops draw you in and liquor store windows blaze with beautiful bottles of whisky of all ages. Along all the main drags, stores market a massive offering of cashmere sweaters, kilts and tartan.  It’s a wonder there’s any wool left.

With its incredible architecture and heritage, Edinburgh invites walking. It has world-class museums and the badge of honor for being the “world festival capital” so you don’t have to go far to indulge yourself. Relaxing in a sidewalk pub is great for people watching. Old world meets new as bridal parties proudly don kilts.

Get me to the church on time. (Photo: C. Reilly)

Get me to the church on time. (Photo: C. Reilly)

But what would a visit to Scotland be without a pot of tea? It’s kind of a must for a first timer. Whether you’re looking for an elegant or shabby chic atmosphere, Edinburgh is stocked with teahouses offering freshly baked cakes and sandwiches. Clarinda’s kitschy tearoom on Canongate, where I made quick work of a slice of orange cake, suited me just fine. With an abundance of cafes, pubs and restaurants refueling is easy.

Do you like it smoky? That was the question the ginger-haired bartender at The Balmoral Hotel’s Scotch bar posed when I asked for a whisky recommendation. We’d just come from a deliciously memorable feast at The Witchery, an award-winning restaurant at the gates of Edinburgh Castle. This dining destination attracts visitors as much for its magical atmosphere as for its menu. I’m still thinking about the hot-smoked Loch Duart salmon that I tried to eat very slowly.

The evening began with cocktails at The Scotsman Hotel. Walking over the North Bridge around 9PM the solstice sun lit this Edinburgh institution up like golden ale, making it way too inviting to pass up. Its bar buzzed with locals and tourists and we found prime real estate at its brass rail.

Solstice sun warms The Scotsman. (Photo by author)

Solstice sun warms The Scotsman. (Photo by author)

By the end of the night I wasn’t going home without a proper whisky. Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to whisky tasting in Edinburgh. Yet I couldn’t bypass the Balmoral Hotel. Its Scotch bar is known to have one of the largest collections of whisky in Edinburgh; it’s also a very comfy place to hang out. After chatting with me, the bartender unlocked a walled cabinet and carefully weighed the options before presenting me with his recommendations. I’m no expert but I did fall for the Glen Elgin 12-year and my nightcap turned into a night hat.

Warm and welcome whisky hospitality at Scotch. (Photo: C. Reilly)

Warm and welcome whisky hospitality at Scotch. (Photo: C. Reilly)

Strolling along Calton Hill the next morning rewarded us with stunning views of the city. We even saw hikers on Salisbury Crags. The city’s magic and majesty also lays in its proximity to the coastlines and mountains that surround it and which are easily reached by foot. Hiking boots I did not pack.

Cutting downhill through an old cemetery, we headed towards the Palace of Holyroodhouse where a long line of royalty reigned, including Mary, Queen of Scots. Today, Queen Elizabeth entertains there when she’s in residence. We lingered in the remains of its original foundation, an Augustinian abbey where it felt as if the history of the world was contained within its crumbling walls.

The Abby. (Photo: C. Reilly)

The Abby. (Photo by author)

That afternoon on a Virgin-Atlantic fast train to London, the Scottish countryside appeared like a never-ending painting of verdant green fields, with clusters of black-faced sheep and cows lazing around. Trees with tops flattened by the winds resembled acacia and bright yellow wildflowers popped from the fields. The train slowed through Berwick where the remnants of an old stonewall stood on the edge of a riverbed. Old stone cottages evoked house envy and a band of horses gathered on a hill appeared like a page from a storybook. Solstice sunlight pierced angry clouds as we barreled south. It was the longest day of the year and it was all part of my Scottish experience.

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America’s Lost Treasures: The Plains Indians

Buffalo picture of tipi of Never Got Shot. Photo credit: Claudia Santino

Buffalo picture on teepee. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

“The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art transports you to another place and time. For anyone who’s been itching to pay New York City a visit, it’s a perfect reason. But it’s got a short run and will close on May 10, 2015, so start planning.

You don’t need to be an art critic to understand the value of this exhibit. It’s easy to fall under the spell and spirit of what the Plains Indians were all about. Some of the artistic forms on display go as far back as 2,000 years when migrating peoples contributed items into Plains Indian culture.   The bounty at the Met represents pieces from many Native American nations.

Man's vest, Oglala/Lakota. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Man’s vest, Oglala/Lakota. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

The Great Plains of North America was once a vast open landscape of earth and sky, running from the base of Texas and heading north across the mid-west and into Canada. That idea alone made it easy to immerse myself in understanding how the moving canvas of their environment influenced Native American Indians.

We lost the treasures of our country’s earliest artists  a long time ago. The 130 items in this exhibit are on loan from museums in Europe and North America. This treasure chest of Native American art was tossed across the ocean ages ago when soldiers and other opportunistic eyes recognized their value and traded then off.

Horse sculpture by Lakota artist.  (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Horse sculpture by Lakota artist. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Animal power and a reverence for nature was central to Native American culture and that relationship is on full display here in almost every piece. The pipe is also a significant item in the exhibit. It served as a sacred instrument used in prayer and other rituals. A symbol of friendship and trust, the peace pipe helped seal the pact.

For the Plains Indians these items served more than one purpose.  They were more than form and function. They were part and parcel to their way of life. A war club made of walnut wood is smooth and glossy and engraved with a constellation of four-pointed stars.

War club with constellations. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

War club with constellations. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

The arrival of Europeans in the mid-1500s and onward had a significant impact on the Plains Indians, for good and bad. The goods they acquired from these new settlers entered into their artistic expression, with glass beads from Venice, cowrie shells from the Pacific Ocean, and brass buttons from England adorning their clothing and other materials. Battle gear, blankets, dresses, moccasins, shirts and headdresses, mix the natural and the New World and the items on display are a wonder. One very cool looking man’s coat of native tanned leather, porcupine quills, brilliant embroidery and metal hooks and eye fasteners was handcrafted by a Sioux-Metis woman, yet looks like something you’d see on London’s Carnaby Street.

Handcrafted man's coat. (Photo credit:  Claudia Santino)

Handcrafted man’s coat. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Traveling north from Mexico, the Spaniards introduced the horse. Native American Indians quickly harnessed its power, joining the spirit of this animal into their way of life and swiftly adapting to a more nomadic existence. If they were one with nature before, now they could ride alongside her changing seasons. They could hunt better and find the food and shelter necessary to sustain their way of life. Now on the move, they couldn’t afford to be materialistic. The creativity and craftsmanship around their evolving lifestyle is brilliant and inspiring.

The horse transferred the beast into an animal with sacred powers.

The mask transferred sacred powers. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

A saddle blanket made of leather, glass beads and wool cloth was used for resting beneath a woman’s saddle and used on social occasions to convey wealth and power. A horse mask transferred this animal into one with sacred powers in warfare or during ritual. A crupper, a strap that secures a horse’s saddle, is beautifully crafted from rawhide, native tanned leather, wool cloth, silk, glass beads, porcupine quills and metal cones. A riding dress with a Morning Star motif signals the four cardinal directions.

Photo by Claudia Santino

A crupper. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

There are many standout items on display. One of them is a cradleboard. Passed down as family heirlooms, these baby carriers worn on the back were crafted by a woman’s family and featured elaborate designs. Thunderbirds accented this one, mythical creatures recognized as powerful guardian spirits. Tiny metal cones hang around the top of a framed strap, creating a tinkling sound to soothe a baby. The thoughtfulness of which stayed with me.

A cradleboard. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

A cradleboard.  (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Something called the parfleche envelope blew me away. It was the Ziploc bag of its time, only a lot better and, clearly, a work of art. Made from buffalo rawhide by Great Plains women, this painted envelope functioned as a beautiful weather resistant container. Central to life on horseback, it was expandable, lightweight and unbreakable. I may only ride the iron horse to work every day but I like the idea of having one.

Headdresses made from raven feathers and other bird feathers and beads are majestic. Porcupine quillwork, an art form unique to Native American Indians, features strongly in their clothing and other adornments. Painted hides depict ceremonial battles, mythic birds and other forms of life and spirit, using every bit of canvas. They wasted nothing.

Oglala feather headdress worn by Chief Red Cloud. (Photo by author)

Oglala feather headdress worn by Chief Red Cloud. (Photo by author)

The Plains Indians spun materials from the natural world to evoke spiritual powers of animals and celebrate creation. A shield with a painted buffalo bull was passed down through five generations. A Cheyenne shield was used in war for almost 100 years. The animal depicted on their battle armor was the owner’s guardian spirit. The belief was that it was the image that would protect the warrior, not the shield.

Buffalo spirit shield. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Buffalo spirit shield. (Photo credit: Claudia Santino)

Sadly, in the end nothing could protect these Native Americans. Frontier settlers and the US government stripped them of their land and devastated the natural resources, mainly buffalo, that the Indians relied upon to sustain their way of life. The artwork here, from pre contact peoples to contemporary artists, are all of the elements used in their life which serves as a canvas to tell their story. In essence, they are America’s earliest experiential travelers and storytellers.

There’s a lot to marvel over in this collection. These in between days of spring when the weather toys with us are a good excuse to call in a mental health day or take vacation and play tourist for a day or two at one the city’s greatest cultural playgrounds. A chance to see what the Plains Indians contributed to American culture.

Come see this beautiful sight before it leaves town.

All Caught Up In the (Beautiful) Game.

KansasCity

Who knew Kansas City had such a strong futbol fan base?

I can’t believe it but I’ve caught the fever.  World Cup fever, that is.

A friend opened a bar in my neighborhood during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.  In support of my new local, I logged a lot of time there and watched a handful of games.  Although it’s been said this kind of fever is contagious, I walked away entertained but unscathed.

This time, something changed—Brazil 2014.

Maybe my resistance was low. I’d just returned from a road trip where I was out early and up late. If I had to pinpoint it, maybe it began when I somehow succumbed to watching the Brazil vs. Chile match. From there, things just heated up. I found myself crying over Mexico’s heartbreaking loss to The Netherlands, swooning when Colombia beat Uruguay, and delirious when Costa Rica defeated Greece.

Before the angony of defeat. (Photo credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Before the agony of defeat. (Photo credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1994 the US hosted the World Cup. To earn that gig, it had to start a national league. Since then, interest has operated at a simmer but after all these years America’s passion over soccer has finally reached a rolling boil. Especially among younger viewers. This is a great thing. Bars are full with men—and women. This means relationships—platonic and romantic—will be made the good old-fashioned way.

While American football prides itself as the game of this country, interest in soccer looks like it’s truly ready to take the field. It might take Americans awhile to wrap their heads around how a game can end with a tie 0-0, but they’ll get it one day. When the US made it through the group stages, it really set things afire for fans. The World Cup is breaking social media records and the US vs. Belgium match was one of the most Tweeted events ever.

Not that our boys ever had a chance.  It’s the one game we don’t own.  Unlike South Americans, and other folks who’ve been at it since infancy, it’s not a game that’s in America’s bloodstream and it’s probably going to take a lot more years to get there.  Like the gorgeous Brazilian model says in the Kia ad,In my country, this is futbol.

But that’s okay. Independence Day is tomorrow and you can still celebrate.

After the United States lost the knockout game, the country’s collective anxiety is gone. So pick a team, sit back and enjoy the quarter finals.  Take your passion, have a word with your ego and lose it in another country’s national identity. Hell, you might even find yourself hootin’ and hollerin’ for them.

The only thing more exciting than watching a match is watching the enthusiasm that a country’s fans bring with them to a game. It’s a beautiful thing. World Cup watch parties are being shown in parks from sea to shining sea across this country. Find one and have some fun.

Wherever you are, or whatever your sport, Happy Independence Day.

I’ll be rooting for Colombia, whose goal celebrations can’t be missed!