over land and water

when scots wha hae ... wha'ever

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

End of the Line

Monday was my last day in London -- and also my day to take the bus to Covent Garden and buy tea. Not to mention, do the interview that was the reason I went to England in the first place. Boss had sorted me out -- the No. 94 bus on Bayswater Road goes to Piccadilly Circus and ends there, so I just paid my 1.20 pounds and rode to "all transfer." I could've gotten off one or two stops sooner, actually, but that's OK. It was a short walk through Piccadilly Circus -- where there are no elephants, clowns, or other Barnum & Bailey-type characters, as it is a whole different kinda circus -- to Covent Garden, to Neal Street where The Tea House is.

As I was looking for the number on the street, a pretty young black man asked me how long I was going to be in London. He had flyers of some sort and was eager to give me one. "I'm leaving tomorrow," I said. "Why?" he asked flirtatiously, although, to quote The Crying Game, I don't think I was his type. "Well, I've been here two weeks," I replied, then asked him where was the tea house? Of course it was right behind me, one door down. I do not know how I could've missed it. I mean, look at it:

A rather eye-catching display. Inside, the narrow shop was very tall and multi-leveled, crowded with wooden shelves and tables holding tea and various accessories -- strainers, pots, cups, saucers. Totally overwhelming. I asked the guy behind the counter for help, then selected some of what he offered. Got some weird South African red herbal tea with vanilla for one friend. And a big bag of Earl Grey for me. Some smashing loose black tea for the Divine Ms. M. And then I was about tea'd out.

After all that tea-shopping, I was hungry. Around the corner was a Marks & Spencer, which is a chain department store, but it has a giant prepared-foods section, like a super-deluxe 7-Eleven. I got a chicken/bacon/avocado sandwich, prawn-flavored crisps, some juice, and some water. On my way back to the bus stop I passed a souvenir stand and bought my younger sister a tiny, adorable stuffed bear wearing a blue fleece "London" hoodie, with a UK flag on the sole of one foot. Awwwwww!

It was a bit of a challenge to find the 94 bus going back ... mainly because at first I realized I was on the wrong side of the road, then I had to hike a while on the right side to find an open stop for the proper line. But on the return I sat on the top deck at the very front, which was kewl. I took a groovy picture of the tops of all the red buses seeming to mesh together along Oxford Street. Hope it comes out.

Felt proud of myself for getting off at the right stop (could've gone one more ... oh, well), and even better when a woman asked me for info, and I knew the answer.

Hung around the hotel for a while, prepped the interview some more. Took a cab to the band's place to interview one of the members -- the other was not available due to some personal problem or other. It cost me 20 pounds, but I just could not deal with the tube. Despite our mutual exhaustion -- she jet-lagged, me just plain tired -- the conversation went well. She was smart and interesting. I think the story will come out good.

Made it back to Le Dump in a minicab (much cheaper at 13 pounds), driven by a man about Mick's age who, upon learning that I am a rock critic, proceeded to good-naturedly harangue me about how he never understood rock music and much preferred classical. Even as a young man. He had a whole riff about the Beatles that was actually pretty funny. And he urged me to go buy the recordings of ... uh, something? Maybe Bach? ... that he found the be-all end-all of music. Which is sort of funny, since a lot of people feel the same about the Beatles. He was a very nice man, quite educated, and he reminded me of someone. Later I realized: Ian McKellen could've played him in a movie. Although I dunno why they would make a movie of the guy's life ... but you never know. Eh, he probably saw The Lord of the Rings as populist claptrap too. Heh.

Cabbed it over to Boss's around 8. He was cooking for Tony after Tony's first day at his new job, supervising a home for deaf persons with disabilities. Each of whom uses a different kind of sign language. Dinner was beef stew and peppery dumplings, with tender li'l potatoes and delicious stir-fried green beans. Ice cream for dessert. I drank Spanish gin. We smoked hash. Played music (Stones, Johnny Cash...) until the first half of the Scorsese Dylan doc, No Direction Home, came on TV. Which I watched with increasing fascination. Can't wait to see the other half.

Then it was time for goodbye, as I still had to pack and get up early to catch my flight back to L.A. It was only a minute in the hallway, not enough time to convey my deep appreciation for all of Boss's hospitality, kindness, fun, and general good-eggness. At the end of this very intense trek through the wilderness (including Glasgow) was this surprising bit of home-ishness -- an old mate of my mate Mick's. Who could not have been a nicer person. It was good to have that kind of anchor ... I have already noted that I didn't even wanna do touristy things by then. Being able to hang with Boss and Tony was oddly perfect.

My minicab driver on the trip back was the only driver of either mini or black cab I had over the three days who ... didn't exactly make me nervous, but definitely wasn't a poster boy for London tourism. He seemed surly and angry, so I did not try to converse with him too much. But I did learn that the young man was Afghani, very furious about what America had done to his country, and angry that he was stuck in London at a job he obviously hated, because somebody had to support his extended family. Even though he longed to be back there, despite how awful it was. All I could do was say, "Dude, I'm with ya" (translated into more appropriate English) and tip him well. My politeness seemed to soften him somewhat, but I was glad when the ride was over.

I didn't sleep well nor long. This morning (oy, only this morning? it seems a million years ago) I checked out -- they wouldn't give me a receipt because I "booked through a travel agent" ... and did I mention that the housekeepers went into my room despite my "do not disturb" sign, and then just took all the dirty towels and refolded them as though they were clean? Even the ones on the grungy floor? Well, they did. Le-fucking-Dump. But to be fair they didn't charge me for the Internet time (on the lobby computer) even though it was supposed to be an added fee.

Rashly decided to walk to Paddington Station, which was totally insane. Soon reconsidered and tried to flag a black cab. One went zooming by. Then another did the same, but stopped and backed up. I said I needed to go to Paddington Station. The driver, I swear, looked like Austin Powers and even sounded like him: "Sorry, darling, I got a paid job," he said brightly, regretfully. I must've looked ready to cry (because I was), or so I thought, because then he said, "Tell you what, it's on the way; I'll take you to the station and then get the job." I thanked him profusely and hauled my stuff into the back of the cab. Black cabs are brilliant, BTW. They always look the same, and you always know what you are getting.

Anyway, the cabbie asked if I was going to Heathrow, and I said yes, on the express. So he said he'd drop me 'round at the best entrance, the side, so I would not have to walk as far. I could have kissed him. I tipped well instead.

I am sure it was a practiced routine, but the guy really did me a solid. As I was getting out of the cab amid the driver's well wishes for a safe trip, a man ran up to the vehicle. "Sorry, sir, I got a paid job," said my knight in shining armor. "I was just doing the lady a favor ... tell you what, where you going?" I didn't catch what the man said, but it must've been too far out of his way for the cabbie to squeeze it in, because he gave the man his regrets and sped off. Still, I wondered how many times a day the cabbie used that bit. Good riff. Anyway, he saved my life and made some jack. I can't complain.

True enough, the walk was short, and I snagged a seat on the express just a few minutes before it took off. I stared at London rolling by and tried to think of it as farewell. I was pretty burnt but felt good. More like myself, somewhat educated. And very glad to be heading home.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Sunday in the Park ... and the Pub

So today I had planned to sleep in, but I didn't manage even seven hours. Too much to drink last night (but fun!), and too much random noise in the hotel hallway -- mostly the endlessly banging, heavy wood door. I had weird dreams, including one about people having to come into my hotel room and drill holes in the floor, or something.

And eventually I gave up, got up, and slowly put myself together. Boss was working all day, and Sunday lunch, I am informed, is very busy. I finally went out, walking toward Hyde Park, the north side of which was not far, across the Bayswater Road. Got some iced coffee in a can -- it was warm enough to enjoy a cold drink, hurrah! -- and a roll of film from some tiny store. Then I hit the park. I just ambled along feeling pleasantly warm from the sun and looking for a place to sit. I found an empty bench and phoned Boss at work, as instructed. Someone told me to hang on, and so I waited on the line. As though on cue, a big sweaty guy materialized from behind a tree (or something) and sat down next to me on the bench, on the other side of my pile of jacket, bag, newspaper, etc. Dammit! Boss came into my ear and said to come by the Gold around 4; then we hung up. I barely clicked "end call" before the Sweaty Guy pounced, attempting in a foreign accent I can't identify -- Greek? Turkish? Middle Eastern of some sort? really not sure -- to engage me in fruitful conversation.

SG: Are you American?

Me: (stupidly, somewhat reflexively, but coldly) Yes... [stuffs phone into bag and grabs other stuff to make quick getaway]

SG: Where are you from?

Me: ...

SG: Where do you work?

Me: ...

SG: What do you do for a living?

Me: [bails]

As I hurried away, mindful of the fact that I was not on my home turf and therefore ill-advised to react as I usually do -- i.e., with a hearty "fuck off" -- I had to laugh. Men really are all the same.

Yeah, sure. For all I know he just wanted to practice his English. Whatever. Let him try some other tourist.

I worried a little that he would follow me, but I didn't look back for fear of that being interpreted as encouragement. Just kept on walking, down a path that eventually took me to the Albert Memorial. (Which I guess is in Kensington Gardens but I'm not sure how all that works.) A bit gaudy, but very meaningful, it turns out. The air was so warm, and humid. I felt weak and tired from hangover and not enough sleep. Got a chicken/avocado wrap from a snack shop, along with a cappuccino. Sat at a picnic table and was soon joined by an older couple eating ice cream. They asked if they could join me, and I eagerly said yes -- the memory of SG still fresh in my mind. We had a nice chat. They had just returned from a trip to Moscow, which sounds like a fairly fantastical place. Full of ancient ornate subways and an ultra-wireless young generation. The wife explained about all the different elements of the Albert Memorial and what they mean, and the husband pointed out the Royal Albert Hall, just beyond it. The memorial is full of symbolism, none of which I can currently remember, but it sounded almost like a spell.

I liked meeting these old people and listening to their stories. And telling them mine, about the standing stones. After a while I left them and ambled off. All around me, couples were taking in the sun on blankets or spread-out jackets, or cuddling on benches in the shade. People and their dogs were everywhere. Families, gangs of tourists and friends ... all out enjoying the sun. I took a picture of the Peter Pan statue. (But not this one.)

Presently I noticed that quite a few people were carrying shopping bags. Shopping! Ooo, yes. And off I headed to Oxford Street, where there is much shopping. On the way I passed the Marble Arch, so I took some pictures of it, too.

That is, like, the most cliched thing you can do ... but it was on the way, and I figured I should at least make the effort. But I am pretty touristed-out. Boss had urged me to take a bus that travels around the city and hits the big spots or something. I just couldn't bear the thought of it. I know it's London, my first time here, and I should want to see the fucking Queen or at least her neighborhood or something, or more historical stuff or whatevah, but to be honest I feel like I am still processing Scotland and all I saw there. I am kind of happy to just mingle in the living city, to wander around this little portion of London within range of my hotel. That's enough of a lesson in its own way.

Well, Oxford Street was pretty crazy with people, but I did not mind the press of humanity as much as I usually do in crowds. I walked, and I browsed. And I bought ... two leather jackets -- one 3/4-length, single-breasted black Angel-style, and one full-length Spike drama. Hot! This kind of blew my wad. But I still walked around and looked at tons of stuff. Thankfully, nothing struck my fancy as hard. (My Visa card is still smokin'...) Back at Le Dump, I admired the spoils; got ready to head to the Gold just as Boss phoned looking for me. (I wasn't that late...)

It had been such a nice, blue, sunshine-y day that I totally forgot I was in London. And so I absentmindedly left my umbrella in my room. Oops. I had gone out the door in my MC5 T-shirt and new leather jacket (the shorter one); about halfway to Portobello Road, a gray cloud scudded overhead, and it began to pour! I took off the jacket and rolled it up in a ball under my arm to keep it from getting totally soaked, then stood laughing in my sweater and T-shirt under a totally inadequate tree (the only handy cover) on a deserted little side street that was stacked cheek-to-jowl with cream-colored townhouse-style facades. Anyone passering by would've thought me fucking insane, but so what? I'll never come this way again. After a few minutes, the shower subsided, and I was back on track. By the time I got to the Gold it had stopped completely ... and the sun was back out. But I was dripping wet.

I asked the bartender to call Boss from upstairs, as arranged. When he came out, I asked him for a towel. He said, "Oh, I thought you just got out of the shower." In a manner of speaking ... yes. I am not sure if he was joking or not ... probably he was. I mean, I looked like the only contestant in the pub's wet T-shirt contest.

So guess what I won? First a drink, and then dinner ordered by Boss himself. Featuring some pate he'd made, as well as roast lamb with roasted potatoes and veggies. So delicious. The gravy, yeah. Chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream for dessert. Mmmmm. Afterward, Boss had paperwork to do, and I needed to go back to my room and prep the interview that is the reason I am in London to begin with. Plus I needed to relax after all that walking and ... dampness. So we parted ways. I strolled back to Le Dump, got comfy, and here I sit. I got some work done, and then I stared out the window for a while. The kids across the way -- I think it is a hostel -- are playing loud music and being youthfully boisterous. I watched them for a while, then put on this movie Boss recommended, a detective show called I think A Touch of Frost. The kids are still noisy, but I'm going to sleep.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

All Roads Lead to Boss Goodman

On Saturday morning there was so much to deal with, I forgot I had just hurtled out into the wide world all alone. I had a 9:40 a.m. British Airways flight to Heathrow from Glasgow -- so, as usual, got up early and hauled my grand new rolling duffel (in the UK known as a sports bag with wheels, apparently) and my shoulder bag into a cab and then to the airport. Got there early, place was pretty deserted. I checked my bag -- it was 19.8 kg (limit is 32). The clerk said that my old itinerary (i.e., going on to Chicago and then LAX on that same day, instead of on Tuesday) was still in effect, but she put me on the flight anyway and advised me to contact American before leaving Heathrow to make sure everything was up to date. I had a printout of the correct itin that was my online receipt, but I was still kinda concerned. It all turned out ok, though.

At Heathrow I got my bag, phoned AA to make sure my ticket was right, and trundled out to find the Heathrow Express.

At 26 pounds it's expensive, sorta, but it only 15 minutes to get to central London. Worth it!

Behind the ticket counter was a young, pretty black guy with a close-cut hair/beard style. He had amazing eyes. He was on the phone when I approached. I hung back but he gestured me forward. He was saying, in a British accent (duh), "Dad, Dad -- [pause] Dad, I'm at work."

Me: [waves hand] That's ok, I'll wait. (The train leaves every 15 minutes. What do I care to wait for a second and gawk around while the dude finishes his parental bizness?)

Clerk: "No, what do you need? [very pleasant] [then, to Dad] No, Dad! I'm at work. Are you all right? [pause; takes my order of a round-trip ticket and my credit card] Ok, good. Good.

Me: [signs slip, etc.] Thanks.

Clerk: Have a nice day! [to Dad] Yeah, no, Dad! I'm at work. I'll call you later.

Me: [leaves]

I lugged my stuff down two alarmingly steep escalators into the bowels of the earth to catch the train. Got on, and quickly was at Paddington Station, where I managed to get a cab (only the British could come up with this orderly yet chaotic way of snagging a ride), then went to my hotel, the Queens Park Hotel.

It is kinda dumpy, but I have a double bed, and the sheets are clean, at least. The room is small, but that's usual. I got settled and called Boss Goodman, who suggested we meet at the Portobello Gold at 3. It was a short walk from the hotel, about 15 minutes, and, as it was Saturday, the famed Portobello market was going off. A riot of booths and wares for sale. Clothes, shoes, antiques, trendy stuff, jewelry, handbags, tools, fixtures -- just anything and everything, as the song goes.

I found the pub and went inside under the tall blue sign with big gold letters vertically spelling THE GOLD. Stood there blinking for a moment, then walked around to the right side of the bar.

I spotted the man from the picture at the far end. Not too tall, but a big guy with short salt & pepper hair and casual dress. I peered at him and approached, pointed at him, and he at me. "Are you Boss?" I asked, although I knew. He was, of course. On the counter next to him was a white plastic bag, like a grocery bag, containing a bitchen pair of shoes he'd just bought in the market, oxblood wingtips. totally cool.

So we chatted, and he bought me a drink, John Powers neat. We talked about Mick, my trip, his heart attack, the city, and getting some Indian food later on. I then drank a shot of absinthe, and soon we went on up the Portobello Road, eventually to his place to hang out some more. I was feeling pretty good by that time. It wasn't hot out but not cold, a little cloudy but pleasant. The market dazzled with its produce, leather goods, tapestries. Souvenirs and faux-couture.

We caught a cab to Boss's apartment, where I met his roommate Anthony. Who is big and gay. And we smoked, listened to music, talked. I toured the little garden Tony planted behind the flat. So pretty and inventive, with every niche and nook used wisely. Typically, coming back inside, I tripped on a step I forgot was there, giving myself a nice goose egg on my right arm, which caught the doorjamb. Afternoon drinking is hazardous. but fun.

Presently we went off to the Indian restaurant. We took the bus, which was not scary at all due to Boss's presence. We were standing on the corner waiting for the bus, talking about whatever, and I felt strangely happy to be there. I think Boss did too. It was like we could be sudden friends due to our mutual friendship. It was cool.

Tony met us at the restaurant, where we ate and drank soooo much. (Moan.) It was all so good. Just playing with the papadams and sauces/condiments: a coconut/curry hash, the raita, mango chutney, weirdly addicting pickled lime, and some chopped onions with maybe mint? (Didn't have that one.) Boss was really into combining the flavors -- mango w/lime, coconut w/raita & onion ... that was fun. We had chicken tikka masala, chicken makti masala, lamb w/tomatoes & peppers, motor panir, eggplant something, pulao rice, garlic naan ... some kinda salad ... plus beer for them and wine for me. And Drambuie at the end. 75 pounds for the whole feast ... crazy! Delicious.

Went back to Boss's in a mini-cab and smoked some more. Hung out and got tired. He called me my own cab, and I was back at Le Dump in no time flat. A rather eventful and enjoyable first day in London, but I am sooo tired (and not a little drunk). Which is probably why I feel too awake. I gotta try to sleep. After all, this is my time to relax and recharge. Heh. Despite hectic day, it does feel far less action-packed than most of the days in Scotland.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

600 Miles to the Garage

Urgh. Was it really only this morning that we left Raasay? We were the only car on that little ferry, although there were passengers on foot. It was raining, of course. We went to the town of Portree and found the shop that a young guy at Caroline's shop had told Deb about, where we could find a rolling duffel bag. Which is apparently called a "sports bag with wheels" here. Who knew?

Got the appropriate item, which was a huge relief. No way could I cram all of my crap into one single carry-on w/o a bigger suitcase. All is well.

Then went to a little cafe for coffee and something bread-y, a toasted tea cake. Mmmm.

We stopped at Skye Jewellery to shop for a commemorative bauble. I found a nice silver ring in a Celtic pattern associated w/Raasay, which fit my naked thumb perfectly. So, with the pinky thistle I bought in Edinburgh, all fingers are filled up. Anyway, the ring was expensive, but I am happy, b/c whenever I look at it I'll remember Roger and Caroline and their friendly, pretty island.

Deb of course dawdled quite a while, poring over which rings to buy. We had to jam, so I finally dragged her out of there. We decided to again take the bridge b/c the weather was so bad -- a longer drive but less fraught with chances. The rain was fairly relentless at times, but we (I) managed. Yay for the trusty Vauxhall. By this time, driving on the two-lane highways was easy. Still, it was kind of amazing how places we'd passed just a few days before, with little trickles of water flowing innocently, were now overrun by torrential cascades:

We wended our way back past Loch Lomond and through the Trossachs, stopped for tea in Luss. As we neared Glasgow, the sky cleared to a gorgeous summery blue, brilliant sun, fluffy white clouds ... a nice change.

Getting to the rental dropoff was somewhat unnerving; my city driving was much less assured. Or at least I felt way less confident about doing it. We made it there in one piece, and really without too much trouble. But my nerves were pretty ripped by then. Still, I was very chuffed to see I'd driven almost 600 miles (598, I think). Deb was like, "You're my hero!" and we hugged and jumped around in a circle like Merry and Pippin.

Here is a portrait of our trusty steed, parked outside the Raasay Hotel:

Glasgow accents are hard to crack. You really have to listen and process at once. The boys at the rental place were nice, called a cab for us and chatted a bit. We arrived at the Arthouse Hotel around 6:30, checked in, and hauled our stuff (via old-fashioned elevator with the door and cage-like gate) up to the third floor. We're sharing a bed, but it's more a queen than a double. The hotel is another old building, but renovated and done up quite artily (hence the name) ... best of all, it was warm in the room. Like, hanging-out-in-your-underwear warm. Definitely a switch.

It was our last night together in Scotland, and I wanted to go out somewhere. Anywhere. We quizzed the desk girls and finally decided to go check out this dance club called the Garage -- which we were led to believe was of mixed age but was really a 20something joint. We ate Chinese food beforehand, then ambled over to wait in line with the kidz, all decked out in their finest Friday-night hip gear, much of it hilariously '80s-throwback. The door guy was rather dubious upon our approach, goodnaturedly admonishing us about seeing a bunch of 20-year-olds getting their drink on. "That's OK, we're just going to look around," I told him. "We won't touch," Deb promised with surprising cheek, and we hurried past. We went up the steps and paid our 5 pounds, stepped to the bar for a drink. It was smoky as all hell -- more from the smoke machines than the cigs, and it was fairly early yet. The place was a maze of rooms, not too crowded yet, but lively. We were of course the oldest people in there. I didn't mind; it was all highly amusing. The biggest room was shadowy and smoky, with young folks packed on the seats around the perimeter of the giant dance floor, vid screens flashing the club's logo and ads. A gallery above that seemed mostly populated by boys. We stood under a blacklight that made our GTs glow almost blue, and I laughed b/c the kids were getting down to the Bee Gees! "Stayin' Alive," I think. OMG, most (all?) of them weren't even born when this was a hit.

So we moved on through other rooms, finally climbing more stairs to "the Attic," a smaller space, way less populated, where the music was more pop and with a bit of a mod bent (hence, perhaps, the target in the Attic logo?). Not much action here till the DJ played someone's cover of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out." Hah-fucking-HAH!! The kids may be alright but they are definitely retro. Funny, too, that the boys tended to congregate on one side of the room, girls on the other. More drink, I suppose, needed to be consumed before mixing. I think I'm glad I'm old.

Eh, so it got boring quickly. I was ready to split, much to Deb's relief. She was a good sport about going along, although mainly I think she didn't want me going out alone. (B/c, y'know, I don't know the first thing about taking care of myself.) The scene on the street by this time was quite boisterous, although still early enough not to be turning ugly. We went back to the room. I took a shower (crappiest water pressure yet) and packed. Not too long after we got back, we heard a godawful howling of rage and banging on something metal -- maybe a dumpster? Must've been one of those drunk 20-year-olds, imbibed to incoherency. This went on for quite a while before we heard sirens, then silence. Whatever.

This little slice of a weekend night in Glasgow made a weird contrast to Edinburgh. The restaurant and the club we went to were in an area a bit like the Third Street Promenade, in that the street was blocked off at a certain point to make a pedestrian mall. But businesses leave their trash bagged on the street, in front of the buildings, thus right in the middle of all who strolled through. Not exactly a pristine vibe. While we were in line at the Garage, just after 11, some girl was already puking on the sidewalk. The effect in total was kinda grungy and edgy, like a situation poised to turn menacing on a dime. Eh, it was probably just a typical youth scene. Still, we saw on the BBC news a few days ago this report about how violent Scotland could be. It was surprising, b/c it seemed very far from our experiences; even during our nighttime jaunts in Edinburgh we never felt any kind of looming threat. I didn't really feel afraid on the streets of Glasgow, but definitely more watchful. The TV image of several young men brawling in Glasgow suddenly didn't seem so far-fetched.

On the other hand, I wish I had more time to spend here. My impression seems quite incomplete. Maybe next time.

Tomorrow (later on this morning, actually) I take leave of my sister and fly to London alone. I am excited and kind of scared -- very glad I have Boss to make contact with. I wonder if it will be raining.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Day Off

It was a thankfully uneventful day. I slept in due to drinking too much, but the plan (at least for me) was to just kick it anyway. And indeed I was very happy to stay indoors while the weather blew by, sometimes raining, sometimes drizzling, sometimes pouring. I did indeed do my nails -- the conditions were primitive, but I managed -- and I read, and I stared out the window at the passing light/dark parade in the sky.

Deb went out of course, all decked out in her hiking/rain gear. She visited with Sadie at the shop and also hiked a bit. And of course she took pictures. I really love this thistle, isn't it prickle-ishly gorgeous?

Despite knowing I missed some lovely scenery, I do not regret staying in the room to recharge. But she saw some amazing vistas. You could write books of poems about the light in Scotland; here it is no exception.

And a couple of the shots she took made me ponder how much the remotest places can strike one as soooo familiar...

In the evening we went down to the hotel pub and ordered a bottle of wine. We drank from it while sitting by a window overlooking the parking lot, and the water/Skye beyond. We watched people coming in to dine/drink; not too many. In a far corner sat a couple with a dog that barked at us when we came in. They seemed friendly, but the dog wasn't.

We had dinner in the nearly deserted restaurant, again sitting by the front window. Gazing out into darkness, really. It felt totally comfortable, if ultra-casual. The dinner was good, mainly just relaxing. We had some pate as a shared appetizer. I had steak for an entree. Went back upstairs and packed up for yet another day of traveling tomorrow. We decided to catch the 9 a.m. ferry out and go to ... uh, I forget which town on Skye, to purchase a bigger bag with wheels for me for my London jaunt ... due to British Airways strict baggage rules. First there is Glasgow, but I'm both excited and a little daunted by my ever-looming solo trip. At least I will have the excuse of work to distract me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Dinner Party

Sitting in the Raasay Hotel with Deb at almost midnight. Had a lovely evening with Roger and Caroline and their friends, Sadie and Monica. Drinks, dinner, music, conversation. The rain beat down outside, but it was cozy inside their house, complete with two kitties -- Coco and Charlie. They are leaving on holiday tomorrow -- got to catch the 8 a.m. ferry -- so we're lucky to have gotten to see them and spend time with them.

Roger fetched us at the appointed time. The Raasay Hotel is run by a family with a lot of kids, who double as staff. It is cozy and friendly:

So the scene was a bit loose, but they turned up the heat for us, and all was well. I think only two other rooms were occupied. Anyway, it was just up the hill from R&C's place. But then, Raasay is small, so most things are near each other.

He made us gin and tonics (with lime but no ice ... it didn't freeze fast enough -- talk about roughing it!), and we listened to some music. He made me choose, and I was thinking kinda background-y stuff, so I picked Dido's first album, and later some Nina Simone, but I think he wanted more rock-like stuff b/c he took over during dinner and played the Verve and later some Snow Patrol, which was also groovy. We had some chat time with just Roger, and then Caroline came in from work and we met her. Then came Sadie and Monica. More drinks, then dinner (vegetarian meatballs in tomato sauce, french fries, salad, wine, and ginger cake with cream for dessert ... mmm). The conversation was lively -- about Scottish history and religion, how different countries do or don't teach certain aspects of history (ie, English schoolkids don't get anything on the War of 1812 -- that is, the second time we kicked their asses; German kids of Monica's generation didn't learn much about WWII; my generation barely heard a mention of Vietnam). Lots of talk about music, writing ... and great stories. Roger and Caroline told a fairly amazine one about Coco bringing in a duck through the cat door in the middle of the night (fortunately they saved it and got it back outside). Sadie topped that with a story about a huge male cat she knew of that once brought in a lamb!! Effing hell. Cats are definitely top of the critter food chain on this island.

So I told coyote stories and hawk tales and other fables of the backyard. Which I am far better suited to than history of any kind.

We stayed pretty late but not too late, I hope. Roger did not drink, and at the end of the night he returned us safely to our hotel doorstep. Goodbyes and thank-yous were exchanged ... I felt kind of glow-y from all the friendliness and camaraderie. I am glad Mick hooked us up. Also during the visit, Roger phoned up another of his and Mick's pals from the swinging London '60s days, the legendary "Boss" Goodman, and introduced us over the wire. I got his digits and said I'd call when I got into town. And we will meet up.

But tomorrow we stay put on Raasay. I cannot stand to move around again another night. Deb is going hiking, and I am gonna do my nails.

The Flags of Ferry and Fairy

The Standing Stones really blew my mind and made the trip to world's-edge-adjacent worthwhile -- but in general I enjoyed our jaunt around Harris/Lewis with Les. Earlier in the day, before the stones, he told us all about this plan to make a giant quarry on the side of a mountain in Harris -- so big you could've seen it from space -- that the local people have been fighting against. The rock is called anathracite. Something that apparently works very well in making a road. Of course, Les said, to the big French multinational that wanted to do this, Harris is just some rocky nothing, best for exploiting. But it is a beautiful place, and should not be scarred for life. Les said the explosions they would've made while excavating the rock would've been heard SIX MILES away! I couldn't imagine such disruption in such a peaceful place. All the wildlife and fish would've been disturbed, perhaps forever changed. So far they have successfully defeated the plan. I hope they continue to prevail. Les had us each take a tiny sample of this rock. There is plenty of it for such things, and for local needs. But blasting a galactic-sized hole in the mountain is entirely something else.

While on the road we saw herons, and some seals hanging around on the lichen-coated rocks. Les isn't from Harris, but he is clearly a devotee of its traditions. He learned Gaelic (I always thought it was "Gaylick," but he says "Gallick"), and his kids have Gaelic names. (His 10-year-old daughter, Rhiannon -- love that name! -- and her mom rode with us a short way on the trip back.) He even cuts the peat to burn in winter, an old practice that some islanders still do.

On the way back from the Stones, we saw another collosal landmark, Whalebone Arch:

After the tour, Les dropped us off at a pub about a mile from our B&B du soir, called Avalon (the B&B, not the pub). We had a quick bite in the lounge. I had awesome split pea and ham soup with a savory cheese scone. Deb had fish & chips. I also had a glass of whisky, the regular Jura (not the 10-year-old). Les had said the walk back to the B&B wasn't long; it seemed like a mile, and Fussy was a bit put out. Granted, we were trudging in a fine drizzle, and the sidewalk and the lights both ended before we got to Avalon, but WTF. I kind of enjoyed it. It was very dark. It reminded me a little of being a kid and walking on the country roads in the winter.

Back at Avalon, we had a cozy two-bed room with a private bath -- that was down the hall! I couldn't figure out how to make the shower work, so I took a bath, which was actually nice and thawing. Then we watched a movie on the BBC about a train crash in Ladbroke Grove, called Derailed. Mick used to live in Ladbroke Grove, long ago. Anyway, the movie was a rather muddled quasi-true-life thing involving corporate (denial of) responsibility and the shattered lives of survivors and such, but the most interesting thing was that they interrupted the film to show the news for a half hour, then returned for the last 30 minutes of the flick. Weird.

We had to get up at 6 to catch the 7 a.m. ferry off of Harris, so we crashed around 11:30. The alarm beeped insistently at 6:02, and we struggled into consciousness, threw our stuff together, got the taxi outside and outta there. The B&B host had made up a nice breakfast on a tray in our room, but it was way too early for food. This, I have noticed, is sort of a downside of B&Bs for me. I did take the packaged cereal bar, however.

On the ferry we went straight up to the observation deck. For this time we were pals, after all. It was a cool hang, with couches and little tables and good views of the land and sea all around. Hardly anyone was up there, although when we disembarked on Skye, tons of people got off. I guess they'd rather watch TV?

I myself put on the iPod and kinda wheeled through the songs. Some of the more pastoral/pop XTC tunes were pretty great for just standing at the front window, bobbing on the waves. I took out Deb's binoculars and looked at a lighthouse at the tip of the land. The sky was grey and crappy, but I felt pretty happy in my sonic cocoon. Deb brought me some coffee and a roll. She napped a while, and I just drifted with the music and the water. From the bow a flag of Scotland fluttered in the wind. I gazed at the rocky, grassy cliffs as they receded from view. When we were farther out there I saw a seabird flying low, skimming the waves. Another came along and joined it. I wondered if they were friends. And I kept dancing my private dance with the water and sky.

Dungeons and Gardens

Anyway, we got back to Skye around 9:30 this morning. Found the faithful Vauxhall, still full of our junk, in the pier parking lot where we left it. Loaded it up with our overnight bags and drove off toward Dunvegan. It was raining, of course, really pissing down when we pulled into the castle's parking lot. A whole crowd of geezers was thronged around the ticket booth nevertheless -- at this midweek juncture, we are often surrounded by old folks at tourist attractions. I guess that's not surprising, really. Who else would be gamboling about the historical ruins in the middle of the week? Dunvegan is sort of out there on its own, isolated-like, and it is bigger than it looks. Here is a view of the front/entrance:

By the time we got where to buy our tickets sorted out, I was sort of not feeling it. Was kinda cranky or tired or ragging -- all of the above, really. Annoyed by the rain and sort of bored of castles -- after only two! -- and I suppose ancient buildings in general. The Clan MacLeod owns/runs this joint -- some still live in the upstairs rooms above the tourist part. I couldn't help speculating what the actual living quarters were like: all mod cons, a la so many places in Edinburgh? Did they have Internet high-speed and cable TV, central heat and maybe a jacuzzi tub? I would. Anyway, what this place mainly had of interest to me was the Fairy Flag, a tattered and faded bit of yellow silk said to be protective in a magical stylee. I found it quite incongruous that this mystical relic was framed and hung on the wall next to the piano in the display version of the living room. Should it not be in some vaunted place of power, a ley-circuit niche of its very own?

Oh, well. When I entered the castle I put in my earphones -- the Dandy Warhols' spiritual trilogy of "Godless," "Mohammed," and "Nietzsche" -- and tripped around. Gazed at swords in glass cases and giant portraits of long-dead Great Scots. I liked the library with its glass-enclosed shelves of moldering, fancy leather-bound books, and a desk placed at a window with a spectacular view of some loch or other (whatever). I missed the Fairy Flag the first time through b/c I was zoning out, and also there was a big crowd of the elderly around it, so I just wandered on by. The nice old lady docent in clan tartan let me go back up and see it, although she and her coworker seemed quite amused by my obliviousness. Heh.

The flag was cool, but my favorite part of Dunvegan was the dungeon. Just off the living room, actually off a short foyer b/w the living room and the drawing room (or something), there was a door, and behind it a narrow row of rough steps went up into a small chamber in which the stone bones of the castle were exposed. All around this place were rooms of elegance and refinement, with fancy furniture and bright colors, rich velvets and luxurious ornate fabrics on chairs and couches, finely carved and painted wood, huge pretty windows with lush views. But here was this raw, embedded reminder of the brutality of those days, the brutality that in part secured all the luxury that obscured it, however superficially. But really it's just human business as usual, the gut of the beast. Lairds, clans, presidents, parties -- blah blah. It is ever thus. Anyway, below the small chamber was an even smaller pit where two prisoners could be shackled, sitting up with their backs against rough stone, legs out straight or maybe bent if they proved too tall. (The pit contained two faux prisoners to demonstrate the point, along with tons of coins and other things dropped accidentally/on purpose by tourists, like sunglasses.) You could peer in through a grate. It was a long way down. Deb later told me they were playing a recording of "prisoners" coughing and generally sounding miserable, but I was in my own Dandy world and didn't hear that. Still, I was fascinated by the chamber and walked around as much of it as I could, feeling the walls and looking up at the high ceiling. I am sure the pensioners thought me somewhat batty. Before, in the living room, I had seen, deliberately set slightly ajar, a door opening out of the fancy wall and a set of stone steps behind it; later I learned that this was a service passageway from the kitchens, conveniently located so that the prisoners, slowly starving/thirsting to death, could smell the food being carried up to the diners. Humans, man. They can be most inventively cruel.

As I think I said, it was raining like hell, and I had seen now all I cared to see inside the castle. Deb was still poking around, so I told her I would meet her at the cafe by the parking lot. She said, "Don't you want to see the gardens? They're beautiful." I shivered and carped, "But it's raining." "So?" she replied. Hmmmm. Right. Of course I had my raincoat on (rock on, packable fleece-lined Lands End gear!), so I grabbed my umbrella and headed down the path (yay for waterproof hiking boots).

I was rewarded with a totally empty and peaceful world of greenery and hidden, twittering birds (no headphones needed when there's no people...)

Some spectacular waterfalls...

An incredibly sweet smell coming from a lone deep pink flower that had to be an orchid. A meandering woodland path to the Walled Garden -- please close the gate to keep the rabbits out -- also deserted and magically beautiful. Laid out with a sundial in the middle and paths radiating in each direction, to different parts that revealed themselves slowly with every footpace. I was passing a hedge and suddenly smelled that same sweet flower -- a few more steps and I could then see the cluster of pink just on the other side of the pale green hedge. At one end of the garden was a green painted door that did not open. I walked all the way around the place and almost got out without seeing anyone ... just as I finished my little tour, a guy showed up, followed by his female companion.

I left the Walled Garden and wandered into the Round Garden, laid out rather like the spokes of a wheel and also very pretty and soothing:

By then I was ready for some tea, so I ambled back up to the castle path, past an open, big shed where a worker was doing something. I said hello, and he said hi back. I also passed the fern greenhouse but didn't go inside.

The cafe was busy, but I got some tea and wrote a little. Presently it was time to go to the Three Chimneys for lunch, so I went back to the car and phoned Pokey. She was on her way. I punched the auto search on the car radio and watched the numbers reel by, capturing nothing at all, until finally it came to BBC Gael, which was actually in English at that moment.

Off we drove to the restaurant, and I had my first personal driving experience with single-lane roads and passing points. It was soon sussed out, thanks in no small part to the navigator.

Three Chimneys is a lovely little restaurant, cozy but strangely posh, with stone walls exposed inside. We had wine and the two-course lunch. Intended to do three (that is, w/dessert), but got too full. I had two different slices of homemade bread -- parmesan and sunflower/fennel -- plus an appetizer of house-cured salmon with a mustard/dill vinaigrette and deep red pureed beetroot. Mmmm. For the main course, venison, roasted with mashed potatoes w/green onions (scallions?) and "bashed neeps," i.e., mashed turnips. Which I learned I don't like much.

After lunch we flew out of the sticks and back to the main road and to Sconser, to catch the 4:15 ferry to Raasay. Roger was waiting, after all. We were first in the auto line for the little ferry that took us 15 minutes from Skye to Raasay. It was raining. I was feeling very cooked by this point -- we'd been stressing the timing a little, plus I'd done a lot of driving by that time. But on the other side of the water was Roger's smiling face and red Ford wagon, which we followed to his and Caroline's home nearby. He showed us around, including the new roof they had to put on when the old one blew off in the hurricane they had in January. (Man. What did that sound like?) There were crates of old slate shingles along the road outside -- their former roof.

He invited us to sit for a while in their comfy living room before going to the hotel, where I currently sit writing this, but I was getting antsy b/c had been wearing the same clothes for days and felt very unsettled. We are staying two nights here, so I really wanted to get into our own space and spread out a little. Roger obliged and led us up to the hotel, the Raasay Hotel. He promised to come collect us at 6. I am happy to get the chance to freshen up and change clothes before dinner.

Like a Standing Stone

I am sitting in a crowded cafe outside Dunvegan Castle on Skye, where it is raining like hell. I am waiting for Pokey. We are supposed to be going to Three Chimneys, a fine restaurant somewhere around here. Roger was going to join us but he bailed b/c he has too much work to do. Hmf. I come halfway around the world to meet one of Mick's oldest friends, and he is just as bad about choosing work over fun. I suppose that's why they are successful, but still. I don't like being stood up.

Anyway, I have had Earl Grey tea and a roll, so ... here is the story of the Standing Stones.

Yesterday morning (it seems like ages ago), I found the annoying one up on the obs deck and rejoined this sisterly party of two. There were not too many people in this wide, open space with great low couches and tables fixed to the deck. The decor was sort of '70s RV-ish. But the view was pretty fantastic as we headed toward the pier at Harris.

Off the boat, we walked up the main street to a little cafe. The tiniest place yet that we've eaten; it was like a cottage. It literally filled up at one point. I was over being pissed at Deb by then, having had the time to myself to think and write and listen to Tori Amos. I had been feeling very far away from home and missing Don a lot. Thinking that if we were here together, we wouldn't be keeping such a hectic and insane pace. Not to mention that I would have someone around to keep me warm ... .

Anyway. So, at the cafe it was the always reliable Earl Grey tea and a soft, warm scone. That made me hungrier, so I had an egg salad sandwich (here called "egg mayo," b/c it's just egg and mayo -- awesome) on brown bread, which was soooo good. The U.K. is the land of sandwiches, which is fab.

After lunch our guide, the mighty Les McInulty, showed up in his silver taxi (more like a passenger van). He was a few minutes late (and of course Fussy had to phone him). He'd had to get his kilt on, he said. Apparently these things take time. He was around my age, probably younger. Soft-spoken but very knowledgeable. Deb sat in front so she could ask her billion questions. He drove very fast on the winding, mostly single-lane roads. We stopped to take pictures along the way, and went to yet another old ruin of a church. It had some interesting features, including male and female fertility symbols carved onto its tower, on different, adjacent sides. The female one (shown here) is called a Sheela-Na-Gig, which of course is the title of a PJ Harvey song.

So we drove all around Harris, then went to Lewis. It's not really a separate land mass. They are actually joined, but for some reason called two names. Like Laurel Canyon and Crescent Heights boulevards. It was a long jaunt, and the swaying of the taxi, combined with the soothing island music Les was playing, was kind of lulling me to sleep. I nodded off a few times. We stopped to look at a golf course by the sea:

There is just a little metal box for you to put your greens fee in. The honor system.

And also we saw some white beaches and places where Les says international surfers come to surf. It looked pretty cowabunga to me, but I'm no surfer:

There were sheep everywhere, and -- along with all the roads being single-lane with the dreaded turn-out system -- that was another reason I was glad we hadn't driven ourselves. Those little fuckers just cluster by the road. Sometimes we would round a bend, and there'd be one in the road. A honk of the horn usually moved 'em, but it was fairly hilarious, if slightly alarming. They like the tarmac b/c it gets warmer than the ground. The sheep are like the heather, but mobile. They are ubiquitous. They just wander around and chew the scenery, and try to stay out of the fairly relentless wind ... anywhere they can:

Everybody Must Get ...

So at last we arrived at the Standing Stones at Callanish. Which was the reason I'd wanted to take this trip to the outskirts of nowhere. Well, it was worth it. Are they not glorious?

Les noted they are arranged in the shape of a Celtic cross -- rather long before Christianity existed. Nobody knows for sure what they were for -- could be a calendar, probably had some religious/spiritual function, no doubt was a great way to intimidate people. Excellent for parties, too. There are standing stones all over these islands, but this is a fairly impressive cluster. They are prehistoric (hence, the not knowing what they're for exactly).

They are exactly what they sound like: giant slabs of stone stuck end-up in the earth. Some are around person-height, others very very tall. In the middle of the arrangement is a cairn, where maybe they did animal sacrifice (no evidence of human) or perhaps burned the dead. The cairn came later, howev. Not sure how much later, but you can see it here:

The stones are supposedly aligned to certain moon and sun cycles. There are nearby geological features the stones line up with, like the Old Woman of the Mountain, which is just the outline of a ridge on a mountain (again with the dauntingly complex naming rituals), that looks like a woman lying on her back. It really does resemble that. And Les said that every 19 years during a certain time of year, from a certain vantage point it looks like she's giving birth to the moon. Kewl.

So I took tons of pictures and then took off my gloves and put my hands on the stones. They are considered by some to be built ... erected, perhaps ... along the energy lines known as leys. Les is an avid believer in this force, and he said he'd been a skeptic until someone gave him a dowsing rod and told him to try it. And it worked, and now he's all into it. Dunno if that's really true, but it makes a good story.

I touched a lot of the the stones and ran my hands all over. They were surprisingly not cold. I can't say they were warm, exactly, but it was an overcast day, with intermittent rain, and very windy. I thought they would be like ice, especially given my low tolerance for cold on my hands, but they weren't uncomfortable to touch, even to linger on. I leaned against the big one with the black knot in the rock that looks like an eye. And I leaned against others as well. They were dry as a bone and very comforting. Solid and strong, and they felt ancient. The wind whistled past and all around me, but I wasn't cold. I could have fallen asleep in the embrace of these relics from some far-off eon.

It is strange that I could feel peaceful in the presence of things that were probably raised in a far more nasty, short, and brutish world. How did they put them up? I know whoever did must have chosen them so carefully, for how they looked and even how they felt. If they could conduct the earth energy well. Each one was unique and subtley beautiful. Of course I was built up to feel something, but it was undeniably a magical place. Les said he has felt the energy more when there are fewer people around, and there were only a couple other folks about.

One of them tried to help me with a problem I'd been having for several hours. After talking about music with Les, I had begun obsessing over which '60s band it was in which Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page all played, and could not remember. Les is a Rory Gallagher fan and played me some of his music; I had heard of RG but not to my knowledge heard the music. So I told Les I thought he might like Jeff Beck. And Peter Green, and blah blah, brilliant '60s guitarists. But I had a mental block with that bit of rock trivia re the holy trinity of axedom. And hanging around the Standing Stones, I was fussing over it out loud to Deb, and this woman nearby looked over and said, "Cream?" And I was like, "No," quite certainly. I knew what it wasn't. (Edit -- It took me days to remember it was the Yardbirds (d'oh!). So the Stones may be magical, but they ain't necessarily memory-enhancing.)

Anyway. The stones have stood in that ground for so long, silent sentinels, mute witnesses to some perhaps savage, yet strangely wise, age gone by. People who saw themselves as part of the season cycles ... or who at least navigated their lives that way. The sun and the moon, most basic things, were essential to their ways. Not to get too romantic about it -- there was plenty of superstitious hooey back then, as now. And I wouldn't want to be a prehistoric human. But the earth's energy does exist -- look at the magnetic fields, for example -- and to me it makes sense that ancient people who lived so much closer to the earth's bones and body than we do would be more acutely aware of its life.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Some Family Member Just Got Richer

Now I am on the ferry to the Isle of Harris, and Lewis. Where we will be taking a guided tour around the islands, eventually out to the standing stones. Mysterious prehistoric relics of ... nobody's really sure. Remnants of a culture long long long gone (as Syd Barrett might have said).

This morning we got up and saw the moon hanging, not far from where, yesterday, the setting sun's light had refracted through the clouds in a burst of golden rays. Luna was a nearly full, distinct but pale disk in the greyish blue morning sky. I took a couple of pictures of her. Then we left the Uig Hotel and drove to the ferry pier, around the little bay. It rained last night and was super-windy, but at least by the time we went to the ferry it was mainly clear, if still really gusty. (So glad I brought my fleece snowboarding hat.) We jumped on the shuttle that drives you to the end of the pier to board the ferry. We only had small overnight bags, having stashed all the bigger luggage in the trusty Vauxhall's boot.

The ferry was tying up when the shuttle arrived. It is big and black. See?

A few people came off. The air was windy, but not knife-like cold. Strangely. Deb wanted to take my picture but I was very not in the mood. She insisted; I resisted ... I became rather hostile. (Hey, I'm on the rag on the fringes of where-are-we. Whaddaya want?) An argument ensued over giving me my ticket to get on the ferry. I was very pissed at her ... edited for rantiness and tedium of same ... so at last I stomped up the steeply angled metal ramp/ladder and got on the ferry ... and got away from her. The ferry is nice and big, with a cafeteria and bathrooms and a tiny arcade with four videogames, and seats in a TV lounge as well as seats, thankfully, w/o TV. I found one by the window on this nearly-empty boat, got out my iPod and sunglasses (the sun was glaring bright on that side). Deb came back to apologize but I just did not want to hear it. I did not want to engage at all. And I told her to get away from me. That was pretty cold. But, then, I am evil.

So she went to the observation deck, and I stayed where I was. I haven't seen her since.

What I have seen is the land recede -- green hills and rocky cliffs dotted with a few houses and inns. Endless curls of whitecaps. And now some other curving, rugged humps of land amid water. Like this:

I think this trip takes two hours. The sea I am looking at right now is greenish blue, almost teal ... or aqua ... marine ... I dunno. Not as green as the Atlantic off the East Coast of the U.S. There are blackish-brown streaks in the water -- seaweed?

I am listening to Tori Amos and feeling very torn up right now. I don't want to be mean to my sister, but why can't she back off? Also in the mix, howev, is just that same thing of looking at the landscape and feeling something, peering at the shoreline and the water, seeing how close the land masses are and letting my mind wander, and just feeling it coming at me. (I know that doesn't make much sense.) Right now in this mid morning light everything is very sharp -- bright sun, blue sky, white clouds, emerald water. It kind of cuts me raw. It's a visceral sensation; I can't process what it means yet. Maybe it's just b/c it is such a weird different landscape. Or maybe it is how the music and the view are converging to intensify my fanciful sense of traveling to the edge of the world. More like edge-of-the-world adjacent, really. But still. Harris/Lewis will be more rugged than anything so far. We are very far from home, Toto.