25 March 2009

Wales Part II

After the beautiful hike in the hills of Snowdonia, we decided to take a drive to the sea. Mark had done some interwebbing and knew of a few surf spots in Wales, so we first headed to a surf shop about 15 miles away. One moment we were driving on Welsh farm roads, surrounded by sheep, and the next moment we were in... Oak Bluffs? Or some similarly surreal beach town, with limited parking, girls wearing Roxy sweatshirts and guys who could have come from southern California if not for their accents. 

The town itself wasn't our favorite, but Mark was able to chat with some of the guys in the shop and learn a bit more about our 'local' break, which seems to be similar to the Cape. After a brief walk through town, we decided to head out to Hellsmouth, five miles of coastline with a decent break not too far away.

It took us longer than we thought, since we kept looking for a 'main' road but found ourselves on narrow farm paths crisscrossing the countryside (it turns out there is no 'main' road to Hellsmouth), but eventually we parked the car and walked out through the dunes.

We watched a few people paddle in the knee-high waves, taking it in (and trying our hardest not to compare it with Coastguard and the National Seashore) before looking more closely at our surroundings. 

Now, I don't know if this is a British thing, but it's definitely something we've noticed since moving here: litter. Around Liverpool, especially it's beautiful parks, there is so much litter and dog waste that it's really disheartening. Sometimes people will take the time to pick up after their dog and bag the waste, but then they leave the bag on the sidewalk, or beside a bench. And the litter is so pervasive that we find ourselves talking about it quite a bit. We're hoping that with the warm weather of spring, there will be a clean-up day in Sefton Park (which isn't as bad as other places we've seen: the Otterspool promenade, for instance) and we can help pick up.

But this beach was sad. More than the occasional soda bottle, condom, and beer can - there were rubber gloves, household waste, and other assorted items. I don't know if these were washed in (in which case, the poor sea!) or if people dump their waste at the beach, but it soured the experience for both of us.

Maybe we've just been spoiled, but I hope this has just washed in from the winter seas, and that people respect their surroundings this summer...

In any case, after the beach we drove back to our cottage and watched a movie next to the wood stove until it was time to get ready for dinner. We went out on a date at Poachers and had a wonderful time.

The next morning we sadly began to pack our things to head home. As we thanked our hosts for our great weekend, Katherine (the wife of the farmer we met the first day) suggested that we follow her husband to (insert Welsh name here). He was packing a few lambs into a trailer and would be heading out in a few minutes. Mark and I found ourselves agreeing, and within five minutes were struggling to keep up with the truck ahead of us. As he careened around sharp turns on the narrow farm roads, we started laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Everyone in Wales drives at least 50mph on these roads, but there is barely enough room for one car. When another car approaches, both have to slow and turn almost completely off the road to allow eachother to pass. I don't think this picture does justice, but here goes:
In the meantime, at every bump we could hear the sheep bleating in the little trailer. I panicked as I thought - are we following these lambs to slaughter? Mark tried to comfort me and tell me that there was no way he'd invite us to see that, especially after seeing me moon over the lambs each morning in the barn. 

(As a side note, do you want to know the cutest things about lambs? Within days, they are too tall to easily suckle from their moms. So they head over, bend their front legs, and crouch to get at the teat. Their butts stick straight into the air, and as they begin to get milk, their tails start wagging furiously. It is the cutest thing in the entire world.)

Anyway, the truck veered off onto a dirt road and we paused, unsure whether to follow. We then hit the gas and followed him up the hill to the most beautiful view we'd had yet. Rolling green hills sloping to a bright blue sea.

The farmer has additional land over by the sea, and he was moving the ewe and her lambs to the other site. We were both in awe at the beauty of the place, and have since tried to convince the farmer and his wife that they should build a little cottage there. And we would move there.

But the time had come for us to leave, and so we packed our bags and said good-bye. On our way back, we had decided to stop at one of the castles we had passed on the Friday before, and decided on Caernarfon.
This beautiful castle juts out to the sea at the mouth of the River Menai, and was the location of Prince Charles' coronation as Prince of Wales. The castle itself was built in the thirteenth century by Edward I (though I think it took a few more Edwards to see it to completion).
And so ended our first (of many, I hope) trip to Wales. The trip back was adventurous, as well, since they decided to close the main autoroute and so we were diverted through the Welsh countryside and had to fight the same traffic we'd seen on a major autoroute on those little Welsh farm roads I described before. You haven't lived until you've tried to steer around a giant truck (lorries, they're called here) on one of those roads where a hedgerow on each side prevents you from actually pulling off the road. 

But we made it home...

17 March 2009

Wales Part 1

Kathleen and I started a tradition a few years back of going out to Provincetown in mid-March to hide out for the weekend. It is usually terribly cold and there is always some sort of wintry precipitation coming down. One year it took me over 12 hours to get from Vermont to Cape Cod and last year we got caught out in the dunes in a blizzard! Regardless, it is always an amazing time for us to experience the beauty and solitude of outer cape without all the summer crowding. It was actually one of the first things we worried about when we decided to move here. It is such a special place that we knew we had to do something to make up for it this year. After some research, we found a farm/spa in the middle of Wales that we thought might do. We were intrigued by the idea of a working farm and 5-star spa wrapped into one. Additionally, with easy access to both the beach and some mountain hikes we thought it would do us both well. I also have to admit that it happens to be down the road from the closest surfable break to Liverpool and I wanted to do a little investigating…

We managed to get on the road a bit early on Friday afternoon and were looking forward to spending most of the drive in the daylight. The decision paid off as we made our way over to Wales. The scenery transformed as we drove into Wales from brown and very industrial to a lush green countryside dotted with sheep farms and medieval castles. Additionally the roads we took snaked along the coast so we had the opportunity of some beautiful ocean and beach views along the drive. Gradually the roads got more and more rural as evening descended. Eventually the navigation system had us turn down what was not much more than a dirt path and we encountered a locked gate.

After a little detective work, we finally managed to find the farm we were staying at and were literally stupefied. Even in the little light left in the day, we could tell that where we were staying was incredible. We were greeted by a Welsh farmer who was covered in dirt, grime, manure, and blood. He explained in broken English (Welsh being his first language) that he had spent the day ‘lambing.’ Now I am not so farm savvy so I inquired what lambing was. Kathleen, who fancies herself some sort of Dr. Doolittle, laughed and explained that he had been helping sheep give birth all day long! All Kathleen really wanted to do was see and pet lambs, but that would have to wait. The farmer directed us towards where were staying, a small cottage called Cwt Ci. We knew from the website that cwt ci means dog house in Welsh. Our cottage was initially a place where cows were kept and then was turned into a shelter for the farm dogs. Last year, they gutted it and transformed it into a luxury one bedroom cottage with heated floors. It was fantastic.

The next morning, we woke up super early and went outside to check out the farm. Again, stupefied really does kind of explain our re-action. It was so incredibly beautiful and pristine it was like we were in someone’s idealize/romanticized vision of what a farm should look like. I can’t really describe it, but here are some pictures.

After an initial look around, we went to the shed to look at the lambs. Here we found lambs that were literally born a couple of hours before. There were even two newborns that were designated as pets that we were able to pet. Sure they were covered in shit, but they were really really cute.

After checking out the shed, we headed off into the countryside for a hike. Our destination was Beddgelert, which is the grave site of a famous dog named Gelert. We stopped by the Warden’s office and picked up a quick guidebook.. Our hike took us down a one way road to an old copper mine. At this point, we left the road and continued down a trail on the side of a brook. There were mountains (well they are called mountains here, but are not so big compared to other places) all around us and across the way was supposedly the location of one of King Arthur’s forts. Apparently there was trouble building it, so they called in Merlin. The famed wizard found a cavern below the building site that was populated by two dragons – one red, and one white. When disturbed, these two dragons had a go of it with the red one coming out on top. This accounts for the presence of a red dragon on the Welsh flag.

The trail we were on eventually came out on a beautiful lake, at which point it turned up one of the mountain sides. We hiked to the summit of one and traversed a few peaks before descending back into town. The mountainsides were full of wild heather and rhododendron, and were dotted with abandoned mineshafts. These were not the highest or most challenging mountains I have been on top of, but the scenery was truly breathtaking. Again, I can’t stress how beautiful this country is. I am not sure if it was just the juxtaposition of scenery around Liverpool or what, but we were both grinning like idiots all morning.

We ended the morning hike, back in town with a delicious meal of beef and Guinness pies. Stay tuned for Kathleen’s rendition of Part 2 of our trip. In the meantime, check out more pictures here.

13 March 2009

London: Free for the last time

Last Friday, Mark and I hopped in the car for an impromptu road trip. Our link to a free apartment in London was expiring at the end of the month, and it was our last chance to head down and enjoy the city without paying exorbitant amounts for a hotel room.

The trip was a little long, but nothing compared to our marathon road trips in yesteryear from VT to NYC. Mark scored an excellent parking space a block away from our flat, and we stumbled in and collapsed in a gummy gorgefest-induced sleep.

The next morning, Mark ventured out for a thirteen mile run, while I did about a mile and a half. Surprisingly (or not so...), I still had a some time to kill until he returned. I actually had a lot of time, as Mark got lost (he was supposed to turn around at a bridge which, upon closer inspection of Google Maps, turned out to be a tunnel - easy to miss when you don't typically run underground).

After a quick breakfast, we walked along the Thames to the Tate Modern, encountering a strange group of street performers along the way, and a very crowded boarding platform for the London Eye. At the Tate, we saw their latest exhibit on Rodchenko and Popova. These avant-garde artists were part of the constructivist movement in Russia in the 1920s, and the work was interesting. You can definitely see their influence in a lot of pop art in the US in the 1950s and 60s, as well as much of the Soviet and Nazi propaganda on the 1930s and 40s. Some of the pieces were exceptionally striking, as the artists abandoned paint and canvas as a meaningful medium of art (preferring architecture, textiles, and other three dimensional forms) in a final exhibition, '5x5=25'. The artists used the opportunity to bid farewell to paint - Rodchenko perhaps most dramatically, painting three canvases Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color and Pure Blue Color, to represent the primary colors and the death of painting.

"I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited three canvases: red, blue and yellow. I affirmed: it's all over. Basic colors. Every plane is a plane and there is to be no representation." Rodchenko

After a bit of shopping (Mark was a good sport) and a few beers in a pub, we also seized the opportunity to have some spicy Thai food near the flat and head home. 

The only real downside to my Saturday was that my Nikon stopped working - I've started getting an error every time I press the shutter (it sounds like it opens but doesn't close). Pressing it again fixes the shutter but the camera won't take a picture, and the next time I press it the computer gives me an error again. I'm shipping it out to an authorized Nikon representative today, but I have a feeling the shutter needs to be replaced, meaning I won't have the camera back any time soon, and it will probably be pretty expensive. Definitely disappointing.

On the way back, we stopped in Oxford to see the campus. It's beautiful, as you'd expect, built along the Thames and other small rivers, with gorgeous old stone buildings and churches. We also found a little Mexican place and had burritos (though I'm convinced that they got me sick the following evening). Mark has some photos, and we'll post them soon.

Today we head out for a romantic weekend in Wales. Pictures and stories to come!

06 March 2009

Last Name 'Oh', First Name 'Br'

So the first person to make firm plans to come visit was my big brother Jeremy. He must have felt badly for never coming to see me in Japan or something because he had purchased his ticket, before I even arrived in the UK! In fact the first email I received after I got here read: “Hey dude: Welcome to UKland! Dope you're in it. Anyways, I bought some tickets.” He had actually planned a trip to go riding in Switzerland and decided to swing through Liverpool on the way over. He planned the trip fairly well in that he was our second visitor. Ray served as our first guinea pig. We were able to see what wowed people about Liverpool and what put them to sleep (thanks Ray!). So Jeremy was able to reap all the benefits and did not see any boring shit. Well, in theory I suppose…

Anyhow, he came in on a Tuesday afternoon and I was able to pick him up at the airport. On our way home, we received a phone call from Kathleen that she needed a ride as well. By the time we got home we would have to turn around to get her, so his first two hours in country were driving around Kirkby waiting for Kathleen. I swear it was not boring. For those who have not heard of Kirkby, people immediately think we are completely asinine when they find out that Kathleen used to work on Cape Cod… and now works for the same company but in Kirkby. It is just plain old sketchy. We also found out that it seems to be the only town in England with no bar. We looked and looked and looked and never found one while waiting for Kathleen. Mark, her boss seemed to think we were rather lucky as he was unsure how we would fair with any inebriated locals we might encounter…

We eventually made it home and quickly found that a significant portion of Jeremy’s luggage was for us! Some super amazing things he brought for us included: an obnoxiously large tub of Gatorade mix, seven packages of my favourite brand and of floss (a new hobby of mine), three skate mags, and a tin of Italian bread crumbs. Additionally, his friend Luciana sent along some candy, Cracker Jacks, Bruce Lee playing cards, and a miniature Zen garden. All of this combined with the care package my parents sent, meant we were super well stocked and longing for nothing! Thank you all!

We spent Wednesday touring Liverpool and hit the good sites. We went to the Tate and saw their current retrospective exhibit of modern art. We also went to the Walker Gallery and saw a new exhibit on Fashion and Sport. This was rad cause it was all about how fashion and sport and art intermingle in the world of consumer products. There were a few Burton pieces in there including a Toy Robot outfit Colin had worked on and some Paul Smith Burton stuff as well. There were also a lot of sneakers including a few pairs of custom NB’s. Check it out here.

We went out to dinner on Wednesday night and it was amazing. We booked a table at our favourite restaurant on Lark Lane called the Moon and Pea. We convinced Kathleen to take Thursday off so in addition to our amazing food, we consumed a few bottles of wine. We also found out about this. Cheshire Farm Ice Cream is amazing. It is definitely not Christina’s but it will have a firm place in our hearts (and stomachs) for the next year and a half. After dinner, we proceeded to a local pub to drink some beer. Here we realized how good Jeremy is at meeting people and how much we suck at it. We met these two films guys that had us laughing all night.

Not only did we shut the bar down, but they know the bartenders and managed to get us served after closing time. Not bad. In addition to the laughter, they apparently had me drinking as well. Here is how I ended up:

They apparently have an open mic night on Sundays, but we have struck out with the timing twice thus far. Will try again this week!

On Wednesday, we took Jeremy to Manchester which he seemed to like much better. He put up with a bit my shopping mission and they we went to Curry Mile. This is a section of Manchester that is populated by a rather large number of Indians. There are Indian restaurants everywhere and supposedly one of the best places to get Indian food in England. We chose… poorly. We went with the old “if it’s crowded, it must be good” philosophy and we paid dearly for it. I think everyone in the place felt like suckers as they tasted their terrible, terrible chow. Oh well, we will try again and cross our fingers next time!

Next we hit up the Whitworth Gallery for an exhibit called “Subversive Spaces.” It was an exhibit of all types of surrealist art. There were some interesting pieces on anxiety and hysteria that were cool. They had videos of people having real ‘fits’ and then artists having their own ‘fits.’ A lot of contortionism and body movements.

Kathleen did not love it that much, but Jeremy and I enjoyed it. They also profiled this woman who walked around Paris in the middle of every night and had a video of a guy riding his bike with no hands up Broadway in NYC going the wrong direction… pretty crazy.

We were all pretty exhausted and not feeling great when we got home, but we did go out for a few beers to Keith’s. This is supposedly where the bohemians and artists hang out, but whatever. It was kind of a cool place.

Jeremy and I got up at 4am to get him to the airport so he could go shred Switzerland. I was a bit jealous, but was super stoked for him and glad he came through. Jerm, you can come back anytime, with or without gifts (but if you are on the fence, bring the gifts). The morning also ended in a flat tire, and I got to be manly and change the tire. But that is another story…

02 March 2009

Lark Lane Market

I arrived home on Thursday afternoon from Ireland tired and anxious for company. Mark and I had no special plans for the weekend, but it ended up being just what I needed.

Saturday morning Mark had a big run as part of his training for the Belfast marathon, and I dragged myself out of bed to do two miles. We ground some fresh Dancing Goats coffee (thanks, Kerry!) and spent an hour or two enjoying the slow-paced morning and reading before gathering up our dirty laundry and heading to the laundromat.

Our normal path was obstructed by a giant farmers market, set up at the end of Lark Lane and due to return the last Saturday of every month. We hurriedly put the laundry in and then began to explore the market... And made a few impulse purchases.

Mark went off to switch the laundry and I scurried home to put the food away. By the time I met him back at the library, he was carrying a bouquet of spring daisies - perfect for the vase he brought home last month with tulips. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent wrapped in blankets on the couch watching recorded TV and just relaxing. I had made a big batch of baked shells with ricotta and mozzarella, and it was the just the way to celebrate the end of February.

The next morning was spent attacking the overgrown clump of weeds we called the backyard. We had stocked up on gardening supplies (including his and hers wellies, pictures of us looking ridiculous to come) at the local shopping center and we wasted no time getting them dirty. We now have six large garbage bags filled with assorted rubbish, the remains of a very overgrown ivy, and lots of snail shells, weeds and twigs. The daffodils and crocuses can now bask in the sunlight, and a whole fleet of other unknown plants are on their way up - and we're looking forward to seeing what, exactly, they become.

And finally, I attempted a giant Sunday roast yesterday afternoon. Mark and I both recently finished reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and we've been making an effort to be more conscious of where and how we get our food. It was great to be able to support some local farmers at the market, and the meal yesterday afternoon was absolutely delicious (and would have been guilt-free, if not for the massive amounts of butter used for each dish).