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Trip Report Trip Report - Fringe Movements

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We've spent some time (together or singly) living and working in what other people have labeled "fringe" areas - Scotland and Ireland, rural Alaska… and I've always been drawn to places that are sort of on the edge. We've long been in love with the "Celtic Fringe" (a term applied loosely to western edges of Europe - Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, IOM etc.) but there's been a big gap.

I became a little familiar with the music and culture of Brittany around 30 years ago, thanks mainly to a couple of remarkable musicians - Alan Stivell and Dan Ar Bras, who grew their Breton musical heritage into something approaching a pan-Celtic genre, and in the process expanded and energized traditional music throughout the region. But up to now it was all just music and pictures; haven't actually been there. Most other parts of France for sure, but not Breizh.

So sometime around March or April we were watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations TV show in which the intrepid Tony braves the culinary depths of Brittany, staggering from one oyster-driven, crepe-fueled, cider-enhanced venue to the next, in quest of his "tower of seafood" climax. It was a dreary, rainy not-spring night in Seattle while this was on the box, and my wife and I had one of those Vulcan mind-meld thingy moments. I went to the computer to start looking up flight schedules and upgrade availability; she went to her work calendar and started to see what meetings she could cancel, reschedule or delegate. "No, the 24th doesn't work for me. How about never? Does never work for you?"

We also hadn't been to Edinburgh during the great Edinburgh Festival (and Fringe) for several years, and in the meantime some dear friends who had moved to Yorkshire from Edinburgh had returned upon retirement, and after staying for a year or so in a lovely but not particularly convenient flat in the medieval Old Town had sold said flat and bought a house (or more specifically three floors of a 5-floor Georgian townhouse ca. 1800) in the New Town. We took them up on their standing (and mutual) offer of ready guest accommodation.

So there we were: Scotland for a few days toward the end of the Festival, then Brittany for a week or so to follow the trail of oyster shells and cigarette butts left behind by Tony. We added a couple of days in New York to visit our son and daughter-in-law who live in the area; he works for a public health non-profit in lower Manhattan while she attends medical school in NJ, and while their busy lives meant we couldn't spend a lot of time with them while we were on the way to Europe, we didn't want to let the opportunity pass. Domestic flights would be via EWR owing to a 2-for-1 deal on Alaska Airlines; long haul would be from JFK to capitalize on my status with American Airlines for business-class upgrades both ways over the pond.

New York - Thank you, Mood.

The idea of both NYC and France in late August suggested that we might better spend the trip money having our heads examined, but the calendar was unforgiving - if we wanted to hit the Edinburgh Festival it would have to be either the last or second-to-last week in August (it ends before the first of September) and we wanted to be home in time for Jewish New Year on Sept. 8. The die was cast.

… and we paid for it with temperatures and humidity both in the 90s in NYC for those days. Once I suppose we were made of tougher stuff (Alaska residents, travelers to Uzbekistan and Israel in July, Singapore in August, etc.) but man, when it's that hot in NYC it's… well… feh. We arrived, crashed into our liquid-nitrogen-air conditioned room, but finally had to venture outside for a meal. We managed to get into an Israeli-Sushi place 100 yards from the hotel, ate some excellent hummus with lamb, and headed back to the hotel, only to stop short. Herself was looking up at the sign on an apartment building on the corner opposite our hotel and pointed it to me. Atlas, with the "T" in Atlas looking like a crosshair gun sight. Instantly recognizable to any viewers of Project Runway, which we are, as this year's domicile for the PR participants. Kewl. Okay, enough gawking. It's 9 PM, 85 degrees, and raining.

Our son and DIL are working the next day, so we won't see them till the evening, so we're on our own in Heat City. Stoked by the Atlas discovery the night before, we realize we're staying right in the middle of the fashion district (Bryant Park visible from our hotel room window) so hey, there's a theme for the day.

So the first stop is Mood Fabrics, another place familiar to PR fans. It's on 3 floors of a block on (I think) 37th Street, just a couple of blocks from our hotel. http://www.moodfabrics.com/

Up the - manned - elevator to the third floor and… it's even better than it looks on TV. I'm not a sewer nor am I fashion -oriented in the least (sound of wife in neighboring room howling at the understatement.) But this place is awe-some. Totally cool, and full of hip, tattooed people all crawling over the towers of fabric rolls, notions, buttonopolis mountains, stuff. Herself is in paradise, her vocabulary regressing to pre-civilization grunts and squeaks. http://gardyloo.us/20100816_12a.jpg

A while later we have a couple yards of this and a couple yards of that and I'm sure she's about to enter a new phase of her life, peppered with "Make it work" and various Heidi Klum-isms. But we're back on the street and wandering around NYC in the summer heat. We decide to head up to Times Square to see if there's anything going on (har de har har) and of course there is… like a bazillion tourists complaining about the heat in various versions of Spanish, Italian (a lot of Italian being spoken) French and lots of British families about to discover the joys of the new Pop-Tarts Store, not far from the M&Ms store and the Hershey Store. Brilliant, innit? http://gardyloo.us/20100816_22a.jpg

One thing I observe is the strong presence of foreign military uniforms in the streets. On closer examination (they're distracted by break dancers) I determine that several hundred Albanian soldiers are present (which must be some sizable fraction of the Albanian Army) and reflect on how things have changed since I was a lad. Albanian soldiers on Broadway was the stuff of Cold War scare fiction back in the day. O brave new world…

Dinner with the kids that night, then the next day we escape the heat into a movie before we can head to the airport for the overnight flight to Lancashire.

The flight is fine, the train from Manchester airport to Edinburgh way, way overcrowded and uncomfortable, and the Holiday Inn in Leith is predictably clean and mediocre. We decided to spend the first night in Scotland at a hotel rather than with friends, as we're likely to be up and bouncing around all night and don't want to disrupt their house. And it is so.

Of old friends, a singing Hamlet and Gospel Oedipus

For those unfamiliar, Edinburgh during the Festival (and attendant Fringe) is a remarkable scene: literally every possible church hall, large restaurant space, school basement, or warehouse that can conceivably be pressed into service as a theater/performance space, is. The daily listing of performances in The Scotsman runs to 20 or so column-inches in a vewwy vewwy little type font. Picking and choosing involves a combination of research (the majority of performances don't even get reviewed - there's just too many) and luck; and if you wait for the reviews chances are the well-reviewed shows will be sold out before you can book them. But it's all good - the scene is chaotic, happy, upbeat, and the prices aren't so high that you feel ripped off if your choice happens to be lousy.

So once we got to our friends' house in the New Town, we hit the paper looking for something we could see that afternoon, prior to dinner that night with more old pals from days of yore. Hamlet, the Musical looked appropriately Fringe-ish, and we were surprised that we could get tickets for that afternoon's performance. So faint heart ne'er… etc…. and we were off to see how the brooding Dane would fare in song and dance. The theater in the old Pleasance courtyard complex near the University was packed and hot, and the performance was a total hoot - actors with great voices, a good accompanying mini-orchestra, hilarious (if occasionally groan-evoking) songs and lyrics, fun staging… culminating in Laertes and Hamlet dueling with poisoned herrings. Six quid very well spent. http://www.elproductions.co.uk/hamlet/Home.html

That night and for the next couple of days we spent mostly drinking and eating in the company of a series of old friends - talking about the olden days (well, 30 years olden) and how are the kids/spouses/relatives/mutual friends doing (i.e. gossip, commiseration and bragging) . The beer was good, the company excellent, the restaurants way overpriced for the quality, but that's to be expected in (a) Edinburgh and (b) Edinburgh during the Festival. We did manage to get away on the last day for a drive out to North Berwick on the East Lothian coast, where the sun came out and we managed to spend some time walking along the beach and watching some fisher folk readying some gorgeous Razor Clams for market.

The final hurrah in Auld Reekie was the one "big" Festival (i.e. not the Fringe) performance we had booked as soon as we knew our dates. It was a gospel version of Oedipus at Colonus featuring a number of US gospel groups and the Blind Boys of Alabama. It's a re-staging of a play that appeared 25 years ago on Broadway and evidently helped Morgan Freeman accelerate his career. It was a muggy and rainy night, the Playhouse theater was packed and heated up to a rolling boil, and the performance was knock-down fine. Actual Edinburgh people standing and rocking and clapping and shouting toward the end. Hm. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO8ncyNZCMM

In all, a good if brief visit to Edinburgh. Next time we'll come when there aren't half a million tourists vying for a table booking. But it's awfully good to see old friends, though, regardless of circumstances.

Trains, ferries and very dead relatives

Twenty years ago I couldn't abide old f@rts who obsessed about their family trees, and - sigh - now I R one, thanks to the efforts of various relatives who have managed to do the heavy lifting and record-searching work, combined with some family members raised in the LDS tradition who have put the Mormon church's vast genealogy resources to work in sussing out ancestors going back to Grandpa Urg.

Well, no Urgs yet, but we've got the tree back to the 15th century on both sides of the Atlantic. My first direct ancestor moving over the pond to N. America did so along with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but moved north to what is now New Hampshire around 1630. However we know that other ancestors were fishing off the New England coast in the late 16th century, commuting across the North Atlantic from Devon in the SW of England, specifically to a tiny village not far from Torquay.

As it happens we were planning to get to Brittany by train rather than by flying, but the Eurostar connections from Edinburgh to Brittany involved two longish travel days including a forced overnight either in London or Paris, and that sucked. Alternatively, we could take a day train from Edinburgh to Plymouth, then an overnight ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff, and the cost was actually cheaper than the London/Paris alternative, not even counting hotel costs in either capital. Easy peasy.

But then I noticed that the train to Plymouth (after a change in Birmingham) called at the small town of Newton Abbot, which just happens to be about five miles from the ancestral village, which is then around 20 miles from Plymouth. so my steel trap of a mind said, "Duh. Why not get off the train there, have a taxi take us to the village, take some pictures, then back to the next train to Plymouth?"

Answer: doable, but the cost of just having the cab take us the rest of the way to the ferry wasn't much more than the extra train fare, and much easier with luggage, to the plan was made.

The actual train journeys were unremarkable; our connection in Birmingham was late but the driver made up most of the delay by the time we got to Newton Abbot, where the cab was waiting in the gloaming and drizzle. A few minutes through the lush but wet countryside got us to Stoke-in-Teignhead (unhyphenated locally, making for a lot of letters on road signs) where I managed to take a few snapshots of the town that gave various grandparents their sailing papers. I got to the church yard but didn't find any tombstones for Gramps, but frankly it was wet and getting dark and I really didn't expect to find them - five hundred years is a lot of erosion on gravestones, especially if the honoured dead were black sheep looking to get out of Dodge.

Some good if clichéd looking building in the village, though: http://gardyloo.us/20100823_18a.jpg and http://gardyloo.us/20100823_19a.jpg

We arrive at the Plymouth terminal for Brittany Ferries a good two hours before we're allowed to board for the 11 PM sailing, so we sit around the waiting room reading books and watching the other foot passengers arrive. The Plymouth-Roscoff boat is mainly for car passengers, principally British families en route to Brittany or points south (Aquitaine one presumes) for holidays.

There's a snack bar in the terminal, offering some absolutely dire worst-of-British-cooking fare - fish and chips with brown sauce, pasties with grey unidentified meaty contents, something identified as a hamburger, but… However it's better than train food, which we skipped, so we consume a couple of hundred empty calories, while the French people returning from their shopping trips look at the menu with bewildered expressions.

Once we board the (spotless, quite luxurious) ferry boat (a process hampered by steep, rain-exposed stairs onto the ship , quite unfriendly to over-packed Yanks with Godzilla suitcases) - we lament the five pounds or whatever we sacrificed to the hunger gods in the terminal. Fabulous French cheeses, sweet fresh fruit, bread and pastries, hot dishes, wine and Breton cider… cripes.

We've obtained a cabin with berths, and spend a comfortable if very rocky 6 hours crossing over to France, where we arrive at Dawn, collect a rental car as soon as the office opens, and we're in Brittany.

To be continued…

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