Love letter to Luxembourg II

I was in Luxembourg again last week, after an absence of almost four years. It was interesting to see the place after a reasonable time interval, as it showed up quite clearly where things had changed, and others where it hadn’t at all. In the city, there is a never-ending sequence of construction. No matter where you look, something is being built. In other places, some of the more rural places I know, it looks as though nothing has changed since I first visited in 2002. I’ve never really had the chance to wander through the heart of the city, down by the river, and it was lovely to see some of the curved streets with their (to me) unusually coloured houses. Lots of buildings down there look a creamy yellow colour, possibly a combination of nice building stone and paints.

Central Luxembourg City

Central Luxembourg City

One major difference this time was actually in myself. The last time I visited, I was only used to driving in the United Kingdom, whereas now I have experience of driving in Canada, on the other side of the road. A friend once let me drive her car near Diekirch, and I remember clearly how nerve-wracking it was, as everything seemed to be on the wrong side, and it was necessary to look in all the wrong directions. This time, it was far more normal, and I could easily drive there.

I love walking in the countryside in Luxembourg. They have, for such a small country, a vast network of walking paths, but for me, one of my favourites is called Meysembourg. If you’re relatively antisocial, like me, you will enjoy the fact that you meet almost nobody on your travels, and you could be miles from anywhere. In fact, you are miles from anywhere! What I didn’t know was that part of the walk there was a Roman road. Curious to think that even now, it was serviceable, and you could imagine the sound of marching feet from two thousand years ago. Two thousand. It’s hard to imagine what was happening here in Canada, that long ago. There are some lovely buildings here, which wouldn’t look out of place in a novel by Alexandre Dumas. Ivy clad, with the appearance of being on the verge of collapse, and a peculiar covered bridge, that you could believe would take you to another time or place entirely.

Door to where?

Door to where?

Wonderful buildings

Wonderful buildings

This place made me think of all of the books that I liked as a child, and continued to like in adulthood. It reminded me of the special hidden places in C.S. Lewis Narnia stories, where you would find houses beneath trees occupied by badgers, or lodges with beaver, or perhaps some of the hidden places in the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit. Special, unseen places. They felt as though they were all around me here, just outside the corner of your eye, in a direction you can’t quite point to.

Covered bridge

Covered bridge

Curiously, in the photograph above, the facial recognition software on my computer identified a number of what it thought were faces. Curious, as nobody was there. Or were they?

Even in winter, the place is beautiful. Winter has not really touched Luxembourg this year, with only a few flakes of snow in the north. While I was there, it was mainly misty and rainy, but there is a kind of beauty to that. I walked early in the morning once, and everything seemed so still, almost as if the world wasn’t awake yet. Some of the landscape is so familiar, it could almost be Scotland, but I guess that must be due to the foliage and agricultural use being similar. There is nothing like the smell of soil, foliage and water in the air.

My favourite avenue

My favourite avenue

I will always love this place, no matter what the future holds for me. It may be a very long time before I return – I currently can’t even guess when it may be. Regardless, this small place in western Europe, its people, its castles, valleys, trees and language will always hold a special place in my heart. At least nobody can take that away from me.

Small chapel(?) in the heart of the city

Small chapel(?) in the heart of the city


Columbia ice-fields

As a geology student, and even before that, I used to look at illustrations of glaciers, and learned the names of the various structures, both on the glaciers themselves and the landscape formed by their passage. These words gained a special meaning for me, conjuring up images of far-flung and distant places. Moraine, lateral and terminal, bergschrunds, arretes and horns. Eskers and crevasses. None of this really helped me to get an idea of the scale of a real glacier. Standing on one did.

We drove for hours through the Rockies from Calgary, stopping for breakfast in Canmore. Normal Canadian Rockies scenery, that is to say, breathtaking in it’s expansiveness, surrounded us. For me, driving north of Lake Louise took me into new territory, as I had never been further from Calgary since I arrived. Aside from some unexpected tailgating from idiots with pickups, it was a ridiculously good drive north, with scenery that really did threaten to make you drive off the road. The mountains themselves started taking on a new character. The southern Rockies had all appeared grey, laminated, and well, if not smooth, then certainly less jagged than some of these. Reds and creams started to appear in the rocks, as well as the first icy intrusions of glaciers. As I said, I had never seen one up close and personal before. It was quite a sight.

Glaciers, for those who don’t know, are colossal “rivers” of ice, flowing down from an ice-field, carving a path through the surrounding rocks. They leave evidence of their passing everywhere, if you know what to look for. Typically, U-shaped valleys, and large piles of ground up rock tend to provide clues. Despite the enormous mass of ice in a typical glacier, it is in motion, albeit very slowly. We passed a number of glaciers on our drive north, the Crowfoot and Bow to name a couple. Vast hanging sheets of dirty ice, just to the west, above lakes of turquoise.

Johnson Lake

Johnson Lake

The Icefields Parkway is named after the Columbia Icefield, from which at least six glaciers extend (Athabasca, Castleguard, Columbia, Dome, Stutfield and Saskatchewan). The icefield is also surrounded by some of the largest mountains in the Canadian Rockies, including Mt Athabasca (3491m), Mt Andromeda (3450m), Mt Columbia (3747m) and Snow Dome (3456m). Snow Dome is apparently the hydrological apex of Canada. Pour a jug of water onto the peak, and the water will find it’s way into one of three oceans: Pacific, via the Columbia River, Arctic, via the Sunwapta and Athabasca Rivers, and the North Atlantic, via the N.Saskatchewan River and Hudson Bay. The North American counterpart is in Glacier National Park, Montana.

From the icefields visitor centre, it is possible to take a trip up onto the Athabasca Glacier. From the centre, the glacier is striking. GIven that the maximum recorded extent of glaciation was at the visitor centre in 1844, the glacier has lost about half of its mass. That said,  it is still very impressive, with another couple of glaciers running down almost into contact with it. The centre was also chock full of noisy tourists, but that’s my problem. I don’t deal well with crowds. From this vantage point, it was possible to see tiny specks moving up on to the glacier. These would turn out to be large, six wheeled tour buses, specially geared to allow safe operation on the glacier. There are 23 in the world, with 22 based here. The one remaining bus is stationed at McMurdo Base in Antartica. Cool or what?

Athabasca glacier from the visitor centre.

Athabasca glacier from the visitor centre.

A regular tourist coach takes you from the visitor centre to a handoff point, located on the left side of the photo above. Here we decanted into specially designed buses. Ours, curiously enough, was brightly decorated and nicknamed the “RastaBus”. Here’s why:

The RastaBus

The RastaBus

Close up, the glacier is something of a surprise. Due to the immense weight of ice, all of the air bubbles are squeezed out, resulting in a material that has a vivid blue colour. As would be expected, it is also very slippery to walk about on. I would have been far happier with my crampons and a walking axe, but would have looked quite out of place among the tourists milling about! There are numerous streams running off the glacier, and unsurprisingly, they are a little chilly to drink from. Where they cut through the glacial ice, more of that beautiful blue colour is exposed.

Glacial spray

Glacial spray

While I remember, credit where due. I took very few of the pictures in this post. Most were taken by my friend, Di, and her far superior camera. Standing on the surface of the glacier, it is impossible to gain a sense of how deep the ice is. In this instance, it is approximately 300m deep, or about the same height as the Eiffel Tower. Food for thought. Looking up towards the icefield, you really do get a sense of it being a river of ice. One recent survey counted 30,000 crevasses in its surface. Looking to the sides, the Andromeda and an an unnamed glacier both extend down towards us. Between us is also a barrier of lateral moraine. This is rock that has been ground up and pushed to the side by the motion of the glacier. In this case, it has resulted in the formation of quite a large berm.

Athabasca glacier

Athabasca glacier

Lateral moraine

Lateral moraine

Another thing you don’t realise is how far away the end of the glacier used to be. It extended all the way down to the visitor centre, as mentioned above, and can be seen in this shot looking back down the valley.

The visitor centre

The visitor centre

So, not bad for a day’s trip out of Calgary. We headed back down to Banff and found meat products in the form of Eddie’s burger joint. Slow initial service, during which time we were at risk of eating our own hands, but the food, when it came at last, was excellent. All in all, the Icefields Parkway can be thoroughly recommended. To finish, another couple of photos, showing Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier.

Bow lake

Bow lake

Crowfoot glacier

Crowfoot glacier


Hiking in Kananaskis – Part 1

I’ve been on vacation for two weeks, and being prompted by the presence of a friend from Luxembourg, decided to get off my backside and do some hiking. My general fitness level can best be described in terms of a large walrus, i.e. heavy and not much good out of water. In fact, if I do enter the water, Greenpeace come and relocate me in the Pacific – their Vancouver HQ is not a million miles away.

With this in mind, we selected a hike that suggested lots of wildlife, good views, and a low chance of killing me. I recently bought an excellent trail book for Canmore and Kananaskis, and the hike from Pine Top day recreational area looked good. 5 kilometres it said, with some more strenuous uphill sections and an easy riverside walk. Turns out to be about 6 klicks, which is fine, and since the catastrophic floods, the river has diminished greatly, but the northern section that runs above Highway 68 is lovely.

Immediately after we got out of the car, we were greeted by screaming and shouting children’s voices, carried on the wind from a nearby camp. This didn’t initially bode well, as we didn’t know if the kids were in one location, or moving around the same trail as us. It turned out that they were penned into one location, and hey, they were just having a good time.

Crossing Highway 68, we headed up into meadows of spruce, aspen and birch. All around were abundant plants and flowers, most of which I can’t identify, but we took photos of. I say “we”; in truth, Di did. The weather was warm, with the sky largely clear, and dominated on one side by some rather large mountains.

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The walk begins. Suspiciously gently.

Kananaskis is in the foothills of the Rockies, and if you like endless voews of trees, rising up to smaller hills then massive ones, then this place is for you. The hiking covers a wide range of grades, from what we were doing, through to some pretty strenuous but amazing hikes. All around you, life is running wild, and it is hard not to feel optimistic. Particularly on a day when the sky was free of rain (here at least. It thundered pretty spectacularly on the way back from Canmore later), the path was littered with large noisy crickets, and myriad butterflies fluttered about, doing their stuff. We were interlopers, but what a place to interlope in! Even the air smelled good. There’s nothing too strenuous about the meadows north of the highway, which make up about half of the walk. I was surprised to see later that the route had an ascent of about one thousand feet. It certainly didn’t feel like that. I’ve been on walks in Torridon and Knoydart which felt like torture, because you could see the route away above you, always moving on up. Mercifully for me, most of this route was hidden by a thick blanket of trees and vegetation. Also, there was so much to look at and enjoy that the general pace was pretty easy. Di’s patience made it easier still.

The photographer, out from behind the lens for once.

The photographer, out from behind the lens for once. Dinosaur t-shirts rock.

IMG_0343The flower above is apparently called something like “red paint brush”. I’m sure some enraged botanist will be in touch, with the answer wrapped around a brick!

Another thing about walking here is that the views just get better and better. In keeping with many trips into the Rockies, we ran out of descriptive terms, and even gave up on saying “wow”. One thing I was surprised to see was lots of different species of fungi. OK, so I come from Scotland, where it is so damp that hundreds of species flourish, but there were many unfamiliar types here, or differing morphologies. I’ve never actually seen some of these particular physical forms before.

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The south side of the trail, where it crosses the road and heads toward the river, is very different. Clearly this side of the trail doesn’t bask in sunshine like the meadows above, and the abundant flowers and grasses noted above are absent. Also, the trees here are mainly spruce and pine. Fungi abounded again though, and there was the smell of wild garlic. The river itself was low, though large piles of rocks in the stream bed indicated high energy material transport – presumably during the recent floods that devastated Canmore, Calgary and High River. Even without a lot of water, the riverside walk was pleasant. The guide book gave the impression of it being down beside the river, but it’s actually higher up above, only coming down close on two occasions.

IMG_0439More unusual fungus, this time inside a dead tree.

IMG_0451A flower. Pretty, but still need to check my book to identify it.

So to recap, this is a really nice walk in summer, and would probably be fun to snowshoe in winter, if you could get the car in here.

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There are toilet facilities on the south side of the road, at a small parking area. In keeping with many other places in Alberta, they are rudimentary, but far better than the backwoods alternative. We did encounter a small group of elderly Canadians, who treated us like most others I have met, in an open and friendly manner. It was a relief to be able to walk somewhere with scenery of staggering beauty, and hardly run into anyone at all. In fact, at some points, the silence really was deafening. From here, it is possible to drive west until you hit Highway 40, and then head north-ish to Canmore, which boasts a nice Dairy Queen, and the town can certainly do with some financial stimulus after the floods. One thing to watch for on the road is cattle. We encountered a herd of cows, which looked to be enjoying its new-found freedom, but did cause something of a slowdown! Another thing to be aware of is the fact that the weather can change with startling rapidity. When we reached Canmore, a thunderstorm rolled east over the mountains, following us along Highway 1A, all the way to Cochrane. Watching lightning bolts strike trees a few hundred metres away is exciting enough from inside an earthed motor vehicle, but unprotected outside, a completely different matter.


Drumheller – hunting dinos in the Badlands

I’ve loved dinosaurs since I was a little kid. It’s not difficult to understand why. Something about them captures the imagination. When I first watched “Jurassic Park”, I was riveted, imagining something extinct for tens of millions of years wandering about. The sequence where the protagonists are chased by a Tyrannosaur is still one of my favourite movie moments.

Also, they were around for a very long time. Humanity has done some amazing things, but the dinosaurs were around for approximately 160 million years. That’s what I call staying power. By comparison, we have been here for a few eye-blinks. So, when I moved to Alberta, one of the places on my must-see list was the Royal Tyrell Museum, near Drumheller. Leaving Calgary on Hwy 2, you turn off east on Hwy 9, on to an immensity of flatness. When people think of Alberta, they tend to focus on the Rocky Mountains. That’s fine, but a large part of the province is very flat. The kind of flatness that the Dutch would find curiously familiar. The road to Drumheller runs east for about forty miles, with very little in terms of landmarks or elevation to break it up. It actually makes driving more difficult, as your mind and eyes wander in search of variation. We actually cheered when we saw a bend in the road near Drumheller, with a large blue teapot painted on the side of a farmhouse. All the way out there, I was wondering where the Badlands were, those amazing banded formations and strange rock formations.There is little sign until you are almost in Drumheller, then the road abruptly drops down into an eroded zone. Drumheller is surprisingly large, with many amenities, and not what I was expecting at all. Most notable is a giant fibreglass T-Rex that lurks among the low buildings. Being at least three storeys tall, it is a convenient waymark for navigation.

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The Museum itself is a few miles further on, but our large plastic friend was well worth visiting. This is the kind of thing that should be in Tokyo! If the Japanese don’t have a similar sized Godzilla, someone needs to sort it out.

Museum entranceOn the day we visited, the Museum was overrun with lots of children, but they were generally well behaved. The range of exhibits is astonishing, and I will let most of them speak for themselves. I was particularly pleased to see one of my favourite childhood dinosaurs, Dimetrodon, with a well preserved skeleton. Anyway, some pictures. I might come back and add some more commentary, but for the moment, here they are.

Tyrannosaurus Rex

Tyrannosaurus Rex – the original Bad Boy.

An inspiration for the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

An inspiration for the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.

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Various claws, with captions

Various claws, with captions

Comparison of Golden Eagle foot with an early ancestor

Comparison of Golden Eagle foot with an early ancestor

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Pleisiosaur, with dark outline on floor indicating full profile

Pleisiosaur, with dark outline on floor indicating full profile

Dimetrodon x 2!

Dimetrodon x 2!

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Mmmm. Dinner.

Mmmm. Dinner.

Stegosaur

Stegosaur

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Peter’s drive-in and unconventional fluids

Today was another foray into the still strange world of Canadian fast-food. I found myself visiting an institution which has stood in Calgary for fifty years. For this city, that’s almost like finding the Dead Sea scrolls jammed down the back of your sofa. The venue, Peter’s Drive In, at 219 16th Avenue.

Best burgers in Calgary!

Best burgers in Calgary!

Created back in the 1960 by a Dutch immigrant, Pete’s Drive-In was founded on the back of hard work and good food. You won’t find as wide a range of meat products as at chains like Burger King or Dairy Queen, but that isn’t what Pete’s is all about. They make a small variety of meals, and do it very well. I’ve seen long queues here – not hard to understand when the food is so good.

Based upon my experiences at previous burger joints, both here and in Europe, I decided that a small portion of fries would be barely enough to sustain me, and asked for a triple cheese burger and large fries. This must happen quite often, as the lady serving me gazed over her glasses and said “Sir, the large fries feeds five”. For once, I was being delivered the truth. A “small” portion made me want to go to sleep, and the triple burger was so large that most of the cow was still attached.

Determined to make myself ill, I had also ordered a large milkshake. When this arrived, I found that it had much in common with the bitumen found in the oil sands further north. Ultra viscous at ambient temperatures, it really didn’t want to flow, and significant heating was required back at the lab before I could actually consume my dessert. A spade would actually have been quite useful!

So, first impressions: good food. Substantial portion size, and short waiting time. Only downside, they only take cash, which is inconvenient when almost everyone else accepts cards. Still, if that’s my only complaint, they’re doing very well. If you find yourself in Calgary, I would recommend at least one lunch from Pete’s. You won’t regret it, though you may want a nap afterwards!


O Canada II

I’ve been in Canada for about six weeks now, and have some new observations on my adopted home.

Canadians are still (based upon my experience) generous and courteous people, who will often go out of their way to help you. However, I have found lots of rude people, just like anywhere else. It happens particularly often on the C-Train, or local transit rail system. Going to work during morning rush hour, it is often impossible to get on the trains, because some bozo insists on standing in the doorways, instead of moving down the aisles to let more people on. I feel like saying to them “Hey, don’t you know you’re letting your countrymen down?” Clearly not, as most people are pretty good at that kind of thing. There must be a special bus of these people, that decants one stop up from me, to put them in my way. Paranoid? Me? But of course! Some segments of the city have a clear substance abuse problem, though if I didn’t get on and off the train in a particular part of town, it wouldn’t be so obvious. I did have one guy walking along behind me, wringing his hands and saying “Kill him. Kill him” while looking at me. That wasn’t too friendly.

Weather-wise, it has become a lot colder, and looks as though winter, which apparently lasts for about eight months, has sunk its teeth into Calgary. Funnily enough, it might be about -14C, but unless the wind blows, it doesn’t feel much different from when I was growing up as a kid in Midlothian with bad winters in the 80s. However, when the wind blows, then the temperature really drops, becoming painful on exposed skin, and doing bad things to your nose. It’s definitely not a place I would want to be caught withough gloves or a warm jacket. As I write this, the last few days of November are passing, and the Bow River, running through the centre of Calgary, is beginning to freeze over. The large plates of ice are still fragile at this point, and when they break up, it looks like a plate tectonic map of the world. At least, I think so! As the train leaves downtown, it rises up, and gives a beautiful view of the Rockies, sometimes lit up by the rising sun. Calgarians tend to be a bit nonchalant about these big lumps of rock out to the west, but I think they’re lucky to live in such a beautiful place.

The city itself has a distinct character, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what it is. There is an interesting mix of old and new buildings, and a wide range of ethnic food opportunities. I had Vietnamese food for lunch today, and that is becoming a firm favourite, along with Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. Canada seems to be founded largely on immigrants, and is certainly richer for the influx of various groups of people. Pubs and bars are another thing that reminds me of the differences between here and the UK. I was recently in a pub in Eau Claire, the Barley Mill, and it had all of the best bits of a British pub, but with a uniquely Canadian atmosphere. Not too loud, even though it was full of people at the weekend, sports on TV but not too obtrusive. Good Canadian beers, and decent food. It was also not so brightly lit that you felt under the spotlight. Drinking here is different, in that you don’t pay until the end of the evening, and they serve you at the table. Now that is civilisation!

So, in summary, do I still like it here? Yes. Do I like the people? Certainly. Calgary has a super-abundance of pretty girls and I love it. The non-pretty and non-girl population is generally amiable. Am I happy here? Definitely. Barring disasters, I can see this being home for an awful long time. I’m beginning to understand why so many people apply for citizenship. More from Moose-land when it happens. This is the Loose Moose signing off, for sure :-)


O Canada…

Last week, I said goodbye to my family and boarded a plane for another country. While it has been exciting, and possibly the best chance for a good life that I’ll ever have, it was also one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do. I guess if I didn’t care about my family, it would have been much easier.

Even before had boarded the plane, I was experiencing what seems to be a pretty widespread Canadian trait. Friendliness, coupled with openness. I got talking to a mother and her son from Vancouver, who ended up sitting one row ahead of me on the flight. Not only did they chat for the entire flight, they gave me headphones when the aircrew would only accept credit cards, not cash. What’s that all about, Air Transat?

Leaving a cold and damp Glasgow behind, we cruised out over the Outer Hebrides for Iceland, where ice-mantled volcanoes reared skywards. I have never had a clearer view, and it was awe-inspiring. The crew were clearly having a great flight, chipping in over intercom to describe what was visible below. Greenland was also clear, with massive fjords filled with glaciers. Icebergs calving into the Atlantic looked like toys.

Northern Canada was shrouded in cloud, with the occasional glimpse of frozen tundra. This is the territory of Ice Road Truckers, without the trucks, or roads. Utter wilderness. Hours later, northern Alberta hove into view. Mile after mile of well ordered fields, running for fifty miles to each side. The scale was quite astonishing.

Calgary from the air was pleasant, bathed in clear sunlight, with the snow-capped Rockies off to the west. Much of the city appears pretty flat from the air, with only the tall buildings of the downtown core showing any sharp relief. As it turns out, those buildings are quite tall, lending the centre of the city a shiny and high-tech air. When I arrived, the sun was shining, hard enough to hurt my eyes, and it was reasonably warm.

One of the first things I’ve noticed about Calgary is the food. I mean, I love food, but there is a wide range of ethnicities here, so it’s easy to pick up something Vietnamese, Cuban or Japanese for lunch. Not to mention the Albertan specialities, triple-A beef, which is as good as it sounds, or the Montreal Smoked Meat Sandwich. Whoever invented that deserves a prize! I’ve eaten two of those since landing, and am approximately twenty five pounds heavier :-) For those who like such things, there are loads of vegetables, and fruit too.

People here have been pretty universally friendly. You do encounter the odd person having a bad day, but the general level of friendliness and politeness is an eye-opener. People _do_ talk to you on the train or bus, and don’t treat you like a freak if you strike up a random conversation. I’m talking to you, London! I’ve been welcomed here by almost everyone, including my boss and his family, and it has been a humbling experience. When I raised the issue of politeness and decent behaviour with a government official, she said that she tells her children (they’re all from Kashmir) that this is how you should behave. It is learned behaviour. I’ve even found myself biting back frustration at traffic delays or someone doing something stupid, because that’s what they do here. Nice.

The winter is approaching though. While I arrived in shirtsleeves weather, it rapidly turned to snow showers and dropping temperatures. Thankfully having bought some good winter clothing, the cold is currently merely inconvenient. I’m told that it gets far far colder. That’s OK. Watching spindrift rolling off the roof of the station at Banff Trail, it was almost beautiful, if bitterly cold.

Have sorted out accommodation, and am looking forward to getting my feet properly on the ground here in Canada. Once I move into my own apartment next week, and start accumulating the things that make a home, I’ll feel much more grounded. After all, this is home now.


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