Monday, November 29, 2010

St. Andrew's Day- A Celebration of Scotland

The single malt is flowing, the Shepherd’s Pie and haggis puffs are baking and the Cock-a-leekie soup is boiling over a large pot on the ‘hob’. The house is decked out with the Scottish flag (the Saltire) and plaid (tartan) patterns adorn everything from the table cloth to the ribbons tied on the glassware. A music play list of Scottish musicians, traditional and modern, fills the air with the distinctive Scottish brogue. My best friend from Scotland, Jean, and I wait for our guests to arrive. We’ve been stateside for about a year now; this St. Andrew’s Day party is a way to celebrate Scottish culture and our time studying together in Edinburgh.

If you know me you know that I’m obsessed with anything Scottish. I love kilts, cozy tartans, bagpipes, thistles, rainy days and even… (cue the looming music)…Scottish food. I sing Scotland the Brave in the shower, I integrate Scottish words into my vocabulary even though no one in America understands them, and when I talk about Scotland I refer to it as the motherland. Though a very patriotic American, I am proud of my Scottish heritage; whatever small percentage of my Heinz 57 ancestry that is Scottish brings me great joy.

Part of being Scottish, full blood or part of the diaspora is the celebration of St. Andrew’s Day. November 30th commemorates St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. This feast day is celebrated with food, drink, and the company of family and friends. Many Scots don the kilt, wear a thistle on the lapel, and enjoy traditional Scottish dancing at celidhs (‘kay-lees’). In a place that’s often cold and rainy, time-honored traditions bring warmth to the Scottish people.

Warming up in November in Scotland is a veritable objective. A steaming bowl of cock-a-leekie soup does just the trick! This soup dish of leeks and chicken is hearty, warming and very traditional. Tom Kitchin, the youngest Michelin-starred Scottish chef and proprietor of my favorite restaurant in the whole wide world, The Kitchin, one-upped the soup in this tasty recipe from his cook book ’From Nature to Plate - seasonal recipes from The Kitchin’:

1 whole free range chicken
1 leek
1 onion
2 carrots
1 sprig thyme
5 white peppercorns
1 bay leaf

200 g Basmati rice
50 g chopped prunes
20 gr chopped parsley
1 chopped leek

In a large pan, cover the chicken with cold water and bring to the boil. Add the vegetables and herbs and cook slowly for 2-3 hours until chicken is cooked.
Remove chicken and vegetables from stock and season to taste.
Meanwhile cook the basmati rice and chopped leeks in boiling salted water. Chop the prunes and parsley, keeping aside for garnish. Break away the chicken from the bone.

To serve:
In a bowl, place the cooked rice, chicken, prunes and chopped parsley. Cover in stock and serve


Saint Andrew’s Day is for feasting and celebrating with traditional food, which has a somewhat undeservedly bad reputation. While a large part of the Scotch diet is fried foods (the Scots would fry soup if they could), it isn’t entirely unhealthy fare. Scottish cuisine is often made from fresh, local and seasonal food. From smoked salmon, fresh Loch Fyne oysters, tender wild Highland Venison, to delicate berries; Scotland’s temperate climate and abundance of game species provides some of the best meat and produce in the world.

When in Scotland, or when celebrating Scotland, haggis is a must! Haggis is a combination of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with onion, suet, oatmeal, salt and stock. Though not immediately tempting, haggis is a Scottish sausage traditionally prepared inside a sheep’s stomach. It has a nutty texture and a delicious savory flavor. It’s one of those things better enjoyed while having forgotten the ingredients. For Haggis virgins- try wrapping the haggis in puff pastry and serve with a wild mushroom and whisky sauce!

Always remember to serve your St. Andrew’s Day feast with a good single malt whisky like Glenkinchie, Talisker or my favorite- smoky Lagavulin from Islay. If the hard stuff just isn’t your style go for a nice Scottish beer like McEwan’s, Belhaven, Caledonian, or Deuchar’s IPA.

In addition to feasting on food and drink with friends and family, St. Andrew’s Day is a celebratory day of national reverence. St. Andrew’s Day is a reminder to the world that Scots are more Scottish than they are British. They are proud of their people, their culture, their country and their sports teams (Scots passionately cheer on their teams as well as anyone playing against England!).

There have always been tensions between England and Scotland and St. Andrew’s Day is no exception. Even on Scotland’s national day the British Army refuses to fly the Saltire from Edinburgh Castle, a historic and recognizable symbol of Scotland yet a British Army installation.

In fact, flying the Saltire on St. Andrew’s Day has been quite a contentious issue between the two countries. Prior to 2002 the Saltire was only allowed to be flown in addition to the British Union Flag and only if there were two flag poles. This led Scottish politicians to complain that Scotland was the only country in the world that couldn’t fly its national flag on Flag Day. After government regulations were revised, in Scotland on 30th November the Saltire is flown from all government buildings and the Union Flag is secondary.

The Saltire, or St. Andrew’s Cross, has been a symbol of Scotland since 842 AD and is the oldest continually used flag in the world. It represents the patron Saint Andrew who went to Greece to preach Christianity, where he was crucified for his beliefs on a cross in the form of an X. After his death, the Emperor Constantine decided to move the Saint's bones to Constantinople, but according to legend, the monk St. Regulus was warned in a dream by an angel who told him to move as many of the bones as he could to the "ends of the earth" to keep them safe. As far as the Greeks and Romans were concerned, Scotland was as near to the world's end as you could get, so his remains were taken to Scotland and he has been closely associated with the country ever since.

While originally a religious holiday, St. Andrew’s is day of national pride. It’s a celebration of the strength and pride of the Scottish people, the richness of the country’s history, the physical beauty of the isle, the importance of friends and family and the value of lasting tradition.

Thousands of miles away from Scotland, Jean and I celebrate Scotland’s national day. We celebrate our friendship, Scotland and our time together at the University of Edinburgh. Scotland is a country where not only friendship but tradition is paramount. In true Scottish style, over haggis, neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), and a quality single malt whisky, St. Andrew’s Day will be celebrated in my house year after year and will keep Scotland and her traditions close to my heart.

PS. For a HILARIOUS skit on the differences between the American and Scottish accent check out this link:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wherefore Art Thou Luggage?

O Luggage, luggage, wherefore art thou luggage? Deny thy airline and refuse thy loss. Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my reimbursement and I'll no longer be a disgruntled passenger.

You’ve transitioned from confidently waiting for your bag at the baggage carousel, to anxiously waiting in line at the luggage claim counter. Unfortunately, despite state-of-the art bag bar coding and security matching, many star-crossed tales of missing luggage are told in airports around the world. ‘O woe! O woeful, woeful, woeful day!’

Hold off on that ‘happy-dagger’, you can’t get it through security anyway. There’s hope when it comes to lost luggage! Not many people know - and the airlines surely don't want to tell you - that airlines are obliged to cover all expenses caused by lost or delayed baggage up to $3,300 per passenger on domestic flights.

‘Make haste’

Rush to the claim counter the minute you know your bags are missing. Often, other passengers’ bags are also missing. Each claim takes ten minutes or more which means if you’re not in the front of the line you could be waiting a long time.

‘Oh, what’s in a name?’

Delta? Aer Lingus? Qantas? If you’ve flown round the world on multiple airlines at which airline counter do you make your claim for lost or delayed luggage? The last airline to fly you is responsible for solving your luggage woes. All airlines have agreed, among themselves, that no matter who is at fault, the last airline that the passenger flies is the one accountable.

That which we call ‘delayed’ by any other word would sound sweeter than ‘missing’

If the airline deems your bag delayed they know exactly where your bag is and are 99% sure it will be delivered to its original destination. For whatever reason, sometimes bags miss their flights and are put onto the next flight to their destination. If you ‘have more care to stay than will to go’ and decide to wait at the airport for your bag(s), ask the airline for a meal voucher- it is cheaper for the airline to buy you a meal than to pay for the courier service to deliver your bag to you.

If the airline declares your bag missing it is a bit more worrying. However, if the baggage claim representative does tell you your bag is currently completely lost, don't panic. Almost all of the bags that are missing at this early stage will be found in the next four or five days, and most of those will be found in the first 24 - 48 hours.

Once your bag(s) has been declared delayed or missing determine the following: 1) how to keep in contact with the airline, and how the airline can keep in contact with you, until your bag's status is resolved, 2) What the process will be between now and the time your bag will either be delivered to you or declared lost for good, 3) What level of reimbursement can you expect for anything you need to buy between now and when your bags arrive.

‘Tempt not a desperate man (or woman)!’

You’ve been on a cramped plane for hours, have paid an astronomical price for every in-air amenity, and waited ages in a queue to speak with a baggage claim representative. You’re in a new city without clean clothes, without a toothbrush and other essential toiletries. You’re forced to deal with a stressful and time-consuming problem during your much needed vacation. You’re desperate. You’re tempted to give your wardrobe a designer overhaul on the airline’s dime.

Not so fast! If you need to spend money on things directly related to your baggage delay the airline is obliged to provide reimbursement. However, they will likely only cover reasonable, actual, and verifiable costs and agree to repay you for only essential items. Essential is not generally defined as the hottest Louboutin heels. In fact, airlines will deny claims they feel are inflated or fraudulent. Get the details of the airline’s reimbursement policies and liability limits before you go shopping. Make sure to buy only sensibly priced, essential items and save all of your receipts.

Most airlines won’t offer assistance so be sure to ask. Don’t assume that you can send in your receipts when you return home and voila, you’ll be reimbursed. Usually the approval of a baggage claim representative is required for reimbursements. Request that any agreement made between you and the baggage claim representative be put in writing to facilitate reimbursement from the corporate office once you submit your claim.

'Parting is such sweet sorrow'

My luggage was delayed on an Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to New York City. I asked at the airline baggage claim counter for details on reimbursement and was given a $70 a day per diem. I purchased new clothes and toiletries that retain lasting value to me. I would have gone shopping in NYC anyway and therefore wasn’t inconvenienced. Better yet, I didn’t have to carry my massive bags through the airport and into the bustling city. They were delivered four days later to my doorstep. I submitted itemized receipts to the Aer Lingus corporate office and was swiftly issued a check for my expenses. Parting with your bags can be such sweet sorrow if you have persistence, patience and a positive attitude.

‘O, I am fortune’s fool!’

Save your baggage claim ticket issued at check in! The baggage claim ticket includes a ten-digit numeric bar code that will track your bag wherever it may end up. The tag also includes vital information like name of airport of arrival, departure time, airport code of airport of arrival, airline code and flight number, name of passenger identified with the baggage (last name, first name). Identifying delayed or missing luggage without the baggage claim ticket can be quite an ordeal.

My friend’s luggage was declared lost on arrival in Italy. He misplaced his baggage claim ticket and had no way of tracking his lost belongings other than by description of the bags. He called the airline multiple times daily and was soon on a first name, convivial basis with the baggage claim representative. The search lasted over three weeks and consisted primarily of telex communication between the three different airlines involved in his travels. The baggage was finally found and returned to him only after he spent his vacation and the following weeks after his return home dealing with the very frustrating situation.

‘A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents’

Between the time you check your luggage in to the time you claim it on the carousel it is likely to have gone through an elaborate maze of conveyor belts and baggage carts. Despite airlines' best intents to reunite you and your possessions upon arrival at your destination, luggage sometimes ends up in Mantua when it should have arrived in ‘Fair Verona’.

While many star-crossed tales of lost and delayed baggage are told around the world, you can prevent yourself from becoming a character in such a drama by carrying on. In this day and age of costly baggage surcharges it makes sense to take your belongings on board with you.

If you must check your baggage follow these steps to lessen the ordeal of lost or delayed bags;

• Put your name on the outside and inside of your bags.
• The most common causes of lost and delayed bags are late check-ins and tight connections. Avoid both when you can.
• Make sure the person who checks your baggage attaches the correct destination ticket to every bag, and get a claim ticket for each. Be sure to keep this claim ticket safe until you and your bags are reconnected.
• Pack a change of clothes in your carry-on bag so that you'll have something to wear if your checked bag is delayed or lost.
• Travel insurance is the best guarantee that you'll recover any losses.
• Promptly file a claim with the last airline you flew
• Always ask the airline for reimbursement and liability limit details.

For never was a travel story of more woe than this of the jet set and their lost cargo.

For more information see the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division

Photo Credits:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Crash and Burn!

Mishaps occur in life and travel is no exception. Whether you unintentionally break the law, have a traffic accident or simply run out of petrol, be prepared for the unexpected and make the best of the circumstances while abroad.

We’re trying to make the best of the situation as we lie stunned in a pool of blood and gravel. ‘I will take you to hospital, you must go to hospital!’ cries a worried Portuguese man as he runs out of his car toward my fiancé and me. Several other cars stop behind him and also offer to help us seek medical care.

We’ve just had a grisly scooter accident and have crashed and skidded along a dirt road in the Algarve region of Portugal. We’re in the small, coastal town of Lagos and the people here are unusually friendly. People show genuine concern for our misfortune and offer what help they can.

We’re not badly hurt but have sustained some serious skin abrasions. My flesh has been grated by the small pebbles on the road and is oozing dirt-spotted blood. My right inner arm and portions of both legs have been scraped raw. I hiss with pain as the cool, salty, sea air enters my open wounds.

We politely refuse to go to the hospital when several bystanders offer to take us. We’re currently uninsured back home and are backpacking through Europe for the summer. We don’t want to spend what remaining money we have on a trip to the hospital. ‘Oh, we’ll be fine’ we persuade as we thank them and hop back onto the rickety scooter. 'Stupid Americans', is the thought most likely going through their heads.

We return to our apartment and raid the first aid kit. Inside we find a bottle of iodine. I remember from a medical drama I used to watch back in the States that doctors often prep a surgery sight by swabbing the skin with iodine, a strong disinfectant. I suggest we pour the pungent brown liquid over our lesions. We stand in the bath tub and pour a generous amount over each of our gashes. My fiancé screams with torment and tears drip down my face.

‘Can this be right?!?’ my fiancé yells. ‘I don’t know…I saw them do it on ER once!’ I cry. ‘Oh, great, medical care learned from a television show!’ he mocks. ‘Well, it’s the best we’ve got!’ It will sterilize the wounds and prevent infection!’ I argue. We finish our treatment and prescribe ourselves a beer to dull the pain.

An overdramatic display of my injuries

After the sting of the iodine subsides, we begin to laugh about our calamitous scooter ride. With drinks in hand and our wounds covered with enough gauze to pass as mummies we recount the ill-fated excursion to Chris, our roommate. Unfortunately the crash was just the big finish to our scooter experience gone amiss. Within the span of two hours we ran out of gas, were pulled over by the police for not wearing helmets, subsequently evaded penal action and finally crashed the scooter while rounding a curve along a small rock-strewn road.

Chris, hysterically laughing at our misfortune, hears the comedy from the beginning. I’m half laughing and half crying as I tell him the story of our eventful scooter ride...

Shortly after we rented the scooter, before we even had a chance to really stretch her legs, we realized the old girl’s gas tank was empty. Luckily the scooter put-putted to a halting stop within walking distance of the petrol station. We pushed the scooter to the station, filled her up and kept on scooting.

About an hour later we passed the police station and were waved over by two irritated police officers who spoke absolutely no English. They signalled by pointing to their heads and aggressively scolded us by wagging their fingers back and forth. We assumed there must be a helmet law we hadn’t abided by. They gestured with their hands to wait and went into the station. Instead of awaiting our punishment we peeled out with haste. We scooted as fast as our little scooter would scoot and evaded the officers like outlaws, riding our trusty steed into the sunset.

Little did we know that onward, toward that apricot-colored sunset, our trusty steed would bite the dust. We crashed our little scooter on the way back to our apartment; a grand finale to our scooter debacle. At that point we realized maybe the scooter rental just wasn’t meant to be.

The universe has funny ways of indicating star-crossed incidences. However, things always happen for a reason. After returning the scooter we were able to discover hard-to-reach areas of the town by foot. We were able to experience views from the rocky cliffs of the Algarve coast that would have been completely inaccessible on the scooter. Not to mention we had a real comedy act going anytime we told this story to friends, family and fellow backpackers.

The moral of the story is that before engaging in traffic abroad, learn the laws, check your gas tank and drive carefully! Blunders are bound to happen while travelling and are oftentimes hilarious to just about everyone but you. Take a cue from the universe and try to laugh while trying not to cry.