A Trip To Scotland, Part Three: Nature Time!

Ah yes, the big moment has arrived, by which I mean that the third and final episode of my wife Sandy’s and my recent doings in Scotland is now alive in cyberspace. And maybe it’s not only alive, but kicking too. If so, protect your private parts, boys and girls! You can’t be too careful these days.

Part One of the Scottish trilogy mentioned the beauty of Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, and that of the enormous tract of lands and waters known as the Scottish Highlands. I am now going to devote some hundreds of words to those green areas, both of which impressed us mightily.

Let’s begin with the Gardens, which are, I suppose, one-zillionth the size of the Highlands and certainly not as spectacular. Nevertheless, they sure as hell are more than lovely. We spent only an hour in the Gardens, yet I consider them to be a highlight of the trip.

Princes Street Gardens
Princes Street Gardens

Princes Street Gardens sit smack dab in the middle of central Edinburgh, dividing Edinburgh’s Old Town section from its New Town. The Gardens are in two swaths, the western one being larger than the eastern and more impressive because of the views that it commands. Combined, the east and the west segments total about half a mile in length. Which is not a whole lot. I mean, you could walk from one end to the other of Princes Street Gardens in no time if you wanted to. It would be a mistake to hurry, however, to not stop and smell the roses, because the Gardens are alluring and welcoming. They are a testament to inspired horticultural design and maintenance.

Princes Street Gardens
Ross Theatre in Princes Street Gardens. Edinburgh Castle looms above.

But the Gardens are not merely an urban oasis. They have healing powers too. I can attest to that because, often a fine example of disgruntlement and unease, I felt a sense of calm within my veins while I explored the Gardens. All of the flora there struck me as just right in terms of looks and placement . . . the flowers, the lawns, the trees and shrubbery. I was at home. As if that wasn’t enough, my jaw dropped when, while walking in the middle of the west segment, I looked southward and saw, looming nearby and powerfully, the Edinburgh Castle complex atop a rugged hill. What a view! Singular and unforgettable. You don’t get stunned like that in an urban park every day, you dig? I’m positive that I never had before.

The bus, in Edinburgh, that soon would take us to the Scottish Highlands

A few days after our submersion into nature at Princes Street Gardens, Sandy and I boarded the Wild & Sexy yellow tour bus, in Edinburgh, that was destined to take us on a long but whirlwind journey into a portion of the Scottish Highlands. Wild & Sexy, which is anything but, took off at 8:00 AM, arriving back in Edinburgh 12 hours later. In all, it and its 40 or so passengers traveled about 350 miles that day.

Ideally we’d have rented a car and spent at least four days in the Highlands. They deserve that much attention, so vast an area do they encompass, so worthy of intensive exploration are their landscapes, waterways and villages. But alas, neither of us dared to take the potential risks of driving on what for us is the wrong side of the road. A bus tour, then, squashed into one day, was our best option.

Am I glad we went? Definitely. But did I enjoy being on a bus for half a day? Not so much. And did I get a kick out of the flood of snide remarks tossed out by the asshole, seated behind me, to his travel mate? Nah. The f*cking guy was very annoying.

Crianlarich, in Highlands. Photo taken through bus window.
Bridge Of Orchy, in Highlands. Photo taken from bus window.

Now, the Highlands, a storied territory that abounds with tales and memories of Scottish clans and of long-ago rebellions against English rule, aren’t exactly around the corner from Edinburgh. So, it was two hours before we reached their lower boundaries. Mountains began to appear, mountains that became more and more amazing to my eyes the closer we got to them. Their bold shapes and vivid colorations, exaggerated by the bright Sun, were something else. To say nothing of the meadows, pastures and forests that intermingle with the mountains. And of the sheep, horses and cows that sat or wandered in some of the pastures. Though we encountered the Highlands mostly through bus windows, they didn’t disappoint.

Glen Coe, in Highlands. Photo taken from solid ground.
Spean Bridge, in Highlands. Photo taken from solid ground.

“If you think that this scenery is something, wait until we get to Glen Coe. It’s 10 times better there,” our bus driver, Charlie, said over the vehicle’s public address system as we passed through the Bridge Of Orchy area. I don’t know about 10 times better, but the mountains and lands in Glen Coe are special. I’d have liked to stride into the grasses leading up to the mountains and then do some climbing. But there was no time for that since the bus, on a tight schedule, parked for only 20 minutes at Glen Coe. Guided tours have their place, but ones such as ours are limiting and frustrating. The few stops that they make tend to be brief, which results in a pretty superficial experience. Of course, before signing up for the tour I knew that such would be the case. “Yo, genius, not everything in life is perfect. DUH!” I just reminded myself again for good measure.

Loch Ness

Two hours later the bus parked in Fort Augustus, a touristy Highlands town near the southern end of famed Loch Ness. There the bus stayed put for more than a bit, for the one and only time. Sandy and I had purchased tickets for a 50-minute boat ride on the loch (a loch is a lake, by the way), so aboard the boat we hopped. Somewhere in the vicinity of 150 other individuals hopped aboard with us. Somehow, despite the crowd sharing space with me, I managed to position myself on the open-air deck at the rear of the vessel. From the deck I admired the pines and other trees that adorn the sides of Loch Ness, and the hills upon which the trees grow. I watched, with fascination, the strong wake of the boat. And I couldn’t get enough of the wind that caressed my wrinkled visage, smoothing out a few of the deepest creases. Thank you, Highlands, for the magical facial. I haven’t looked this good in years!

After the boat docked, back to the bus we went. A bunch of hours later we were once again in Edinburgh, our nature-saturated day drawing to a close. And now, I’m obliged to say, my Scottish trilogy also is about to reach its conclusion. Everything, as we know, must end.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. Or about signing up to follow my blog, for that matter. Mucho gracias.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

Advertisements

A Trip To Scotland, Part Two: Food And Beverage Time!

Soon after publishing A Trip To Scotland, Part One, I pretty well decided that Part Two of my wife Sandy’s and my recent adventures would be all about Edinburgh’s wonderfully beautiful Princes Street Gardens and the very astonishing Scottish Highlands. You know, nature stuff.

But things can change rapidly when least you expect them too. “Yo, Neil!” I said to myself when I sat down to begin composing this opus. “Many things got you stoked during your sojourn in Scotland. And, obviously, you can’t write about them all. I mean, this ain’t a memoir you’re creating here. But a few food and beverage items impressed the hell out of you and Sandy, and they’re practically begging you to devote a bit of wordage to them. Would it kill you to do that? Nope, it wouldn’t. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.”

Who am I to argue with myself? Princes Street Gardens and Scottish Highlands are now being rudely shoved aside by yours truly. Food and beverage have won out. But worry not, nature fans. The Gardens and the Highlands will be featured prominently, and possibly exclusively, in Part Three.

Sandy and I ate and drank awfully well while in Scotland. Plenty of salmon, plenty of beef, plenty of cheese. Not to mention plenty of beer and wine. Our meals often were hearty, and always were satisfying. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Haggis (Photograph credit: foodfolio/Alamy)

Yet I regret one thing, culinarily-speaking: I should have given haggis a try, even if only one or two forkfuls. Haggis is maybe the quintessential Scottish dish, after all. In one or more of its various permutations, it was on the menu of nearly every eating establishment we settled into.

But I didn’t. Haggis, a fairly complicated preparation of minced, cooked ingredients, contains oats, which I like. It also usually contains lamb or calf lungs, hearts and livers, none of which I’m eager to ingest. One or two forkfuls of haggis, however, wouldn’t have killed me. Well, hopefully that last statement is true.

Here, then, are a few of the various dining experiences that made a deep impression on me. All took place in Edinburgh.

Let’s start with coffee, a beverage that I down every single morning without fail. Sans coffee, I’m no good. Never did I expect to, but I had the second-best coffee of my life at the Southern Cross Café, where Sandy and I ate breakfast five times during our eight day vacation (the best coffee I’ve ever had was in Rome). SCC offers several styles of coffee. What we drank were large cupfuls of their Americano, which is made with espresso. Rich, fragrant, slightly sweet, it was delicious.

Scones at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse

When it comes to scones, the one I ate at Mimi’s Little Bakehouse one afternoon wasn’t the second best I ever encountered. It was the best. Sandy had a scone there too, and she thought it the greatest. The scones I’d previously had in my life were squat, dry and crunchy. Teeth, watch out! And I liked them. Mimi’s scones, however, were tall and unlikely to chip the choppers. Nicely airy, yet proudly firm, our scones came to our table warmed. They were delicate in taste, and comforting as a warm blanket. We spread butter and raspberry preserves on them. My brother, after I sent him a picture of the scones, asked for my opinion about them. Perfection is what I told him.

Bowl at top contains stovies. Bottom plate contains steak and ale pie.

At Deacon Brodie’s Tavern for dinner, Sandy and I ordered traditional Scottish food. Stovies for her, steak and ale pie for me. Stovies is a stew that always contains potatoes. Pieces of beef often are in the mix, as was the case with Sandy’s order. My entrée, loaded with potatoes and beef and an ale-infused gravy, was encased in a nifty crust. Ah yes, we enjoyed our choices very much. Home-style cooking is hard to beat.

Still, the steak and ale pie wasn’t the top dinner that I had. That honor goes to the two dishes I consumed at the Whiski Bar & Restaurant. Sandy sampled them that night and was so impressed, she ordered them when we returned to Whiski several nights later.

A lousy photo of 1) a bowl with a few remaining drops of Cullen skink and 2) part of a smoked salmon platter

I’m talking about Cullen skink, and a smoked salmon platter. I was in an adventurous mood during the first visit to Whiski, because I sure as shit had never heard of Cullen skink before. Skink, I later learned, means soup. And Cullen is a Scottish village where this creamy chowder, made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions, originated. Man, it was something else. And I mean that in a good way. Salty and alive with flavor, it went down the ol’ gullet smoothly and happily. As tasty a soup as I’ve ever eaten.

And the smoked salmon presentation? Superb. Scotland is known for its salmon, of course. Whiski took a large piece of fine, crusty bread and topped it with baby greens, capers and thick slices of smoked salmon, dressing the bread lightly with crème fraiche and a salty sauce. After eating the soup I figured that the next course would inevitably be a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t. In fact, I might have swooned over the salmon creation more than I did the Cullen skink.

Okay, that’s enough oohing and aahing. Still, before I bid you adieu I have to tell you that my mouth has been watering for the last 10 minutes as I relived the Whiski Bar experience. That makes me realize, though I really didn’t need any reminding, what an excellent trip Sandy and I had. Food and drink aren’t always standout occurrences on vacations. When they are, it’s a bonus. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Scotland. But if we plan another visit to that land, I’ll look forward to being very well fed.

(Don’t be shy about sharing this piece or about adding your comments. Gracias.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

A Trip To Scotland, Part One: An Overview

Thousands of moons ago, in the spring of 1977 to be exact, I backpacked around England, Scotland, France and Italy for six weeks. I had little money at the time, lots of hair on my 29-year-old head, and enjoyed the hell out of the trip.

In ensuing years I returned to England, France and Italy. And entertained the idea of visiting lovely Scotland once again too. You know what? It finally happened, because my wife Sandy and I spent eight days there in late May. This time I had a decent amount of money to my name, but distressingly less hair on my head. And, as before, I enjoyed the hell out of the trip.

Scottish Highlands
Scottish Highlands

Sandy and I were based in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. We took day trips to other parts of the land (the county of Fife, which is north of Edinburgh; and the Scottish Highlands, a majestic territory of mountains, forests, meadows, lochs and charming villages), but otherwise spent our moments in that hilly, fine city. Which was our game plan. When traveling nowadays, you see, we prefer to linger in whatever locales we’re visiting, rather than race from one town or city to another. You can’t see and do everything anyway, so why put pressure on yourself trying to?

Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens

Edinburgh doesn’t have the knock-your-socks-off looks and attractions of, say, Paris and Amsterdam. But it’s got plenty going for it. For one thing, it’s very walkable. Most of what anyone might want to see is no more than two miles apart. Its buildings, solid and stoic and constructed from stone far more than from steel, create a comforting sense of permanence and often one of mystery. It boasts Princes Street Gardens, an enormous park that is one of the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. And not only does the city ooze history and culture, it is filled with pubs, bistros and restaurants where hungry and thirsty souls may find nourishment and refreshment. A low-level beer geek, I was anxious to check out the brew scene in town. Success! Each night I quaffed an ale from a brewery that I’d never heard of before.

Old Town
Old Town
Warriston’s Close, in Old Town

The sections of Edinburgh that visitors spend the most time in are Old Town and New Town. Old Town was the first part of the city to be inhabited, and though few ancient structures remain, much of what stands in Old Town is old enough, dating from around 1600 to the late 1800s. Old Town, built on a ridge, is heavily cobblestoned. It is peppered with winding streets and with alleys (known as closes) that often are steep and that connect one street with another. Ergo, Old Town is highly atmospheric. I preferred it to New Town, which actually is pretty old, but flatter, more open and far less funky than Old Town. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Old Town was mobbed with tourists and locals while I was in Edinburgh. New Town was busy with people too, but less so.

Street performer in Old Town
Old Town

Sandy and I went on two walking tours of Old Town, accompanied by our Parisian friends Martine and Alan. That handsome couple was with us for the first two and a half days of our Scottish experience. The four of us also wandered here and there on our own for hours, both in the Old and the New. It was good to hang with folks with whom we’re very comfortable and on the same wavelengths. Life’s better that way.

Left to right: Sandy, Martine, Alan, Neil
New Town

I could write loads and loads of words here about all that the four of us saw and did, and loads more about the experiences that Sandy and I had after Alan and Martine returned to Gay Paree. But that would be too much information for this humble essay. After all, A Trip To Scotland, Part Two will follow fairly soon to fill in some gaps. And who knows? Maybe Part Three also will emerge.

Exterior view of Edinburgh Castle

For now, then, I’ll toss out a few comments about Edinburgh Castle, which sits high on a hill at the western end of Old Town and looms over the city. Its history is long and complicated, too much so for the mostly-in-one-ear-and-out-the-other likes of me to understand and retain, though the leaders of both walking tours went into great detail. But let me say this: The castle complex is a maze-like assortment of buildings. There’s a palace, prisons, barracks, a chapel and many other structures, only a few of which have present-day usage.

I dug the palace, which holds the Scottish Crown Jewels (a crown, a scepter and a sword) and also the Stone Of Destiny, a slab of sandstone that was the coronation seat of Scottish queens and kings during long-ago centuries. The Stone Of Destiny was last used by a Scottish monarch in 1292. (Damn right I’d like to include photos of the Jewels and of the Stone, but taking their pictures is forbidden.) Within the palace I also saw the tiny room in which Mary Queen Of Scots gave birth in 1566 to a son, James, who in 1603 unified the Scottish and English crowns. See, somehow I retained a few iotas of historical information!

St. Margaret’s Chapel
A window in St. Margaret’s Chapel

And I especially admired the castle complex’s St. Margaret’s Chapel. Built in the 1100s, it is the oldest-surviving building in Edinburgh. The chapel is small and plain-looking. That was its main appeal for me, as those two adjectives describe yours truly very accurately. And I thought that its stained glass windows were beautiful.

The proper way for me to close out Part One is to note the most intriguing event that happened during the vacation. Namely, I met in person the one and only Andrew Ferguson, who lives not far from Edinburgh. Andrew is a multi-talented guy, being a lawyer, a writer, a musician, a wine lover and who knows what else. One of the places upon which he places his written words is his WordPress blog (click here to reach it).

Somewhere in the misty past, Andrew and I discovered each other’s WordPress sites and quickly developed an online friendship. When Sandy and I made our plans to visit Scotland, I contacted Andrew. He and I then arranged a meeting date. It’s amazing that WordPress brought the two of us together, in the flesh.

Left to right: Alison, Neil, Sandy, Andrew

I’m here to tell you that Andrew and his wife Alison are swell. They drove Sandy and me around Fife, where we stopped at a couple of fishing villages. And, before returning us to our hotel, they gave us a mini-tour of some of Edinburgh. In all, they took out a day from their lives to show Sandy and me a good time. They couldn’t have done more. Wait, that’s an overstatement. Shit, they should have picked up the tab for Sandy’s and my hotel stay!

Anstruther, a fishing village in Fife

I have a couple of other online Scottish buddies via WordPress. Alyson and Anabel, I’d have liked to have met you. But the trip was too short to allow for any additional socializing. I hope you understand. (Click here and here to read, respectively, Alyson’s and Anabel’s blogs.)

Readers, thanks for joining me on this journey. Goodbye till next time.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

My Mom (A Belated Mother’s Day Story)

My mother and yours truly in the late 1940s

Not many days go by when I don’t think of my mother, Elaine Scheinin. This has been true since her passing in 1994. She lives on in my mind because she was an exceptionally fine person. Honest, warm and unpretentious. And blessed with an openness that few could resist. Pretty much everyone that knew her was crazy about her.

If I remember my output correctly, I’ve written about her only once before. That was in an article about the late, famed jazz pianist Thelonious Monk (click here if you’d like to read it). My mom, a jazz fan, became part of that article because she once spoke with Monk on the phone in 1976. Drawing up her courage, she took the initiative to obtain and dial his number (Monk, a Manhattanite, somewhat surprisingly did not have an unlisted phone number). She hoped to ask him if he knew that WKCR, a New York City radio station, was in the midst of airing a multi-day tribute to him and his music.

Monk answered the phone. Yes, he was very aware of the tribute. And he thanked my mother for calling him. I was sitting with her when she reached out to the great musician, and the incident left me awe-struck. Hers was a spontaneous and innocent act of good-heartedness and caring. She would have been disappointed if Monk somehow missed out on the love being shown to him on the radio.

Now, here’s the thing. I think of my mother often not only because of her enviable natural state of being, but also because of what happened to her in her middle age and how she responded to that tragedy. In 1969, when she was 49, her retinas hemorrhaged badly, a consequence of diabetes. She lost her sight, living the remaining 25 years of her life in total darkness. The pain I felt was intense. And it hasn’t lessened. Her blindness was, and in memory remains, heartbreaking to me.

For nearly all of those 25 years she didn’t complain, didn’t bemoan her fate. She suffered, but she almost always kept it to herself. At a party once, though, I overheard one of her sisters-in-law say this to her: “It’s a shame about your vision.” To which my mother responded, “You have no idea.” Those few words pretty much said it all.

Basically, my mom soldiered on, remaining the person she always had been, bright and optimistic, fully continuing her household work and community involvement. In the early 1990s, though, diabetes struck again, ravaging her body and ultimately her mind. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” has been asked by countless folks. The answer is that good people are not immune to the slings and arrows, and lightening bolts, of life. If only they were.

Ideally, I’d have liked to have published this remembrance on Mother’s Day. But I didn’t complete it in time. Better late than never, as the saying goes. Many of us are fortunate to have been raised by loving, good people. I surely was. My father was ace too. And so, I wish a Happy Mother’s Day, belatedly, to the fine ladies who give their heart and soul, selflessly, to their children. And I accompany that wish with a major tip of the hat.

Azaleas! Rocky!

As I’ve known for many decades, I can be a very dumb shit, and I proved that in the story I published on April 18. That opus is a recount of the walk I took in Jenkintown, a suburban town near Philadelphia, during which I gorged myself on springtime’s greenery and flowering trees and bushes. The middle of the piece contains the following sentences: But where the hell were the azaleas? I saw only three. Maybe somewhere in Jenkintown were a bunch of “Azalea Bushes Are Not Welcome In This Community” legal notices.

Yo, Neil, listen up! The three azaleas in flower that you saw were not the only azaleas in Jenkintown. There are undoubtedly plenty of azaleas in Jenkintown, but most of them had not blossomed yet. That’s because azaleas come in many varieties and do not necessarily bloom at the same time! The ones you saw, with purple flowers, were the only ones that had so far.

Yeah, I know that. But it had slipped my mind during my April stroll. Nobody ever has or ever will mistake me for a botany whiz kid.

Anyway, a couple of days after launching the story into cyberspace, I awoke from my azalean slumber, realizing the error of my ways. And since then I’ve had azaleas on my mind. Hey, why not? Azaleas, when in flower, are beautiful. And within the last two weeks I noticed that scads of them in the Philadelphia burbs, where I live, had opened their wings. The time had arrived for me to investigate the azalea situation in a pretty big way, something that, as far as I could remember, I never had done.

It was only a natural, therefore, that visiting Philadelphia’s Azalea Garden would strike me as the appropriate thing to do. I mean, come on, it’s called the Azalea Garden! And so, on the 1st of May, a cool and cloudy day, I boarded a train that transported me to the City Of Brotherly Love. But a few minutes before I climbed aboard, I snapped a photo in my neighborhood. The picture is of enormous and awe-inspiring azalea bushes that adorn the front lawn of my friend Joyce’s house. Regale your eyes:

Joyce’s azaleas.

I hadn’t been to the Azalea Garden in 15 or 20 years. I had no idea what condition it would be in or how many azaleas it nowadays contains, but I guessed that all would be well. And it was. The AG is a sweet, four-acre park near the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, a few blocks outside the hustle and bustle of downtown Philly. Azaleas were plentiful and in bloom. White, pink, red, yellow and orange azalea blossoms looked smashing amidst the park’s greenery. Especially the white ones, of which there were thousands. I’m sure I’ve never seen so many white azalea petals in my life. They alone were worth the trip.

I took my time in the park, covering all of its grounds. I said hello to the azaleas. I sat on a bench for a while and ate the sandwich I’d brought from home. And I took lots of photos.

And then nature called. Not one to ignore natural processes, up a hill I strode to the art museum, of which, luckily, I’m a member. That’s because members get in for free. Otherwise, for the pleasure of using the facilities I’d have had to pay the $18 museum admission fee required of seniors. I’m here to tell you that everything came out very artistically! Monet and Picasso would have been proud of me.

There’s not much more to this story. Well, I suppose I could drag it out for another 1,000 words, actually, but I’m not going to. Old f*ckers like me get tired easily, you know. But I will add one more non-azalea anecdote. You see, on the way back to the area where I would catch a bus to take me to the train station, I passed the Rocky statue. It’s a two-ton, bronze replica of Rocky Balboa, the cinematic boxer, and originally was featured in the Rocky III movie, which came out in 1982.

Amazingly, the statue has found success in real life. Sylvester Stallone, who portrayed Rocky, donated it to the city when filming for Rocky III was completed. It used to stand outside a Philadelphia sports stadium, but since 2006 has occupied a niche near the famous art museum steps that Rocky ran up in the movies.

There were lots of people around the statue the other day. Lots. Almost as many as I saw in the museum while heading to and from the can. I’d never known that the Rocky statue is an immense tourist attraction, one of the biggest in the city. Ditto for the Rocky steps. Hell, just about everybody loves a hard-working, decent guy, and that’s what Rocky personifies.

Nature lovers and boxing fans, that’s a wrap. Any day filled with blooming azaleas and with Rocky is a good day. I went home satisfied and content.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thanks.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)

The Call Of The New: A Curious Story

Let it be known that I’m not too much the self-analytical type, which means I usually don’t give a lot of thought to what I do or why. Shit, basically I wake up in the morning and try to make a go of the day. But recently a certain aspect of my behavior became clear to me. And the more I thought about this aspect, I realized that it’s part of everybody’s makeup, that it reaches back to our baby years. It’s part of human nature, in other words. This innate need cools down for most of us as we get older, for sure, but it remains a force, one that makes our life journeys interesting and productive.

“Yo, Neil,” I hear a chorus of voices exclaiming, “time is precious and our attention spans are shorter than your dick. Give us some pertinent facts, guy. Tell us what the hell you’re talking about already!

Woe to those who ignore a chorus of voices. Here goes.

The mid-morning hours of the 20th day of April, a Saturday, found me, as usual, upon the living room sofa. The radio was tuned to Sleepy Hollow, a weekend show of peaceful music on WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I was only half-listening to the tunes being played, though alert to the possibility that a few might mesh beautifully with my inner tunings. And, as always, I was hoping to meet some music that I’d never heard before. Around 9:30 one number that met both criteria floated out of the stereo’s speakers. The song was Bird, by the singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian, who is known professionally as Bedouine.

Bird is good. Really good. It’s about loving someone so much, you’re willing to let them go when freedom is what they require. I’ve listened to Bird several times since the Saturday in question, feeling it wash over me and into me. This song’s got power!

Bedouine, who is fairly new to the music scene, sings in a resignation-tinged voice, her words coming across in almost an offhand manner, though she probably worked on them religiously. Bird is a quiet emotional outpouring. It will remind you of introspective songs by Joni Mitchell.

Yes indeed, I’d been open to hearing something that was new to me. And very luckily, the haunting Bird came my way.

The day progressed. I could have stayed home, doing any number of things that are part of my routine. Lawn mowing, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Invisible strings, however, were pulling on me to get out of the house and meet up with something that I hadn’t crossed paths with before.

And so, in late afternoon my wife Sandy and I went to the nearby Ambler Theater to see Amazing Grace, a documentary about the making of an Aretha Franklin gospel album in 1972. The album was recorded in a Los Angeles Baptist church, its pews filled with music lovers (the faithful and non-faithful alike), and the performances and behind-the-scenes moments were faithfully filmed. The movie was intended for release, but for various reasons sat on a shelf for lo these many years. Clap your hands, sisters and brothers, rejoicing in the undeniable truth that Amazing Grace has seen the light of day! It’s great.

Chalk another one up for following the call of the new.

And at Deterra, a good restaurant across the street from the movie house, without consciously realizing what I was doing I searched the menu for clever dishes that I hadn’t previously encountered anywhere. And I found them. Potato gnocchi, with mushrooms and fava beans and a froth of parmesan cheese, brought a big smile to my face. So did pappardelle (wide pasta noodles) served with sautéed shrimp and pesto sauce. Yowza, yowza, yowza!

The next day is when it dawned on me that what I’d done on April 20th is what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember: I hear the call of the new and I move on it. Not obsessively. Not even every day. But regularly. Acting like this is to a large extent who I am. Partly I follow this path to keep boredom away from my door. But it’s far more than that. I seek new experiences because many of them turn out to be enlightening and inspiring. I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

And the pattern is nothing more than one that began in my early years. The world is new and intriguing to little kids, after all. They want to know. They want to explore. “What’s this? What’s that? Look at this! Look at that!” is their mantra, their engines’ fuel.

It all boils down to curiosity. Humans are born curious. And we retain our curiosity, though some far more than others. Hell, does anybody want to sit around day after day doing the same old, same old? I don’t think so. We like to shake things up, at least a little, and add interesting spices to the stew. We can’t help ourselves. I mean, where would we be without curiosity? Stalled, man, stalled, in the pre-civilization eras.

And, come to think of it, that would be okay. Sure, our fair species’ prodigious achievements over the last 10,000 or so years have resulted, in part anyway, from the curiosity genes populating our cells. That’s because curiosity is one of the mothers of invention. But in the process, Planet Earth has been brought to its knees since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide emissions, depletion of resources and pollution of the waters have done an excellent job of that. Oy vey, to say the least!

Hey, this essay has taken a turn that I wasn’t expecting. Writing can be funny that way. Seeing that I ain’t in the mood for bumming myself out, I’m now going to remove my digits from the keyboard. It’s a bright, sunny morning as I type this paragraph. My lawn needs mowing, and I hear its call.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. I thank you.)

Spring Indeed Has Sprung

The morning of April 13, a Saturday, was drizzly and grey. But the weather forecasters swore up and down that by early afternoon the Sun would be smiling broadly upon us. Damned if they weren’t right. It was, I decided, a good afternoon in which to take action.

Scads of flowering trees had burst into bloom during the previous few days. And because this annual seasonal display doesn’t last all that long, and because I’m the sort of guy who likes to commune with nature every now and then, I figured I better get hopping if I wanted a good look at the show. So, at 2:30 PM I drove to Jenkintown, a town near mine in the Philadelphia burbs. After parking on a tree-infused residential block, I spent 75 minutes imbibing a healthy amount of spring 2019.

Why Jenkintown? Well, it’s an attractive and tidy place. And I know its layout well. What’s more, I have ties to Jenkintown. It’s where my barber does a magnificent job of styling the five strands of hair that remain on the crown of my head. It’s where my wife Sandy and I go out to dinner fairly often. And, most important, it’s where she and I bought our wedding rings. Yeah, Sandy likely would have threatened to knee me in the balls if I hadn’t included most important in that last sentence. But that has nothing to do with why I wrote those words!

Jenkintown was, as expected, peaceful and calm while I trod upon many of its blocks. I saw people of all ages outdoors taking advantage of the warm, comfortable conditions. Some sat on their porches. Others puttered in their yards. One eight or nine year old bounced somewhat proficiently on a pogo stick. And two little kids streaked wildly on their scooters, up and down a sidewalk, as their father kept an eye on them. It was a nice day.

And I heard birds, a lot of birds, though I didn’t see any of them except for a few that were zooming real high in the sky. I don’t know much about them, but I’m not a total nitwit when it comes to our avian friends. I proved that to myself by recognizing the caw, caw, caw of a crow a few minutes into my walk.

And what about vegetation? For one thing, Jenkintown was looking a lot greener than it had in months. Most deciduous trees were not yet in leaf, but a few were, and they were beautiful. What’s more, much shrubbery had traded drab greens for sprightlier shades of that color.

One of the few azalea bushes that I saw.

Forsythia bushes, which had opened in my region in late March, rocked their yellows throughout the town. Ground-level flowers were starting to pop up all over the place. But where the hell were the azaleas? I saw only three. Maybe somewhere in Jenkintown were a bunch of “Azalea Bushes Are Not Welcome In This Community” legal notices.

And then there were the flowering trees, the main subjects that I had left my house to examine and to write about. Jenkintown doesn’t boast incredible numbers of them, but there were more than enough. I stopped to admire most that I crossed paths with.

Magnolia petals on the ground.

When it comes to flowering trees, magnolia, pear and cherry are the varieties in favor in Jenkintown. Their petals abounded, flaunting pinks, whites and pale greens. On one property I saw a powerful reminder, though, that the show’s days are numbered, because the lawn and sidewalk there were blanketed with magnolia petals. Before long, similar scenarios will be playing out all over town.

Is this a magnolia tree?

As my stroll was coming to a close I passed a house on whose lawn a young tree grew. It was scrawny but in flower, displaying a color I’m positive I’d never seen before on tree petals. Yellow. A soft, milky yellow. As with birds, my knowledge about plant life ain’t much to write home about. That’s why, a short while ago, I turned to Google for enlightenment. I’m now offering the possibility that what I was looking at is a member of the magnolia family, though I sure as shit wouldn’t bet my life on that. Some of my readers are wise in the ways of flora, and I’m hoping that they will set me straight.

The time to go home arrived. I’d more than met my minimum daily requirement of nature. Therefore, into my car I eased. And you know what? It was hot as hell inside the mighty machine, 10 degrees hotter than it was outside. That’s what happens when you forget to leave a window cracked. Within seconds sweat began pooling on my forehead. Plenty of it. And of course the sweat headed downward, saying a nasty hello to my nose, lips and chin, and reminding me that summer is on the horizon. I hadn’t thought about summer in a long time. I’m not a fan of that season. F*ck summer heat. F*ck summer sweat. I prefer spring.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. Gracias.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window. All photos were taken on April 13, 2019 in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, USA.)

I Have Some Faves. How About You? (Art On Wheels, Part Four)

There must be a good reason why I occasionally slip behind the steering wheel of my ancient but spunky Honda Civic and drive around my area to photograph attractively-adorned motor vehicles. Maybe it’s because I’m older than dirt, a condition that leads some people to engage in oddball activities. Or maybe it’s because I’m inherently an oddball, and has nothing at all to do with my advanced years. I asked my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel, about this during a recent session.

“The answer, Neil, is obvious,” she said. “Yes, you’re old. Really old. Might not be a bad idea to have some work done on your face, in fact. There are dried-out prunes in my refrigerator with fewer wrinkles than you have. And yes, you’re an oddball. But who isn’t? Neither of those factors explains the situation, though. So, here’s the answer: The universe requires each of its components to play their proper roles. One of your roles is to immortalize eye-catching designs on motor vehicles. If you don’t do it, who will? Nobody, Neil, nobody. So, keep up the work. Notice that I didn’t say good work, by the way. I’ll see you next week. And pay at the front desk with a credit card this time. The check you used for the last session bounced.”

Perhaps Dr. Forereel’s theory is correct. It’s as good as any. Anyway, where was I? Right, last week, for the fourth time since launching this website, I hit the roads in the Philadelphia suburbs, aiming to find sharp vehicles to photograph (the previous entries in this series may be read by clicking here, here and here).

Plenty of lovely vehicles passed me as I drove, but, having no interest in buying a ticket for an early grave, I didn’t attempt to snap their pictures when my Honda also was in motion. As always, then, I pulled into strip malls and shopping centers and other commercial areas where my potential victims might be parked. Whenever I spotted a looker, I’d park too, get up nice and close to it, and press the button on my phone’s camera.

The day proved to be not only pretty fruitful but less demanding than I’d expected. I found more than enough subjects within a three mile radius from my house, rather than the eight miles I’d been expecting. That took a nice amount of strain off my sagging shoulders, though the crazy amount of traffic in my region and the abundance of assholic drivers more than made up for that. “Yo, dipshit, get off my tail!” I yelled in my mind any number of times at others sharing the roads with me. Man, my kingdom for a relaxed, casual drive.

I set one rule for the day: I wouldn’t take photos of vehicles I’d photographed before. Alas, I had to ignore a magnificent, huge Dunkin’ Donuts truck, which was delivering goods to a Dunkin’ franchise near my house. One of the truck’s clones made an appearance, you see, in the Art On Wheels story that I published last August.

And I had to tread lightly a couple of times. I’ve shopped now and then at the Best Buy store a mile and a half from my house, but till the other day hadn’t noticed an employee parking area behind this electronics emporium. Wow, it was partially filled with Geek Squad vans, the vehicles used by the Best Buy workers who make home visits to fix problems with computers and other complicated wares. Damn right I took a bunch of photos there. And damn right somebody drove into the lot to ask what the hell I was doing. “Nothing much,” I mumbled. “I’ll be on my way now.”

So, off I went to Best Buy’s customer parking section, where sat a delivery truck upon which was painted a very fine arrangement of fruits and vegetables. A produce truck at an electronics store? Its driver, who was sitting comfortably behind the wheel, probably had pulled into the lot to take a breather. I loved the truck. It would have made it into this article. But I didn’t need the driver climbing out or rolling down a window to ask what the hell I was doing. One encounter of that sort was enough.

I snapped the portraits of 17 vehicles during the two and a half hours that I devoted to the project. Looking over the pix after I got back home, I concluded that 10 made the grade for this mighty story. I’ve looked at that group several times, narrowing down my absolute favorites to four: Terminix, for its design’s clean lines and limited but highly effective palette. U-Haul, because who else ever has painted bats on a truck? Fast Signs, which is as colorful and cool as it can be. Five Star Painting, for the same reasons as Fast Signs.

And my number-one choice is? Ladies and gentlemen, there’s no way I can not go with Five Star Painting. Concise, breezy and hip, the artwork on that car is a feast for the eyes.

And how about you? Which designs rock your world? I need to know! The box in which to enter your comments is below. Adios till next time, amigos.

To The Moon And Beyond!?

It was appropriate that my pal Mike and I, with my wife Sandy, recently went together to a cinema in the Philadelphia suburbs to see the excellent documentary Apollo 11. I mean, a few months short of 50 years ago Mike and I took a road trip through parts of New England and Canada soon after our college graduations, a trip during which the Apollo 11 mission was very much on our minds and before our eyes.

Mike suggested the journey to me in Roslyn, the Long Island town where we grew up and still lived (Long Island is near New York City). There, in a pizzeria, we bumped into each other after being out of touch during our college days. “Sure, let’s do it,” I said, because, clueless and planless when it came to life’s bigger pictures, there was nothing on my agenda, socially or work-wise, to interfere.

And so, a couple of weeks later off we went in Mike’s bright red Ford Mustang convertible. We had a blast, happily taking in the gorgeous landscapes and seascapes that we encountered. And, as the Mustang racked up the miles, time after time we sang along to Bad Moon Rising, The Israelite, and Spinning Wheel, songs that were glued into heavy rotation on radio stations everywhere that summer.

When July 16, 1969 arrived, somewhere in the province of Quebec we watched Apollo 11 begin its journey. Five days later, at another Quebec location that’s faded from memory, we, along with just about everyone else in the world, saw Neil Armstrong and, some minutes later, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin step out of their lunar module, becoming the first homo sapiens to set foot on the lunar surface. While they did their thing, Michael Collins remained in orbit around the Moon in a command module, awaiting his mates’ return.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool that, half a century later, those two former Long Island boys live a mere 15 miles apart from one another in the Philadelphia burbs, are still tight, and in one another’s company got to think about and talk about their glorious Moon-enhanced road trip from the distant past.

Apollo 11 isn’t your typical documentary. There are no reminiscences by Aldrin and Collins, the mission’s surviving astronauts, nor commentary by other talking heads. What we have here, aside from a few newly-made graphics that demonstrate some of the expedition’s technical aspects, are video and film clips and photographs shot during the mission’s duration by earthbound NASA camera operators (NASA is the American space agency), by cameras attached to the command module and to the lunar module, and by the astronauts themselves. And there’s earlier footage, from 1962, of a speech by John F. Kennedy in which he explains why he thinks that the USA must, and will, go to the Moon.

Todd Douglas Miller, the film’s editor and director, did a hell of a job selecting and piecing together the oceanic amount of material at his disposal. Want to feel as though you’re climbing aboard a rocket, then blasting off, and then cruising along on your way to our cousin in the sky? Not to mention inching around gingerly on the Moon’s granular top layer? Right, who doesn’t? Which is why catching Apollo 11 is a good idea.

Lunar module returning from the Moon to command module.
Photo credit: NASA

I thought that one sequence alone was worth the price of admission. The footage, filmed from the command module, shows the lunar module on its way back from the Moon. The LM’s aim was to dock with the command module which, after jettisoning the LM, would transport the three space travelers the rest of the way back home. A softie, watching the Armstrong-and-Aldrin-inhabited craft draw nearer and nearer to Collins’ vehicle made me go limp with wonder. With the stark and stoic Moon as its backdrop, those hard-to-believe images are more dramatic and beautiful than any ever created for a sci-fi flick.

In all, six space missions placed men on the Moon, the last one in 1972. After a while, I think that people became kind of blasé about them though. Lunar overkill, if you will. Still, the accomplishments were undeniably remarkable. But were they necessary? I lean toward the nay side on that. We’re an inquisitive species, and our brains are big, so we always need to push the envelope, investigating and exploring our asses off. It’s what we do and always have done. Hey, it’s human nature.

And I guess that’s fine where Planet Earth is concerned. But is there really any point to traipsing around elsewhere? Hell, it’s not as if we learned the secrets of the universe by going to the Moon. And we sure as shit won’t learn them by visiting or establishing colonies on Mars, goals that are on the drawing boards for several nations and at least one private company. What’s more, people are people. Meaning, we’re highly emotional creatures with more than our share of less-than-stellar instincts. If Mars were colonized by earthlings, it wouldn’t take long before frustrations, hurt feelings and greediness morphed into feuds and armed conflicts (“Hasta la vista, motherf*cker!” I can hear one good ol’ boy saying to another, 100 years from now. “There ain’t enough room on this miserable red planet for the two of us. Which of these roomy craters do you want to be buried in?”). Can there be any doubt?

None of which is to say that I’m not an admirer of the heavens near and far. I am, and in a pretty big way. I love sitting outside on a clear night, staring up at the Moon, the stars, the planets. A little while ago, taking a break from writing this story, I grabbed a look at the night sky (it’s 10:30 PM on March 27 as I type. Publication date remains up in the air, however). It was magnificent. But, wouldn’t you know? The Moon wasn’t in sight. A tad of googling revealed that it won’t rise till almost 2 AM, by which time I’ll have been snoring away for over an hour. As usual, the universe didn’t consult with me when drawing up its schedule.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Gracias.)

Seeing Green: A Philadelphia Story

Last Saturday, one day prior to St. Patrick’s Day, I was itching to stretch my legs. The skies were clear, the temperature tolerable, and my schedule was open. A walk was in order. Where, though? My ultra-hilly suburban neighborhood? Nah. I’d made the rounds there on foot a few days earlier, huffing and puffing my ass off as I scaled the slopes. Yo, there’s a limit to the number of hills this old boy is going to attempt to conquer during any given week, you dig?

Anyway, I was in the mood for some liveliness. And because my area is not blessed with lively as its middle name, I decided to do what I’ve done a ton of times before: Board a train in my little town and allow it to transport me to the mostly flat City Of Brotherly Love. I stepped into the choo-choo at about 10:40 AM and arrived in central Philadelphia’s Jefferson Station 50 minutes later.

I was equipped with the semblance of a game plan. I would wander, as is my wont, but with a notion that St Patrick’s Day had put into my head. Namely, I would look for the color green, in all of its various shades. Not just the green clothes worn by St. Paddy celebrants (Philadelphia starts to celebrate way before the actual day arrives), but wherever green might be. Aboard the train, I couldn’t guess how much or how little green I would find.

Well, I wasn’t surprised when some partially-green-clad 20-somethings entered my field of vision a few minutes after the train pulled in. They soon were to begin, no doubt, an adventure focused upon getting truly shit-faced. Ah, it’s good to be young. And shit-faced. I snapped their photo as they were leaving the station. And then I exited too. I looked all around. Green, where are you? I saw none at all, except on the street signs at 10th and Filbert Streets just outside the station. I walked another block. Green? Nada, but for the 9th and Filbert signs. Just about every street sign in Philadelphia is predominantly green, by the way. So, hold your head up high, green! Where would we be without street signs, after all? Lost, man, lost! Even more lost than we, by nature, already are.

St. Patrick’s Day celebrants waiting to enter a tavern in Philadelphia’s Old City section

I spent most of my time in the Old City part of town, where titans such as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson lived and helped orchestrate the creation of The United States. Many structures from the 1700s still remain there. As in most of Philadelphia, the main colors in Old City are in the tan, brown and brick-red families. Earth colors. I knew that, but hadn’t thought about it in a good while.

Treewalk

Now, there’s a lot to be said for an earth-toned palette. It brings a sense of calm, a sense of permanence, both of which you won’t find me arguing against. Still, there’s also a lot to be said for explosions of zesty color. They’re exciting and invigorating, and all my life I’ve given them two enthusiastic thumbs up. Luckily, Philadelphia is home to several thousand man-made examples of such. Meaning, eye-popping murals that have been painted on sides of buildings throughout much of the city over the last few decades, often through the efforts of the city government-supported Mural Arts Philadelphia organization. During my march along Market Street into the heart of Old City I passed one of them, Treewalk. Lush and verdant, the mural slapped me upside my frequently unobservant head.

“Hey, you with the foot-long jowls! How come you never noticed me and my shades of green before?” it asked while it slapped. If I hadn’t been in a good mood I’d have retaliated. Created by Paul Santoleri on an otherwise unremarkable office building, Treewalk faces a courtyard, not Market Street. That’s why it’s easy for passersby on Market to not see it. In any case, this swath of leafy art has got what it takes.

Bladen’s Court

Okay, so what about real trees and shrubbery? Well, the deciduous trees of Philadelphia won’t be in leaf till mid-April at the earliest. And the fauna that remain green year-round ain’t voluminous on the blocks I trod upon. One small rhododendron bush kind of wowed me, though. Bursting with green brightness, that afternoon it was the star of Bladen’s Court, an Old City niche containing a few mid-1700s brick houses.

What else did I notice when it comes to green? Sidewalk kiosks into which you deposit your parking fees when you park on Philadelphia’s streets are green. Ta da! And I liked the rugged looks of a green door on North 2nd Street. And of Brownie’s bar, whose green façade and awning rock its side of its block. Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot of green to be found. Or, for that matter, of any other bright color.

After racking up a few miles of sidewalk-pounding, I strolled back to Jefferson Station where I had 45 minutes to kill till my train arrived. In the waiting area I twiddled my thumbs, unobtrusively scratched my balls and yawned. Those fruitful activities took up 30 minutes. That’s when I was inspired to take a close look at the tile mosaics that decorate the walls overlooking the train tracks, one mosaic per side. Down the stairs I went to the train tunnel.

The mosaics are twins, but not identical. One is pure abstraction. The other, though plenty abstract, contains recognizable shapes: trees, grasses, sky. And each mosaic is not only incredibly long — hundreds of feet — but very beautiful. They are among my favorite pieces of public art in Philadelphia, yet they seem to be taken for granted. Information about them is scanty, though it’s possible that they are by David Beck and Verlin Miller, and probably date from 1984.

Part of the tree-filled mosaic
Another part of the tree-filled mosaic

I looked with pleasure at the pure-abstraction work, and then went to the opposite side of the tunnel. There I really took my time investigating the tree-filled mosaic, because its greens couldn’t be ignored. I let them, and the other colors, wash over me. I’d received a smaller dose of green than I’d have liked during the previous two hours, but now that was more than made up for. It was the perfect ending to my green quest.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. I thank you.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window.)