Monday, August 30, 2010

Flaxen Charms

A wooden table, a stack of plates and some rustic table linens are all it takes these days to send my brain whirling into a reverie of delight. They conjure up visions of al fresco dinner parties in the French countryside, and this autumn I am determined to recreate a little of that unostentatious glamour stateside.

I have long been a fan of Libeco Home and these "Amherst" table linens are a favorite. The sight of those classic red stripes against the undyed flax makes me want to whip up a loaf of crusty artisanal bread immediatement.

Iron them lovingly, or even better, line-dry them for a sexy no-fuss glamour that's more in line with the simple charms of a meal like roasted chicken and strawberry Pavlova.
(Amherst linen napkins by Libeco Home, $14.76 each)

Rocking the same theme at a slightly lower price point, I found these lovely little cotton napkins the other day, each embroidered with a French pastoral theme. At only $18.95 for a set of six, I may need a stack of them.
(Berger napkins, via American Country Wicker. Now sold out.)

Finally, there's this lovely Axel Vervoordt-inspired table runner from Mothology. Its classic lines and warm hues make any dwelling resonate with the spirit of a country house in Belgium.
(Red striped table runner, Mothology, $42)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Highland Fling

We arrive at Gargunnock House on August 6th. The car crunches along the gravel driveway and when the elegant façade finally comes into view between a clump of trees, even the kids go silent. There's an intense drama about the place that pulls you in -- think "Gosford Park" meets "Wuthering Heights." I've been coming here since 1996 and it still gets me every time.
(Gargunnock House, Scotland. Available for rent here.)

The housekeeper has hidden the front door key for us and we go into the massive entry hall, our steps echoing across the worn flagstone floors.

The children dash up the staircase and promptly vanish into the labyrinthine recesses of the house. We aren't alarmed. Periodic peals of laughter float down from another floor letting us know they're more than okay.

I go straight to the dining room and fling open the windows overlooking the kitchen garden. The air smells like woodsmoke, wet stone, freshly turned earth and flowering buds, and I'm in heaven.

The dining room is empty and still. The superstitious side of me swears that the long-dead faces on the wall are glancing around expectantly for stirrings of life.

Could they have peeked into their immediate future, they would have seen this:

In the living room, the rose-colored George Smith sofas and gold velvet curtains lend a theatrical air to the room. The stage is set and awaits its players.

Within hours, we are cozily ensconced in front of a crackling fire surrounded by books, puzzles, games and other 19th century pursuits.

The chef de cuisine (i.e. my husband) is in the midst of a culinary orchestra of chopping, cutting, slicing and dicing.

Piero's dinner is simple, honest and kid-friendly, with fresh, rustic ingredients that hit the spot. In the words of my idol, Nigel Slater, "Right food, right place, right time."

That evening, I wander into a sitting room to pay a private visit to the late Miss Viola Stirling, the last owner of Gargunnock House. Over the fireplace, there is a painting of her as a young girl being taught the finer points of gamekeeping by her father. I am so grateful to be back in her home.

Our days soon settle into a comfortable routine. We make no attempt to head off our jet lag; instead, unhurried breakfasts at 11am eventually evolve into leisurely mid-afternoon hikes. There is only one rule: Wellies are mandatory.

Gargunnock House is nestled amid acres of Arcadian pasture and, thanks to the UK's public rights of way rules for ramblers, nearly all paths less traveled are open to exploration.

In this enchanted land, streams are meant to be forged...

...and fences are meant to be scaled.

Have you ever seen such contented sheep in your life?

Here we are, minus the men (who are training their lenses on us). The goal for this hike is the top of that hill in the distance.

Our backpacks are stocked with sandwiches, cheese, apples and Hob Nobs. We are a ragtag team of deliriously happy adventurers.

My friend Hillary picks the perfect spot for a picnic.

The children ask if they can climb to a nearby waterfall. "Go! Run! Explore!" I tell them. The words have a novel taste to them and I realize that the phrase doesn't come trippingly off my lips back in Los Angeles.

When at long last we reach the peak, a blue-and-white surprise awaits.
And then another: a picture postcard view of our very own manor, its mellow stone walls magically spotlit by the sun.

Back at the house, we devour freshly-baked scones with butter, clotted cream and three varieties of Fortnum and Mason jam that I've brought up from London.

It's a different world here. In Hollywood, we're plain ol' Piero and Lisa and Luca. But here we're the McGiramontis: the Laird, his bonnie wife and their wee bairn.

On our next-to-last day, we succumb to the allure of the nearby William Wallace Monument.

Standing beneath it in the shadows, the forbidding toothy peaks look eerily similar to Tolkien's tower in Mordor.

We climb 246 very narrow stone steps. Encountering someone coming down when you're going up requires a firm grasp of navigational geometry. "Hmmm...if I put this part here, can you possibly fit that part there?"

At the top, we are greeted by a view so stunning it nearly knocks us flat.

I mean that literally. The wind is gusting so fiercely that it's nigh impossible to stand up straight. Luca and his friends seek shelter with Piero.

Our week-long stay at the house comes and goes in a flash, the way it always does when your greatest wish is that time would stop and you could exist in this space, in this time, with these people, forevermore.

Before we know it, it's time to take our boots off. Unfortunately, bursting suitcases mean that most of us end up having to leave them for future guests.
(I said most of us. Do you honestly think I could leave mine after they'd been embedded with the romance of the moss and the moors and the heather? I wrapped those babies in a plastic sack and wrestled my suitcase until it finally gave in.)

Back in Los Angeles, someone asks me what it is exactly about Scotland that I love so much. "It's the hairier version of England," I reply. My friend laughs. But it's true, and I say that with a love for England that defies boundaries.

Compared to the glorious clipped gardens of England, Scotland is unkempt and shaggy and bristly. It has more unpredictable weather, more untamed moors, more rugged hills, more unbridled romance, more sheep, more peat, more moss...well, you get the picture.

I found two very moving odes to Scotland by poet Jeannette Simpson. I extract liberally from them below.

I have seen your highlands and your glens
and felt a recognition I did not expect.

I long to be back on your soil to stay
even though I have people and things here who need me.

No, you are not the land of my birth,
But you are the land of who I am.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Shetland Love

I almost didn't get to see this view.
(My window on the ferry crossing the North Sea, August, 2010)

We had driven almost 400 miles that day, from the remote wilds of Yorkshire to the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland in order to catch a 5pm ferry to the Shetland Islands. We arrived at the ferry terminal an hour early and did a collective high-five. And then...

Ticket Inspector:
I canna see that ye hae purchased a ticket for your car.

Oh, but we did. Months ago. (handing him a paper) Here's the confirmation.

Ticket Inspector:
(Long beat) I'm afraid it didna go through. Ye will hae to wait oot in the office tae see if the're any cancellations. But the ferry is bungful today. It daena look good.


The idea of our dream ending because of a stupid computer error is shattering. We have been dreaming about the Shetland Islands for months.

For half an hour, we slump on stiff plastic chairs in the ferry terminal and watch car after car board the ferry. The ferry clerk, a dead ringer for Susan Boyle, steadfastly avoids eye contact with us.

4:30 pm
She disappears down a hallway. Our hopes crumble.

4:45 pm
She returns, sits down at her desk, rearranges some papers, and stares at her nails. Minutes pass. Then, she looks at us and imperceptibly nods. In her hand is a little white ticket.

We race to our car and are immediately surrounded by beefy crewmen in yellow rubber raingear. "Hurry! Ye maesn't didder! It's gaena depairt!"

We drive on and within seconds, the hatch rises. We are the last car on.

Goodbye, Aberdeen. I hardly got to know ye.

Our berth is petite Scandinavian perfection. Luca is ecstatic over the little night light by his bed.

We eat an astoundingly large portion of fish and chips in the cafeteria upstairs...

...and then crawl into bed for the 14-hour crossing. I fall asleep instantly.

In the morning, I head up on deck to catch a first glimpse of Mainland, the largest of the Shetland Islands. There are over 100 islands in all, huddled together in the Atlantic Ocean between Orkney, Iceland and Norway.
(View of Mainland, Shetland Islands, August 2010)

It's like a Lego town come to life. The gorgeous weather lends the buildings a supernatural crispness.
( Mainland, Shetland Islands, August 2010)

(Mainland, Shetland Islands, August 2010)

Once out of Lerwick (the main town or "burgh"), we are immediately apprised that this is not your average island.

We stop and let the kids run free. They are off like a shot.
Everywhere we turn, there is something to take your breath away. This tumbledown croft, fetchingly surrounded with flowering bushes, is a charming fusion of old and older.

We drive on. For miles, there's nothing but stark green landscape and the occasional ruined prehistoric Bronze Age settlement. I begin to experience selective geographic amnesia: Los Angeles? Where's that?

Out of nowhere, we are treated to the bizarre sight of a red phone booth in the middle of an abandoned pasture.

We park the car and go for a long hike along the coast and picnic on a peak (visible in the left corner of the photo). I feel as though I've been dropped into an Enid Blyton "Famous Five" book.

Afterwards, we drive to the northernmost point of Mainland and take a 20 minute ferry ride to the Island of Yell. (Yes, I got my yell. It exploded with exhilaration and gratefulness and contained within it a spiritual shout-out to all of you.)

Driving north through Yell, we board another ferry to the isle of Unst where we will be staying the night.

On the way to our hotel, another surprise: a bus shelter/art installation in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
(Unst bus shelter)

It even has its own website.

That night we stay at the Baltasound Hotel, officially "the northernmost hotel in the United Kingdom." A semi-circle of red log cabins perches on the edge of a panoramic inlet. Even at 10pm it was enchantingly light out, a Shetland Islands phenomenon known as "the simmer dim."
(Baltasound Hotel, Unst, August 2010)

The next morning, we head north for a few miles, get delightfully lost and end up parking our car near a remote farmhouse that abuts the North Sea.

We get out of the car and do a doubletake. On a fence in front of us hangs a lone sweatshirt emblazoned with the word, "California."

We climb over a turnstile and head out to sea.

The waves of the Burrafirth lap against the shore, the children clamber over rocks and hunt for exotic treasures and my friends and I try to forever imprint the memory of this scene on our souls. Los Angeles is a lifetime -- and then some -- away.

On the way back, we spot a Viking ship being built by the side of the road, in preparation for next February's Fire Festival called "Up-Helly-Aa." Local men build replicas of ancient vessels, drag them through the towns and burn them as a pagan homage to their Norse heritage. (They're growing their beards now.)

All too soon, it's time to catch the ferry back to Scotland. Goodbye, Shetland ponies.

Goodbye, 17th century croft.
Your quilted moors, your remote dignity and your enchanted light will remain in my veins.


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