Tag Archives: Scotland

Doing the Next Indicated Thing

In 24 hours I will be on a bus headed from Oxford to Heathrow.  I hope.  Of all the legs of the trip home, this is the part I’ve been most anxious about.

What if … the bus zooms past me at the bus stop?  What if it doesn’t stop at my stop anymore?  What if the bus stops but the driver cuts off boarding at me, because they are only allowing 10 people on the bus v. the usual 50?  What if the service is cancelled completely?  They did that with the route to Gatwick airport.  I have a return ticket from my last flight—but should I buy a new one online so I can reserve a seat?  Service is down from every 20 minutes to every two hours.  If I miss the bus, the next one wouldn’t get me to Heathrow until 20 minutes before my flight takes off.  A taxi would cost about $100.

I suffered heart-thumping anxiety for years, now have been anxiety free for a decade except for the occasional work deadline.  Now it’s  back, in a milder form.  It’s a bit annoying, but given the state of global affairs, it would be kind of weird if I wasn’t anxious.

I have learned to Just Deal With Things that induce anxiety.  So I called the bus company.  The customer service guy, Josh, answered after two rings and assured me that ridership was so low I would have no problem getting a seat on the bus, at my stop, and I could use the ticket I already had.

He sounded bored.  I think he would have been happy to chat for a while.

I felt reassured for about an hour, then the What Ifs started up again.  What if he didn’t like my American accent so he purposely gave me the wrong information? What if he was new and didn’t really know the right answers? What if they changed everything right after I called?

I waited a few days, feeling dumb for continuing to worry, then emailed the bus company with the same questions.  Josh replied almost immediately with the same answers. Oh no, how embarrassing! Did he know it was me?  Did he wonder why I was asking the same questions again?  I usually thank customer service people, but I didn’t this time because I would have felt compelled to explain why I didn’t trust his answers the first time.

This second set of answers—maybe because they were in writing—erased the anxiety.

I may sound loopy but there it is.

My last day in Oxford.  I am doing laundry, cleaning the house and the chicken run, and fiddling around with packing.  I will go for a long walk later. Where should I go?  Into the city to gaze at the medieval colleges?  Along the Thames Path to see the waterfowl and other ramblers and the canal boats?  Up to Iffley lock and the church where I have watched the seasons change and enjoyed so many quiet moments?

This was my last view of Scotland last week.  Friend and driver Bob stopped the vehicle so I could hop out and take a snap.

I visited Iffley Church the next day.  The churchyard was strewn with wildflowers and an English robin perched on a headstone.

The next day I walked for hours through town, taking photos or just appreciating things I’d never noticed because I was trying not to bump into the 5,000 other people on the sidewalk.

Will I ever return?  The longing to live here forever see-saws with the excitement of the return journey and arriving home after four and a half months in the UK.

I gave the garden a good pruning, then sat and read the Sunday Times Rich List.  I should have gone into online gambling or started a hedge fund.  But then, I probably wouldn’t spend much time relaxing in a garden.

Here is a good question from HSBC.

I was born in New York, grew up in Minnesota, and feel at home in England—and most everywhere else I’ve sojourned.

Once I am on the bus, I will exhale and feel at home.

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!

Things that Change, Things that Last

A month ago I wondered if I was the proverbial frog in the slowly heating water.  Was I oblivious to the worsening coronavirus situation all around me in the UK?

Yup, I was.

The UK now has the dubious distinction of vying with Italy for second-rank for COVID-19 deaths; we are about 400 deaths shy of Italy’s total, 28,710.  Of course, different countries count deaths differently.  The UK just started counting COVID deaths outside of hospitals, so our number jumped.  I don’t know how Italy counts.  Regardless, it isn’t good.

However, it’s not as bad as the US.  Here’s a graph we see on the daily briefing.  It shows the US trajectory going up, up, up.

In two weeks, I’ll return to Oxford, an overcrowded city.  After 10 days I will—probably—fly home.  My flight was cancelled once, although I only found out accidentally.  I’ve rescheduled, but I don’t relish the thought of being on a bus, then at an airport, on a plane, in another airport, another plane, a taxi, then being quarantined for two weeks.

Who knows where that trajectory will have taken the US by then.

Meanwhile, I am safe in Scotland.  Here’s a view of Lynn and Richard’s house from halfway up the hill behind it.

We had great sunny weather for 10 days and now gloom and “Scottish mist” have set in.  Fortunately it’s a large enough house that one never feels claustrophobic.  I can’t imagine how it must feel to be stuck inside an apartment with kids and no garden or even a balcony.  Kudos to the people who are handling that well.

Here’s a little history and tour of the house.

The original structure was probably built in the 17th Century as a defensive outpost to guard the road and collect tolls from people traveling between Huntly and Gartly.  It was built into a geographic bowl, so there is a ditch all the way around.  Think of it as a moat without water.  Any attackers would have had to run down hill, where the occupants would be waiting for them, muskets pointing out of “murder holes.”  Below, the ditch viewed from Richard’s office and the kitchen.

Kirkney Water, a stream, runs around two sides, there is an acre-long wall on another, and in front is a very long lane lined with ancient trees; so no one could “sneak up.”

Whether or not the original structure was incorporated into the house built in 1847 is not known.  All the surrounding land was owned by a branch of the Gordon clan, headed by the 4th Earl of Huntly.  The family lived in the house, where I am sitting now.

There was a game-keeper’s cottage up the hill, a farm, and what are called “steadings” across the road—stables and laundry facilities and so on—all of these are now modern single family homes.

This is the Gordon-tartan-covered door in the front hall.

The Gordon family had to sell the home because the two sisters who lived in it had no heirs to whom they could leave it.  One brother had been killed in WWI.  The other was disinherited for marrying an Irish actress.  The ladies had not been able to find “suitable” husbands; that is, men of their class, since so many men had been killed in war and they lived in such a sparsely-populated area.

Here is the old stove in the kitchen—it’s way too heavy to bother removing.  Next to it is a small stove probably used by servants to prepare smaller meals when the family was away.

Here is the next generation stove, the Aga, used only in winter.  There’s a third generation, too.

These are the bells in the kitchen that would ring when the family wanted to summon a servant.  Disconnected by a family who had four teenage boys!

There’s a dumbwaiter in the corner, and to the right of it, a proving cupboard for breadstuffs.

Here are a few more vignettes from around the house.

Whiskey decanter set.

Reindeer skull hat rack.

Victorian taxidermy.

No Scottish country home is complete without an old dog snoring in the library.  This one’s name is Parker, fondly referred to as Lord Parker.

 

Slogging Along

I have begun to long for home.  By “home” I don’t mean my family or friends—who I wouldn’t be able to visit anyway—but my bed.  For some reason, it symbolizes all that is familiar and safe and comfortable.

Not that I’m not safe and comfortable.  In Scotland, at Lynn’s, I am more safe and comfortable than 95% of the world’s population. I have a spacious room with my own bathroom.  There’s a library full of books.   There is even a sauna!  There is plenty of space for us to do our own thing.  We come together at mealtimes or for a G&T on the patio or to watch a movie at night.

I have projects, like scraping and repainting a wrought-iron patio set.  The more I scrape and paint, the more flakes of paint I discover.  It’s a great way to kill the hours and medicate my obsessive compulsive tendencies.

I clear dead stuff out of the garden.  This involves sitting on a foam mat, reaching in to grab a handful of dry twigs or grass, and yanking them out.  Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Then I gather it all up—being careful not to snag myself on any rose thorns—cram them into a bucket and haul them to the brush pile for burning.  It’s very satisfying.  One morning this classic Led Zeppelin album cover popped into my mind:

Why not do what all those cleaver people on social media are doing, and recreate this with found materials?  So here I am, looking just like the album cover except I have a wheelbarrow, and I’m wearing a lime-green jumper and pink sunglasses, and I do not have a beard.

It was good for a laugh for a few minutes.

I go for long walks.  This is the Clashindarroch Forest, where I hiked for two hours the other day.  Even though it hadn’t rained for an unseasonable 10 days, the mossy path was still so springy it was like walking on a memory foam mattress.

So physically and socially I couldn’t be in a better place.  But I think the pandemic and lockdown are taking a low-grade toll on my psyche.  It’s subtle, but it’s probably cumulative.  If I am feeling it, how much worse must it be for people living in precarious situations with no financial means, no internet, or no access to nature?

There are nagging worries, as there always are in life. I haven’t received my stimulus payment from Donald Trump yet due to an Internal Revenue Service foul up.  I’m not too worried about it, yet.

It’s been a month since I tried to get cash from two cash machines in Oxford and was given the message, “We’re sorry but we cannot process your request at this time.”  But they had processed  it on their end, so I am out $260 until it gets resolved.  I’m not too worried about it, yet.

This quote from the New York Times sums up my situation:

“Those who had assumed they could stay overseas, and wait for the pandemic to ebb, now face an unnerving choice: Either stick it out, and prepare for the possibility they will be infected with the virus and treated in foreign hospitals, or chance catching it on the way back home.”

I thought I had secured a small victory when I got through to Delta and re-booked my return flight from one stopover to as direct.  One less airport, one less plane—this could reduce my risk.  Then I got an email from the US State Department informing me that only three airlines are still flying from the UK to the US, and Delta is not one of them.  So another call to an 800 number is in my future.

In the before times, I worked two part-time gigs and had a to-do list with 17 items on it every day.  Now I feel like I am wading through thigh-deep pudding.  I feel victorious if I manage to remember why I came into a room.  This must be what dementia is like. Or maybe I am getting dementia, coincidentally at the same time as a global pandemic.

I hope you are well!

Safe in Scotland

Greetings from Scotland, where I am a house guest of Lynn and Richard’s.  Lynn, my friend with whom I have traveled in Japan, Italy, Prague, Colombia, Berlin, and road trips across the UK and US.

I weighed the pros and cons of relocating from Oxford to Scotland carefully.  I would get a ride with a friend who has homes in both locations. He drives back and forth once a month anyway.  But would I be violating the law? The guidelines for the UK lockdown are pretty unambiguous: Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.  Don’t leave home except for exercise, to shop for food or medicine, or to work if you can’t work from home.

Would going be irresponsible and selfish? The Scottish chief medical officer had just resigned in shame for not observing her own advice; she’d been driving back and forth between to her two homes.

Sure, the chances of my giving the virus to, or catching it from, anyone as a result of the nine-hour drive across the length of the country were slim.  But could my friend expose me to the virus, or vice versa, during a whole day in a vehicle together?  Could one of us pick it up from the petrol station pump or the bathroom door handle in the rest stop?

Was I in denial?  Did I just want to go because I wanted to go?

In the end, I reasoned this way: In Oxford, I had to go shopping almost every day in order to keep enough food on hand.  I couldn’t order home delivery because I don’t have a UK bank account.  I didn’t have a car so I couldn’t do a bulk shop—I could only buy as much as I could carry four blocks, which was where the closest store was.  In Oxford, the stores are tiny and cramped.  There were employees at the doors allowing only one person in for every one who exited, and the floors were marked to keep people two metres apart, but there were plenty of people who ignored these measures.  It made me nervous.

Here in the highlands, I can Stay at Home for a month. There are deliveries by a bread man, a milk man, and a fish man, although the latter didn’t show yesterday.  Lynn can order meats and other basic products from the local butcher, pay online, then stop in front of the butcher shop while they load her order into the back of her vehicle.  For everything else there is an enormous Tesco where it is easier to observe the six-metre rule.

The house has two water supplies, one of which is dedicated to the house.  There’s a massive garden where a profusion of vegetables are growing.  The river can be fished for salmon and trout.  Richard has enough wood and peat stored up to keep the house’s dozen fireplaces roaring for months.  Richard hunts deer and game birds.  The guns will come in handy when the zombies try to come up the drive.

I hope that’s still funny a month from now.

The UK has extended its lockdown for at least another three weeks.  How do you pass the days in a country house?  Some days I feel like I’m in a dream where I’m trying to run through thigh-high pudding.

But mostly, the days fly by.  I used to get up early—6:30, say.  Today I slept until 8:00.  I used to snarf my breakfast down.  Now, with people to talk to, we might spend an hour chatting away over coffee.  I’m still doing my remote work and have seen funding opportunities shift from malaria control and water sanitation and human rights training to COVID, COVID, COVID.  I wonder how far it will go.  Will there eventually be no funding for anything but COVID?

I go for walks in the hills.

I have been assigned a project—to scrape and re-paint a wrought iron set of outdoor furniture.  I take yoga classes on Zoom.  I spend hours talking to friends.

I proposed  a creative activity of making plague masks out of papier Mache.  I think Lynn and Richard thought I was joking.

And now, some delightful daffodils.  Hang in there!

Goodbye Summer, Hello Spring

My last night in Scotland.  We watched University Challenge, a game show that’s been on the air for eons.  In it, teams of four students from two universities answer questions about chemistry, literature, philosophy, physics, geography, and so on.  It was interesting to me how many students representing British universities were from China, the US, and other countries. I guess it would be the same in the US—half the team members would be from India, Korea, and China.

The presenter read a question: “Ulanbaataar’s famous Sükhbaatar Square features monuments to Genghis Khan, Ögedei Khan, and Kublai Khan in front of the Saaral Ordon. The center of the square features an equestrian statue of what famous leader of Mongolia’s 1921 revolution?”

The kids would huddle, then their representative hit a bell.  “Damdin Sükhbaatar!”

“That is correct!”

I got one question correct in the month I was there, and I was proud of myself.

The next morning at breakfast, Lynn was very quiet.  When she left the room, Richard informed me they had made the decision to have the vet come and help dear old Cosmo make his exit from this world. “So say your good byes now.”

I did, then we were off to the airport. It turned out they changed their minds about the vet, and Cosmo lived another month or so.

I flew to Heathrow and spent one night in a hotel nearby.  My plan had been to go into London one last time before flying out but there wasn’t really enough time.  So I had a horrid curry that tasted and looked like cream of mushroom soup in the hotel restaurant, then went to be early.

My summer: Minneapolis to London, London to Copenhagen, Copenhagen to Amsterdam then Utrecht, Utrecht to Salzburg by train, Salzburg to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, Addis to Axum, Axum to Lalibela, Lalibela to Axum, Axum to Shire by truck and on to the refusee camps and back to Shire and then Axum to Addis, Addis to London, a road trip across Cornwall, Dorset, and Devon; a month in Eton and Windsor, London to Aberdeen, a month in Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen to London, London to MSP.

In the six months since returning to Minnesota: I moved, my mom had a stroke, I helped move her, my son moved.  I enjoyed Wisconsin adventures to Milwaukee, Madison, St. Croix Falls, and Garmisch; and I made a jaunt to Washington, DC for work.

Neither of my big proposals got funded but I’ve cranked out at least six more so I am hopeful.  As I write this I am checking my work email for last minute changes before I submit a proposal for our program in Ethiopia.  It really made a difference in preparing it, having visited in person.

I would love to submit it now, because in two hours I will leave for the airport to fly to Colombia for a week of R&R.  I’m flying the first leg to Miami with my friend Roxana.  From there, I will fly to Bogota and she will head for Medellin, where her daughter Gaby is in grad school.  Rox’s friend Ricardo is coming to join her from Lima, Peru. I’ve met him before; he’s good fun.

I will meet a familiar face in Bogota—Lynn. After a couple days there we’ll fly to Medellin, where we’ll meet Roxana and crew.  That will be fun.  We’ll also fly to Cartegena and spend a couple nights in Tayrona, a national park on the coast.

We’re trying something a new—a sort of guided tour for two.  There will be someone to pick us up at the airport and take us to our hotel.  We’ll have guided tours.  All our hotels and internal flights are arranged for us.  But instead of being with a big group, it’ll just be us.

I know, it probably sounds complicated.  But I’ll just put one foot in front of the other, do the next thing required thing, and try to unwind after six months of moving and family crises and winter.