Wednesday, April 29, 2009

2.5 weeks + 1 backpack = a packing challenge of epic proportions

That's right, folks!  I'm off again!  This is likely the last trip, though (*tear*).  April 30-May 17.  I'm coming home May 23 to Nashville.  eeeeeeeeeeee!  Here's the rundown


so that's France-Switzerland-Austria-Germany

Mom made me get a cell phone, so I'll be able to call her when I need to.

Anyway, wish me luck, and see you on the flip side!

PS. No worries about the swine flu, I'm armed with hand sanitizer!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Firenze e Pisa: Italia Part 2

So, we took a train from Rome to Florence, and the ride was long (about 4 hours) but beautiful, right up through Tuscany.  We made our way to our hostel, which turned out to be BY FAR the best I've ever stayed at, but basically the same price we paid in Rome.  This one even had a swimming pool, sauna, and restaurant.  Sweeeeeeeeeet.

No one had a specific agenda in Florence, so we chose to take things slowly, which turned out great.  We basically wandered around the city, seeing stuff along the way.  Also, my camera eats batteries, and I didn't get new ones until Thursday, so some of the following pictures are Carly's.

Piazza de Repubblica, where we had another great gelato.  This one was called "semi-freddo," which had the consistency of really cold whipped cream.  Still excellent though!

Katie might have liked the gelato?

The Duomo, which I personally think is rather hideous.

The front.  Still ugly, though.  I think its the colors that make me gag.

The next morning (Thursday) we got up early-ish and decided to hit the multitude of fresh markets in Florence.  As most everyone knows, I love farmer's markets and fresh markets and the like.  These were pretty freaking fantastic, as it had wonderful, spectacular, splendid, fragrant, tasty (I could go on...) ITALIAN food.  aaaaaaand go!
Parma ham! Covered in...peppercorns?

Oh my geez, fresh pasta.

Spices.  Wonderful spices. And biscotti. And wine.

So we just wandered around the fresh markets, grazing on samples all morning.  And that is how you should eat when in Italy.  We then continued our meandering ways:
One of three bridges in the world with shops on it.  Where is another one, Mom?

On said bridge, over the Arno River.

One of three copies of The David.  This was an outdoor statue gallery, and rainy! boo!

A particularly violent/awesome statue.

The guy is holding Medusa's head.  I kinda like this picture, except its a bit dark.

Yes, people.  This is a 5 kg TUB of Nutella.  I demonstrated incredible will power by not swiping it and diving in.  oooooooooo

Because of the crappy weather, we went back to the hostel and deposited our wares, and put rain coats on.  Katie, Carly, and I decided we wanted to hike up to the Piazza de Michelangelo, as it was supposed to have great views of the city.  So we did.  And it did. (did that make sense?)
Steps leading up to Piazza de Michelangelo.  They don't look steep in the picture, but trust me, they were.

Ah, the Tuscan countryside.  Incidentally, that wall was once part of a big fortress that the Medicis lived in.

Firenze from above, including the Duomo.

And again.

The other copy of the The David. With a pigeon on his head?  hehe

Around to the side of the Piazza, there was a small wooded area that was less populated.  We wandered around there for a while and got some even better views of the country side.
Slightly creepy damp wooded area.


More beautiful views.

Eventually we got tired of wandering, so we headed back down to the hostel, which was across the city.
Grotto thing on the way down.
Carly and I were exhausted after wandering/walking all day, so we decided to stay in the hostel and watch TV in our room.  Katie and Cat, though, went for some more pasta in Florence.  The next day, we got up late-ish and got a train to Pisa, which only took an hour or so.
We had quite a time finding our hostel which turned out to be another sketchy one.  Oh, well.  It was only one night.

Big cathedral on the Field of Miracles.

And there you have it.  Carly and I decided that it was a big fat FAIL for Pisa though.  They have this messed up tower and they charge unsuspecting tourists (not us, though) 15 euros to go up in the thing.  Come on, people.

hehehehe.  We had to.

Carly put her camera on the timed setting and got this super awesome picture.  Very contemplative.

We discovered, to our horror, that there is positively nothing to do in Pisa but the see the Tower.  So we sat on the Field of Miracles for most of the afternoon then ate food.  I had my first experience with gnocchi (this is a fresh pasta made from potatoes).  With gorgonzola cheese.  Don't try that at home, kids.  STRONG stuff.  Made me a bit nauseous, and I have a pretty strong stomach.  Oy.
Our flight left from Pisa the next morning to East Midlands airport.  On the plane, I got stuck in front of an obnoxious, talkative, screaming child, my #1 travel annoyance.  PARENTS: give your kids a HEFTY dose of Benadryl before flying or traveling.  Really, for all our sakes.
East Midlands airport is near Nottingham and Derby, so we got a train there, but didn't manage to get back to Preston before 11PM.  Stupid delays.  Then, I showered, blogged the first part of the week and went to Scotland!  Wow, that was fast!
Also, I have massively updated Flat Stanley's blog:  Check it out!

We have couch potatoes for sheep

I'm not going in chronological order with the next couple of posts, so bear with me.  Also, if you are not a sheep/livestock nerd, you are going to be bored and confused.  Also, if you are easily grossed out, don't read the whole thing.  Sorry about that.

Anyway, I left on the 6:44AM train to Edinburgh in order to make it to the SAC by 10:20AM.  I got into Edinburgh at 9:30ish, but the bus system is so confusing for this hapless American that I BARELY made it to the Scottish Agriculture College by 10:30.  Fortunately, they were running a little late, so I was fine.  There were only 5 students (including me) on this tour of SAC sheep unit and research projects.

SAC has two farms where they conduct sheep research, Castlelaw (the one we went to) and Kirkton, in the north of Scotland.  As you might have guessed, sheep production in Scotland and the UK is VASTLY different from how we do it in the US.  They have an entirely different lingo!  Fore example: Tups= rams, therefore tupping time= breeding season.  And that is just the beginning!  Hill sheep fascinate me, they do something called "hefting" on their particular spot in the hill.  They way I understand it, it is kind of like imprinting on a certain geographical area.  Weird.

Castlelaw Farm, currently owned by the Ministry of Defense (note the firing range in the bottom right hand corner) and it is a national park.

We mostly learned about the genetic research they're doing at SAC.  (Also, EPD = EBV [Expected Breeding Values], took me a while to get that one).  Apparently, there is a genetic link between foot rot and slaughter weight.  Lighter weight lambs tend to have less foot rot, which is disappointing.  But the trait is only low to moderately heritable.  They're also looking at the genetic resistance to flukes and intestinal parasites, yay!

They next took us to the CT Scan lab.  They use the CT Scanner on a variety of animals (including penguins and sharks, no lie!) to study all sorts of things, including meat production.  One of the more interesting things they do with it is very precisely measure hip dimensions, to help avoid dystocia in ewes.  Cool!

The CT Scanner.

We then went to the SAC meat lab where they showed us some technology that I was mostly already familiar with, Warner-Bratzler testing and sheer force testing, among other things.  We then went to EGENES which is an organization that analyzes EPDs.  Fun, right?  Mostly dairy and beef EPDs.  
After we finished up at SAC, I totally screwed up the bus system again and spent an hour and a half around Edinburgh on a bus.  FAIL.  I finally, finally found the right bus to get to Hawick, which is about 60 miles south of Edinburgh, but its a two hour ride.  I (somehow) managed to get off on the right stop in Hawick and my ride was waiting there for me!  Well, Gregor Hepburn, the youngest of the family came to pick me up.  Mom had warned me that the Scottish people she had interacted with in Edinburgh were not talkative, and that I would probably have to do most of the talking.  In other words, pretend to be an extrovert.  LIES.  Gregor talked my arm off on the 20 minute ride to Northhouse, their 1,567 acre farm just outside of Hawick.  He told me about the Common Ride coming up, which is a festival based on when riders in the community would patrol the borders of their local farms preventing sheep thefts.  At that point, I told him the totally lame-o (in comparison) story of the Night Riders in Hopkinsville.  He said it sounded like a bunch of super heroes.  hehe
We arrived at Northhouse and let me just tell you, it is BEAUTIFUL.  Here are the pictures.
Rock fences and hedgerows abound.  And a lot of sheep.

TURNIPS.  They don't feed their lambing ewes grain-- this is what they get.  And they eat it like candy!

They also have cattle, Shorthorns (in Scotland!) and Aberdeen Angus.

They don't build barns like this anymore.  

It was getting close to dark, so we all went in and had dinner.  Katherine, the mom and the person we're technically related to (and yes, her name is Katherine Hepburn, lol), is a blur of constant motion.  The woman never stops.  She wanted to make sure I ate as much Scottish food as possible, so I had oat cakes and cheese.  Most disappointingly, she didn't have haggis in the freezer, but we had an excellent chicken casserole and they have tea about 5 times a day, which suits me just fine.  I did not go hungry on this adventure, I assure you.
Ian (the dad) and Adam (the middle son) started opening a big stack of mail and informed me that they had just received their cattle passports they'd ordered.  I must have had a confounded look on my face, so they explained that every cow born on the place (and in all of Europe) must be registered to a national central database within 27 days of birth. When/if they're sold, the 'passport' goes along with them.  I explained that the US was moving towards a similar system with NAIS, but a lot of American farmers are in an uproar because its costing us money.  In the UK, they still have to pay for tags, but the database is free.  However, there has been talk of charging for the database, which would not make them happy.  Right now, only some sheep have to be registered in the database, but they're moving towards ALL of them registered.  Since the Hepburns own over 2,000 sheep I can see how that would be cost prohibitive.  Wow.
The next day, I got up bright and early and wandered around outside for a while until they put me to work (which didn't take long, haha).  I grabbed my camera and took pictures:
In the lambing shed, where they can lamb out over 150 ewes at a time.  I counted.  They lamb from January to April, with different breeds each month.  I would die.

Hills and rock fences.

Ha, I couldn't resist the butt picture of the Texels.  I would like the Texels if it didn't look like they ran headlong into a brick wall.

Sheep! Feasting on turnips.

A pheasant!


A painting of the old house in Thurso, where the Coghills/Campbells came from or worked or something.  I can't get it all straight.

That horse is Suzy, a Belgian Warmblood.  I think she's Adam's.  I helped him put the horses up the night before and she nearly took my arm off in the process.  Clearly, horses can sense when you hate them.  Adam and Gregor interrogated me about horses and racing.  I could tell them about the Triple Crown, but I can't talk intelligently about much else.

In the lambing shed, where I spent a large part of the day.  Those are the jugs, about 3 1/2 feet long and wide each.

Because they lamb out so many ewes, they have a person on watch all the time.  On their busiest day, they had 30 ewes go.  I must say, the mind reels.  I got to help out that day, and I haven't lost my touch even though its been two years since I've pulled a lamb.  The hired guy, Kevin, and I worked on one lamb for about 20 minutes, but its head was turned back.  Katherine came in and tried; no luck.  Then Ian came and pulled the lamb like it was nothing.  I hate people like that.  I thought sure the lamb wouldn't make it, as it had been in the birth canal for about 30 minutes, but my straw in the nose trick (which I don't think they'd ever used) worked and it was an enormous healthy ewe lamb.  A jab (code word for shot) of penicillin for the ewe, iodine on the navel, and Orojet (Scottish NutriDrench) orally, and toss them in a jug, and we're set for the next of several ewes to lamb.  Since that lamb was a single, they grafted a smaller triplet with no problem.  They just rubbed afterbirth all over her and they ewe had no idea.  They also skinned dead lambs and tied the skins on orphan lambs, so they were wearing slightly morbid shirts.  And it all works like a charm!
Most lambs stay in the jugs for a few days and then they toss them into the hills.  This is why we have couch potatoes for sheep at home: we baby them and feed them grain and give them constant antibiotics and generally hover over them.  I guess the difference is that we aren't *trying* to make a living out of it, its just a hobby for us.  That afternoon, we got on the bikes (code word for 4-wheelers, haha) and went out to work in the hills.  I even got to drive one, but I totally spazzed and forgot how to start it (HEY, I'm mechanically challenged, okay?).  I'm sure they got a good chuckle out of that one.
You can just make out their circular stone working pen there in the middle.  COOL!

The bike out in the hills.

I'm not sure who or what we were sorting/hauling, but I don't think I was much help because I didn't know what was going on.  They have a bunch of excellently trained Border Collies that do most of the work.  I just drove around and pretended to help while I got pictures on the sly.  haha
We went back to the lambing shed for a while, where Katherine asked me if I could tube a lamb.  Once again, I haven't done it in two years, but I managed not to kill the lamb (WIN!).  They had a calf that was badly dehydrated and they vet came by and gave it a glucose IV.  They later tried to milk the cow and tube it, but the calf didn't make it, sadly.
After that long day, we went back and had lamb chops for dinner.  Home grown ones!  And they have this lambing tradition of making a very strange strawberry mousse thing.  I suppose it is like us making doughnuts on the first snow day of the school year.  We talked about Gregor's plans for the upcoming year.  He will turn 18 in November and its already been accepted at (are you ready?) the University of Edinburgh Vet School.  That's because Britain's education system is a lot different than ours.  Their high school is 6 years long and you get to choose what you study.  So he'll be a vet 4 years before anyone else his age in the US will be.  Bizarre.

That night, I showed them pictures of the goats.  They were impressed, even though the only goats they have had contact with are WAY WAY back in the hills and are consequently feral.  They were also impressed that I can kill, skin, and process a sheep or goat with just a knife.  Who says those meat science skills won't come in handy?
And I couldn't get a picture of the whole family because, basically, they wouldn't stay still long enough for that.  Last summer, they hosted Scotsheep 2008, which is basically a huge festival/convention/meeting for the Scottish sheep industry.  They had over 3500 people traipsing around their farm for tours and convention stuff, which must have been an enormous headache.  I did find this picture on the internet of Ian and Katherine.
Ian, Katherine, and the Scotsheep chairman (don't know him...).

I had to leave the next day, as I've got a paper and a take home history exam to do.  Not cool.  I could definitely live there, just working sheep all day in the Scottish borders.  I might yet.
I went back to Edinburgh, as I had a small Harry Potter pilgrimage to complete.  I went to the Elephant House, where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter on napkins when she was poor and couldn't afford paper (I think she can afford plenty now, needless to say).  It was way overpriced and the tea wasn't that great (I know these things, as I've had LOTS of tea over here), but I did break down and get a mug.  I made it back to Preston around 6PM, but I already miss being with the sheep in Hawick.  And the very friendly Hepburns.
Plus, who knew that I'd get lamb slime all over me while on my study abroad semester in Europe.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Senatus Populusque Romanus (Italy, Part 1: Roma)

Whew, I got back really late last night from a whirlwind week in Italy.  It was great!  The weather wasn't the best, but we still had fun and saw some amazing stuff and ate gooooooood food. I took about 500 pictures and Carly took around 800 and then we traded pictures this morning, so I am not short of photographic evidence of the trip.

I got Mom and Mary off fine at the train station, Manchester bound.  I then ran back to my flat, finished packing and met Carly out in front of Whitendale.  Katie (from TN, but she goes to Bellarmine) and her friend Cat (from TX, but goes to University of Memphis.  She is studying in Glasgow this semester.  She doesn't care about basketball, which could have made for a miserable week if she had!) joined us shortly.  Our flight was from Liverpool at 6:30AM.  There weren't any early trains to Liverpool, so we got the latest possible train there and just hung out at the airport that night.  It wasn't as bad as Dublin, as I actually got some sleep.  Our flight went fine, we arrived at Roma Ciampino airport around 10:30 local time (they're an hour ahead of GMT).  We took a bus from the airport to Termini Station, which is about a 10 minute walk from our hostel.

Carly is on top of all things travel, which makes it really easy for me to travel with her, because I really don't have to do much.  She had directions from Termini to the hostel and knew the weather for the week, etc. Our hostel was actually one of the crappiest I've stayed at so far, but the location was good and it had a bed and a means of cleaning yourself (not exactly a working shower though, lol).  We dumped our stuff at the hostel, then set out in search of food.  We were starving, as airport food doesn't get the job done well.  We found this neat little place close to the hostel.  We took pictures of our food:

Our cute restuarant.  Clockwise from left: Carly, Cat, and Katie.
My massive pizza magherita (just sauce and cheese and oh so good!).  Katie had 4 cheese and Carly had gnocchi.  More on gnocchi later.
But we laid waste to every bite.  yum.
Our main destination that day (Monday) was the Coliseum.  Its one of those cultural icons you see on TV or in books, but nothing prepares you for seeing the real thing.  This was kind of the tone for all of Rome, seriously.  We went inside the Coliseum, and our tour included a walking tour of the Palatine Hills and the Roman Forum (which were, incidentally more interesting than the Coliseum itself).  Here are the pictures!

Carly and me in front of the Coliseum.  We look very European with our scarves, haha.
 Its really old.  And cool.  I'm still at a loss for words, evidently.
The inside!  There is a series of passages that housed lions and tigers and the like for gladiator fights.  At one time, there was a giant stage covered in sand that was the floor.  But it is long gone.
Carly and I took a ton more pictures from the Coliseum, but they're mostly superfluous and don't begin to do the place justice.  So I'll continue on with the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum.

 On top of the Palatine Hill, with a neat view of the Coliseum (on the left).  This was where Rome was actually founded and the rumored location of the Lupercal, where the she-wolf raised Romulus and Remus.  It used to be a big palace complex, covered in marble and beautiful structures, but in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church stole/took/recycled the columns and other marble structures for their own use and built a big church nearby.  We call it St. Peter's Basilica.

 This was one of the gladiator fighting arenas, where a lot of the marble once was.

 The Roman Forum! This was the economic and political center for one of the world's largest, most powerful empires.  We were able to walk down there among all the ruins.
We continued to stroll through the Forum.  It is still so strange to be able to walk through all these centuries, MILLENIA, of history.  One of our missions for the week was to eat gelato every single day.  Mission accomplished.  Gelato is like ice cream, only better.  It is a little softer and just generally more awesome.  The first day, I had nutella flavored.  Holy cow, it was goooooooood.
We went to the Trevi Fountain next.  It is an enormous, gorgeous Baroque fountain.
And lots of people.  Rome has lots of people.
Legend says that if you throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, you are ensured a return to Rome.  We did it, so I'll be going back to Rome sometime.  Excellent!
So, we had a full day.  We were tired.  So we went back to the hostel.
I snapped this picture in the middle of Via Nazionale. 
After a rather pathetic shower, we went to bed, and we all got up and left around 8AM.  Destination: Vatican City and St. Peters.  We went to Termini Station and got a one way metro ticket to Vatican City.  We decided that Rome is not very big, area wise (at least, not NEARLY as big as London), so it was feasible to get the metro to the other end of the city and meander back for the rest of the day, which is what we did.  We got to just outside St. Peter's and there were hawkers selling tours, which were mostly ripoffs.  Because this was not Carly and mine's big trip, we decided to skip the 40 euro tour into the Sistine Chapel and just do the free stuff, which was a wise decision, we feel.  However, this was Cat and Katie's big trip for the semester, so they decided to do it.  They felt it was worth it.  This was the first time the Vatican and St. Peter's had been open in two weeks (for Easter) so the place was SWAMPED with tourists.  The lines were extraordinarily long, but they went surprisingly fast.
This was our breakfast, for only a euro and a half.  Cornetto (crossiant) and the strongest cappuccino I've ever had in my life.  Seriously, the stuff had enough caffiene to keep me awake for 24 hrs.
The first glimpse of St. Peter's Square, which is more of an oval.

Colonade in St. Peter's Square/Oval.
I was super excited that we were allowed to take pictures INSIDE St. Peter's Basilica.  There aren't any words to describe the beauty and majesty of this place.  It hasn't over taken the cathedral in Cordoba, Spain as my favorite cathedral, but it was close.  I think it might be tied with Westminster Abbey, just because I know more of the people buried in Westminster and more of the history.  St. Peter's had a bunch of dead popes, more than anything.  But it was still overwhelming.

The Swiss Guard and their awesome outfits.  I would have a hard time taking these guys seriously.

Still recovering from Easter services.
....And the ceiling.  Dude.
A lot of people.  That's the altar in the back.
This is La Pieta- sculpted by Michelangleo (not the Ninja Turtle).  We couldn't get very close to it.  And the quality stinks.

 More ceiling.
 If you click on the picture, you can see the larger version.  Find all the itty bitty people around the dome for scale.  Eeep.
The catacombs beneath our feet, home to a bunch of dead popes and important people.

The tomb of St. Peter.  Yes, THE St. Peter.  Jesus' disciple St. Peter.  Yeah, that one.
Carly and I combined probably took over 150 pictures in St. Peter's and there is no way I could get them all up here in a timely fashion.  I keep saying this about some of the places I've visited, but I could have spent all day in there.  Except there was a lot more to see in Rome!
The Castel Sant' Angelo.  If you've read Angels & Demons you know what this is.  (There is supposedly a secret passage from the Vatican to here.  I love conspiracy theories, lol).
Cat and Katie were still on their overpriced tour, so Carly and I wandered around for a little while longer.  We next went to the Piazza del Popolo.

Piazza del Popolo from the top of the Pincio.  The dome in the back is St. Peter's.  The obelisk is covered in heiroglyphs and originated in Egypt.
Great view of St. Peter's from Piazza del Popolo.
There was a park right behind the Pincino (I can't remember the name of it), that our map said that Mussolini and Ghandi both liked to stroll around.  I'm not sure how the two are connected, but we strolled around it and enjoyed a little slower pace.  We then went to the Piazza de Spagna (Spanish Steps), where we met back up with Cat and Katie.
More PEOPLE.  Cool steps, though.

The Trevi Fountain is right by the Piazza de Spagna, so we went back there and had gelato.  There are no words to describe this batch.  I had the tiramisu flavor that night and it was AMAZING.  It was a good moment, eating gelato on a sunny day in Rome by the Trevi Fountain.
Next, we went to the Pantheon, which was wicked cool.  It was an ancient temple to the Roman gods, but (naturally) converted to a Catholic church.  The inside is cooler, and was free!

 The famous oculus/devil's hole inside the Pantheon.  What do they do when it rains?
 Right behind the Pantheon was the Piazza Novano, which had Bernini's Fountain of Four Rivers.
 Piazza Novano also had a neat market with paintings and prints.
We trekked back to the hostel after this, because we were gross and tired.  We took showers, rested, and went back to the Coliseum after dark.  Mainly because we had forgotten Flat Stanley the first day.  But it was pretty at night, too!

That wraps up our two days in Rome.  Wednesday, we got a mid-morning train from Roma to Firenze.  The rest of the week will require another post, which will be posted during the middle of the week, because I'm off again!  I know, I know.  But I'm going to the Scottish Agricultural College tomorrow on a research tour of their sheep unit, then I'm going to visit some relatives in Hawick, south of Edinburgh for a few days.  We're so distantly related though, that it really doesn't count any more.  But they live on a big sheep farm in the Borders of Scotland and England, so I get my farm fix for a while before I come back to UCLan and finish up papers and assessments.  Yay.