Monday, 30 September 2013

France - 1 Trailer Park Boys - 0

 Dan (Mark’s brother) sailed in to St. Malo, France, first thing this morning for what has already proven to be a very eventful holiday.  The girls were excited to see their Uncle “Stink” and were looking forward to the silliness, teasing and shenanigans that their uncle was known for.  Mark was also looking forward to spending some time with a new sidekick and I could only imagine what was in store for us during the next few weeks.  Dan has only been here for 12 hours and so far the boys have checked us into a trailer park for 4 nights, upset a grocery store clerk, picked up a German board game for us to play and totally confused poor Garmin (our friendly GPS).  Now, what was I thinking sending these two off together in a foreign country?
Coming through customs!
Reading letters from home.
Just an example of the shenanigans!
Now, they actually look presentable in this picture taken on the wall of St. Malo
The trailer park actually turned out to be a brand new 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom motor home in a beautifully landscaped park with an indoor/outdoor pool and waterslides.  Not too shabby at all, but we certainly did get lots of mileage out of imagining us appearing on an episode of the Trailer Park Boys.  Did I mention all of this was occuring in France?  Now, you already know how overly romantic my ideas were about afternoon tea in England, well that doesn’t even compare to my thoughts about France.  I envisioned myself strolling hand in hand with Mark down cobblestone streets.  I would be dressed in a blue and white striped dress, accessorized with a beautiful scarf and sunglasses, looking fabulous as we popped into a café for a crepe. 
Us in the motorhome.
Instead, I am wrapped in a snuggie, eating mustard flavoured potato chips, frantically typing out this post, trying to capture everything the boys have just relayed to me, about their outing to the grocery store.  Dan thought the chips were malt vinegar – after all moutard and malt vinegar both start with ‘M’ – who wouldn’t make that mistake? – Right?  If I enjoyed a glass of wine, I would be indulging in what the boys thought was one of the best wines in France, at a bargain.  They couldn’t believe the deal they had come across; an award winning, $2.00 bottle of French wine.   It must be good since it had a snazzy gold and red sticker marked winner - 2012.  If only they knew the translation for the award was for the lowest priced wine lastyear!  They had heard alcohol was cheap here in France and figured they would have no problem checking out that theory. They polished off their 50 cent cans of beer with a belch and figured they better pick more of it up, tomorrow.  Are you sharing that vision of Trailer Park Boys with me now? Maybe the wine won’t be so bad after all! I can only imagine what else is in store for us as neither of the trailer park boys speaks a lick of French beyond, bonjour, merci, pardon, and aurevoir.
Lunch on the road.  Baguette and cheese - yummy!

This inability to communicate in the French language got them in a whole mess of trouble in the grocery store.  They were accused of stealing, sent away from the checkout with all of their fruits and vegetables with no clue what to do with them, and came home with flavoured potato chips that I can only imagine were on clearance because, who really eats mustard flavoured chips?  I have not yet had a look at the rest of the groceries to see what else has been lost in translation and what my meals will consist of for the next four days.  To be honest, I’m afraid! 

Little did the boys know they had headed to the checkout of the grocery store, very proud for securing most of the items on their list, five minutes before closing.  The clerk spoke as much English as the trailer park boys spoke French, so they were forced to revert to hand gestures to communicate.  Hands were flailing and words were flying as Mark started packing up the groceries before the clerk had finished putting through the order.  She had thought Mark was going to take the bag of groceries without paying. She said “ticket, ticket” in a high pitched voice.  Mark had no idea what he had done to upset the clerk, but she backed off when Mark stood there with his hands up as if being held at gun-point, repeating ‘pardon’ over and over again.

The clerk continued ringing through the groceries and placed all of the fruits and vegetables in a pile.  They were then plopped back into Dan’s arms.  He was waved away after another slew of French words, of which he had not understood one.  With his hands loaded down with the fruits and vegetables and his brother looking as if he was ready to be frisked, he was no longer able to communicate.  He didn’t have a clue what to do with the fruits and vegetables.  Was he being sent back as ransom for his brother’s thievery?  Did they only sell fruits and veggies at specific times of the day?  What was the coveted ‘ticket’ that the clerk kept repeating over and over again, and where the heck was he to get it?  He figured if he headed back to the produce isle, someone might be able to help him. 

Just as he turned down the isle, the grocery store plunged into complete darkness; they were closed.  The produce clerk looked at him and waved ‘no’, and all Dan could do was stand there in a sweat.  Pardon got him nowhere.  ‘Ticket, ticket”, he shouted in his best French accent.  He figured ‘ticket’ must have been a secret code word to get you anywhere in the French grocery store, as the produce clerk was happy to wave him over once he had shouted this elusive word at the top of his lungs.   The bananas were tagged then his bag of apples went rolling across the store floor, but at least he had the coveted ‘ticket’ required to get past the grocery store clerk and release his brother from bondage. Mark had been waiting at the cash with a sheepish look on his face as the cashier waved away the remaining customers, each of them rolling their eyes. He threw in the occasional ‘pardon’, then looked back at the floor. Finally Dan returned and she finished ringing through the groceries.  Thankfully, no charges were laid and the boys were anxious to get out of there and on their way.

After a long day of navigating around Normandy, poor Garmin was exhausted. On the way home she suggested a shortcut, which Mark and Dan were happy to accept. She indicated for the boys to take a ‘hard right’, which was an understatement, as they put the CRV up on two wheels trying to make the corner. They were now headed down a beautifully paved road, which turned into a narrow paved road, then a gravel road, to what looked like a footpath.  Garmin then literally instructed them to go ‘off road’.  The boys were shocked yet laughed wildly at the suggestion. Off roading in France – had Garmin lost her mind?   Dan figured at any moment the metal posts would appear indicating that only bicycles were allowed to proceed. With Mark’s experience in Iceland, he was not quite as concerned. I’m pretty sure there were signs indicating they were on the wrong road, but of course they don’t speak French, so who can blame them for driving down the bicycle path?  Finally the house which popped up right in front of them, helped them to realize that they were in fact, on someone’s driveway – not a footpath, bicycle path or the road back to the park.  They put the CRV in reverse and headed back to the main road.  Poor Garmin was totally confused and kept recalculating, spinning in circles, then finally just froze up.  Apparently the trailer park was in the French Twilight Zone.  I’m not sure how they made it home, because clearly, asking for directions was out of the question.

Once they got home, (8:25 pm) dinner had to be cooked and then possibly there would be time for a board game the girls had asked for. I suppose that since the boys  were so successful with the French language tonight, they thought they would get a head start on German, for our visit there later in the month.  They had picked up Woord Zoeker, a new German based, spelling, board game for us to play that evening.  You should have heard Meghan laugh out loud when she picked up the box to try to read the rules.  I can assure you, with the Mitchell spelling abilities, the game should be loads of fun!  Well that pretty much sums up day 1 in France with Dan, only 15 more to go!

Now we have another smiling face in our 'selfie' shots.  We sure wish 'our Michelle' had been here
to visit Mont St. Michele, France with us.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Céad míle fáilte in Ireland

We have been hosted by numerous families and met many people during our time here in Ireland.  This post is devoted to those people who have crossed our paths in Ireland, invited us into their homes and touched our hearts.  Fáilte is the Irish word for welcome. It can be said by itself but quite commonly the term "Céad míle fáilte" is used, meaning a hundred thousand welcomes.

We visited the Giant's Causeway - see Ally to the right?
We also picked up some more geography lesson material at the Marble Arch Caves

You have already met Pamela and Stephen in my previous post. You know the ones that had our soggy tent and undergarments drying in their kitchen. Well as a crazy coincidence, they knew Aedeen, whose holiday home we were headed to next. Apparently the saying “it’s a small world ” came from Ireland. Although we did not get an opportunity to spend much time with Aedeen, we were so appreciative of her allowing us the use of her beautiful holiday home in Port Salon in Donegal.  Two short days in her quiet place allowed us to recharge our batteries. Shortly thereafter, we headed off to her parents home in Dublin.

Nora, Martin and their grandson Cian, were home to greet us and we enjoyed a wonderful home cooked meal and evening together.  Their daughter, Barbara, dropped in for a visit shortly afterwards. Ally and Meg were offered chocolate and treats, which made them feel as though they were at their grandparent’s house. The conversation around the dinner table also made us feel just like family.  Nora and Martin were headed out on holiday early the next morning, so it was just Cian and the Mitchell’s, in their house.  You have got to love people that will let perfect strangers live in their house while they head out on holidays!

We were introduced to the world of sailing and watched Cian participate in a race.  Cian was quick to offer assistance, when we needed information.  He even spoke with his mom (a sister to Aedeen and Barbara), living in Berlin, and we were to say there while in Germany. Eileen (yet another sister) who had coordinated our visits with her family, suggested that “she had strategically placed her sisters around the world just for our tour”.  Everyone was so welcoming.  We spent five splendid days in Dublin, took in the sights, did some shopping, had a Guiness or two and watched the Flight Fest that hosted 35 planes buzzing above the city. 

Cian's race in Dublin

Trinity College

Having lunch outside Temple Bar

We had dessert inside!

From Dublin, we headed to meet Assumpta, Gerry and Ailish in Athenry.  Again we were greeted with open arms. During our first evening of conversation, the Burkes introduced us to the world of Gaelic sport. Most of you will know that in North America what we call soccer the rest of the world calls football.  In Ireland, Gaelic football is actually a totally different sport (a cross of Australian rules football and rugby with a round ball). Other sports with strange names like Camogie (female) and Hurling (male), are sports similar to lacrosse, played with a bat and ball.  After Ailish pulled out her Hurley (stick) and ball and described the sports to us we finally had an idea what these sports were all about. We happened to be in Ireland during the finals of all of these sports and the country was buzzing with anticipation. The girls team from Galway (near our host’s house) happened to win the all Ireland Finals while we were there, which raised quite an excitement in the county.  For the finals of the football Dublin beat Mayo (county) in front of 85, 000 crazy fans. It was quite something driving around the country seeing the different waving flags from each counties team. The passion that these fans had for their sport was infectious and Mark and the girls took it all in as they watched and cheered the all Ireland finals.
We visited the very windy Cliffs of Moher

Ailish introduced the girls to Sylvanians; little animals, which are equipped with every imaginable accessory, vehicle, and form of accommodation there is.  Ailish had quite the community and the girls enjoyed setting up the dining tables, heading off to school and organizing the rooms in the hotel, school, and estate.  Ally and Meg loved having another ‘kid’ to hang out with and they chatted and giggled like they had known each other for years.  Gerry and Assumpta were lovely hosts and we were so grateful to have spent time with them.  We were wishing we could have brought Ailish along with us when we visited a 15 million dollar dollhouse near Dublin.  She would have loved seeing the 24kt gold violin, the Waterford crystal chandalier, the dovetail carpentry on the antique marquetry furniture, and all of the details in Tara’s Palace.   

Ailish's Slovanians

Tara's Palace the floors were inlaid marble and the furniture was made from bone and ivory!

We then headed to Wexford where we would meet Fran and Brian.  Fran and Brian had spent some time at our lake house earlier this summer and we were looking forward to meeting them.  They were quite experienced with house swapping and had travelled far and wide.  They gave us a tour and we were left to enjoy a lovely surprise dinner, which they had prepared for us.  This was so thoughtful after a long day of travelling.  We enjoyed another wonderful evening with Fran and Brian later in the week, as they joined us for dinner, I cooked – but not Indian!  We had lots of laughs about our experiences in each other’s homes.  The fire department had shown up at the lake house during a power failure when they were at our home, and their shower had short circuited on me just as I had finished lathering the shampoo and soap from head to toe.  We figured we were even with funny stories and experiences.  The girls enjoyed Fran and Brian’s company as well as they had brought hugs from home, to be delivered to each of them,.  They also shared their Bentley’s hot chocolate and brought the girls some Avoca sweets to be enjoyed on the Ferry to France the next day. 

It has meant a great deal to us to be welcomed into people’s lives and homes during our trip, and Ireland came at just the right time.  We have been travelling for more than two months now, and our conversations with new friends has made us realize that we are missing our socializing with friends and family at home.  It is not only the people that have welcomed us into their homes that have made an impression on us in Ireland, but many other people as well.  There was the man on the train that made sure we were headed in the right direction, and overlooked the fact that we had lost one of our tickets.  There was the Vagabond Tour Jeep that stopped to listen to Mark playing the pipes on Inch Beach.  All of the women unloaded and were so interested in what we were doing; some of them were even from Canada.  There was the fellow at the grocery store checkout, who had an interest in accents and chatted with us for quite some time, trying to place ours.  Then there was the neighbour who brought his four children over to introduce himself and listen to Mark playing the bagpipes  (Hi Keith, Ella, Mia, Hope and Drew!) Another man was celebrating his 75th birthday in Ireland who noticed our Great Britain licence plate and came over to ask us where we were from.  All had shown kindness and an interest in us, particularly in our adventure.  Many have taken our contact information and are following our travels. This a great big thank you to you, for being part of our adventure and making us feel at home.
The Vagabond Tour Friends
When looking for items in the grocery store we were personally escorted to the isle where our item resided and then shown all the different brands and varieties available. This was usually followed up with a conversation about where we were from and how our travels have been.  We have often left the grocery store with a list of places to see, things to do, some new food to try and another friend.  Asking for directions was no different.  We rolled down the window in a parking lot the other day to ask directions to a festival and the fellow leaned his arms on the truck door and started the conversation with ‘certainly I can help, now where are you from?’  The directions were interspersed with conversation and no urgency at all.  What a pleasant surprise.  These are just a few examples, but I’m sure you would agree that they would make anyone’s stay in Ireland, a little more enjoyable.

One of the things I had hoped this trip would bring was a renewed appreciation for life’s little pleasures and a new outlook.  We can get so busy with running here and there and keeping up with the day to day life, that it is easy to become selfish and overlook many aspects that can make someone else’s day a little brighter.  It is the simple things, the kindness and genuine interest in others that can make such a difference. We saw a sign in one of the stores that focused on attitude being the one thing that was within our control to change; with the right attitude you can make the world a better place. Despite trying times in Ireland, the Irish that we have met, have a great attitude towards life!

It is easy to see how the Irish have come up with their own word to describe this welcoming, caring, fun-loving and enjoyable character qualities. “Craic” I have tried my best to illustrate through example the Irish way, but words do not really bring justice to the experience.  I suppose we could all use a little more ‘craic’ in our busy lives and I know that I will certainly try to add a little more to mine!  Thanks a million, Ireland!

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Trip Therapy

Years ago when Mark and I were first dating, he gave me a bracelet with the words Hakuna Matata carved into the leather.  This is how Mark lives his life – don’t worry, be happy.  I on the other hand, have managed to spend most of my life doing the exact opposite.  There is nothing like selling your home, leaving your job and the comfort and security of friends and family, to upset the dynamics of a person that is kind of particular…used to routine so to speak.  OK, an uptight, control freak with a tendency towards perfection and anxiety.  Wow, don’t I sound like a good time!  Well, at least I admit that I have a problem.  Mark thought this trip would be good therapy for me.  I barely made it through selling the house and leaving the job parts, and I’m still working on the other stuff. The funny thing is, you just can’t change anything with worry, so if you can’t beat them, you may as well join them.  A trip around the world is much more fun when you ‘don’t worry and be happy’.
Me with a Butler's Carmel Hot Chocolate - probably the best hot chocolate I've ever had!
Trip Therapy....sign me up!
After camping in the Highlands of Scotland with the rain and midges, one can only imagine the state in which we were arriving in Ireland.  We had packed up our dew covered tent while battling the midges, and in the interest of time, threw all of our possessions into the back of the CRV as quickly as humanly possible.  No bins, no organization, no sticky labels – I was a wreck!  We had skipped the showers in favour of getting on the road and OUT of midge country, so I was a… stinky wreck! As luck would have it, this would be the first time we would find ourselves being hosted by another family.  After travelling for close to two months on our own, we had gotten into a groove. We were used to our routines and each other’s company, and quite frankly, we were all feeling a little apprehensive about our next form of accommodation.  We had just camped in the Highlands; certainly, there should be nothing to worry about…right?  Breathe deeply and think positive thoughts!  They won’t think we are hurricane blowing in, what would give them that idea? (Unless they read my earlier blog post with Mark in his “Cousin Eddie from Christmas Vacation” outfit on)

No comment!
By now you have probably figured out I am a bit of worrywart and I like things a certain way.  I don’t like to impose on anyone and I’ve been known to obsess a little over others opinions – OK obsess a lot!  As we approached Belfast, I was becoming more and more uncomfortable at the prospects of landing in on these unsuspecting folk.  Mark relieved my anxieties a little by reading out a text from our hosts.  They were at a party in the neighbourhood, and we were to go on in and get ourselves settled.  Oh my goodness, what luck!  We were going to be able to get the truck unloaded and re-organized before they arrived home.  We made trip after trip into the house schlepping everything from dish soap to piles of dirty laundry. To any passerby, it looked like we were moving in for good, not 3 days!  I secretly hoped the party was further away than just around the corner.  Then the thought occurred to me, what if they were across the street.  Maybe they too were apprehensive about this world travelling family that would be landing in and planned to not be home!  Maybe they were peering out the window assessing the situation at this very moment….and saying– oh Lord, what have we gotten ourselves into. We weren’t emptying the motor home holding tank into the sewer but it felt just as bad to me! (obsessing again) I nonchalantly looked back over my shoulder fully expecting to see shocked faces peering out from behind the curtains.

Our hosts beautiful kitchen....before we arrived!
Well, thankfully our hosts were full of great ‘craic’.  Craic is a word that even the Irish have difficulty explaining so I have resorted to the dictionary. (Craic \crăck\ Irish word for fun and enjoyment, usually mixed with alcohol and/or music. Fun doesn't really cut it though. General banter, good times had by all and a person who is good fun and great company) Within a few short hours our sopping wet tent was hanging in the garage, the contents of our cooler had found a home somewhere in the tiny fridge and our laundry was drying on every available drying rack, heating rad and warm surface available.  There was even some on top of the cooker (stove/oven) in the kitchen. (One of the most ironic things I have found about the UK, is that nobody uses a tumble dryer, yet it rains almost everyday!) There is nothing like your boxers and panties hanging in the kitchen to make you feel… less anxious!  OH MY GAAAAAWD!

I slowly warmed up to my trip therapy, and we had an absolutely lovely stay in Belfast. We ate and drank and laughed and realized we had much in common with our hosts. Not the uptight, control freak, anxious perfectionists parts J! Their son was living in St. Augustine, Florida, near our timeshare, and they were friends with the family whose cottage we would be staying at next, in Donegal – what a small world!  We hadn’t actually realized how much we were missing the socializing and company of others until this part of our tour.  The girls were thrilled about being catered to by someone other than their Mom and Dad, and soaked up the attention from our hosts.  They were set up in the TV room with snacks, some cozy little slippers and an opportunity to watch a movie of their choosing.  Life was good!

Stephen and Pamela recommended we check out Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, so we did!

Besides the character flaws already mentioned, I also have a fear of heights.  Look at me, I
made it across the bridge, but I didn't look down - the first time that is!
We were all very appreciative, and to thank our hosts for our stay, we had planned to make them dinner.  Why on earth Mark thought cooking a meal for people we hardly knew in their own kitchen was a good idea, is beyond me!  (The thing is my response to therapy is somewhat spotty) Anyway, we headed out for some sightseeing and thought we would hit the market to plan our dinner.   We searched up and down the rows, peering at each stall, hoping inspiration would hit us for a fabulous meal that would express our appreciation and gratitude, to our wonderful hosts.  We met a lovely woman selling Indian curries and were treated to a taste of the different dishes.  After a few moments of chatting, she had me convinced that Indian cooking was a cinch. All I would need was some chicken and a few veggies and I would have a magnificent dinner.  We left with three different curries, a grocery list and visions of pulling off the best Indian dinner ever!  Did I mention that I had never even cooked Indian before?

We still had loads of time before we had to be ‘home’ and cooking, so we decided to visit the Titanic Exhibit.  Mark is notorious for packing in as much as he possibly can without causing us to be ‘too’ late.  I hate being late, but…don’t worry, be happy, Mark whispers into my ear!  Belfast was the home of the Titanic, and the Titanic Experience is an interactive museum, located on the docks where this famous ship was built.  We travelled back in time, to when the Titanic was being built and took a journey through to its discovery, at the bottom of the Atlantic.  We even taught the girls the Titanic song. You know how it goes, “Oh they built the ship Titanic, to sail the ocean blue… “. The girls made us stop singing as we were embarrassing them.  Mark then started to sing, don’t worry…be happy, in his best Jamaican voice!  It was close to 5:00 pm and we thought we had better hit the Tesco, a 24-hour grocery store, and make our way home.  Little did we know that in Ireland - a 24-hour grocery store means that it is only open 24 hours from Monday at 8:00 am to Sunday at 5:00 pm.  Surely, there was another grocery store open where we could pick up our list of ingredients for the dinner, right?

Captain Mitchell
Us outside the Titanic Exhibition
After much searching, our only option was Spar, which is a cross between a Mac’s Milk and a country corner store.  I was pretty confident we would not find fresh veggies or chicken, and was secretly doing a happy dance.  I had just gotten myself out of having to cook Indian in our host’s kitchen.  Take-out it would be – happy day for me!  Although, I hoped our hosts wouldn’t be too disappointed with us not cooking. (worrying again…)

OK…Since when did Mac’s Milk start carrying fresh veggies and chicken breast for crying out loud?  I couldn’t believe it! Spar had everything on my list, except for limes and a nice desert.  Perfect!  I imagined myself dicing and slicing in someone else’s kitchen, trying to deal with the raw chicken juice.  I think I was reaching close to 10 on the anxiety metre.  This trip therapy was definitely not working!  Not to mention, that Digestive cookies, Jois Louis and Flakies were not what I had in mind for dessert.  I racked my brain trying to come up with something spiffy that I could round up at Spar.  Thanks to our dear friends, Barb and John from home, who introduced us to poached pears, I thought I might just be able to pull this dinner off after all.  All I needed now was wine… at 6:00pm on a Sunday night.  Karma was working in our favour, as there was a wine store right beside the Spar - which was still open!  Go figure, the 24 hour grocery store is closed on a Sunday night, but not the wine store. It goes without saying that Mark loves Ireland… They even had limes!  At this point I was thinking I should probably buy a lottery ticket!

We headed home to make dinner and hoped that our hosts liked Indian food – oh no…what if they didn’t like spice, what if they were allergic to chicken, what if I didn’t clean up the cutting board to their likeness. (Lisa, just stop thinking already!)  Turns out they loved Indian - yippy! - and Stephen had just taken several Indian cooking courses – oh no! I was doomed!  The rice was like porridge on the first attempt and we had to make another pot. It remained in the garden as a great white monument of my failure, for the rest of our time there, and is probably still decomposing two weeks later.  The curry was not that spicy at all, but the poached pears and ice cream made up for what the main course lacked!  The company and craic was great, and we sure did appreciate the hospitality we received in Belfast.  Thank you Pamela and Stephen, you refuelled us for the next leg of our journey and the girls have worn their slippers everyday since!

Us cooking dinner - notice the laundry in the background!
I also learned that in Ireland, I am about the only anxious, uptight, control freak around!  Of course, I don’t want to stand out in a crowd, so to Mark’s credit – the trip therapy is working…. Hakuna Matata!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Leaving Scotland

As we boarded the ferry for Ireland I asked Mark and the girls what the highlights of Scotland were. 
The coastline as we left Scotland on the ferry, headed for Ireland.
Mark was quite melancholy to be leaving Scotland, the land of whiskey and bagpipes.  His highlights by far were piping, mountains and scotch.  He would have liked to have hiked Ben Nevis, but the weather just did not co-operate with us.  When we started planning this trip, the Scotland leg of our stay was centered on the World Bagpipe Competitions and the World Highland Dance Competitions. Luckily, they happened to be within two weeks of one another.   Mark camped out in the front row of the Grade 1 piping circle for well over 5 hours with his sidekick Ally.  He left only once to use the washroom, as Meg and I delivered drinks, snacks and lunch to the diehard piping fans throughout the day on Glasgow Green.  Sitting in one spot for 5 hours is challenging, but when the rain started pouring down and the wind started lifting up tents - things got really exciting.  On top of that, behind Mark and Ally was a ring of people well over 50 people deep that Meg and I had to worm our way through to reach the coveted inner ring. It was like trying to make your way through the mosh pit at a Rolling Stones concert!  Cairngorm Mountain was another highlight for Mark – Ally and Meg were not too fussy on this late afternoon hike, but once they got started they enjoyed the challenge of making it to the cairn at the top.  To our surprise we also saw a reindeer up there – no wonder it was pretty chilly. I’m sure Santa’s house was just over the peak!  He could go on and on about the whiskey distilleries as well in Scotland, but that is a whole other blog post in and of itself and...there is Jameson waiting for him in Ireland. 
Front row centre at the piping championships - notice the rain gear
and people behind!

Mark and Ally's view of the piping circle, look there is sun!

The top of Cairngorm mountain, what a hike!

Mark was in his glory, he found the oldest weather station at the top of the mountain,
Geography lesson plan number 135 for when he returns!

Meggie came across these reindeer on the way back down, so neat!

One of the many distilleries in Scotland!
Ally’s highlight of her stay in Scotland was highland dancing at Cowal, the World Highland Dance Competition.  She set her sights on competing here about a year and a half ago and started preparing with her dance teacher, Dana.  She worked her way up through the levels and competed in many competitions to prepare for the big event.  Although she did not qualify to dance for the title, she performed exceptionally well and made us all very proud.  It was quite a unique opportunity to dance alongside the world champions, one that may not come again too soon.  The following day, those dancers that qualified, danced for the world title in three different age categories.  This was the day that Ally and I camped out front row centre for 5 hours, and unfortunately for this event…we didn't have chairs!  Ally was amazing; she stood in that one spot the entire time, watching intently as the dancers "Sworded, Flung and Reeled".  She thought about her future and decided that this would not be the last time she would attend the Cowal Highland Gathering;  in other words, Mom and Dad had better start saving! Since then, she has continued to work on her dancing without the luxury of her coach, and has started running with Mark and I in the mornings to work on her endurance.  The thought of returning to Scotland made Mark happy and he quickly offered to accompany her again in the future. I’m not quite sure if he was motivated by her plans to dance again or the thought of hiking Ben Nevis and visiting some more distilleries in his whiskey passport.
Look at that leap, beautiful!

Our beautiful dancer on her big day.

Ally and Socks front row and centre at the World Dancing Championships.

To my surprise the highlight of our Scotland stay for Meg was camping in the Highlands and the polar bear dip.  Now…let me just say that only the Mitchells would decide to camp in the Highlands of Scotland for four days, after almost a straight week of rain.  Not only was it wet; it was cold and windy too! The rain would come and go quickly but when there was wind the rain would whip across the land sideways, turning umbrellas inside out and knocking over anything in it’s path…including me! No picture to accompany this event, sorry to disappoint.  We invested in some umbrellas after about the second week of rain and although we had fancy schmancy raincoats, the umbrellas were a welcome addition.  They are nothing like our umbrellas at home and are outfitted with mechanisms that let the umbrella flip inside out and backwards without any damage – brilliant!  I digress….back to the camping. We didn’t actually camp the first night.  It was raining way too hard and we stayed in a hotel in Fort William.  Maybe that is why Meg liked it so much!  The next night, we were able to set up camp and just as Mark’s luck would have it, the weather turned.  The sun shone and it warmed up.  I swear that man has a horseshoe somewhere, where the sun doesn’t shine!  With the break in the rain, we only had the midges to contend with. No problem! Well...for those of you that have not had the luxury of a midge encounter – they are little mosquito like creatures similar to no-see-ums but as it turns out, thirstier than vampires.  Mark had done his homework and prepped us on the rules for living with midges.  
Here we are setting up camp and having a bite to eat.
Rule #1 Don't even bother trying to camp in an area rated more than a 2 on the 5 point midge scale.  You know things are serious when there is a website dedicated to midge tracking.  Our area happened to be a level two when we visited. What the heck did 5 look like?  

Rule #2  When in midge country, stay covered from head to toe and use Smidge (known as Deep Woods Off in Canada).  Spraying it directly into your ears, eyes and mouth might be helpful, although the can clearly recommends against such actions.  

Rule #3  Never EVER, leave the zipper of the tent unzipped, actually don't ever open it! No further explanation is required.  (Although we even managed to break this rule a few times!)

Rule #4 and the most important rule of all.  Never stop moving in midge country. A midge's only vulnerability is it's speed. It can't fly faster than 6km/hour.  We really didn't enjoy the itty bitty creatures crawling into every orifice of our body, so the 'Midge Night Walk' was established.  We must have been quite a sight from the campground lodge...eating our meals while marching around in circles, or madly running around swatting.  Believe it or not, it worked, which brings us to...  

Rule #5 Don't breathe.  Mark's further research showed that the midges were attracted to carbon dioxide.  This was further proven the next morning when he found 1 million five hundred and six midges swarming the vent holes of the tent.  We tried to master rule #5 but after passing out several times, the rule was abandoned for safety reasons.

It seemed however, that despite our inability to follow the rules, we had dodged a bullet. The midges were there and they were biting, but we were not scratching…all was good...UNTIL day number four.  Well, it takes a bit of time for all of that nasty little venom to start reacting with the human body and boy did those bites itch, and itch, and itch.  All of us except Mark that is - damn horseshoe!  It is now close to two weeks later and we are still itching! 

So… I’m not quite sure why camping was the highlight for Meg.  Perhaps it was the fact that she won 5 pounds worth of candy for collecting the most points in her nature book science project, or the fact that she didn’t have to do any 'real homework', as there was no Internet connection. 
Trying to get a photo and deal with the midges - nasty little guys!

The 'midge night walk' or midge morning walk or midge afternoon walk- you choose!

The polar bear dip in Scotland - brrrrr chilly, but they did it!

They had some spectators who were not going to let two girls show them up.
They made miserable attempts to keep up with the Canadian girls, who do you think won the challenge?

The highlights of my Scotland stay were seeing the famous Loch Ness and hiking up Puck’s Glen, which happened to be on my birthday.  I can remember hearing about the Loch Ness monster as a child and loved seeing the tiny replica in a lake on the way to Port Dover from the cottage.  I suppose it was the myth and magic that drew me in as a child and it did again as an adult.  We spent a couple of hours going through the Loch Ness experience, one of the top visitor attractions in Scotland, which really was loads of fun.  The centre continued to allow the visitor to grapple between scientific evidence and eye witness claims and accounts.  We all left with our own unique thoughts about what really lives in Loch Ness. I think all of us were focused a little bit more on the loch as we drove along, hoping to catch a glimpse of something out of the ordinary.  Puck’s Glen was by far one of the prettiest walks we have experienced so far on our trip.  It was a beautiful sunny day, and after Mark and I went for a run straight up a mountain to start my birthday, I decided that we needed to head out for a hike.  It had rained earlier that morning and the glen was still moist.  The raindrops clung to the moss and glistened like diamonds along the steep walls of rock.  The sun poked through the trees and the vegetation was spectacular.  We walked along the stream and delighted in the waterfalls and fairy pools.  The girls continued to work on spotting items in their nature books and I was just happy to be out in the sun, finally... and enjoying the time with my family.
Enjoying breakfast after our run - straight up the mountain!

One of the beautiful sights on our hike in Puck's Glen.

Look at those surroundings!

My favourite people in the world! I couldn't think of a better way to spend my birthday.

Mark piping on Loch Ness.

The girls outside the Loch Ness Experience, look carefully!
Scotland holds many memories for each of us and although we are leaving, we are comforted to know that we will be returning again at Christmas.  Thankfully for Mark, Ireland has more distilleries, and for the rest of us, NO midges! 

"Birch Earn" for all of our HSC friends! We haven't forgotten our school spirit!!!

The Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, another city to add to my list of
favourites, what a beautiful city and loads of fun!

The Edinburgh Tattoo, another 'must do' experience in Scotland and one we all enjoyed.

The lone piper at the tattoo.

Stay tuned for what Ireland has in store for us!