Here follows a long-overdue reflection of my travels arund the UK and France last May, on the gentle, if not persistent prodding, of one Clayton Cameron. thank him for it, if you enjoy reading this.
Scotland! (and England, Ireland, France!)
The Loneliest Telephone Box, somewhere between Fort William and Oban. Decommissioned, but willing to be reconnected if someone wants to adopt it and fund its maintenance.
In the fall of 2011 my sister dropped the line to her general social circle about accompanying her to Glasgow to see Elvis Costello in concert. She had gotten the tickets through a serendipitous turn of coincidence. By December, I was seriously considering that bait, and by January, it had occurred to me that this is the kind of thing tax returns are designed to pay for, and I bit. And so, it was settled. And if you’re going to Glasgow to see a man perform, be it only for one night, well, you might as well stick around the area and see what else is around, right? Such logic is only flawed in that it begets itself and begets yet again and again, until you’ve decided to go on a mad-cap bender of single-day visits to most of the major cities and country-sides in your area of choice. We had the resources: A spirit for adventure, freshly minted couchsurfing.org accounts, and a willingness to bear most, if not all of the hardships of constant travel with good humor.
The first compromise came quickly, as our international funds availability became clearly much less convenient that we had anticipated (even with research & planning). Emily had better access to her funds, so she fronted the brunt of the first half, while I scrambled at various internet cafes to find a way to make my own digital currency accessible to me. Kind of makes me wonder what good these invisible lines which define and separate countries (and the governing forces which maintain them) are doing. But, I choose not to digress.
Less a compromise, and more of a straight hang-up, were the unbearably indecipherable bus schedule signs. I really, REALLY wish not to come off as an arrogant American tourist who feels an unwavering sense of entitlement regarding any and all inconveniences thrust upon him. But, it was interesting for me to be dealing in what is functionally the same (and only) language I speak, (and arguably most similar culture) and to have so much still lost in translation. I’m tempted to say that the similarities were more deceptive for these reasons, than were I truly visiting to a more extrinsically different culture/country, where differences would be more expected by my ignorant eyes than the place where my forebears hailed from. In this sense, it’s all about perspective: minor differences in many ways can make a greater impression in some ways than grand, sweeping differences, which are so in-your-face at the outset that they are more easily accepted for what they are. (All this from a bus schedule? Jeezus, don’t get me started, apparently)
A quick realization and compromise we came to, also, was that spending one day-night only at a string of locations was just not enough. We spent 9 hours in Dublin, on a layover, and then about 26 hours in Manchester, all according to plan, before we ventured north to Glasgow for a two-night stay there (in favor of ensuring that Mr. Costello get his due, and we get ours as well). This two-day approach was clearly a better plan of action, and our experience with buses so far convinced us to drop the loftier ideals of the thrift-minded, and rent a car (and learn the art of other-side-of-the-road driving). North of Glasgow, roughly speaking, are the west highlands, which are as gorgeous as one would expect, at 50 mph. Upon finding our host Piotr in Fort William, he quickly asked us how long we were planning on staying (we were only planning on one night, but quickly persuaded ourselves to make it two, at least, given his congenial openness to it) and so set the tenor of the trip: if memory serves, all of our following hosts either were asked, or offered, to keep us for a day longer than planned. Even extending each visit as such, I’ll draw on my experience in the American chain restaurant culture to chidingly refer to our trip as largely an “Appeteaser” of the sights, sounds, smells, savories and sensations of our destinations (and the travels in between). I’ve said it before: regret is for those who could have done better – and as a first-time international travel, I’m confident I did my best – but I will also say that future travels will involve more immersion, and less variety of saturation. In my experience traveling the states, this has been a preferable state of exploration.
“Over the years elevators have had their fair share of ups and downs in popularity, but thankfully the idea has not been shafted.” – in Edinburgh
Here’s a quick breakdown of things which are notable to the trip but don’t need much in the way of overzealous narrative: 1) It rained every day in the UK. I brought leaky, crappy shoes, fully expecting to discard them quickly in favor of buying some while en route; this transition couldn’t happen soon enough. 2) there was virtually no time spent stationary in the countryside anywhere, unfortunately. The smallest city visited was Oban (not a city at all, but for our purposes, purely the location of the single-malt distillery visited there), the largest was London. [Spending less than 24 hours in a string of historically and aesthetically interesting cities, all of which one has never visited before, gets a bit numbing. Our method of exploration wasn’t all bad, but it became annoyingly routine, in a certain sense, even if 98% of travel-time was still spent wide-eyed in wonder at the varying majesty of specific locals.] 3) Half-way through travels, we had unpreparedly planned to mail back to the states a good deal of what we had collected for souvenirs; this quickly proved cost-prohibitive, and so instead we ended up lugging horribly large amounts of stuff around, everywhere. Too bad. 4) France, I was told, has the second-highest population of smokers in Europe, (Turkey is first) and compared to my northern New-English upbringing, I can empirically, if not anecdotally, verify that 100%. It seemed like everyone was smoking. 5) As predicted, the more tourist-attractive the location, the smaller the thrill upon seeing it. Case in point: Stonehenge, unfortunately. I don’t mean to douse the excitement for such an interesting and important relic, but there’s something about bus cavalcades of package bus tours that really kind of completely destroy the mystique of visiting a place that could mean so much more, in a different context, than it did.
The standout of the trip for me was the unexpected cultures, and, secondarily, that we encountered. Here’s where I become a beaming billboard for what I feel is easily one of the best things the internet has yet to produce, couchsurfing.org. I don’t necessarily mean to isolate the couchsurfing website, itself, but the concept, and its current execution, has more restorative power in one’s faith in humanity than pretty much anything else I’ve encountered. It is a very well constructed system, and possibly the best use of social networking that’s in effect. Our hosts in the UK and France were only three times actually locals: Others were Spanish, Polish, Iranian, and Turkish, respectively. And they were all wonderful, warm, welcoming hosts, each a unique joy to experience and share experiences with. [A brief side-note, I have of course, striven to return this karmic good nature to folks traveling around my own home area, to equally satisfying results.]
Spotted while walking the streets of Paris.
One of my most brazenly intended goals for the trip was to be a food-tourist as much as possible. Eating things I had not eaten before, or which were better than ever before, owing to varying degrees of perceived authenticity, or proximity to source of origination. Here’s another list: Dublin – Guinness, Moroccan grill; Manchester – Teas, Ciders, Homemade dishes which sadly elude my memory at this point; Glagow – Curries (Americans call it Indian food), Ginger Beer (the soft drink, imported from Australia), ginger Beer (alcoholic, from Scotland), Scottish Breakfast (incomplete, but what the hell); Fort William – home made open-face melts on home baked (and leavened) sourdough, Haggis, Blood Sausage, Neeps and Tatties; Oban – 14-year single-malt scotch, paired with crystallized ginger; Edinburgh – Un-American Chinese food, More Tatties, Hendrick’s & tonic; Paris – antipasti spread, and “beer” (no more specific – light, tasty), Croissants, Cheese plates w/ baguette and Avocado mousse, home-style 6-course Korean cooking for a dinner (a contender for best Korean available outside of Korea), and of course a “Tous fondus de son fromage: Royale Cheese”; Angers – more meat and cheese spreads, more croissants, pastries, etc., oh how delightfully the French seem to tend to consume; London – A Full English Breakfast, more curries; Marlborough – Fish and Chips, with mushy peas and brown sauce; Manchester once more – more home-made delights.
Buddha has a bright idea – eat at this Korean restaurant.
Bread, Cheeses (Butter, too), Avocado Mousse
The food was all good. I won’t go into many details, because words, in this case aren’t just, (at least not mine), and a better option for anyone reading this would be to go over there and get some their selves. I have a very high gross-out tolerance, so the blood sausage and haggis didn’t faze me much, though I understand for some it might. The sausage definitely has an unusual texture (based on my experience), though not an unpleasant one. Haggis is a psychological gross-out. If one didn’t know there were sheep organs involved, they could easily dismiss is as a less-offensive ground lamb or pork offering mixed with oats and some tasty spice combinations.
Here’s an anecdote: On the flight from Boston to Dublin, I was sitting across the aisle from a 70-year old Irish man who proceeded to consume all of a fifth of whiskey on his own, and attempted to engage me in conversation about 3/4 of the way through. He interpreted my admittance that I am mostly of British descent to mean that I was in fact British. He has this to say: “How far does our hate go when the plane drops? You’re British, I’m Irish, we hate each other. You don’t agree with a word I’m sayin’. But I love ya, and I’ll shake your right hand.” And so he did. And then the Flight Attendant gently asked him to quiet down.
To sum up, I can say most confidently that my wanderlust has become elevated, from being a mere suspicion, to a true-blue goal of life. The toughest question now, is whether to return or push onward. I’m sure both will end up happening. That, and who (if anyone) wants to be my travelin’ pardner in future endeavors.
Castle Doune, which bore the brunt of the castle-y duties in filming of Holy Grail.