Day 14 and 15: Trains, Turnarounds, and Tunnels:  new twists on old paths.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once quipped, “You never step in the same river twice.”  The same is true for traveling.  Whether you or the path or both, the return journey always differs.  Largely, when you have reached the turning point, when the vector of your journey points home, you’re more prone to think about the comforts of a familiar bed and the exuberant welcome of your pets.

Our turn point started on the Lochalsh to Inverness line.  What was once exciting.  What was exciting as hurtled northwest toward Skye was shrouded in rain and travel stress on the return.  Inverness itself was cold and rainy.  We tried to make a go of exploring, but we were so spent that when we entered a giant book store in the shell of a 16th century church, Nic came over to me and said, “I can’t even…I’m so overwhelmed.”  Yes.  You read that right.  Nic turned down a two-story book store.

We were happy to find that the Caldonia Sleeper, the overnight train from Inverness to London, had a complimentary lounge where Nic entertained the Scottish host by regailing her with descriptions of Moon Pies.  We crossed the street to have dinner at the Ash Hotel.  Back in the lounge, we availed ourselves to the free beer and tea, rested, and waited for departure.

Several sites I read claimed the sleeper train, which left Inverness at 8:48 and arrived in London at 7:15 the next morning, was the way to go.  Let me add my support to this notion. We saved an entire day of travel, though we certainly learned a new meaning of “close quarters.”  Our suitcases took up half the available floor room, but it was a relief to get out of our boots and clothes that we had been wearing since we’d been soaked at Elgog, damply clinging to us all day.  Newly shod, we settled into the lounge car for a drink–she a cider, me a Glenlivet—and quiet reading.  A British couple next to us kept trying to name the station, while Nic briefly chatted the girl at our table about her book.  Her cider finished, she headed back to her bunk while I finished my whisky.

That done, I order a Bailey’s and Hot Chocolate.  Train sleeping, I assume, will be like camping sleeping: wear yourself out and add a stiff drink or two and you can sleep through damn near anything. My nightcap combo intrigued my British neighbor, who has been talking to a Scottish man at the table behind me about the stops.  He joins my table and I find out why.  They rented a car in Dalwhinnie (a whisky destination to drive to Inverness only to have the train drive back through Dalwhinnie–there and back and there again. We all share the tales of our travel, and the Scottish fellow starts spinning a yarn of his friend who “hunts Nessie”‘and charters boat tours on Loch Ness: they haven’t had a sighting in a decade, and–according to his friend–they could use one soon to keep the Yen rolling in.  I laugh, and they move into local references that are lost to me.  I finish my night cap and his them a good night.  I climbed into the top bunk, donned my complimentary mask and ear plugs, and slept through pretty much everything, including the switching of locomotives in Edinburgh.

By 6:30, we awoke.  Our breakfast arrived.  I’m eating smoked salmon and eggs sitting in my bunk: for the third straight Friday, we’re waking up in London.  Off the train at Euston Station, we are walking into the teeth of London morning rush hour.  After our Scottish excursion, we feel a bit out of place.  While we are still dressed for Scottish wind and rain, people in London are clean, perfumed, wearing shirts and skirts. We, by comparison, are crunchy.  I haven’t wanted a shower this bad in some time, and we still have to get on the sardine-packed Central line back to Ealing before we can be clean.

By 11, we are back out.  We meet Gary for lunch and head to the Tate Modern.  We still had a weekend in London, and even with all the time we’ve had, it’s impossible to see it all.  Today was going to be an Art day.  The Tate sits on the banks of the Thames, a former power station with several floors of both rotating and free exhibitions.  We had passed it on the way to the Globe last week, its festivity adding to our walk.  Today, we entering the festivity, contributing to the huge crowd by entering.

Here, dear reader, it would be easy to slide into a “what is art?” discussion.  And with a wide array of art–abstract shapes to portraits to political statements; paintings, sculptures, audio and video installations; traditional, trippy, and bizarre, such as a giant room filled with what looks like overgrown potato sacks–this could be an appropriate discussion

Perhaps another time.  Perhaps what was just as interesting was the hordes of people and how they interacted in the space.  Photography was allowed, but not flash, which meant some people still used flash.  Every time  people spied a Dali, Matisse, or Picasso, they leapt to have their pic snapped or take an exuberant selfie, regardless of the mod of the actual work.  Not trying to be judgy:  I grabbed a few pics myself.  There was a girl who went old school–plopping beside the pond of abyss of her journal in the middle of the floor, penning a reflection on Dali’s Metamorphisis of Narcissus.  Parents wrangled their kids to get just the right shot.  Perhaps most entertaining were the girls taking goofy-faces selfies in front of photographs of genocide and torture.  Funzies!!!

Ashley joined us at the Tate, and we enjoyed a leisurely cup on the terrace.  Friday afternoon turned into 5 o’clock here.  The crowds grew.  The pubs swelled.  The walk beside the Thames grew busy as the after-work crowd met the tourist crowd.  We passed trees petitioned to stand, a skate park, a statue of Olivier, then cut left between Jubilee Gardens and the eye for a different type of artistic experience.

Leak Street Tunnel has Has been closed off from the main road for seemingly some time, so it has become a de facto museum of street art.  A little-known underbelly of London but to photographers and street artists and a handful of innovate tour guides, much art is every bit as worth as the Tate without the ropes, security, or reverence.  Paint a beautiful mural and see it replaced with the mundane.  The tunnel has all the feel of entering into a seedy underworld, but after the madness of the Tate, the quiet, dank tunnel was something of a welcome relief.  We saw a couple of artists in action, one who traveled from Greece and was making his way around Europe tagging in major cities, but his tag bled into the hundreds of artists who have painted and re-painted these hallowed halls beneath the city.  As we exited the tunnel, a taxi exited a blind garage like it just got a GTA paint job fix up.  Three streams of city-bike tours flew past us, one lady precariously driving with her selfie stick in hand.  “Five bucks says she eats it in the next mile.”

Back in the sunlight, we cross the bridge in front of Parliament, always slammed with tourists, entering the Underground at Westminster, always graced with street buskers.  A long tunnel from Kennsington turns directly ito the Victorian Albert Museum, open late and free on a Friday night–12.5 acres of exhibits.  We caught the Renaissance European Artifacts–desks, instruments, guns, swords, wood panels, paintings, etc.–in the basement before making our way to the Asian artifacts collection, or as one visitor quipped, “Where we can see what they stole from everyone else.”  In both religious ideas and design, however, the line of appropriate is a bit less clear.  As we move through the Middle East with heavy influence on geometry (including an ancient rug lit only twice an hour to preserve its colour–British spelling, sorry) to India to Southeast Asia, we see cultures both distinct and continuous.

There really is too much to see and ponder in this city.  As Gary said, “If you’re bored with this City, you’re bored of life.”  We noticed that there was an underwear exhibit  (Note: pants= underwear  and trousers=pants), but we were too tired to dig into our trouser pockets and go that close to the bare naked human experience.  After such a whirlwind 36 hours–from Elgog through rush-hour London and back out in the city–we had logged over nine miles walking for the day, exhausted to the core.

We made our way back to Ealing, our familiar path home every night in London, to grab some dinner at Gary and Ashley’s local pub–The Drayton House.  We arrived about 9:55 and mulled over the menu for about seven minutes before Gary went to the bar to order and have them tell him the kitchen closes exactly at 10.  The hangry anxiety began to set in.  We went to a fish and chips/Chinese joint that was still open, but they were cash only.  Again fail.  Rotisserie Chicken and egg rolls had sounded mighty tasty.  Gary said he thought we could find one more place and he led us onward.

There, for the first time, we found Roti, a Trinidadian dish that is about twice the size of your average burrito, rolled in dough, cooked, filled, and cooked again.  Julian–who had also lived in California, Colorado and Massachusetts–was about to close shop, but he saw us roll up in despair and agreed to stay open long enough to feed us.   As we were the only patrons, he was giving with his time and knowledge. The spice palette was uniquely Carribean, and Julian swears this is pared down to have more mass appeal.  The slaw, the chickpeas each had their own specific heat, as did the mango chutney and the pepper jelly.  Gary broke out in a sweat and I gulped my bottle of water halfway through the Roti.  Nic and Ashely swore of the hotter additions.  But we were all satisfied and grateful, a new twist, a new stop on our path home, one that Gary and Ash agreed to visit again.  As we left, Julian wished us safe travels back to the states.

The turn around travel from Skye to London was probably the most frenetic day on our tripBy the time midnight came ’round, we literally fell into sleep and agreed to take it easy the next day.


Day 14:  How to be a Chump Yank Tourist without even trying.

Nic wanted to check out a jewelry store before we left Skye.  Right outside of Broadford–for a tiny shop, it had a large car park.  I pulled out the key and we entered the shop.

She bought the Celtic rune stud earrings.  She’d lost the back of one of her pearls, and her lobes had felt naked ever since.

I suggest we cross the street to the cafe’.  It’s still raining , and I could use something warm before the last 10 miles to Lochalsh.  Luxury Dark Hot Chocolate and a dried fruit scone.  We cross back to the car, ready to leave the island, eat a leisurely lunch at Lochalsh, and take the train home.

I get in.  Turn the ignition.  Nothing.  We look at each other.  I try again.  Again, nothing.

I go back in the store and ask the guy at Remax if he has any jumper cables.  “Leads,” they’re called here.  Never thought I’d have to learn that one.

“I don’t, but I can call a guy.” He does. “The guy wants to charge £20.”

“That’s okay,” I say.  “Thanks.” The rental car company, among many things, said that if we had any problems to give them a call.  If I can’t find anybody with “leads,” they should do it for free.  Nic calls them, they would, but they can’t right now.  They can send a guy–for £20–if it needs to be soon.  It does.  Our train leaves in under two hours.

I feel like an idiot.  I probably left the light on one too many times.  The lights turn off when the car does, so I assumed it was cool.  Guess I was wrong.

Because here we are, waiting in a parking lot, stranded on Skye, Train clock ticking down.

I can’t sit still, so I pace the parking lot. I try to play the “It Could Always Be Worse” game.  It could’ve happened in Elgol, a more remote part of the island.  I could’ve wrecked the car, like the one we saw last night.  None of this brings comfort.

Two ladies who were in the jewelry store came out and I asked them if they have  jumper cables.  They do!  Great!  They pull beside me, and I pop the hood. Batteries have more protective plastic in the UK, but I manage to squeeze the leads on.  I turn the key.  Everything works, but the engine still does nothing.  I thank them.  They tell me where there’s good coffee up the road while I wait and wish me good luck.

I’ll admit, I’m not the most mechanically inclined person, but I’m baffled.  Nic guesses it’s the alternator. She is dealing with the stress of this better than I am.  She has been checking train times and calling the rental company. More bad news. They now say that since I let someone “uncertified” work on it that I am liable for all the damages.

Now I start playing the “Worst Case Scenario” game.  We’re gonna miss the train.  We’ll have to rebook our overnight to London and find a place to stay in Inverness tonight.  They’re going to tow the car and charge me the full deductible.  Even when Nic calls bullshit on this after reading the rental contract, this sounds like a long protracted battle against a Scottish rental company from 3000 miles away.  I pace. I check my watch.  I stretch.  I walk down to the street to look for the truck.  Nic calls back to remind them that we have a 1:30 train.  They’re not sure why the mechanic hasn’t left, but they say they’ll  double check.

Finally, he arrives.  He gets the battery pack.  He asks for the keys, sticks his head in the door. Makes one click.  Turns the key.  Starts right up.  WHAT THE HELL? Is this some secret Scottish trick?  A racket for local mechanics?  He looks at me dryly and solemnly as he pulls his head out of the car.

“Usually, it has to be in park for it to start.”

I laugh at my own stupidity.  All my worry for a stupid, easy fix.  At home, I do this all the time–try to pull the key out in drive–but my car won’t let me.  Luxury has spoiled my good sense.  I have made the dumbest and most simplest of mistakes.  

“They told me I’m supposed to ask you for £20.”  I sheepishly handed over the quid.  

In playing the “Worst Case Scenario” game, humiliation and being the butt end of a dumb Yank tourist story at the pub never occurred to me.  And while it wins the “It Could’ve Been Worse” game.  It’s still little consolation.

“I’m going to laugh about this at some point, but it sure as hell isn’t now.”

“Too close to my side,” she says.

We make the train with time to spare

But probably more harried than we would like.  The Guiness Amber in my bag goes to good work as soon as I get a cup from the trolley.  I write.  Nic lolls off to sleep.  Here’s to letting someone else take care of the driving.

Day 14:  Soft Beach, Hard Beach

Beaches–idyllic vacation spots the world over.  Something about where the water meets the shore–entrancing.  With a morning left on our stay on Skye, we set out for the tiny town of Elgol, a dot on the map at the end of a B road on a southern peninsula.

First, a note about our lodging before we leave.  While Nic will struggle with what to say on the AirBnB site, I’ll put it like this.  Our lodging was at a 17th century Scottish Manor, and it is a unique site.  I’ve enjoyed our stay: we’ve met four other lodgers from the Netherlands and one lady from the Bay Area who is convinced the economy is going to tank before the American election, so she’s spending her money traveling before the shit hits the fan.  We are right on a sound across from Ramasay in the north of Skye.  But there is a certain vibe about this place.  When Nic and I first got I our room on Tuesday, we barely spoke above a whisper.  There was something creepy, vaguely haunted house, Watcher in the Woods-type vibe.  Not enough to scare is off.  Just enough to keep it interesting.  

The overcast skies certainly led to that vibe.  It also kept us from even nominal hike on Thursday. With only a few hours before we left the island we quickly left the A87 for a single lane.  Google maps estimated we could be there in 33 minutes, but Google Maps has been underestimating the length of our drives all week.  For one, Google Maps never accounts the number of sheep and/or cows that are likely to be using the road.  Next, it also underestimated how many times you have to pull off the road to let the other cars slide by.  Also, it neglects the times you might take a wrong the at Albequerque and end up in someone’s yard.

But it also neglects the time you’ll slow down to take in the view.  To be honest, when I compare my driving to sue I first got behind the left-handed wheel, I’m kind of driving like a rally car driver. That is until I reach the shores of Loch Eishort, where intrepid campers had brough theirs tents shoreside on slivers of land to wake up to the water, setting me daydreaming about car camping and kayaking on this seemingly infinite surface.  I slowly round the corner to take it all in.

Soon the road headed back over the mountain.  Nic began to worry that we were never going to get there.  The rain continued.  Then, we passed a lone gift shop and took a ninety degree turn to the left that went strait down the hill.  There, we found the village of Elgol.  

By village, I mean a dock where boat rentals take off into the sea, a primary school, and as many houses as I can count on my hand, and a roaring stream–swollen on two days of constant rain–dumping into the ocean.  

​ I pull into the parking lot and turn off the car.  “Where are you going?” Nic asks.

“Over there,” I say, somewhat simplistically.  After all, you don’t come all the way to the beach to sit in the car.

I get her trepidation, though.  “Over there” his a daunting cliff hanging over the water over a field of rocks.  And it’s still raining.  But she gives in and follows me.

When you say to your wife, “let’s go to the beach,” you usually think lolling in the sun, drink in hand, toes in the sand.  There was none of that.  Instead I brought her to slick rocks and cold rain–not exactly your romantic getaway.

But there’s something about this that speaks to me, and fortunately Nic indulges this.   The rocks are massive, worn bythe ocean.  And rather than a soft in-and-out of waves, the collision of water on rock is harsh and violent.  As a child, I my beaches were the Cape Cod and Prince Edward Island, neither of which are your stereotypical resort beaches.  There’s no docile lull or nap to be had.

Nic asks me to climb on some rocks to take a picture, and it unleashes my childish whimsy, climbing, skipping, staring at the crashing waves with wonder.

Don’t get me wrong:  I love relaxing beaches, too.  But there is something majestic and contemplative in this solitude, something adventurous about keeping balance skipping across the rocks that you don’t get on a soft beach.  Camus once wrote

“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise.  The primitive hostility of the world rises up to face across the millenia.”

Soft beaches can lure us into comfort.  Hard beaches never allow us to forget our precarious footing.  For me, soft beaches are Isle of Palms, Buxton, the Bahamas, Florida, St. Lucia–lolling days of playfulness. Hard beaches are where my brother was stung by a jellyfish at PEI, where I slipped and fell on wet rocks after running down to the Pacific in Lima, where I learned to walk on unsteady rocks at the Cape.

I walk past where the salt water wind has torn into the cliff face and place a couple of stones.  Nic has begun to make her way to the car.  I take one long last listen to the crashing waves and head back. 

Back on the road, I drive more slowly. People politely let each other go by, there’s only so much safe land, and we all have to share it.  We are drenched, but despite the less than optimal weather, I am entranced by this remote North Atlantic island, and hope my journeys bring me back one day. 

Day 13:  A Scottish Act of Faith

We rise in the morning to an island drenched in last night’s rain.  Such is the conundrum of booking a place like Skye to vacation.  You book months in advance–knowing you come here to be outdoors.  Kayak, camp, bike, boat, whale watch–people don’t come here for the theater.

But there is always the real possibility of rain.  And today’s weather map makes that an almost certainty.  Based on accuweather predictions, it seems like our best window is between 2 to 5, so we plan our day on an act of faith that we will see enough dryness to hike the Quiraing in that window.

In truth, we need this miracle.  The two provisions every site says about the Quiraing is 1) don’t hike when it’s rainy and 2) don’t hike when the visibility is low.  On the whole, the sky in Skye portends poorly for each, but we set out on our quest regardless.

We begin our morning over oatmeal and fruit in the kitchen before the rest of the house is awake.  Soon a couple from the Netherlands joins us at the table.  They, too, are working a similar timetable, hoping to get a hike in before they return.  The hiuse’s resident Scottish Deer Hound pays us a visit at the table.  Then we hit the road.

Through the ride up the east coast to Staffin, the rain spits most of the time, but because I believe the weather will break our way, each shift in the clouds seems a good omen.  We see some pull off attractions and take our time moving up the coast:  apparently, some dinosaur fossils were found near here, and Staffin, unlike many of the lightly marked hikes on this island, have made an effort to highlight their ancient historical and geological  features on this part of the island.  Down through a valley are the ruins of an old Germanic house near the shore.  A few miles up are is Mealt Falls, which plummets straight to the sea, and Kilt rock.  We find lunch in a small cafe right near the turn.

By all accounts, we have timed this perfectly.  It’s about 2 when we make it to the car.  It’s still raining, but we have staked out day on this shift:  no turning back now.  The trail is only a short drive up a B road between Staffin and Uig.  As we begin the ascent, a ram stands sentinel against the road.  He is motionless and stoic, the gargoyle to the entrance hunched over the gates.

Our pilgrimage does not confirm our faith, unfortunately.  The further we climb, the harder it rains.  When we reach the trailhead car park, a food truck style RV is selling tea and paninis.  But the soul of the day is pea–thick, moist, and a visibility of less than 100 meters.  The rain is only seen in its splatter against the windows and the ever increasing mud puddles on the road and trail.

I get out to double check the sign.  We’re in the right place. Apparently, the ancients thought so as well. The Table, if we ever get there, is labeled as “the navel of the world,” a mythological archtype in which a culture centers them existence, perhaps even with a creation story.  In Peru three years ago, I found out that the Incas believed this about Cusco; it was their point of Genesis.  There are theories that Stonehenge served a similar purpose for an ancient culture.  And while it fascinates me that cultures accross the world create these unifying stories, it shows that they are likely effective storytelling as opposed to historical fact.  The stories are not true in an empirical sense, but the belief in the stories, at some level, guides the way a person and a civilization observe their connection to the natural world.

So far, our act of faith has proven empirically false as well.  Nic and I are sitting in the car, hoping the rain will subside so we can eventually hike.  But right now she is trying to catch up on some sleep that she lost coughing in our damp and musty AirBnB.  Perhaps, our act of faith will at least bring her that.  Even if your belief proves untrue, buffeted by the harsh, cold reality of a mountain isle, what more can you do but assess where you are and move–or don’t–from there?  Right now, we are okay in the car, which is still better than being caught outside in this storm.

In my dreams. I see the light and hear the rhythm of the rain slow, and move to get my bag to hit the trail.  But when I work to actually do this, it wakes me from a vision of the world as I wish it to be to a world as it is.  We bob in and out of sleep until about 4:30. The trailer has closed up shop.  Part of me is willing to make a go of it, but it is my very impulsive and sometimes dangerously adventure seeking part.  Maybe if it were only me, I might make a break for it, but I have Nic’s safety to think of as well.

As we drive off, I see the myriad streams, new swollen with a day’s heavy rain, wash down the mountain.  At times, these streams–that now border on rivers–threaten to take over the road.  I try to tell myself that not hiking was the best choice.  I try to use my sleep to justify that this all worked out for the best.  I try to lose myself in the beauty of the drive.  But all attempts to make it okay fail.  I’m frustrated by the missed opportunity, and as I turn down A87 toward Portee, my eyes scan the landscape that will soothe my hunger for discovery.  I even pull down to the sea, only to end up I someone’s yard.  We discuss our next move, and decide exploring Portee is sufficient for the day.

Portee is the capital, which is to say it is the largest collection of buildings on the island. It has a roundabout, a high school, pubs, hostels, hotels and gift shops.  It also has the Portee harbor, which–after a brief tour of the center of town–we turn our direction.  The restaurants and pubs are teeming with thwarted outdoor enthusiasts, but down at the harbor we find a modicum of solitude and peace.  There Nic does what she does so well, pulling beauty out of the mundane–here the rocky low-tide harbor strewn with algae and underwater fauna abandoned by the tide.  She sees things others don’t and finds a way to frame it so everyone else can see it’s beauty. This is her urge in our trip. Having sated hers in the harbour, we made our way to dinner and home, unaware how much the damp of the day had settled into our bones, until we bathe and change for bed.

The next morning comes early.  I’ve set an alarm for 6:40 to try to milk every drop of say from Skye before we have to leave the island by 1.  But the sunlight wakes me early, and by 6:15 I am up and getting dressed.  Nic looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.  She’s playing slug-a-bed, so at some point I head out to explore the property while she gets out of her PJ’s and starts packing.

I make it out to the edge of the water.  It’s low tide on the northern shore of Corry near Broadford, which means the algae Nic beautified through art yesterday now festoons the muddy ground between the trail and the rocky shore.  I cross the marshy ground and sit on the rocks, listening to the waves lick the shore, watching the submerged algae move in circles with the ebb and flow, eerily like the grass amid the fierce, swirling winds on Arthur’s seat.  I remember a story I read yesterday while waiting for the storm to pass about a local artist whose father took him out to such a stone prominitory on the shore only to have the tide roll in and strand them as the night fell.  The ocean has a beauty here, but it is a powerful and dangerous one, even more so that it has been driven by storms.

Scottish philosopher David Hume once posited that an ordered, teleological universe is but the frame of a story we place on the chaos of the world to try to make sense of it, much like my belief in the story Accuweather told me yesterday.  Walking these Scottish beaches, it is easy to see Hume’s inspiration.  From the trail, this seemed a simple walk to a flat place to observe the sea.  But every stone is its own balancing act, complicated by the slippery moss and rain.  And though my comfy room is back at the house, the tide could turn and I could be marooned on this rock.  It’s just me the wind and the waves out here.  As much as I would like to make it otherwise, the Scottish weather–and perhaps the universe itself–is in a state of unpredictable flux about which we tell stories–true or not–to grasp some meaning or glean some understanding.

This, as they say in philosophy, is where Hune began to feel the fear in his bones.  Maybe it was just the wet weather of the Scottish highlands, or it was the foggy fear that our attempts to build purpose through art or myth making or travel itineraries are all for naught.  But this means we can not experience the chaos and understand it, quantify it.  But that would make order graspable.  One of my favorite philosophers, Alan Watts, repeatedly opined that if all things worked together as they do…according to The Tao…then what we find as chaos one one level is order when seen from another.  As such, he claimed, we whole embrace chaos as an integral part of life and approach it with wonder, like a piece of music we’re hearing for the first time.

All of this rain has probably given me too much time to think.  If the weather had broke my way, I might be spinning some yarn that the aisle of Skye loved us, or that we were blessed, or that our faith had been justified. But it didn’t, so I’m not.  Instead, I’ve been watching the water flood the highlands for the last two days.  Every waterfall now glows in the distance roaring with might and power.  What is a frustrated hike on my level is the flux of the water that has shaped this land–this land i’ve become entranced by–at geological and temporal levels that I can only begin to understand.  What is it to these cosmic workings that I’ve traveled across the pond to hike for a couple of days?

My faith in the weather was but my best approximation, my ebb and flow.  Like going to Skye and back, driving to Quairaing and back. I would do again and every time, as I do with my walk to the shore and back, whether the algae can make sense of it or not.

Day 12:  Fairies Wear Boots, so give me your hands if we be friends.

Leaving Inverness.  The further out we go, the further and further it feels we are going into the hinterlands. Before entering Gavre, we edge a huge Loch that has absolutely no trace of humanity.  Not a dock or a hovel on any shore.  I try to track our progress on Google Maps, but it shows us an hour east of Inverness–the wrong direction.  The train says Kyle of Localsh, so I trust it, turn my phone over, and decide not to worry Nic.  Chalk this up to technology fail in the middle of nowhere.

This is remote living–a few houses, a few sheep.  Even the train is sparsely populated, less than twenty on this third of three cars.  The raucous, celebratory of the London to Edinburgh–only five days ago–seems lifetimes away.

Lochlichuit passes on our southeast.  The train moves through a stop–they’re all request only now–but we don’t even see a station, only a clear glittering loch watched solemnly by a sagacious mountain.  The loch is on the right, now on the left, now on the right again.  The Highlands unfold in silent perpetuity–there are no single frame snapshots here, no one view or another, just the landscaper rolling in majesty as we move through stop after stop unhindered.

​Amid the valleys, we can see the well-worn paths of geological time.  Snow collects on the craggy peaks in winter.  Spring melts the snow, running rivulets down the mountain, cutting crevices deep over ages and ages, paths for water–sometimes a stream, sometimes a powerful waterfall–to flow to the valley and fill the Lochs once more.  By mid-morning, we reach the sea.  We roll in silence, sometimes reading, sometimes gazing lovingly at the passing new world we have discovered.  Brief utterances of wonder fail to capture the overwhelming beauty.  Our silence says it all.

​It hasn’t always been this peaceful.  In this trip our experience has been wonderful and thrilling, but we haven’t always been gypsy, sun, and rainbows.  It’s impossible for it to be that way. Friction inevitably occurs in an experience this close. Everyday , at least once–usually around 6 p.m., actually–we get a bit testy with each other.  We’re both a bit tired.  We’re both getting a bit hangry.  Our patience wears thin.  Maybe I want to stay out later than she does, and this frustrates her.  Maybe she randomly darts off into another shop without warning, and this frustrates me.  But these are still-frame snapshots, momentary moments in time.  When observed in the whole, those small moments melt into the flux of this overall wonderful journey we are taking together.


We arrived at Kyke of Localsh around noon, where I got my brief lesson in driving left-handed.  Of the ten minutes, these were perhaps the most important parts.

1.  As long you come back with all your wheels and doors, you’ll be fine.

2.  It’s a good thing you’ve got someone with you.  She’ll help you watch the road and let you know if you’re getting too close.

This first statement gave me some comfort; the second was both helpful and problematic.  Both Nic and I will agree that she is…well…a dramatic passenger.  When we take long trips to and from Texas–or any where else for that matter–there is always an intersection of my stress/fatigue of driving and her anxiety over my speed/proximity to other cars/meddling with instruments/perceived carelessness that we will get testy and snap at each other.  I like to be in control when driving, and it’s hard to give that up.  It causes friction some times.  But the lady was right, and nervous as it made Nic, she was invaluable, keeping me off the shoulder and reminding me to stay left while I paid attention to not hitting anything.

We checked into our house, an old 17th century estate house (more on that tomorrow, I think).  By 3:30, we were on the road to Fairy Pools.  Nic would gently remind me “getting too close to my side” which helped greatly as my attention was easily distracted by the stunning scenery:  breathtaking mountains over loch and sea, waterfalls plentiful around every bend.  Each successive road narrowed until we drove fown an unnamed one-lane road between Carbost and Glenbrittle.  Cars soon flanked the narrow lane, overflowing the car park.We had arrived.

Early on the trail, I perceived that you can tell a lot about a hike by what people are wearing.  If people are wearing the hard core hiking gear, boots and trekking poles, you know you’re in for a doozy.  If, on the other hand,people are wearing jeans, tweed hats, Ralph Lauren trainers, either a) everyone is mental (saw it when a woman wore wedge heels to the main falls at South Mountain) or b) it’s a fairly accessible and easy hike.  The latter seemed to be the case as a fair number of casual hikers met us on the way down.

This held true to form.  The hike, after a steep initial descent, leveled out to a rolling, soft climb. The valley opens before us, the mountain source of the stream shrouded in mist, flanked by larger peaks. Closer and closer we went, nearing the source of the water.  The skies were a little grey and sometimes spit, but by now this is “typical Scottish weather”–nothing to fear.  Besides, around every bend is a new fall, cascade, or breathtaking view, so we barely notice any discomfort.  But as we reach the end of our part–a sign that warn the “fairy pools” section is over–the blue sky begins to roll over the valley and the soft sunlight begins to pierce the clouds.  The sunlight graces the valley on this marvelous afternoon.  For all hikers, real boots or not, it has become a beautiful day.

The other item clothing of choice, however, was more vexing.  We saw quite a few people with bug nets on their heads.  I’ve never actually worn bug protection clothing before–bug spray has always sufficed.  But on this island, midges–like a mosquito/gnat hybrid that cling and swarm–may make me change my tune.

People will likely wonder “Why do they call it Fairy Pools?”  My answer is that “midge-infested river” wasn’t too hot for the tourism board.  I don’t want to make this all about the bugs.  The pictures don’t lie, but they do scant justice; this place is overwhelmingly beautiful.  However at many places, the bug cover was thick, getting in our mouths and eyes, covering ever inch of exposed skin if we paused for too long.

The sun was out.  It was nearing six o’clock.   On the way back down, we found the place that I wanted to go swimming.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a waterfall jumping junkie.  However, the midges were making us a bit miserable.  On top of that, Nic wasn’t too keen on where I wanted to climb down.  We have different calculus of risk and danger, she and I.  She looks at most situations with more trepidation than I do.  Sometimes, this is hard for me to accept, but I know she does it from love.  She’s already seen me break my neck once; she’s not looking for a repeat.  So, we often struggle on points like these.  But she acceded to me this time, and allowed me to help her down a precarious set of steps to the pool.

I was right about the pool: it wasn’t too dangerous.  The water was deep and invigorating, following a narrow cliff channel to a taller cascade. One website had suggested a wetsuit.  Ludicrous.  It was no colder than some native NC natural pools in the fall.  The water, fluid and continuous, folded over me and through me as it ran down the mountain.

Despite to pool being perfect in all other ways, the midges were wretched.   When,   I took off my shirt and they attached themselves en masse to my torso. I had brief respite by jumping in, but Nic had to endure them just so I could indulge my waterfall addiction–she was in agony.   It was like we invaded the Fairy kingdom, and Oberon and Robin Goodfellow and all their homies came after us in full force. After Nic captured the photo, I quickly put in my clothes and helped her up the bank: I did not even take time to put my boots back on, hiking up in my Chacos.  Each time I tried stop and replace them, the midges swarmed again.  I carried them out the whole way.  When it began raining for the last 300 meters, it was a welcome relief, getting rid of the bugs.
Soon we actually start to laugh about how much we hate midges.  They were awful; they definitely caused some friction  But when we look back on this trip, this detail will be one we laugh about, the struggle we overcame.    Even now we are starting to laugh it off and smile at each other.  We finally tech the car to look for dinner.  BBC Scotland has been eman eclectic mix all afternoon, and on the way out the car park (“on the left” she sweetly reminds me), “iIn the Name of Love” fills the cabin of our little left hand car.

We stops a Seumas’ Bar across from the Sound of Ramsay.  The pub is filled with travelers of all stripes-tent dwellers to motorcyclists to luxury holidayers, families, and a couple with a German Shepard pup.  The atmosphere is warm and mirthful: a perfect respite from the rain. The venison casserole melts in my mouth and I may have found the beer that winsthe trip. We split the Haggis Bon Bons and Nic gets Haddock and Chips with a local cider.  Brittain’s brew game has been on point all trip.  A different type every meal.

 Turns out the locals know about the midges, too.  They sell Smidge, a spray at every pub.  Across the table, I smile at Nic.  She doesn’t always handle discomfort outside like I do, but despite a harried run from the fairy swarm, in the rain, I’ve never been prouder of the way she hiked than I was today.  We sit in warmth and merriment at this adventure.  We’ll be better prepared tomorrow, but more important than surviving the swarm, we survived today’s friction and left the trail hand-in-hand.  We will tell the tale with joy, somwhere ages and ages hence. It will become folded into the continuous memory of ourwonderful journey together. 

Day 11: A Brief Chat with the Loch Ness Monster

Edinburgh began to melt way as soon as we crossed the North Sea.  Within a couple of hours, we were in a completely new landscape.  A river roared  along side the tracks, piquing daydreams of kayaking.  Then the land began to change: the tracks sliced through a valley, brooks meandering over the land, mountains climbing and climbing, seemingly untouched by man save a solitary road and a power line that ran parallel.  For miles and miles, little but sheep scattered at random over the meadows.  I’m reading a book about Internet data analysis.  It’s fascinating, but it seems so incongruous that I keep putting my book down to stare and daydream out the window.

Much of the train ride we spend through Cairngorms National Park.  We had considered some time here when planning, and we would love to do so if we ever get a return trip.  At any rate, we feel the further north we go, the further away we are from the often enjoyably chaotic streets of Edinburgh.

Arriving in Inverness confirmed this change.  The walk from the train station to the hostel was about ten minutes.  Like Edinburgh, there were street musicians, but they consisted of a tween singing off key with an iPod speaker, a scruffy dude playing Neil Young, and a guy playing “Thunderstruck” on the bagpipes.  Most of the people seem to be coming in to do some outdoor exploring or are from Scotland.  There’s not the same broad international array of people.

I do have a bit of a bone to pick with Nessie, however.  The weather is perhaps the most Jekyll and Hyde of any place I’ve ever been.  On the way to the hostel, it begins dumping, but it gets sunny about twenty minutes later. later as we went to the river, it got unseasonably cold:  the next time I play “never have I ever”, I won’t be able to claim “never have I ever worn four layers of clothing in August.  Also, the gulls in this town are some entitled little bastards, going right after a meal someone had just set on the ground.

But don’t get me wrong.  Inverness is beautiful, and if we hadn’t planned this as a one day lay-over on the way to Isle of Skye, we could spend days here.  The city straddles the River Ness, which connects the famous Loch Ness and the North Sea.  We walk cross a bridge and watch fly-fishermen down the river.  Cyclists abound.  The city seems a bit more insulated, like its tourism is  around the river, and the rest is for the locals.  Some signs are in both Englsih and an older Gaelic Scottish dialect.   At Mountain Warehouse, a local outfitter that was practically giving away gear, the cashier scoffed at the out-of-Townes who came and complained of the cold.  “What do you expect,”‘she said.  “It’s Scotland!”  But still, it’s a welcoming place, as Jesus doesn’t mind what brings you to the cathedral.

We got in and and Tapas lunch at Las Tortillias.  Red pepper and Swyash soup was banging, and their wine captions were the best.  After raiding the local outfitters to get last minute provisions for the las leg of our journey.  After a while we began trekking around the city: old churches and beautiful views around the river. 

 Then we stopped at Hootenany’s for traditional Scotish fare.  Nic had steak and I had the Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties.  Haggis seems to get a bad rap, but I remember Chelsea raving about this dish as the perfect antidote to the cold.  Tonight we turn in early, watching Team GB Olympic coverage.  It’s on to Skye in the morning, where I have to figure out this while driving on the left side of the road thing.

Days 9&10:  The Ballad of Wind, Whisky, and Song.

In any tourist situation, you can run yourself ragged trying to do and see every possible thing.  For us, that seems doubly true, as on top of a major international city where we’ve never been, there are the festivals with an impossible number options.  There are so many shows that we’d actually like to see including but not limited to the following:  Puddles, the sad clown; Diary of a Teenage  Christian; Austentatious, a Jane Austen parody; Promise and Promiscuity, another Jane Austen parody; Puppet Fiction, which is Pulp Fiction with puppets; Trumageddon; and finally, “In the Interest of Hillary Clinton taking me as her teenage lover.”  American politics is a popular issue over here, it seems.  Nevertheless, in the interest of not running ourselves ragged so we can hike big time at Isle of Skye, we decided to put a pause on rushing after shows and be cool for the last day we are here.  As a result, the three low-key vignettes that follow.  Come hear the show.   They’re free but they sell out early.

Saturday Night:  Burgers and Music in the Highlands.

After our afternoon nap, we finally got motivated to head out the door a little before 9.  We walked to Hollyrood 9A: Chelsea had been telling us about this place since we arrived.  Brewery and rotating kegs, great food.  When we got there, the joint was packed with what seemed like a mob waiting.  A bit chaotic.  But we got some drinks at the bar and tracked down the guy with the list.  Nic had a thistle cider and I had Fierce Panther’s Sonnet 43. (“How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.” if it’s Browning; “When I do wink, then do my eyes best see,” if it’s Willy Shakes.). Nic got a traditional American: I got the venison with blood pudding topped with Brie.  I must tell you that I forgo all hyperbole when I see that this burger was a life altering experience.  This deer, blessed by Diana herself, must have been touched by the gods, a gift for my digestion.  Easily, one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.  Good atmosphere.  Great food.  Amazing start to the night.

Chelsea had invited us to the Captain’s pub, where her boyfriend was playing traditional Scottish folk music.  A note if you’re in E-town:  if you’re following maps or even using Google, lots of roads cross other roads as bridges, so in our walk to the pub, we accidentally went under a tunnel and into a night club district.  Thumping beats.  Louder drunks.  To be honest, it looked shady AF, but not in a real fearful way, more like a “movie setting underworld” kinda way. At any rate, we got our bearings, came up on North Gate to see a two man combo:  one playing guitar, harmonica, drum set and Djembe and the other played what looked like a vacuum cleaner hose like a vuvzela–talk about your unequal partnerships. But they rocked it out to an adoring crowd.  We danced and then scurried on down the street.  

Finally, we reach the Captain’s.  It’s narrow.  It’s hot.  It’s wonderful.  It used to be a tailor’s shop, and it’s been here since the 1870’s in a building that has been here much longer.  It has a secret basement and stairs that run through the the building–we’re told– but what it doesn’t have is a lot of seating.

 Or a stage for that matter.  But that’s fine. Ewan sits in the back with his guitar with the accompaniment of an accordion, a fiddle or two, some type of harp, and a miniature-bag pipe.  They play around a table in the back corner.  If you want to listen, fine.  If not, that’s okay, too.  But it is a joyous, warm, and welcoming atmosphere.  Church pews line the walls, and a book exchange sits under a side table.  Chelsea begins my education in Scotch whisky, and I wonder what swill I was drinking back home. Every pub here has Jack, but I can’t figure out why.  In the bars, the really good whisky is as inexpensive as the beer. The music ends all too soon, and Nic and I walk home among the iradescent streets, still teeming with late night festival crowd.

Sunday Morning: Up on the mountain

I wake up in the morning.  The air is clear, but I am a little foggy.  Nicole is upstairs, and she tells me there’s a wind advisory, and hiking is temporarily postponed.  Like all weather in regards to hiking, I remain optimistic, but at times the wind seems to threaten to blow the flat apart.  So, we take our time having a leisurely breakfast.  By 10, we see people on the trail and decide it is fine for us to make our way out the door.

Arthur’s seat is part of a large park on the east side of old town.  The road we walk leads to a path that splits a mountain on the right and a set of cliffs on the left.  We opt left across a gently sloping field.  When we reach the northern edge, we can see the castle, the unfinished Acropolis, and into new town.  To the east, the North Sea stands billows in choppy waves just on the border of the city.  Trails criss-cross the fields below and the peak to the south; hikers, runners, and dogs are all specks in the distance.  Nicole begins to get her photo on as I watch the cliff side.  Gust of winds swirl the grasses in circles, and when I stand still, I am often blown backwards.  Blustery could not be more of an understatement.   Soon, we make our way up to the ridge line where we can see the southern part of town, a part we haven’t even imagined yet.  Views from the top of the world are always breathtaking, and from here you can see why this city inspires so much love:  nestled between two mountains in the sea, so much natural beauty is easily within grasp.

Sunday evening:  The city settles to sleep.

We were grateful to have some rest after the morning’s hike.  But lunch was on our mind.  However, Chelsea had thrown us a bit of a curveball.  We’re both book nerds, and she challenged us to see Blackwell’s, one of U of E’s official bookstores.  That was a good hour of our day.  Nic found some dramatic pieces for her kids, while I sat transfixed in the eight cases of philosophy and religious studies.  I’m often overwhelmed at times like this; like that Twilight Zone episode “All the Time in the World”, I could never fathom reading all of this, and begin to think of all these authors who have poured their souls into what are now somewhat disposable books.

Chelsea’s other challenge was to see what I thought of the American history section.  In London at Waterstone’s, I had noted that it was mostly devoid of the more polemical voices–the Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh types–that often dominate the Barnes and Noble shelves stateside.  At Blackwell’s, I began to think this was something of a practical joke, as I could never find it, and began to suspect it didn’t exist.  But finally, it emerged–two low shelves tucked away against ancient history and the classics.  A few books focused on presidents (FDR, Kennedy, Nixon, Obama).  A few each for major war periods Revolutionary and national founding, Civil War.  An outsider’s perspective on our Middle East policy, which looked fascinating.  No Vietnam or Korea. No World wars, as those would be elsewhere.  Otherwise, quite a few on Native Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Nationalism.  One book on the proliferation of guns, which seems to baffle Europeans a bit.

Our hunger for words temporarily sated, our hunger for food remained.  We had a tourist plan of attack, but we needed fuel. We thought Italian would be a safe bet, but we were fooled.  In the classic paintings, Adam and Eve always seem so grief stricken as they leave paradise, and now we know why.  Pizza Paradise seems a cruel joke of a name.  My pasta was passable, but Nic’s spicy pasta was made spicy by Jalapeños, which was a bit much for even her Texas-sized appetite.  To corroborate, I tried it. I consider myself a fairly advent erode eater.  I can’t wait until I actually get to try some haggis, but this was by far one of the worst flavor combinations I have ever tried.

Expelled from Eden, we made our way back to the Royal Mile: the crowds had thinned a bit, but the revelry continued: clowns, musicians, magic acts dotted every corner. We found our way to the Whisky museum, passed on the £2,000 bottles, but got a taste then wove through the Princess Royal Gardens–more acts, an accordion at the bottom of the stairs–and on to Princes street, a more traditional commercial area for a brief stop, then back into Old Town.  

By the time we stopped for tea, the weather had taken a traditional Scottish turn, starting with a light drizzle.  We wove through the whisky and cloth shops–can’t throw a rock in this town without hitting one or the other.  The rain intensified joining the wind that had been blowing all day.  We hustled home to dry out.  Our night concluded with take away Indian–there are almost as many Indian joints as pubs in this neighborhood–have I died and gone to heaven.  At Tikka Masala, right across the street, I played peek-a-boo with the little kids  while they finished my Mango Lassi.  At night, as we lack and prepare to leave, music hangs in the air if the city, almost as if the cloud cover has held in the music from the weekend, rocking the city to sleep.

This morning, we are headed for Inverness.  The taxi driver is the second Brit who, on discovering I’m a Pats fan asked me “What was Pete Carroll thinking on that last play in the Super Bowl?” Now the train rolls north, over the Bridge, through the meadows, past the towns, skirting the North Sea.

Days 8&9:  The Art of Storytelling–Scottish festival style.

On the road–or tracks–to Edinburgh.  Gary and Ashley have been very gracious in giving us a safe space to be.  So each day has consisted in us rising slowly, hitting the Underground, exploring London and coming back to Ealing, a warm comfortable bed.

But we are striking out this morning. A new path. A new tale.   We set early alarms, but the 4:30 sunrise had us getting out of bed earlier than expected.  Without major hiccups (and avoiding the change at Paddington) we’re sitting outside King’s Cross on a cool Friday morning with an hour to kill before our train heads north.  Outside a food market is setting up, and a few pastry stands are already open, so we decided to break bread for breakfast.  Blueberry and pistachio?  Score.  Feta and red pepper?  Great for pasta, not for muffins.  For a little extra protein, I hit Leon’s for a smoked salmon and avacado pot, which is the aforementioned ingredients with an egg.  As we board the train to Edinburgh, it might be a good point to make some odds and ends observations.

1.  You can get smoked salmon almost anywhere.  Sandwiches, breakfast, pizza, pasta.  I can’t get enough.

2.  People run with backpacks here.  And some of them are fairly big.  Don’t know if they’re all going somewhere or it’s just a trend to add difficulty, but expect to see this trend across the pond soon.

3. Bikes are well-integrated into traffic here.  They have their own lights which let them get ahead, then traffic seems to catch up with them by the next light.  And repeat.  There are lots of riders at rush hour with no apparent problems.

4. Razor scooters are a legitimate form of transportation.  By “legitimate”, I mean adults with apparent jobs and places to go use them.  People lock them to bike racks.  A kid rode one through Westminster  yesterday.  Wait.  That’s not helping my case.  Never mind.  At any rate, they are more than a toy.


Okay, back to the train, which begins the main thrust of our story.  Tourist tip of the day:  buy the seat in advance.  Technically, you can stroll up and buy a day-of, but that does my guarantee you a seat.  Maybe you’ll get one.  Or maybe you’ll be like the schlubs sitting on the floor between cars blocking the refreshment trolley.  

Somewhere near Durham, we started to get the impression that oddity was afoot.  Two girls joined our aisle at a table, displacing two day-of travelers and joining a couple already there.  In the conversation, they revealed they were part of a comedy routine on the way to Edinburgh to do a show.

I know this sounds like untowardly eavesdropping, but you must know two things: one (and I say this with love, not judgment) the two bottles of Prosecco they downed made it easy for us to hear, though Nic had her head phones in loud enough that I could hear, and I was variously engaged in sudoku, writing, and reading; two, they were stamping flyers for their show, and their new found friend–emboldened by the booze, no doubt–gallantly agreed to flier the whole train for them.  “This will be your first one,” they said, “As you’re like to get flier-ed to death when you get there.”

We weren’t sure what that meant, but on our twenty minute walk from the station to the flat, we began to find out.  I swear we didn’t plan it this way; it just happened.  There are actually a handful of festivals this weekend in Edinburgh, but the biggest–by far–is the Fringe, a monthlong festival of comedy, music, dance, spoken word, etc.  with performances in nearly every theater, lecture hall, pub backroom, bookstore, church, and street corner in town.  By the time we hit Pleasance, a street with a major venue, we were getting a new flier for a different show every ten feet.

We put that to the side at least long enough to get settled in our flat.  Chelsea, our host, is awesome.  As a doctoral student in history–whose masters thesis compared the rhetoric of Churchill and Hitler–we geeked out for a bit. 

But the best part was out the window.  Arthur’s seat.  It’s a park.  It’s 30 minutes from our flat.  It’s our Sunday morning climb.  More on that tomorrow.

Sorry, getting side tracked. Where was I?  Oh yes, festivals.  So eventually we made our way out to the streets of Old Edinburgh, which is everything south of Princes street.  Cobble stones streets flanked by high and aged architecture.  Apparently there is a modern Edinburgh on the north side–we saw it from the battlements at the castle today–but we may only briefly get there tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Old Edinburgh is the place–the physical space–where Rowling began writing Harry Potter.  The Elephant House–our first destination–is the space where she started.  Apparently, everyone and their muggle-born brother feels the same way, because there was a picture taking crowd outside, and because they actually run a restaurant there, they charge you one pound to come through the door if you’re just taking pictures.

Nic is really helpful with this as she’s read up on it more than I have.  The grandstands with the flags outside the castle are the Quidditch Pitch.  A black spire near the gardens was the start of Hogwarts.  A dark turn down the street has a plaque that says it was the inspiration of Diagonal Alley, and believably so.  Chelsea tells us that the names Tom Riddle and McGonogall, along with others, can be found at the graveyard underneath the restaurant.  Every fictional story has some grounding in reality; Rowling’s was clearly in the streets of Old Edinburgh.

But the Elephant House is packed, so we move south to the terrace on Grassmarket, a huge pedestrian street lined with pubs, restaurants, and shops.  On a whim, we choose TexMex.  True story–Nic has a jones for chips and salsa that might need a twelve-step program, but she’s been good without.  So we decide to give it a whirl.  I’m taken aback when the girl asks me if I want a glass of ice with my beer.  “Is that how they drink it here?” I ask incredulously.

She shrugs.  “I don’t know.  I’m from Ireland.  Some people do.”  Thinking this is some kind of Scottish thing, I figure “Why not?”  The beer is okay, but predictably it gets watered-down, which is a good description of the food itself: a watered down facsimile of the real thing.  

But we are sustained and move on.  At the end of the street, we see the first street performance of the evening: a martial-arts comedy act.  He mixes acrobatic strength with razor-sharp wit.  He tells one last story imploring the crowd to give after they’ve enjoyed the show, which ends when he walks over a man, two stools, another man, and then through a six year old’s legs–all on his hands.  The crowd goes wild.

Further south, we look for a venue where we have tickets.  More fliers.  It’s easier and easier to say no.  The rain starts.  There’s a saying here:  if you don’t like the weather, give it a half hour and it’ll change.  It does.  It starts raining harder.  We’re not allowed to queue up for the show, but we find a bar in the basement and hang out until the storm breaks and we can get in line.

Perhaps I should mention that the bar is in the basement of an academic building on the U of E campus.  There are five lecture halls in this general area, and each one is about to be a comedy show in the next fifteen minutes, and this is just one of the many major venues in the city–along with several minor venues–all day long, for the next month.

Our show this evening is called “24 Hours with Mary Lynn”.  The star?  Mary Lynn RaJskub, for you fans of 24, was Chloe O’Brien, the tech nerd.  You know-the one who looks like she always has cramps or has gas or something.  Her show, preview of her month-long stand at the fest, was based on the story of her life based on the “What happened to Chloe after 24?” question.  We were on the front row, close enough that when she started ripping on her husband never listening to her and doing what he wants anyway, Nic began nodding her head and Mary Lynn got her with the “Right?  She knows what I’m talking about.”

Her stories are all about eliciting laughs.  Stories about adjusting to life as a comic again, about how she typed complete nonsense as Chloe, about the daily struggles of marriage, family, yoga in Peoria, and career anxiety.  Our story resumes as she ends on a joke about Amazon Prime, and we head out into the night.  We pass under a tunnel and find a take away Indian reastaurant; order samosas, naan, and mango lassi; and head home to crash.

Our story continues continues the next morning as we make the castle or destination.   We cruise up the royal mile, which is already teeming with tourists and fliers. They have to become more inventive to stand out.  They dress as clouds and birds, they stand statue still as clowns, they stage a fake anti-GMO protest.  Statues of Adam Smith and David Hume watch over the chaos and revelry as musicians, both traditions Scot and modern fill the air.

We pass through the gates of the castle, flanked by Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, immortalized in Braveheart.  We cruise the entrance; again, buy the ticket online, not in line, if you want to save time.  We decide to skip the official tour and weave through the swarm of tourists. From the battlements, all of New Town opens up, all the way to the sea; in this town of rolling hills and many, many steps, it is easy to see why this spot was chosen for the castle.  Up a winding walk, we enter the banquet hall.  When Cromwell promised to “make Brittain great again”, he captured this beautiful hall and turned it into a three floor barracks of stench and filth, but it has since been restored and now holds both the symbols of war and merriment.  North accross the court is the war memorial.  I marvel at the monuments of scots who fought all over the world, oscillating between reverence and hearing these immortal words uttered by John Cleese in The Meaning of Life.

Back on the streets, we travel over the hills and grab some lunch and Greenmarket.  Tip:  buy your fish and chips at a pub, not a Palestinian lunch counter.  Nic was disappointed, but we washed it away at Mary’s Milk Bar, a semi-famous ice cream shop run by a Jersey girl: Nic got the salted Carmel and I got a double scoop of Goaty Gooseberry and Drunken Prunes (soaked in amaretto).  Now, to the theater.

Nic had booked a play for us months ago.  I remember her saying it was storytelling and folk music, which sounded interesting.  A one-woman show in which the author plays several instruments from traditional to the digital, Karine Polwart is a fairly well-decorated artist in Brittain.  But the truth is, I had no idea what we were in for.  Wind Resistance weaves meditations of growing up on the moors with impressions of birds flight, medieval medicine, childbirth, and football.  Think of a multi-layered, slow-burning Wendell Berry essay on nature but with Scottish folk music and multi-media platform.  Nic and I both agreed it was like nothing we’d ever seen.  It was daring and thoughtful.  Not edge-of-your-seat exciting, but more a slow moving meditation through life in nature. We ended up talking about it for most of our walk back the high street and the Royal Mile.

Polwart’s story telling, like Rowling and even Mary Lynn to some extent, weaves together many disparate elements into a cohesive whole, choosing which details matter and which ones don’t, choosing how to show the relation between the seemingly unrelated.  I wish I could say this post has done the same.  But time has been helter-skelter since we arrived in Edinburgh, and this feels like a train hurtling forward, stopping here and there along the ride. But I’m going to try to pull it into the station.  Nic and I walked the clogged Royal mile where street performances–music, comedy, magic, dance–lined every corner and took every inch of street space.  Nic did some shopping and I pulled into the Robbie Burns pub so my first real Scottish whiskey was a literary one.  Out front waiting on Nic, I began talking to Alex from Aberdeen via Latvia. He was fascinated by America.  He found out my wife was from Texas.  “I hear everybody’s crazy in Texas.  But, a good crazy.”  We share stories about our travel and ourselves until Nic arrives.  I finish my drink and bid him good day. We walk back to the flat.  Here, our Scottish saga takes a pause while Nic naps, and we rest up for the night.

Day 7:   The Quest for Immortality

It’s our last day in London this week, and so we want to make it last as long as possible.  Being more acclimated to this time zone, we actually got off our duffs and made it to the city by 10:30.  By 11, we were eating breakfast next to Gandhi.  Time waits for no tourists in this city, especially when everything closes at 6 at the latest.

Our purpose in travel, however, was not to be the background of a thousand Gandhi selfies but to visit Westminster Abbey, which was right next door.  Tourist tip of the day?  Buy the tickets online and watch the jaws drop agape in jealousy as you skip the long queues and stroll right in.

The tour insists over and over that is is a living church.  And they do hold services and daily prayers and communion, and even a coronation every half-century or so.  But mostly, Westminster is most famous for being a monument to dead people.  Anyone who’s ever been anyone to the Empire got their bones interred or at least a plaque within these hallowed walls.  They’ve even made room for a Yank or two.

Walking through the Abbey, one can not help but to reflect on the intimate moibus strip of life and death.  Here in a Christian church, A faith that preaches that this life is temporal in contrast to the eternal beyond, great care has been taken to preserve the memory of those who have passed the divide.  Perhaps we tell stories of the dead to exemplify the values we wish to transmit to the living.  Nevertheless, all of these monuments extol the virtue of deeds done on Earth and the temporal remains of those who carried them out.  Only those who fashioned the stone of Edmund Spenser (“Here, except in the case of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, lie the bones of Edmund Spenser) seem to recognize a precarious irony of attempting to immortalize the mortal and the transient physical everlasting.

For all his wit and foresight, Spenser’s memorial only merits a modest plaque and statue in Poet’s Corner with the rest of the rabble-rousing writers (too many to name, but rest assured that almost every notable British author you’ve ever read–with the exception of Keats, perhaps–has some recognition there).  Indeed, size often has no proportion to importance.  You can receive an audio tour guide as you proceed that points out the most famous stories of the most famous dead.  There are several statues that get no mention at all as you enter.  The first two you are told to find as you enter are for Darwin and Newton.  Newtown’s memorial is elaborate and prominently placed as you walk past the prayer candles and make your way to the choir while Darwin is a relatively humble plaque on the floor.  By contrast, the largest memorial is a bloke named Norris, an ambassador to France under Elizabeth I.  You’ve no doubt heard of him if you’re a history buff, I guess.  With life-sized statues of himself and his wife carved on a platform carried by statues of their six sons, it seems he is included on the tour because–as a dear friend of the Queen, he has the largest monument at 36 feet tall.  But now we know the name of this four hundred year old dead and somewhat obscure civil servant.  Immortality, it seems, is having Jeremy Irons tell your story to thousands of tourists every year.

History is funny like that.  What is famous in one age can be forgettable or even contemptible in the next.  It is easy to assign our values to those in the grave, but the span of time shown in these stones bids us be careful.  On these walls are monuments to those who served valiantly in the colonies long before “colonialism” became a dirty word.  No one’s marker typifies this more than David Livingstone.  By today’s societal standards, it could be said that imperialist Livingstone sought to impose his foreign beliefs on the native tribes of Africa, opening up the interior of the continent to a new, destructive wave of European exploitation, the fingerprints of which can still be seen today.  But on his death, he was extolled for “courage”. In “evangializing to the natives.”  Looking back to make judgments through the murky waters of history can be problematic indeed.

Nevertheless, for those who know they will be remembered regardless, consciously controlling one’s legacy can be its own motivation.  Though it seems odd to worry how people will perceive you after your death in the context of Christianity wherein the eternal hereafter is of prime importance, Henry VII seemed to straddle both the demands of his temporal legacy and his eternal soul.  Almost as soon as he took the crown,  he built the Lady’s Chapel,     Wooden chairs flank the entrance, each one embossed with a plate holding family crests of the Knights who occupied these seats over the years, Sears topped with formal dress war helmets ornamented with dragons, lions, and crows.  The crowded quarters meant we walked slowly and observed each minute detail of the statues of Henry and his wife, along with the twin graves of Mary and Elizabeth, one Catholic and one Protestant, interred together.  In the golden hall ostensibly dedicated to the Virgin Mary, we paused as a prayer filled the chapel, asking God for a healing in the world.  The whole church stopped in silence.

The prayer over, the motion continued.  We bypassed a logjam at the tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots and flowed through the river of penitents to Poet’s corner, the writer and actor Hollywood walk of fame, initialized by the memorialized ion of Chaucer, first renowned as a public servant, then revered for his storytelling ability.  We came around to Willy Shakes, who almost had his own wall, two famous panels that the Puritans under Cromwell had tried to strip of color,’and Handel, whose internment, Jeremy Irons notes, brought such a public outcry  of support and celebration that it transformed the Abbey again, now a living church, a memorial cemetery, and a space for the public arts.

As we passed to the exit, the 12:30 communion service held parishioners at sway as the vicar prayed for those plagued by mental illness, poverty, or other blights to resort to violence.  The stabbing attack from last night seemed to be on her and everyone’s mind.  Immortality, it seems, is a concern for those who have their mortality somewhat secured.


Of all the British writers I’ve read, none seems so preoccupied with immortality as Shakespeare.  Aside from love, having his poetry outlast the ravages of time and the boundaries of his own mortality seems a primary concern in his poetry.  Sonnet 55 famously starts:

      Neither marble nor the gilded monuments

      Of princes shall outlast this powerful rhyme;

It seems that for all his worry, he may have gained some success.  In addition to his posh spot at the Abbey, they built a theater exclusively for his works. The old Globe burned long ago, but his works are so beloved that a new theater and museum has been built to replicate it on some choice riverfront property.

What exactly has ensured such literary immortality has been the grist for much discussion.  But had little time for this as our tickets for A Midsummer Night’s Dream were scheduled for 2.  So we hied us hence along the Thames, past the Tate, bubble makers, musicians, and a poet for hire to catch the show.        

Built to mimic the old Globe, the theater has space for groundlings, with whom the actors interact, three tiers of hard wooden benches, and an open air to London sky, complete with airplanes and helicopters.  However, it has its updates:  sound system, lighting, pre-order drinks for intermission, and a gift shop.  The best of history updated.

However, the updates theater were small groundlings next to the updates to the play.  First, and perhaps most importantly, Helena is now Helenus, a man.  For those of you unfamiliar with the text, this means that both Lysander and Demetrius are bewitched to fall in love with a man, and the nuptuals end the play with Lysander wed to Hermia and Demetrius to Helenus, or as the players say, “this ones for all you ladies and all you gay-dies”. What’s more, the play survives, even thrives in the spirit of envelope-pushing bawdiness Shakespeare made his trademark.  Additionally, the band featured a woman with an electric sitar perch on a balcony above the stage undernesth a neon sign that read “rock the ground” (a line from Oberon).  Oberon instructs Puck to find the men in “hipster garb”.  Interludes of song are constructed from some of Shakespeare’s more famous sonnets, but also modern style appeared with nods to Beyoncé, Cabaret, Bowie, and Kubrick.  Farces flew in harnesses like acrobats.  The production of Bottom’s company drew raucous laughter as “Wall”–an actress covered in cereal boxes–allowed Pyramus and Thisbe to whisper through her “crevice”.  Finally, a riotous Bollywood dance number closed the show to joyous, rhythmic applause from the crowd.  Lord, what fools these mortals be.

With huge smiles we joined the tourists who selfied at the stage as the staff ushered us out so MacBeth could start at 7.  On the way home, we crossed the Millenium Bridge–a tribute to 2000 years of London as a trumpet and Bassoon combo played “Bolero” underneath the visage of St. Paul’s.  Willy Shakes had stood the test of time.  He borrowed stories as he wrote, repackaged them, and made the accessible to update.  Some theories of immortality have this temporal form breaking apart and rejoining the totality of everything.  Shakespeare can continuously adapt and incorporate changing standards of propriety as well as styles of music and art for a more digital and international world.  Because his work is both timeless and adaptable, he may have gained a modicum of the immortality he sought.

Back in Daling, Gary and Ashley met us for dinner at The Clay Pot–a traditional Indian restaurant–where we talked about the day and their upcoming plans to travel to India.  I experimented with the Lamb Curry while Nic stuck with her everlasting favorite–chicken tikka masala, which Garu says is actually a British adaptation of Indian food.  Regardless, like today’s play,  I’m sure she’ll love it until the end of time.

Days 5&6:  Peace in Our Time?

The Thames was tumultuous yesterday.  An authentic day of English storms chopped the waters.  We boarded a tour bus that was summarily attacked by a nearby cargo truck, severing the mirror from its front right shoulder.  Blinded, the driver could not soldier on, so we had to overtake another bus.  We circled London–Hyde Park to Buckingham to Westminster to St. Paul–in the open air of a bus with the rain pelting us on and off, got stopped in a slough of traffic, and disembarked.  Somewhat cold, we rallied in Starbucks for warmth and wifi and then our way into Kennsington.  The pub we had sought didn’t open their kitchen until 5, which left us a bit hangry and miserable.  So we re-traced our steps to Byron, a place for “proper hamburger” (that we later discovered had been in the news for other reasons).

Finally, we found solace in the basement of Waterstone’s, a London bookstore chain.  Nic found teacher materials that she gushed over, and I, too, found a couple unique British publications.  Claire Fox’s I Find That Offensive has been in my backpack for a Tube read ever since; it chronicles the struggle we have between voicing ideas freely and limiting that speech in the name of safety.  Finally, the highlight of the evening…the Valders met us and we trekked  down to the Scarsdale Pub for beers and food.

Today, the Thames is much calmer, and the sun is playing peek-a-boo with the grey.  We made our way over to the Westminster Wharf to catch a tour of the city by river.  The river gently nudged us past the London Eye, the Tate, the New Globe, underneath the bridges.  On the port side, we even passed the school where–as a boy–young Winston Churchill was expelled for fighting.  On our starboard side (right for you land-lubbers), we passed the warships of two former enemies–England and Japan–waving convivially in the water while on our boat, two families jostled for supremacy of selfie position as we approached the Tower Bridge.
Back on the banks, Nic and I scored a picnic lunch from Paul’s French Deli and found a bench in front of the Tower of London.  It was our earliest lunch of the week; maybe  we’re finally getting used to this time zone.  Tourists of all nationalities strolled over the uneven stone as we ate in the shade of ancient battlements long since become a museum.  We watched the Tower Bridge raised as two English tug boats guided the Japanese warship out of harbor on its way out to sea and back home.

Lunch finished, we entered the Tower.  The girl at the gift shop had recommended we take the Yeoman’s tour.  Upon entering the gate, we turned left to a meadow that was once the moat of the palace.  We descended into the moat and awaited the start.

The Yeoman–for us Yanks–is the guy on a bottle of Beefeaters Gin, and they unofficially trace their lineage to a battle when Prince Henry VII of Wales defeated Richard I and brought all is homies to be his personal guard at court.  Our Yeoman insisted that we were not to refer to him as a tour guide, as he is an official, highly elite member of the Queen’s Guard.  That said, he was also an amazing “tour guide.”

The Yeoman roused the crowd to cheer for the Empire, then gave the crowd what they came for: stories of cruel executions, war, and torture–like the process of public execution through decapitation, which leads to the preservation of the head with tar and cumin for public edification; like the bungled execution of James Scott, whose head was finally removed by a butcher knife but had to be re-attached so that his royal portrait could be painted; like the execution of Henry VIII’s wives–including Anne Boylen, whose severed head allegedly looked around and continued to mouth the prayers she was saying as the axe fell.

Yes, this fascinating part of the tour took a tour for the gory, but we next found ourselves in line for the Crown Jewels.  And while the stones are impressive–and they are stunning–I was more taken aback by the extravagant opulence of the tableware for the coronation dinner.  Here, I imagined the king and his family feasting, swilling wine in tankards of gold taken from a golden punch bowl a meter wide.  The excess of jewelry seemed almost paltry compared to the excess made for ONE meal for the monarch.

Across the courtyard, we entered the White Tower–now a repository for the history of armor and weapons.  The daunting suits of armor for royals AND their horses reminded of a time when political power was more intimately tied to personal wealth and violence, and leaders were more intimately involved in the martial struggles of their nations.  Included in the collection were a vast array of weaponry to display the many ways people have been killed over the years.

A few days ago, we viewed a rich cultural heritage of music, literature, politics, religion, science, and art–all embodied in the written word–and I was overwhelmed with its beauty.  But this, too, is our cultural heritage.  Human history has been shaped by struggle, domination, and conquest just as much as it has by those beautiful pursuits of ingenious wonder.  We often forget that our modern nations are rooted in these histories, and that political power often originates in wealth and physicality and enforces itself with violence.  Mao once said, “political power originates in the barrel of a gun.” It seems that throughout history, insert the weapon of choice and this is still true.  Perhaps in the more modern world, we like to believe we have evolved past this point.   But walking through those ancient halls made me feel that we believe in that fantasy at our peril.

For all the war memorial’s America has, Britain has us in spades.  You can’t throw a rock in this country and you’ll hit a statue of a war hero.  It’s a country that defines its history through battles great and small, and that the sun never set on the British Empire. From the Tower we wandered a bit aimlessly across town, trying to find the Kubrick exhibit that had already closed.  We passed under the Australia House, one of several former colonies once under and still identified by the Union Jack.  By sunset, we had reached Trafalgar Square-named after a famous Napoleonic battle.  There, a classical guitarist busked “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition. We were entranced, and the edge caused by my reflection on humankind’s militaristic tendencies began to melt into the twilight.

 Tranquility had seemed to descend on the world as we wandered into the night.  At the banquet hall, we met a security guy who chatted NFL with us for a good ten minutes, and then we found what we had stayed so late for.  Nicole had wanted to take night pics of Parliment, so we made our way down the bridge, working multiple angles as people of various nationalities and languages laughed and sang and pedaled and kissed all along the bridge.  On the other side, Nic gave a French guy an impromptu lesson to improve his night shooting as the current seats of political power lay silent accross the Thames.  Back across the bridge, sirens of police and ambulance passed by, but we were sleepily on our way home.  Nicole helped another photographer, and then on to another Tube ride back to Ealing for a night of peaceful sleep. Good night, London.