Thursday, November 30, 2006

Happy Birthday Mom!!

George and I are leaving this afternoon to head to the Newcastle airport. There we will be taking an easyJet flight to Paris.

This is all in honour of my mother's 70th birthday.

I earned some bonus in the 3rd quarter of this year. With the extra windfall, I said to The Man of the Place that I'd like to visit my mom for her birthday. When I mentioned this to Mom, she said that she was thinking about going to Barcelona or Paris for the big event. Cool, a flight to Barcelona or Paris is quite a bit cheaper than to fly to Washington D.C.. It would have been even cheaper if I had booked the flights when I first looked them up. Way back then, they were £10.00. When I finally got around to booking them, they had gone up a by about £60. Never mind, I'd still go. There is enough after flights to pay for the oil tank we just bought. (Isn't being a grown up FUN?)
Mom asked if George could come along, and after a brief conversation with Henry, we decided that would be excellent. It could very well be that George's French is better than mine.
Mom was born in Omaha, Nebraska on the 1st of December 1936. When she was very small, the family moved to Fargo, North Dakota. Growing up on the frozen plains, Mom was always cold. She told me that one winter day, when she was at school, she gazed out the window to all the blowing snow and though to herself "you know, I don't have to live here when I grow up." That sustaining though helped her cope with all the Dakota winters that followed. It took a while for Mom to get outta the midwest but she got out.
I've left the midwest too, but not because of the winters. I really love snow. I left to follow my heart and it has led me to Scotland.
When we all meet up this evening it will be the start of a rollicking good time! Because George and I get in at about 9 tonight, we'll just go straight to Mom's favourite restaurant from the airport. We'll meet there and then go over to the apartment after dinner. A very civilized way to start the long weekend.
Friday is the day where Mom calls all the shots. Queen for the day! Saturday I have made plans to meet Claude from Blogging in Paris in the morning for coffee. I'm really looking forward to meeting her. I love her blog and I bet we'll get along well.
Claude and I have been trading e-mails back and forth about where to meet etc. . . . We're both planning to bring our cameras along, but I think Claude has the advantage in that she will be able to get back to her computer first to blog about it all.
So, I better finish my packing and get going.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Love is Blind

In the last couple of months, we've had a few visiting border collies. Every farm around has at least one for working the sheep. The farm between us and Innes has about twelve of them. When we get a visiting collie, I try to figure out whose dog it is and ring them up. A good working dog is valuable. Most of the visiting dogs are frightened of me and take off when I try to call them to me. I'm glad that Polly has been spayed as all of the visiting dogs seem to be entire males.

The other morning, I think it was Thursday. I sprang from my bed at about seven. My normally quiet dog Polly was barking. It was a scary, there-is-an-intruder sort of bark.

I went to the back door with the dog behind me and shouted out, "Is anybody there?" Silence. I then said in a loud clear voice, "I'm letting the dog out!" Then this ancient black border collie came around from behind one of the cars. Polly pushed past me and ran out to this dog. She immediately starting licking the face of this old timer and the two of them dashed off around the side of the house to the front garden, the older dog forgetting that he is old.

I'm sure you remember me mentioning our neighbours that have a sheep farm up the road. Innes and his son Gordon (George's best pal). They've lived on this road their whole lives. Well, their old working dog Bill has become a regular visitor here at Whitelees.

Bill is a border collie and a proper working dog that sleeps outside in the barn. He has never been a pet. He is properly ancient now, walking in that stiff arthritic way old dogs walk. It is heartbreaking to look at his face. There aren't many white hairs on his muzzle but his eyes are very milky. Bill is all but blind. He comes to us by using his memory, nose and hearing. This morning's visit makes the third time this week that he has come for a visit. I think he slept in the smaller greenhouse last night. (the greenhouse where I grow my tomatoes). I'd let him come in the house but he smells.

I've just sent Innes a text to let him know where his dog is. They'll probably tie Bill up now. That's a shame because yesterday when Bill didn't visit, Polly went looking for him. I think they're firm friends. I like old Bill and I don't mind that he comes to see us but I understand that it will be dangerous for a blind dog to be walking down a dark country road to visit his lady love.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

I have all but stopped celebrating traditional Thanksgiving. For one, it isn't a national holiday outside the US and two, I had to work today.

When the boys were younger and I could devote my days to domesticity, I would make a small nod to the Thanksgiving dinners of my past and try to instill a little bit of US family tradition. Now that the older boys have left home and I'm working full time, I don't bother. Don't get me wrong, I'm still grateful for all of God's blessings in my life, I am just not going to cook a huge meal to celebrate.

The Man of the Place is a vegetarian and our youngest boy George thinks that he might be a vegetarian too. So, I would be the only person eating turkey if I cooked one. Last year I had a Thanksgiving dinner on the Saturday following and had a few people over. That was fun. Most of the turkey was eaten and those who had never been to a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner got to try some of the things they heard about. One of the guests last year was a former Minnesota resident so I made tater tot hotdish as one of the side dishes.

Tonight we're going to have bangers and mash. Instead of ordinary British pork sausages, I am substituting vegetarian sausages. I will however make a point of remembering all the reasons we have to be thankful.

Here are a few: (list is not inclusive)

  • my whole family is alive and healthy

  • we all have a warm place to live

  • we all have food to eat

  • we have clean water to drink

  • we are fortunate enough to be able to travel

  • I love my husband

  • he loves me

  • I love my children

  • and I know they love me

  • we have some fantastic friends

  • we have a great house

  • I love living in our village

  • I love living in Scotland

  • we got to dive in the Red Sea this year

  • I love my new dog Polly

  • I started this blog this year

  • the blog got me writing again

  • the blog got me back in touch with some old friends

  • the blog connected me to some new and frankly, fabulous people

I hope each and every one of you have a nice Thanksgiving. If you don't celebrate Thanksgiving, just have a think about all you have to be thankful for

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Darkness (not the band) and the woodpile

We are getting near the bitter end of our extension project. Good thing too, as we are getting near the bitter end of our money. While the new heating system isn't up and running just yet, the system was pressure tested this evening.

As we wait for the work to be completed, we soldier on with the old coal fired stove. To supplement the stove that runs our six radiators, we have a couple of fireplaces. When all three fires are going, the coal fire and the two wood fires, there is lots of hauling to be done, coal from the coal bunker and wood from the woodpile. In the morning, lots of ash needs to be cleaned out.
Over the weekend, when the mercury had dropped and the rain was coming in pretty hard, I was bringing in lots of wood for the fires.

This time of year, it seems that we only enjoy about four hours of natural daylight. I seem to slip into this semi-hibernation state as I wait for mid-December and the daylight starts its slow creep to longer hours. Out where we live it gets pretty dark at night. There is no light pollution from anything as fancy as a streetlight and when it is clear you can see every single constellation. It's amazing really. I prefer it that way and I would argue against anybody putting streetlights out our way. However, if it is a cloudy moonless night you won't be able to see your hand in front of your face.

I'm not scared of the dark anymore and I'm not frightened to walk around outside at night in the dark. I have been known to walk home from the village at night with only the light from the moon to show me where the road is. Its actually quite peaceful. There aren't any big bitey animals in Scotland that might jump on me. The last of those animals were shot in the 18th century. I just have to be pretty good about keeping things picked up around the outside of the house to minimise tripping hazards.

I was going out into our super dark night to get firewood and the only light I had was the light spilling out from the window on the east side of the house where the woodpile lives. When I go out at night to get an armload of firewood, I have to just go by feel. I can't hold a torch (flashlight) and collect firewood at the same time. I do however make things easy for myself by gathering the wood that I can see. The one problem with doing that is that now there is a big dip in the stack of firewood where the light falls on it at night. I'm going to have to move the firewood around so that there is always some in the area that gets lit.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Scottish Ghost Story

Quite a few members of my family are convinced that they have seen ghosts. I've never seen anything that can't be explained or I can definitely say was a ghost, however. . . .

Are we all sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin:

Years ago, shortly after we had moved here and George was a toddler, I used to help out twice a day at the farm up the road. I helped with the cows and calves. It involved letting the cows into the dairy barn, tying them up in stalls, feeding them and then letting their calves out to suckle. My neighbour and I used to stand our little boys (eight weeks apart in age) on the opposite side of the dairy barn to where we were working, out of harm's way and get on with our work. The boys used to move some of the hay and feed around in their chubby little toddler fists. George didn't care for the cows the first couple of times we did this, but he got used to them. As long as they didn't want to sniff him, he was okay. Once the calves were fed, they were put back in their big straw filled pen in the barn and the cows were let back out in the field.

From time to time, I would bring a bowl from my kitchen that had been scalded and milk one of the cows (Jenny) before we let the calves in. In exchange for the milk, I'd bring some eggs from my hens. Back then I kept my chickens indoors during the winter where I could keep a light on. With the light on, they laid eggs through the dark winter. It was a good trade. A big mixing bowl full of fresh milk for six nice fresh eggs.

Through the autumn and into the winter, it was part of our daily routine to walk the quarter mile to the barn and tend to the cows and calves. As the winter grew colder, we just bundled up warmer. George and our little neighbour pal Gordon had practical all-in-one waterproof boiler suits. This cut down on the washing considerably, keeping their winter coats cleaner for longer. I really like the smell of hay and silage when I'm forking it into the troughs.

One winter morning, we awoke to piles and piles of snow. I love snow and I couldn't wait to get out in it. As the roads were closed and the older boys couldn't go to school. It could have been a weekend. It's been so long now, I can't remember. I left George at home with his big brothers. The snow was too deep for his short legs and I didn't fancy carrying him. I started making my way up the road. I had put my waterproof over-trousers on and didn't tuck them into my wellies as I normally did. Snow inside wellies is unpleasant.

As I shuffled up the road, our part of the world was a winter wonderland. It was covered in fresh white snow and all the sounds seemed to be muffled. I was blazing a new path through the snow. There hadn't been a single car or tractor up or down our road. The only marks in the snow were from clumps of snow that had fallen from the branches, tiny animals and me.

When I got to the farm, I noticed that there weren't any other tracks in the snow yet. I was the first person there. Charlie, the bachelor farmer who lives there wasn't up and out yet. My neighbour who lived across the road from this farm hadn't shown up yet either. I shuffled around the farm yard, getting feed for the cows and making paths for others to follow. Our neighbour's eight year old daughter had a new pony that she was required to clean and feed each morning. I shuffled a path in the snow for her too. I wasn't going to shovel a path for everyone, that takes too long and the cows were hungry!

I started in with the work when my neighbour showed up. Pink cheeked and out of breath we worked away. I asked if she came by herself and she said that she had. It was too cold and snowy for the children and she'd take care of the pony afterwards for her daughter. It was then that we heard a man singing in the big shed next to the dairy barn. It must be that Charlie was up and feeding his dogs. He didn't normally sing, but then it doesn't normally snow here. I shouted over to say hello to Charlie. No reply. I shouted again. Silence. I asked my neighbour if she had heard the singing. Yes, she had. Odd. I wonder who that was.

We both definitely heard a man (an older man's voice) singing a song. Neither of us could make out what was being sung, but we heard singing.

When we finished with the cows and calves, we went out into the yard. No footprints in the snow to the shed where we heard the singing. No footprints other than ours.

That's my one and only ghost story.
This is a photo of Gordon and George from the spring following that winter with all the snow.

It is a shame that the neighbours don't need help next door anymore. I really liked doing it. I guess they've moved on from that. I've moved on too. Looking back is nice though. George and I used to have such nice walks up and down our road. The barn that was used for the cows and calves eventually fell down. It was a beautiful old stone barn too. The slate roof and the stone from the walls were sold off after it was knocked down. The old shed where Charlie kept his dogs is still there, but there no dogs in it anymore.

Some winter morning, if it snows, I may just take a walk up to where the old barn used to be to see if I can hear anybody singing.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Our new boiler is still in its cardboard container. It isn't hooked up to the radiators that we bought and are on the walls. We were hoping that the heating system would be all connected and pressure tested in August.

Based on the above happening, we knocked that hole through the front room, connecting the extension with the rest of the house. It is now mid-November, the door that should be in the new doorway isn't there and the heating system is still in non-functioning pieces.

It was about 50 F in the house when I got home from work.

I promptly lit the fire in the new stove out in the extension, lit the open fire here by the computer and tended to the fire in the stove that was ticking away while we were out.

The radiators are now all going but nothing is making a dent in the cold just yet. MAN! I can't wait for this to be finished!

We've actually been colder than this before.

When we first bought Whitelees, we though we would die of exposure in the house that first winter.

It was a hard winter. We didn't realize how crap the windows would be at keeping the weather out. The houseplants that didn't die from frost damage had their leaves flapping in the draught. There was frost on the inside of those bad windows too. The olive oil went cloudy in the kitchen cupboard and the dishwashing soap jelled up. I used to have to warm up the soap in the dishwater to get it to a squirting consistency. My mother visited us that first winter. She said that she had never been so cold IN a house before. She keeps her house cool by choice, but that was outrageous!

After surviving that first winter, we got all new windows around the entire house. Henry's mother (God rest her soul) paid for these new windows.

The next winter was bearable. We weren't quite as cold but nobody could say that we were warm. The following spring was when we installed cavity wall insulation around the house and we were set, good double glazed windows combined with extra insulation!

Winters following, we stayed pretty warm. As long as the coal fire in the stove doesn't go out, the radiators stayed warm. I am a master at banking up a coal fire so that it is still alive in the morning. All I have to do is shake the ash down a bit, add more coal, open the flu a bit and we're away.

The old coal stove runs six radiators and heats the domestic hot water. It doesn't do this with any great efficiency any more. Its old. We knew that the added burden of 100% more living space was going to be more than our old system could take. This is being confirmed by the fact that we are freezing!

We try to keep the doors closed to the un-needed part of the house and conserve the heat in the areas where we are.


Now that I've been home a couple of hours, and the fires I lit have had a chance to bite into the cold in the house, the thermometer says that it is 60 F in the hallway. I can live with that.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

lazy lazy lazy lazy me

You know, I haven't touched the garden in months. I haven't been able to mow because it has been too wet since about September. I fear that the lawn may stay long and shaggy for the rest of the winter.

The bamboo poles that I used as the bean frames are still out there in the dark rainy night with old frost-killed bean plants wound around them. Old beans pods that I never managed to get into the greenhouse to dry, saving the seed are dangling from the dead vines.

Weeds have come up in my formerly well tended vegetable patch. Thankfully because we have no light, the weeds are still short. The corn stalks are still standing, old leaves flapping like pennants.

Blackbirds (in the UK they are a member of the thrush family and are beautiful birds) have found a way into the greenhouse through a hole and have eaten all the grapes. I don't mind that they have eaten the grapes. They are welcome to them, but they can't seem to find the way out as easily as they get in and have crapped all over everything!

Some sunny and dry weekend, I am going to have to light a fire under myself and get out there and sort stuff for the winter. Clean out the greenhouse and block up that hole. Clip back the old vine and burn the clippings. I'll have to lift all the bamboo canes, clean off this year's old bean plants and stack them out of the weather. Once that is all done, I have to drag out my sheets of carefully folded black plastic and cover the vegetable patch for the winter.

I hope I find my inspiration soon. The place looks a mess! I feel bad that it has slipped so far down because the garden looked so great all summer and now . . . . it doesn't.

I have managed to keep the bird feeders full though. At least the birds won't suffer from my slovenliness.

Maybe this untidiness will benefit the wildlife. Things can overwinter in the unmowed lawn. Newts and things. . . . what do you think?

You think I'm grasping at straws here, don't you? I am so very very lazy. Perhaps it is the low light levels. It doesn't start to get light until almost 8 and the sun sets at what seems to be about 4 pm. Its just dark all the time. I'd have to check some weather website to get the actual times of sunrise and sunset for this latitude, but I'm not far off.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Heavenly Smells!

One of the nicest kitchen produced smells is that of baking pumpkin bars!

After pumpkin pie and pumpkin soup, its one of the things you can do with pumpkins after Halloween is over.

If anybody visits Whitelees today, they can have one of these with their coffee or tea.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Pick up the gun.

Goodbye to one of the last cowboys, Jack Palance.

Are they all gone now?
John Wayne is gone, Henry Fonda is gone, Lorne Greene as Ben Cartwright on Bonanza is gone, hell all the Cartwrights are gone. Are there any cowboys left?

Jack Palance made a great bad guy. Not only was he a bad guy, he was quiet about it. It was quiet menace where he excelled. As I am sure you will agree, quiet menace is much more intimidating and . . .uh . . . . . menacing. His hat was always the blackest. When he was the bad guy in the movie Shane, he never shouted. He just kind of growled. "Pick up the gun."

Jack was a real alpha male and you just knew that there was a tender side to him. You just knew that you could never ask that one to pick up some tampons for you at the store but by God he could build a cabin, shoot a horse thief, and do all sorts of assorted manly things (!).
I wish there were more men like him and I'm sorry that he's gone.
So long Jack. You were a prince among men.

The reason Starlings are my favourite bird

Isn't this magnificent? This is a flock near Rome, but there is a flock near Gretna that puts on a show that is just as magnificent. I haven't been able to film it yet, but I wanted you to see how wonderful they are!

Death of a kestrel

I was out in the rain, dumping stuff in the bin when I discovered a bird on the ground near the tool shed. It was a little Kestrel only barely alive. I took it into the house to see if warming would help. As it got warmer, its beak opened and closed a few times.

I was starting to get hopeful that this delicate bird of prey would rally. The Man of The Place asked for my assistance with something, so I put the bird down on the kitchen counter. When I returned two minutes later, the bird had died. On closer examination, this bird was terribly thin. Obviously it had been struggling. I felt bad for this young bird. It was one of this year's young birds and Kestrels are such lovely birds.

On a happier note, the local starling population seems to be growing.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Eiffel Tower at Night

Twenty Days to Go!

My youngest boy and I are taking off for Paris on the 30th of this month.

We are meeting my mother and her friend there to celebrate my mother's birthday. I would have travelled to D.C. to spend my mother's birthday with her there, but she wanted to come across to Europe. Cool. Easy Jet flights from Newcastle to Charles De Gaulle, a quick train ride into town and . . . .

I'm starting to get very excited about all of this!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Who has more fun than us?

Last night was Guy Fawkes Night or bonfire night. We didn't do anything to celebrate. No bonfire, no fireworks, nuthin.
Today during his lunch break, The Man of the Place discovered that there were many places selling discounted fireworks. He came home at the end of the day with an entire bin liner (trash bag) full of fireworks!! I put the above photo of the firework bounty to taunt my nephews Sam and Joe and their father Jay. The firework shop in Carlisle is still open. I haven't seen El Diablo in the window for a while, but I am sure that something just as explosive exists. He tried to get ones that are sparkly rather than loud. George and I don't like the loud ones. I'm sure that our dog, Polly wouldn't like them either.

Star drawn in the air with a sparkler.

We lit one fountain and a packet of sparklers. We'll set the rest off later.


I have just finished giving The Man of the Place his dinner. At the end of dinner, he got most of the remainder of the Haagen Dazs Bailey's Irish Cream ice cream. I left a little tiny bit at the bottom of the ice cream container for myself. I am watching my cholesterol now and was only allowing myself a mere scraping of ice cream.

I went away to eat my cucumber salad in the back room, leaving my ice cream unguarded in the kitchen. When I returned to the kitchen this is what I found!

He at MY bit of ice cream.

I demand compensation!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

If We Won the Lottery

I don't buy lottery tickets very often, but when the jackpots grow to silly sizes, I figure my chances are just as good as anybody's.

I usually get a lottery ticket on the insistence of this boy.

He is trying his new wet suit out in the tub. (he'll probably make me take this photo out when he gets up and sees what I have done)

What I love are the what-if-I-won-the-lottery conversations on the drive home with our ticket. I think these conversations are what I pay my £1 for.

George's plans involve buying sports cars. He can't seem to get past buying an Aston Martin DB9. He was disappointed to discover that he wouldn't get out of school if we suddenly became wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice.

For me, after resigning from work (naturally) I think I'd go about relieving assorted family members of their mortgages from the comfort of a luxury spa. I'd get a massage almost every day and during the school holidays, we'd travel to all those places that have been a bit too far flung for an ordinary budget.

I don't think I would ever move to a bigger house. I love it here. I would however, hire a gardener, paying somebody to do all the weeding. That way, I can swan around planting flowers and shrubs, leaving the stuff I don't like to do to somebody else.

I'm sure that there are much more sensible things to do when faced with a large fortune but for the most part, I think of the fun.

What would you do?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Two Car Day

I drive a company car. It is nice. I don't have to pay to have it serviced or buy new tyres. I pay very heavy taxes for the privilege of driving a company car. It's okay though. I don't mind the taxes so much as it beats making a payment on a car loan.

When a company car gets to a certain age or the odometer clocks a large number of miles, the car gets traded in for a fresh one.

My lovely green Honda Civic was three years old and I managed to put well over 80,000 miles on it, so yesterday men came to the house VERY early (06:45) to deliver the new company car.

Much to the dismay of a young child living in the house who cares much more about cars than I do, the new car wasn't the new Honda Civic. I chose a Vauxhall Vectra. In the US it would be an Opel.

I'm really not a "car person" but the new car is comfortable. I like it and it is nice to drive a nice new car. I don't have car conversations with people. When a group of salespeople clump together one of the topics of conversation is invariably the what-are-you-driving conversation. I can't discuss engine sizes or what extras are on the car because I never notice. I do know that my new car has cruise control in it somewhere because the delivery dude told me, but I haven't found the button for it just yet. My eyes glaze over during car conversations and I usually find an excuse to go to the bar at that point. Maybe its a guy thing.

Well, anyway, my new car showed up very early yesterday morning. I was still in my jammies when the delivery guys showed up. I hadn't emptied the old car that needed to be taken away. So, I made the delivery guys a cup of coffee for them to sip while I set about emptying my car of all its stuff. Its amazing how much crud can get packed into a car in two years. Parking disks, windscreen washer fluid concentrate, all my promotional material boxes, the dog's traveling water dish and the bottle of water. In the console between the driver's seat and the front passenger seat, there was a stack of collected business cards from other sales reps, half a bag of mints, hair clips, parking receipts and flosspicks.

By some strange coincidence, Henry got a new car yesterday too. Well, not NEW but new to him. He got a nice four year old BMW sedan. Its the nicest car he's ever had. I haven't had a drive of it yet, perhaps later on today. We decided that Henry's car was getting too old and as last week we had a morning where it didn't start, it was time to change it. We've had it for nine years. The maintenance on the old one (a Peugeot 306) hasn't been too burdensome but we saw that in the near future expensive things were going to start to go and it was time to get something more reliable before the winter hit.

Both the new cars are dark blue and have diesel engines. If maintained, should work quite well for a number of years.