Thursday, July 30, 2015

Highlands and Dales

Well, never say that I clutter the internet with posts when I’ve got nothing to blog about. It’s been almost a year since my last update, and for those who haven’t forgotten that I’m still alive, here is a fun little tour of the northern half of the United Kingdom for you.

I was lucky enough in July to participate in a conference at the University of Leeds, so I decided to make the most of my plane ticket and visit York, Lincoln, Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, and the Isle of Skye while I was in the neighborhood.

The Walter Scott Monument, Edinburgh (with half-assembled
Ferris wheel)
It occurs to me that these areas are some of the most highly touristed places in the United Kingdom, and Google Images will give you better pictures and Wikipedia will tell you way more about the history than I ever could. In fact, during my trip I often found myself thinking of a new word invented by John Koenig: “vemödalen”—the frustration of taking a picture and realizing that thousands of people have already taken the exact same shot. So I’ll post only a few unique-ish ones, leave the history to Wikipedia, and instead share a few thoughts on travel in a foreign country.

Now, having traveled in a fair number of foreign countries, I wasn’t particularly anxious about this trip, about 2/3 of which was done solo.  After all, they speak English in the UK, there are very few terrorists or dangerous animals, and they don’t tend to eat foods that will keep an American up at night with an upset stomach.  And all in all it was a very smooth and pleasant trip.  But you always run into “oddities” when you’re not at home, even when you’re in a place that doesn’t feel at all foreign.  Here are a few of the things that I didn’t expect to be different but were:

1. The sidewalks. The paving stones are never the same size in the UK as they are in America (I’ve noticed this in other countries too), and the curbs are usually much lower than ours. I’ve never seen a grass verge between sidewalk and curb outside of the US.

2. Road markings. I know the English drive on the left, but I encountered a lot of markings I never see at home. Some of them were useful, like the bendy arrows warning drivers that a passing zone is about to become a no-passing zone.  Others were more opaque, like this one that I saw all the time:

I was told it meant “don’t ever stop here,” but I always saw it right before a stoplight. As far as I could tell, it meant “please drive in a zig-zag pattern.”

3. The showers. I could write a whole post just about the variety of showers I’ve encountered.  But just on this trip, I encountered ones that had no visible means to switch from tap to showerhead (there were, however, invisible means), ones that had no shower curtain (most disconcerting in a shared bathroom), ones without hot water (surely a malfunction?), and ones with the towel rack on the far side of the room.  To be fair, I’ve encountered that in American establishments too.  Who designs these things?

4. The toilets. Where I come from, if you don’t have enough water pressure to get the toilet paper down, you hold down the lever down until the paper gets sucked away. In the guesthouses where I stayed, if you did that, the thing wouldn’t flush at all. You have to give the lever one good plunge and then leave it alone. Naturally, I couldn’t figure this out for myself; the hostess had to come upstairs to show me, a grown woman with a graduate degree, how to flush a toilet. She thought I was an idiot but was kind enough not to say so.

5. The beds. This may be unique to guesthouses, but not a blessed one I stayed in had sheets on the bed. I like a nice duvet cover as much as the next person, but not in July!

6. People’s smell. Different soap, different perfumes, different lotion, different deodorant—or no deodorant, which actually isn’t a bad smell if the person showers every day.  In fact, if you stay long enough in a country to buy soap from a local shop, you, too, will start to notice a strange, distinctly not-home smell on your clothes and pillow.

A fried Mars Bar, Scottish specialty (or embarrassment,
depending on whom you ask)
7. The food. This difference isn’t really “unexpected,” and tasting the local cuisine is one of the pleasures of traveling.  But really, the English are remarkable for their ability to come up with different ways of wrapping meat in a pastry crust.

8. The language. We all know that the English say “lift” when we say “elevator,” and that the Scottish say “wee” when we say “little” (I was so happy to hear that they actually still do this, whereas I never once heard a Scotsman say “och”).  But when you have a whole conversation with someone, you confirm the splendid diversity of the English language: cues and nappies and bins and macs for our lines and diapers and trashcans and raincoats. I even saw a sign over a plastic bin that said “Hampers Only.” To me a hamper IS a bin. One of my favorites was something I heard twice, when people trip but catch themselves in time: “Nearly!” they exclaim. And then, at the same time as I was enjoying the British and Scottish flavors of English, I found myself developing a particular pride in my American English; I can’t say I ever used the term “y’all,” despite my current southerly location, but I became acutely aware of how often I drop words of Yiddish origin (oy vey, schlep, finagle), which perhaps aren’t really foreign in England but are generally less a part of everyday parlance.

So perhaps that’s where all travel adventures should end: we deeply appreciate the places we see, the cultures we experience, and the people who welcome us and give us directions and take our pictures without running off with our cameras; but when we come home, we return with a new appreciation for what we had left behind, and a renewed joy at the sight of our own neighborhood—with its boring old road markings and its high curbs and grass verges.  It’s good to be home.

York York

Diagon Alley--I mean, the Shambles!  (York)

The ruins of St. Mary's Abbey in York (it didn't fall apart;
bits of it were sold after the Reformation for building material)
A reconstruction of the surgery of Alf Wight (a.k.a. James Herriot!),
in the building in Thirsk where he worked his whole career)

The Yorkshire Dales, taken from the spot Alf Wight called
"The Finest View in England"
Trinity Church, seen through the rain-streaked roof of Trinity Leeds shopping mall

The cloister of Lincoln Cathedral

A charming street in Lincoln full of cafes and fudge shops,
pragmatically called Steep Street. Because it is.
A view of Leith from Arthur's Seat, the highest point in Edinburgh.
The flower is foxglove and it grows all over Scotland.

The statue of Greyfriar's Bobby, the Skye terrier who waited at
his master's grave for 14 years. It's traditional to touch his nose
for good luck. It's then traditional to apply hand sanitizer.

One of the cannons at Edinburgh Castle. I cannot explain why
it is aimed directly at the Walter Scott Monument.

A street in Edinburgh's Old Town. You can start down one street
and then not be able to take a right angle turn to get back to where
you started because the place is so hilly you're suddenly a full
story below where you turned off.

A traffic jam in the Highlands. These are "hairy coos," which
apparently are allowed to graze freely in this village--occasionally
deciding that the middle of the road is the best place for ruminating.

Plockton, looking toward the Isle of Skye

Kilt Rock and accompanying waterfall (Isle of Skye)

The Quiraing mountain range on Skye. Yes, the road really bends
like that.
The Kyle Rhea Ferry, the last manual turntable ferry in the U.K.
Here you can see the man in blue rotating the turntable so our
tour bus can drive off forward instead of backing onto the dock.

Nat the border collie, whose job is to keep the rope from getting
tangled up when the ferry docks. He takes his job very seriously.

The view from our bed and breakfast in Fort William.
We asked the hostess if she ever got tired of such a view,
and she said, "Only when it rains."

The best way to put your bagpiping skills (and your daughter?)
to use: wear a kilt and play for the tourists

Glencoe, site of the infamous massacre of the MacDonalds by
the Campbells, and a melancholy, beautiful place to this day

The steam engine "Harry Potter" train at Inverlochy
The North of England, seen through the train window. Pity about
the lens flare, but what a sky!