Tag Archives: Aberdeenshire

Returning

So much for this being a travel blog!

After house sitting in Oxford for three months, the plan was to travel all over Europe, with a finale of meeting friends in Crete.  I would try to get around without flying, since flying leaves such a huge carbon footprint.  I spent days mapping out train and bus routes, checking fares and timetables, poring over maps and guidebooks, and making lists of sites to see in each location.

It was all I thought about for a couple weeks.  I felt tension as time passed—I needed to book things now or prices might go up!

I tried to pay for a tour of Bulgaria but the website wouldn’t cooperate.  When I contacted the company they asked me to call their US office the next day.  I don’t recall what exactly was announced that evening on the news, but something clicked in my head and I realized the tour would never take place.

But I could still travel around the UK, right?  Wrong.  Inexorably, the plan closed in until I deleted my itineraries, crumpled up my paper lists and burned them in the fireplace, and shelved the guidebooks.

Well boo hoo, I’m still better off than 99% of the people on earth.

After a month in Scotland with Lynn and Richard and four dogs and two cats and what sounds like dozens of mice having a fiesta in the walls of my bedroom every night, tomorrow I will return to Oxford.

Yesterday I went for a last walk across the fields near the house.

In a span of 45 minutes, the sun was so hot I had to strip off my hat and scarf and gloves, then dark clouds raced across the fields, the temperature plummeted, and it rained.

I will miss the wide-open spaces, the pure air and water, the quiet.  And of course, the company.

I’ve lost track of how many times I have been to Scotland.  Each time I leave, I wonder if I will ever return.  I try to really focus on the here and now so I can dial up memories of the land and people if I never come back.  So far, I always have.

I haven’t worn makeup for a month.

Well okay, maybe a little pressed powder and eyebrow filler.  But that’s nothing to what I used to plaster onto my face.  I think I look okay.  Is this a case of finding my natural beauty, or of lowering my standards?

I booked a flight to return to the US on May 25.  My first two flights were cancelled and I am trying to mentally prepare myself for this one to disappear too.

I try to think through all the “what ifs” that could go wrong and what I can do to prevent them.  I’ll need to get from Oxford to Heathrow airport.  In normal times there was a bus that ran every 20 minutes, all day, every day, to Heathrow.  Now it’s down to once an hour.  The 25th is a bank holiday.  What if the buses stop running? What if a bus pulls up and it’s already full, since they are only allowing one quarter of the usual number of passengers?  What if I have to hire a taxi to take me to Heathrow?  Will there be one available?  How much would it cost?  Maybe I should try to get to Heathrow the day before, just to be on the safe side.  Are any of the airport hotels still operating?

And on and on.  I’ve got a week to figure it all out, but even so, much of it is just unknowable.

I feel like I have already written all of the above, and maybe I have.  It feels like I’ve devolved from telling interesting travel stories to essentially writing diary entries.

“Dear Diary: Today I combed my hair.  I feel so proud of myself!”

I hope you are well and keeping up your spirits.  I hope we are all traveling again and telling stories soon.

Scrambling, Scrabbling

Week six of UK lockdown is behind us.  Tonight Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, will outline changes to our restrictions.  The Sunday papers have already broadcast what those are likely to be: once-a-day outdoor exercise will become unlimited exercise, it’ll be okay to go to the beach, garden centers will open (all of these assume two-meter distancing).  Boris is likely to advise the wearing of face coverings in shops and public transport.  A mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering the UK and stiffer fines for violating the rules will likely be announced.

For me, nothing much will change.  It’s snowing in Scotland, but I would be unlikely to request a day on a North Sea beach even at the height of summer.

As I wrote in another post, my flight home was cancelled by Delta.  I scheduled a new one; it was cancelled the next day.  I will be issued a credit, but Delta has ceased flying to the UK so I can’t use the credit to get home.

There are no more direct flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul from the UK.  I prefer not to stop over in New York or Chicago, where there are coronavirus outbreaks.  I found an itinerary on Icelandair that would take me through healthy Reykjavik but my gut told me to wait a few days before booking it.  Two days later, Icelandair was no longer flying to the UK.  I thought about flying from Scotland, which has less coronavirus than the UK south, but Scotland’s airports are shut down completely or offer only two-three stop itineraries.

As I see it, every stop, every additional flight or airport, is a new opportunity to catch the virus if it’s present.

I continue to get updates from the US State Department.  The latest informed me that Heathrow has closed three of its five terminals.

Today was the day I was supposed to join Lynn and Richard and two other friends in Crete, after traveling through France, Switzerland, Bulgaria, and other points unknown and never to be known.  It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago my biggest concern was whether to take the Eurostar to Paris or get off in Calais and take a train down to Bergerac to meet a friend.

Wah, wah!  As usual I pinch myself that I should have such “problems.”  I keep thinking about the Ethiopian refugee camps I visited three years ago for work.  There was no running water.  People lived in tiny cinder-block houses with half a dozen others.  Activities were carried out in groups, sometimes very large groups.  I feel helpless to do anything but “hold them in my thoughts,” which doesn’t mean a thing and just makes me feel guilty.

Meanwhile the days pass, fast but slow.  Until today the weather was fine, enabling outdoor projects and hikes.  On one hike I saw a giant slug crossing the road.

“Now, if this was a turtle, I would pick it up and deliver it safely to the other side,” I thought.  “Isn’t the real test of compassion whether I care for creatures I find repulsive?”  I kept walking.  Another thing to feel guilty about.

Richard and I hiked to Wormy Hillock.  It’s shaped like a donut was pressed into the earth, then removed.  It was probably built by Picts, and probably prehistoric (which just means before there was a written language).  Its purpose is unknown.  Worship?  Sacrifices?  Entertainment?

Back at the house, I moved my finger around on the local map and chuckled at the names: Knappert Knows, Little Riggin, Green Slack, Bogs of Noth, Muckle Smiddy Hillock, The Lumps, How of Slug, Darnie Heuch, Mairs of Collithie, Buried Men’s Leys, How of Badifoor, Grouse Butts, Shank of Badtimmer, Slack Methland, Hill of Glack-en-tore, and my favorite, the Glen of Cults.

Another day, Lynn and I visited a neighbor across the road who maintains the garden her late husband—the former head gardener at Cambridge University—created.

Lynn’s garden is coming on as spring progresses.

A visit from the fishmonger was a highlight.

My award for most creative pastime goes to a friend who has been playing x-rated Scrabble over the phone with friends.

Stay well, and don’t forget to laugh!

Lost and Lonach

Three days left in Scotland, then home to Minnesota to sleep in my own bed for one night. The next day I would drive to northern Wisconsin to a resort called Garmisch USA that some heiress from Chicago had built to resemble the German town of Garmisch, with an “Irish Castle” thrown in.

The giant carved androgynous figure at the entrance?  It’s anyone’s guess what that’s about.

This would be the annual cousins’ weekend in a big cabin on a lake, sponsored by my aunt.  I so look forward to it every year.  We would eat, read, make bonfires, take the boat out and fish, eat, play Scrabble, talk, hike, eat, and not sleep much.  It would feel surreal, being in Scotland one day and at this resort two days later.

But first I had to push myself to finish the attic, my second proposal, and the book by my new favorite author, Kazuo Ishiguro. How had I never read him?  Lynn and Richard had two or three of his novels in their library, and I started with the most famous, The Remains of the Day.  I am a big reader, and I found Ishiguro’s character, the butler Stevens, one of the most movingly described characters I’ve ever read described.  I bought two more of Ishiguro’s books at Heathrow and as I was plowing through them at home, Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.  I felt like a genius.

There were a few more excursions to fit in.  We took Lord Parker and drove around, first stopping at a ruined church.

There was a sad plaque in honor of a 15-year-old soldier killed in WWI.

We visited a Pictish tel.  A tel is a hill composed of layers of settlements.  I had only ever heard tell of tels (ha ha) in Israel, where you have the Romans building on top of the Arameans, who had conquered and built on top of the Whosiwhatsits, and on and on.  Don’t bother looking up “Whosiwhatsits,” I just made that up.

Nearby was this road sign.  I’m fairly certain I am not the first person to have my photo taken in front of it.

“It has to be done,” Lynn commented.

There was yet another war memorial plaque, to the Gordon Highlanders, nearby.  In the US, it seems you have to go to Washington, DC or a state capitol to see war memorials.  They  are ubiquitous in Britain—in parks, street corners, and department stores.  I prefer the British approach.  We should be reminded about the cost of war all the time, everywhere we go.

The following day Richard dropped me off in town to get a haircut at Cassie’s salon. My stylist had extremely short, brassy red, spiked hair.

“I’ll just have a trim,” I stated unequivocally.  She went to work and talked away but I could only understand about half of it.

Another customer was seated in the chair next to me and when I heard her Spanish accent I asked, “Are you Maria?”  And it was Maria, the Peruvian wife of Lynn and Richard’s friend Nigel.  They had met when he was working on an oil company project in Peru.  We chatted, then Nigel came in with their nine-month-old son, and Nigel and I chatted.

The hair cut was good and it only cost £9—about $12!

The next day Richard and I went to the Lonach Games. There are Highland games all over Scotland, but I’d like to believe that the Lonach Games were the best.  They’ve been an annual event for 175 years and are a source of much local pride.  The men start early in the day and march in clans, playing the bagpipes and drums, from one town to another for hours, stopping for “wee drams” along the way.  Their grand entrance onto the grounds in the early afternoon is a highlight of the games.

There was lots of piping, dancing, and competitive throwing of very heavy objects over very high bars. Richard and I had a pint and people watched.

This couple looked like movie extras.  “Probably American or Canadian tourists,” Richard remarked.

 

Over the Hills

One of my proposals was due in two days and things had gone seriously off piste. It may be that, because we are essentially a mental health organization, we have a way of working that is consultative in the extreme.  When people edit drafts of proposals they never comment, “This number should be 50.”  Instead they write, “I sort of think this number could be 50, but what does everyone else think?”  And then everyone piles on and adds comments until all the edits look like the Babylonian Talmud.

I often suggest that people jump on Skype and talk to each other and make decisions, but with time differences and poor internet and … well … Skype—the program we love to hate—that’s challenging.

A colleague had offered to incorporate everyone’s comments into the proposal.  I just had to give it a once-over to cut down the length and make sure it was clear and responded to the donor’s intent and requirements.  I was free to go with Lynn on an excursion the next day.

The next day.  An email from my colleague to the whole group, “I’m sick and there’s no way I can do these edits. I’m sorry!  I’m signing off now.”

Shit.  It was on me now.

“Will there be internet at the venue?” I asked Lynn.  She didn’t know; Richard Googled it and the website didn’t say anything about internet.

“But it’s an event venue,” Lynn reasoned.  “It has to have internet.”

“Agreed.  It has to have internet.”

Lynn is on the board of Grampian Women’s Aid, one member of a consortium of Scottish domestic abuse organizations.  The event was a celebration marking their 40 years of providing refuge for survivors and advocating for stronger laws to protect women and children.

It took us an hour to get to there.  Richard had hand-drawn a map for us; I held it and nervously called out the turns.  “Left before this bridge!”  “Right after the abandoned pub!”  We only got slightly lost once, which is amazing for Lynn and me.  Why didn’t we use a GPS?  I don’t recall, but we passed through one of the most wild, empty areas of Scotland.  An old-school GPS wouldn’t have known about the washed-out bridge; a smart phone-based app needs 3G, which was iffy in some areas.

I’m looking at a map of Aberdenshire now, trying to figure out where we were. I love the names but none of them sound familiar: Haugh of Glass.  Glenkindie Towie. Bellabeg Strathdon. Longmorn Fogwatt. We may have been in Cairngorns National Park.  I don’t know.

We passed this creepy gate.  I hope it was a joke.

I can’t recall the name of the venue, but it was lovely.  We met some of the other board members in the café to have lunch before the event, which was redundant because there was so much great food at the event.  More great food!  Here is my lunch.  A fresh fish fest!  I forgot all about my proposal.

But after lunch reality hit and while Lynn and her fellow volunteers were setting up, I tried to get an internet connection.  This was complicated by the fact that my laptop battery has been dead for five years so it has to be plugged in.  I walked around with it and finally got an off-on connection and an electric outlet in a back room.

People think everybody, everywhere, is online.  Well everybody isn’t, and doesn’t.  People in Ethiopia.  People in rural Scotland.  People in Nebraska.  Poor people.  Elderly people.  Me.

But I managed to just focus’til I got ‘er done then got enough of a connection to send it off.

The event was very moving.  About 100 women and men were in attendance, including one of the local lords and a woman politician.  This is artwork by children in refuge.

The most memorable speaker was a woman who had been involved from the start.

The food was fantastic and provided gratis by the caterer.

I felt grateful.  A former battered woman myself, I was now eating strawberry and cream tarts in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of aid to battered women.  There is so much good work being done in this world by so many.

Poetry in Motion

Two days after the party, Michael and Gwen left for Rye on the train and Lynn flew down to Oxford for a day.

I made a last push to get my two proposals submitted, hit a road block, then turned my attention to the attic project.  I would leave in a little over a week and I hadn’t even started painting yet.

“I want your approval to recycle and throw some things out,” I said to Richard.  “I can’t paint if I can’t reach the walls.  Since Lynn is gone ….”

He was all for it, so we began carrying bags and boxes of old magazines and books and empty plastic bags and broken coat hangers and the posters from the wind turbine campaign down to the bins.

There were multiples of some books, including a collection of stories and poems by refugees. I seemed to remember that Christina, their Congolese foster daughter, had contributed to some such book.  They went into the recycling bin.

Richard carried down a dozen suitcases and valises and garment bags and overnight bags and added them to a pile for the charity shop.  Who uses garment bags anymore?  Well, maybe for storage.  Maybe someone would buy these garment bags at the charity shop and use them to store stuff in their attic.

I was painting in the attic the following afternoon when I heard Lynn come home.  I worried that she would inspect what we had tossed, but didn’t hear any protesting downstairs.

I came down a little while later to find the poetry books on a bench outside the kitchen. My stomach turned.  Richard exited the kitchen, head down, and headed upstairs without making eye contact.

Lynn was in the kitchen, chopping something with a large knife.  She didn’t look up when I entered.

“The…uh…uh…books,” I stammered.

Lynn set down the knife and looked at me.  “I’m not angry….” She started.  She was disappointed, which felt much worse.  “Chrissie contributed a poem to that collection.  It was part of her program of adjustment.”

I, of all people, should have known better.  I, who work for an organization that helps asylum seekers recover from trauma .

“I…I assumed she kept a copy,” I said lamely.

“Yes, well we don’t know that,” Lynn said.  “She’s moved from to Belgium with two children and who knows what she was able to take with her.”

“You’re right, you’re right.  I am really sorry.  I feel like an idiot—I guess I was focused on my goal and in my zeal to Get it Done I just didn’t think.”

I carried the books back up to the attic and stayed there, painting, until dinner.  The three of us were a bit quiet that evening, but by the next day things felt okay.

“I won’t be removing anything more from the attic,” I murmured to Richard when I caught him alone in the hall. He nodded in agreement.

It was a warm, sunny day so Richard set lawn chairs out in the garden after lunch and the three of us read and drank wine.

Richard fell asleep first.

“This is unbelievable,” Lynn remarked, “There’s an article here about an 18-year-old girl who has 27 million followers on Twitter, and if she says something about a product, they are suddenly swamped with orders!”

I was working my way through the latest issue of Private Eye, which is like Mad Magazine only strictly for adults and with British humor and inside jokes that I often don’t get.

“Ugh,” I responded lethargically.  “I’ve been writing blog posts of—what I consider good-quality writing for years, and I only have a couple hundred followers.”

“You should write about fashion,” Lynn suggested.

“Right.  Have you seen what I’m wearing?”  I had been rotating the same four outfits for three months.

“You could try to get her to Tweet something about your organization.  You’d get millions in donations overnight.”

“I doubt torture is her thing.”

But Lynn was asleep, and soon I was too, plus a dog or two.  It had been a busy week and guilt is exhausting.

Went to a Garden Party

Lynn was finding it challenging to communicate with the caterer for the summer party.

“I’d like a paella, like you made at the farmers’ market, and some tapas,” she told him when he came round to discuss the order.

“Si, si, si,” he had responded as he took notes, “And a cured ham.  I just brought one back from eh-spahnya.  Enough to feed 60 people.”

Lynn hadn’t requested a cured ham and really didn’t want a cured ham—especially since it would add £200 to the bill.

“I’ve invited 80 people, but half of them won’t show up, and there are so many vegetarians, and vegans, and you—who don’t eat pork,” she related to me later.

“Did you actually tell him no?” I asked.

“Yes. I think so.  He’s a nice fellow. I think it’s just a language barrier.  I’ll try telling him again, in writing.”

The week flew by, me busy writing about torture, with the attic makeover project, and in helping prepare for the party where possible.  I had found four boxes of children’s party toys, prizes, and art supplies in the attic so brought those down and had them ready to go.  I would be the child whisperer, keeping any little monsters in attendance occupied and out of trouble.

On Saturday, the giant Tesco order arrived.  I loved Tesco when I lived in Oxford. I have hated grocery shopping since I left home at 16, when I had no money or car.  With Tesco, I ordered online, a truck arrived, and two men carried it all in.

The dining room tables were pushed together to make a 15-foot long surface, covered with packages of puff pastry shells, smoked salmon, olives, cream cheese, mozzarella, Gouda, and Stilton; salmon paté, flat breads and party rye and mini rice cakes; tomatoes and fresh basil and dill; strawberries and raspberries and whipping cream; homemade candies from the farmers’ market, and so on.  Kegs of ale had appeared, along with ciders and wines and nonalcoholic bevvies.

“Be ready to form an assembly line in the morning, girls,” Lynn told Gwen and me after dinner.  The men would be busy raking the drive, watching the caterer put up the marquee, and testing the ale.

Promptly after breakfast, Gwen and I carried in food from the dining room, loaded some CDs, and began assembling finger foods.  Salmon paté on flatbread, topped with a cherry tomato and sprig of dill.  Mozarella on a rice cake, topped with a slice of tomato and olive tapenade and basil leaves.  It was fun, it was creative.

This was not the caterer’s food.  This was the “base” on top of which he would contribute tapas and paella and possibly a cured ham.

Suddenly a song I hadn’t heard in decades came on—Looking for the Right One, by Art Garfunkel, and I started to cry.  It’s such a melancholy song, about never finding love. Just when I think I don’t care anymore, wham!—all it takes is one old song.  No one was watching, so I wiped my face and left the room until the song ended.

Marco arrived, and he did indeed bring a cured ham.

“And I will make Spanish omelets,” he informed Lynn as his wife, who worked steadily all day, carried in and unloaded crates of eggs and sacks of potatoes and onions.

“But I didn’t order Spanish omelets!” Lynn replied helplessly.

No matter.  He proceeded to take over the kitchen work surfaces on which Lynn was working.

Did I mention he brought his three children? One immediately tangoed with a dog, who bit his hand and drew blood.  I whisked the child away into my bathroom to wash his hand and keep him sweet so no law suit would ensue.  He was a lovely child and I needn’t have worried.  He ran out into the garden to play with the other children.

The paella was a hit.

I don’t know how many guests came—maybe 50—but they made a dent in the food and everyone went home with a care package of ham.

Glenfarclas

We had a simple, early supper because Sabrina and Simon had to leave at daybreak the next day to catch a ferry to Orkney … or was it Shetland?  I can barely keep track of my own life, much less others’.

Lynn and Richard and I were in the kitchen at 7:00 to see them off.  We waited, glancing at the clock every few minutes.

“I told them they need to leave by 8:00 at the latest,” Lynn said.  Lynn is one of the most maternal people I know.  I think she learned from her mother, who from all accounts was a real “mom’s mom.”

Simon emerged.  “She’s still sleeping,” he said helplessly.

“I wanted to make you a proper breakfast before you leave,” Lynn declared from the stove, where she was frying sausages and eggs and mushrooms and bacon.  Simon sat down and started eating for two.

It was close to 8:00 when Sabrina came down, and demurred about eating.  “I’ll be fine,” she said.

“Is that a Minnesota ‘I’ll be fine?’” I asked, “Meaning ‘I’m starving”’”

“No, no, I really will be fine without breakfast.  We can stop somewhere for lunch.”

“There aren’t many places to stop,” said Lynn, as she handed them each a bag lunch and bottle of water, “So I made lunches for you.”

“Wow!” said Sabrina, “Thanks so much!  You didn’t have to do this!”  I wondered if the lunches included smoked Haddock sandwiches.

The three of us caught up on work and other projects that day, then Richard dashed off to pick up the next pair of house guests from the train station and also some fish and chips for dinner.

Michael and Gwen were old work colleagues of Lynn and Richard’s from British Telecom.  They would stay for a week, long enough to attend the summer party.  They had come all the way from Rye, in the south, which they described as even more picturesque than Eton.  I have a standing invitation to visit Rye, which I must bear in mind. Apparently The Mermaid is the pubbiest pub in all of Britain.

The next morning all of us except Lynn piled into a Land Rover and made a tour of the Glenfarclas distillery. Glenfarclas is the only distillery that is still family owned.  It was founded by the Grant family in 1836 and the adjacent Speyside cooperage—or barrel making factory—opened in 1947.

We had coffee in the café while we waited for the tour to begin, and then nosed around in the extensive gift shop, where I bought a plaid coin purse.

Our tour guide was an extremely serious guy from New Zealand who seemed completely unaware of how dishy he was.  He taught us what separates the rye from the chaff.

The copper distilling vats are works of art.

Although I am not a whisky drinker, I appreciate the heavenly aroma that arises from fermenting vats.

This wall mural provided a run-down on barrel sizes, in case you’ve ever wondered.

Coopers undergo a 4-year apprenticeship. They’re paid by the piece.

This guy holds the world record for assembling a barrel in 3-some minutes. It’s hard, repetitive physical labor.

We walked through the warehouse where the whiskey is aged.  A small amount of spirits, called the angels’ share, evaporates each year.  There’s a charming Scottish movie called The Angel’s Share.  Watch it with subtitles.

The paneling in the tasting room was salvaged from an ocean liner that sank.  Hmm … I seem to have taken a lot of photos of our guide.

And then there was another gift shop!  Yes, $14,500 for a bottle of whiskey. Priced well beyond my palette.

I bought a small water pitcher which I managed to leave behind at Dunrovin, and a small bottle of the stuff for my cousin.

We had worked up an appetite so we went to a local pub for lunch where the special was a nouveau cuisine-style layered tower of haggis, creamed tatties (mashed potatoes), and creamed neeps (turnips).  We all ordered it, and it was fantastic.  Lest you think I don’t like haddock, I also ordered the Cullen Skink, just to test how good it was compared to the skink at The Bank.