Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Words for the Wingmen

Dear Family,

Short and sweet this week. AnneMarie and I spent the better part of our day volunteering at a Christmas celebration for kids and we are pooped! More on that soon, but first, here's the week (or two) in review:

Two weeks ago's highlight was more traveling—a trip to the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. I had not had the opportunity to visit the Highlands yet. We booked a three-day tour through a company called Heart of Scotland (highly recommend). The itinerary basically went north on its way to Skye, stayed on the island for a day, and then headed south back to Edinburgh. We left early Friday morning and, because our host's parents were in town, we stayed in an Airbnb across the street from the pick-up spot. That made our early morning easier. (I should mention we had Thanksgiving dinner the night before at an ethnic buffet named Cosmo, but I’ll say no more than that.) Our first stop was in a small village called Dunkeld, famous for its ancient cathedral. Beatrix Potter also wrote Peter Rabbit there! You can tell as much from the idyllic setting on the River Tay, the cottages next to farmer’s fields, and the tall trees with sunlight streaming through the pine needles. We had macaroni pies for breakfast, and called it good.

We continued north past several castles and into the Cairngorms National park full of snowy ridges. Then we began to weave around the various lochs on our way west towards the seashore. We saw the mansion of writer John Grisham among a field of pheasants. (Lots of pheasants and grouse up there) Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the UK, peaked out from under its normal cloud cover faced by a bronze statue dedicated to Britain’s commandos who trained there for World War II. We stopped and built a cairn on the side of the road, saw highland shamels (sheep and camel combo, but really just llamas), took lots of pictures in the glens and at Eilean Donan castle, and finally arrived in Portree on the Island under the cover of darkness. We had fish and chips for dinner--what else! Our bed and breakfast overlooked the harbor. In fact, our room overlooked the harbor! It was a spectacular base to explore the island. Saturday we explored the island’s hills, waterfalls, beaches, cliffs, lighthouses, docks, castles, and cemeteries.

One highlight (and one reason I had been so keen to visit Skye) was visiting the town of Dunvegan, ancestral capital of the McLeod clan, my progenitors. The tour guide was kind enough to indulge my desire to see where my forefathers walked, even taking us to their ancient burial ground. There, tens of generations of McLeods lay in rest, their clan crest emblazoned in stone above them. It was a very cool experience and set a tone of reflection for the remainder of my time in the highlands, such as reflecting on Grandpa McLeod and Morrison and the rest cutting peat for fuel and building their thatched "Black houses." I also learnt quite a bit about the Highland Clearances, which were forced evictions of many of the Highland's residents in the early 1800's. This is where most of Grampy's side of the family comes from, from Scotland to Canada to the US. Basically sheep were more profitable than tenant farmers so the Lords said see ya! Whole villages disappeared overnight and, unbelievably, they still have tenant farming here today AND there's still ongoing issues with forced evictions.

I’ll not bore you with the pages of details about the rest of our trip. We hiked around the most famous rock formations and had perfect, 50-degree weather. On our last day’s trip back, we saw Loch Ness and Glencoe (maybe my favorite sight) where we fed wild deer. Our tour guide never changed his kilt once, but he was exceptionally jolly so I didn’t mind too much. Part of the experience was being with our group which was, incredibly, made up of all like-aged people! There were some from Germany, some from Abu Dhabi, one from California, the Azores, Singapore, and Portland. Despite our differences, we bonded over everything, except for our personal opt-out of all the whiskey tastings during meals. While I love Edinburgh, the tranquility and grandeur that seeps from every corner of the Highlands is remarkable. This will not be my last trip to its glens and lochs.

Game of the week: Monopoly. We played, and completed, two games this week. I don't remember this game being so suspenseful but maybe you can't fully appreciate a monetary game until you have to manage money in real life. Either way we had two epic conclusions. I had a come from behind win on Thursday night, and Friday saw our host Jurgita knock AnneMarie and myself out. It was cool to note that this was the British version so all of the streets were in London, many of them recognizable from our recent trip there.

Friday was a holiday at work, moved from Wednesday, which was St. Andrew's day in Scotland. We met the missionaries, but unfortunately their lesson fell through, so we got a head start on our visit to the Christmas markets which are set up in town. First, though, we had to visit the consensus favorite pub and restaurant, Whiski, for some burgers and sticky toffee pudding. Except these weren't any burgers, they were haggis and chutney burgers. We've now had haggis many times in many forms since being here. It's not bad, different, but not bad. If you don't know what it is, I won't spoil your appetite by telling you here, you can just google it later;) Sticky toffee pudding is a favorite here as well with hot chocolate pudding (more of a cake really), ice cream, and hot melted toffee dripped on top.

The Christmas markets are an annual tradition here in Edinburgh and they really should bring them to the US! According to some Germans we met they're not as good as the ones in Germany but who cares. They feature lots of elaborately decorated booths and stalls selling either trinkets or food. And there's a carnival alongside. One of my favorite things about them is the diversity of food that you'll find. Most dishes that I saw we're new or different variations on things like donuts (three skewered on a stick) or bratwursts (all types). Also, plenty of alcohol. I can't imagine that was much different from the German ones! We also enjoyed walking down the city streets where they have magnificent light arrangements on the stores and even above the street. They know how to do Christmas here.

Saturday we took a wander down to the shore to take a look at the Royal Britannia, the Royal Yacht which sits in Edinburgh's harbor. We also took a wander around Leith, the neighborhood nearby. It's fun to explore the alleys and side streets of a city like Edinburgh. We slipped into a local design studio where I knew they were selling some art made by one of the members of our ward and snagged two of his small pieces and then we got sucked into a bookstore for awhile. Nothing better on a chilly day than perusing new books.

Today we had an early start, off to attend church in the neighboring own of Dalkeith, part of my MSP's constituency. We must have been welcomed about 10 times before we had the chance to find our seats. The ward was mostly elderly, very kind, and we had a sweet sacrament meeting with them, and I was glad to sing some Christmas hymns as well. Then we jumped in my MSP's  Land Rover and off to help him put together a neighborhood Christmas party for one of the poorest areas in Scotland. It's a former coal mining town and, a la West Virginia, very depressed. After setting up, AnneMarie got assigned to face painting duty and I got the craft table. For a little over three hours we painted, glittered, glued, highlighted, and all-around entertained. My craft table was a glitter and glue-geddon by the end of the night, but as long as the boss (who was Santa) didn't care that the kids (and parents) had pretty much razed Rome, I was happy. And, what counts, the kids were too:)

That's us for the week. This week coming up is our last full week in Edinburgh before we head off to Copenhagen and then..HOME! We're excited for all good things, leaving, staying, and most of all you. We'll definitely have to put some final touches on our missionary efforts this week. I'm hoping to leave Books of Mormon with all my colleagues at Parliament, or maybe a church video or something like that for some of them, the more hardened atheists. In any case, we have tried to bring some extra measure of light into their lives while we're here.

All Our Love,

Tanner & AnneMarie

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