Islay, part 1

My poor deserted darlings. I know what will cheer you up. Pictures from Islay, the tiny island with a high whisky content. (Whisky, in case you’re wondering, is Scotch, while whiskey is an Irish distillation.) Home to eight very fine distilleries, mostly specializing in deliciously peated whiskies. Three guesses how many of them we visited.


If you said, “all of them”, you’re right. Take a drink.


The tasting room at Ardbeg, our first distillery.

Our very first tour. We walked in just in time for the 10am tour. “It’s a five dram tour and tasting,” the girl behind the desk said. “Is that all right?”


So this was the sight that confronted us at 11am on a Friday morning.

To my credit, I made tasting notes for all of them. While partying with a group of Germans who were also on the tour.


Some highlights of my tasting notes from Ardbeg:

10 Year
– good introduction to Islay peats for noobs

Perpetuum Distillery Release
– sweet desserty taste
– good with smoked fish, dry cheese (smoked gouda?), dark chocolate
– Strong as fuck 49%

  – tastes like the good parts of sherry




Then we returned to our rental cottage for a hearty brunch. Nothing like pancakes to soak up your morning Scotch.


Tune in later for more the ocean, a cute wee doggy, and lots and lots of whisky.



Five Things


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1. A refrigerator full of homemade ginger beer and a beautiful jar of kombucha (probiotic soda made from tea) from my new SCOBY


2. A newfound appreciation for silk scarves. And old ladies who kindly donate them to charity shops where grad students can afford them.


3. The artistic talents of a sister (the best belated Christmas letter ever)


4. Homemade organizer pockets for my backpack


5. Going to Iceland on our anniversary this year. Partly for a conference. But mostly because Iceland has been the top item on our (well, my) Europe bucket list, and it’s time. Also, three cheers to airbnb for costing literally half of what a hotel would have cost. In case you’re not familiar, this is a site where you can rent rooms or whole flats from people in various cities. Everyone I know who’s used it has had good experiences with it. So we’ll be staying in a cute little Icelandic flat with a kitchen and tiny yard, instead of a hotel. Because we’re going to Iceland.

I’m just a little excited. Can you tell? I just booked the tickets and flat today, so I’m still riding that high.

BRID calls NTS at work. Hi, sweetie. I see there’s a good deal on flights to Iceland today. I’m going to buy them now, ok?

NTS  …

Right. You do that.

o O o

Happy weekend!


Leuven Town Hall and Cathedral, Part 2


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For the rest of my interlude in Belgium, see here, here and here.


For the Christmas season, they seem to have erected a garden in the space between the cathedral and the town hall. Or maybe it was already there, and they just added a few things. IMG_8416

Like a stable. And a reindeer that changes color every few seconds. IMG_8434


And a sprinkling of large, white… snowballs?IMG_8438IMG_8431IMG_8413IMG_8453IMG_8444IMG_8429IMG_8455





Leuven, Belgium


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As far as I can tell, Brussels and Leuven really aren’t what you could call tourist towns. And I don’t mean that they’re off-the-beaten-path gems, either. From my experience, you can miss them out pretty safely when planning your big tour.


But any town, no matter how small, has interesting angles to photograph.


It’s all about focus, after all. Amateur pictures of things that catch your unique interest are way more interesting that amateur photos of touristy edifices. I usually buy a postcard to get a proper shot of that picture everyone takes when they go there. It’s the other views that are fun to shoot.


So, Leuven. College town.



Coffee College: Take it or stay


Louvain if you’re standing in a French-speaking part of the country. Leuven if you’re in it. If you think that doesn’t cause the hell of a lot of confusion standing at the airport train station… you’re probably Belgian. Trying to figure out which of the Brussels stations are different and which are different words for the same place was also exciting.

But I digress.



Some entertaining small shops.


Nice farmers market. I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy escargots from a deep-fry street truck, though.



Next up: the town hall and cathedral, all dressed up for Christmas.

The Busiest Month


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Usually, after Christmas come the winter doldrums, a period of downtime that can be distressingly dull. But not this year. Oh, no.

First there was the conference. In Birmingham. 4 hours away on a good day. 8 if you find out too late that the rail bridge is down on the first leg of your journey. It was a hard  night. Good conference, though.

From the conference, it was (happily) only a short hop to Stafford, where a 12th night re-enactment awaited us in atmospheric Ingestre Hall. Old portraits, beautiful moldings, tasteful paint choices over the 12-foot-high paneling… After an action-packed week, I chose to bask in the atmosphere instead of record it, but I tell you, it was grand.

But there. With the rush of Christmas, I hadn’t finished showing you my trip to Belgium. Here’s a December photo tour of Brussels, for your viewing enjoyment.


Spectaculoos Speculoos: A sort of caramelly cookie-dough, speculoos is a popular flavor in the Netherlands and northern Belgium. Spectaculous is a great adjective. I need to work it into conversation more often. What a spectaculous hat you have there.IMG_8339

This is the back of a giant creche scene in the town square.


Nothing says “Christmas” like a spectacle of lights. Giant, jellyfish lights, floating through the streets of Brussels.


A man and his dog. (I probably should have read the placard. I was distracted by the puppy. This is a fairly consistent theme.)IMG_8323

The architecture in parts of town can best be described as grandiose. (I would say baroque, but it would definitely have to be baroque with a lower-case B. Words are right up my alley; architectural distinctions, not so much.)


Tiny houses filled with confectionery.


Belgian Dickens village, complete with brewery. The piles of kegs on the right balcony totter most convincingly.





Christmas Cards from Edinburgh: The Fruits of Christmas Eve


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Christmas cookies and cranberry sauce. (A lot of cranberry sauce.)


After all, there’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas.

The End of Wrapping Paper, Part 3: Embellishment and Sanity-Saving Measures


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gift tag

Old Christmas cards make great gift tags. Punch a hole if you have a hole punch, thread a string through on a needle, or fold a rectangle in half to make a tiny card that you can attach with tape.

tags from Christmas cards

If you don’t have old cards, any nice-looking piece of paper will do.


Or try plain brown with the top corners cut off for a retro look. Whenever I come across a nice print, I file it away for future use. (Literally; I keep them in a manila file on the bookshelf.) My favorite teas come in gaily printed boxes, so I store those flat and bring them out when I gift-wrap.


No tags needed

No one said you have to have sticky tags or hang tags to personalize packages. Colored markers work on plain and brown paper, while sharpie works on anything. Silver and gold sharpie or paint pen makes the message pop. Write a message, sketch a few Christmas trees (a triangle with a trunk and a star on top. You can do it. Promise.)…

sharpie on kraft paper

It’s hard to see in this light, but these are all embellished with silver sharpie.

If you (or your children) have stamps, that’s a fun way to liven up packages. You don’t need strictly Christmas-themed designs, either; toys, nature, animals, fun characters, and abstract squiggles are all great ways to add visual interest without adding to the landfill toll.


Paper embellishments

If you have an existing box, a pretty picture or two from an old card or a box of tea may spruce it up into a gift box, requiring nothing more than a bit of glue.

Sonic screwdriver and rose

I didn’t go into my scrap stash looking for a rose to go with Ten’s sonic screwdriver. It just happened.

Tying off: ribbons, string, twine, and reclaimed materials

Most of my ties are ribbons that came to me on other presents, or starry tinsel garland sent to me years ago. I didn’t buy any of the ribbons pictured here. If you tuck whatever ribbons come your way into your box of wrapping supplies, you may be all set for next year. Or just buy a roll; you can re-use the same pieces year after year.

For a more homegrown/low key/natural look, try kitchen string or twine. Colored crochet cotton produces a similar look to the baker’s twine that’s so popular now, and may be cheaper, depending where you get it.

For wrappings made entirely of reclaimed materials, try tying with t-shirt yarn or strips of torn muslin.



Other bits and bobs

Natural elements take your gifts to a whole new level of classy without costing you a cent. Chop those branches that wouldn’t fit into your tree stand into cute twigs. Forage for holly, evergreens, leaves, cones, and sprays of berries. Tie on a twig or spray with ribbon or string. Wow your in-laws with your packaging flair.

You can tie almost any item to a package: bells, broken/old jewelry, ornaments, buttons, beads, small toys, small animals*. Go wild.

* Okay, can doesn’t necessarily mean should. But you get the picture. 


Saving your sanity: prepping

The principle is good for all of these wrapping strategies: some snowy afternoon when your kids/you are stuck inside, prep your wrapping supplies for the season/foreseeable future. Cut scrap fabric into large squares for furoshiki (Erin of Reading My Tea Leaves uses unhemmed muslin for an old-timey look). Have your kids draw on/stamp/glue things to/maul (depending on age) some paper or kraft paper (this goes over particularly well with grandparents). If I’m in the mood for a quick, easy craft, I’ll cut all of my scrap fabric into neat rectangles one day, and sew them all some other time when I’m feeling restless. Sewing bags is a great craft for a child learning to use the sewing machine, too, as it’s all straight lines and medium-sized pieces. And as the same bags reappear year after year, your child will have the satisfaction of knowing he/she made that bit of family tradition with their own hands. Win.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most crafters, having committed to making an unreasonable number of their Christmas presents, do not have a great deal of time for this sort of thing in December. Thus, the making of bags and wraps is a particularly good exercise for the doldrums of January and February, when you suddenly have much less to do, yet still can’t do much outside. If you end every holiday season with a resolution for everything to be Less Complicated next year, having a supply of bags on hand to shove the presents into and tags all set to tie on come December may save you some angst. Plus, the Christmas fabrics and ribbons are mad cheap starting December 26.


My (surprisingly small) bag of gift bags, ribbons and tags

I had a grand old tag-making party this weekend, cutting all of my old Christmas cards into ready-to-use tags. It was rather zen, just sitting at the table, cutting old things into pretty shapes. I keep them in a envelope with the rest of my wrapping supplies, complete with pre-cut strings to tie them on with, so they can be deployed quickly when needed. (There’s always that one gift that somehow doesn’t get wrapped until you’re heading out the door. Or is that just me?)



Crafting optional

If you’re not feeling this mad desire to make things, the world of infinitely re-usable wrapping is still for you. Keep your eyes open at thrift shops and clearance sales for handy pre-made wraps:

  • pillow cases
  • scarves (especially nice, as they tend to be thin, and thus small to store)
  • small tablecloths
  • large napkins
  • drawstring bags that once held sheets, etc.
  • fabric that can be torn into squares for furoshiki (hemming isn’t neccesary)
  • ribbons, string, twine, etc. for tying
Pillow case....

Pillow case….

Gift wrap! (Also, where did Mama K find pillow cases with foxes and rabbits on them?)

Gift wrap! (Also, where did Mama K find pillow cases with foxes and rabbits on them?!)

Or use what you have. Your kid has two sets of superhero pillow cases? Bam. The ones not on their bed can go under the tree. Superhero gift wrap, superhero mom. Got a present that’s too big for any roll of paper? Wrap it in a blanket and top with a giant tag and a bow.

For more ideas

A book with fabulous tutorials and pics: Ruby Star Wrapping: Creating Packaging to Reuse, Regive, and Relove.

Some natural wrapping eye candy: Reading My Tea Leaves

Did I miss out your favorite wrapping option? Tell us all about it in the comments.

Making Up for Lost Time: Christmas Cards from Belgium


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Hello, Dear Reader. Here I am, back from balmy Belgium. (No, really. Belgium is usually fairly similar to Edinburgh this time of year, if less windy, but there was a lovely heat wave while I was there, bringing the temperature up to 12C / 54F. If I can’t have skiing, I’ll happily take warmth.)

A small sampling from an afternoon in Brussels: