It is with great joy and pleasure I announce, now available in paperback and eBook at Amazon.com, the tale of my travels in the footsteps of Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.
Hostels have a rhythm and atmosphere of their own which (dare I say it?) I think I prefer to hotels.
Don’t get me wrong. Certainly there is nothing to rival the treat that is staying in a nice hotel, preferably one with a grand lobby where one can take a seat in a wingback chair, alternating between reading and people watching, and with an elegant, moody bar where visitors from around the world mix with local business folks meeting up for drinks after work. And after being on the road, a charming room, luxuriant bed, spa-like shower and plush hotel bathrobe are the stuff of nirvana.
But there is something about the communalism of hostels which has consistently proven to be a source of fascination and pleasure for me. In order to make my travels more financially feasible, I have spent a great deal of the last six months bedding down all over Europe in these funky domiciles for backpackers. And from Porto to Prague, Inverness to Istanbul, each hostel has its own individual personality and style, yet all of them offer the same engaging, relaxed atmosphere and homey vibe which engenders camaraderie and friendships among their guests.
When I was in my twenties and backpacking around Europe, there was always this one weird old woman staying in the youth hostel who was traveling on her own for six months or so. Now the torch has been passed, and I’m that weird old woman. Turns out, I’m very lucky and proud to be her.
It helps that, mercifully, they don’t seem to be called youth hostels anymore. These days, they’re just hostels, with folks of all ages staying in them now. Still, most of my roommates in the six- to twelve-person rooms I tend to land in seem to be in their twenties and sometimes early thirties. But you never know. Along the way, I’ve shared space with three generations of family traveling together, and backpackers ranging from barely drinking age to pushing seventy.
No matter what the age or story, we are all kindred spirits, sharing a mutual passion for traipsing about the world, exploring, taking in and immersing ourselves in whatever place we alight. What’s more, we share the identity of being strangers in town, which allows for fast friendships to be formed as we stumble around on unfamiliar streets, discovering a place’s history, hotspots and treasures.
Together in the hostel’s kitchen, we cook meals of varying complexity, oftentimes sharing our creations as we exchange stories of who we are and where we’ve been, offering up recommendations of “must-see” places. In the lounge, we make plans with our new friends for the next day’s adventures even as we’re texting loved ones around the world. And flopped down in our bunk beds, we swap ideas, secrets and dreams just as we did at childhood and adolescent sleepovers.
(I should probably mention, one change in this new era of hostel living is that mixed dorms are the norm, with males and females sharing a room. The only thing I found surprising about this is how relaxed and natural it feels. Well, that, and the fact that college-aged young men nowadays seem to have no qualms about walking around in mixed company in just their underwear. Even in the morning. You know what I’m getting at here?)
Yes, there are the irritations which are part and parcel of communal living – people coming and going at all hours, snorers, a complete lack of privacy, the rustling of others’ plastic bags when you’re trying to sleep (hostel-goers know exactly what I’m talking about) – but the enjoyment, the fun, the novelty of it all far outweighs any drawbacks. My time in the hostels has provided me with a number of my favorite memories of the last six months, along with the best of gifts: some of the closest friends I’ve made in my travels.
And, oh, the conversations I’ve had – from the cutie-patootie theoretical physicist from Cambridge who was so amazingly brilliant, he was able to explain the universe in terms my little brain could understand, to the scientist from Algiers (the first Berber I ever met) and his unshakable faith in the goodness of people, to the divorcee from Shanghai who was beginning a new chapter of her life not with timid baby steps but with a gusto and exuberance I found dazzling.
As this round of travels concludes for me, I know I will miss the noise and high spirits of the hostels – and probably even more than that, the way they make me feel young and carefree and quite the bohemian vagabond.
Even if, in reality, I’m just the token weird old woman. I’m cool with that.
Above: My ten-person room in Edinburgh.
Below, top row: Abisko’s hostel on a winter wonderland day; the perks of staying in a mansion-turned-hostel — a grand piano and glorious antique heater in my room; packing for a journey in his anime underpants.
Below, bottom row: The utterly beguiling and oh-so-fun hostel in Instanbul; sometimes amenities are spartan — and strange, like the non-existent bathtub and shower; some kitchens are sleek and modern, others are cozy, but they are always a great place to hang out.
The Isle of Skye’s famous Kilt Rock
(It took me a few months and a return visit to Scotland to finally start getting caught up on my blog posts, and what better place to start than this enchanting jewel of Scotland.)
One of the most popular destinations in all of Scotland is the Isle of Skye. At least this is what I had gathered from other hostel-goers, who all seemed to be coming from there, or were getting ready to visit. Early on, Skye had been on my possibilities list, and the numerous endorsements from others sealed the deal for me.
Traveling to the Isle of Skye involved a train from one side of Scotland to the other, from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh (a name I never could pronounce with any confidence) where I enjoyed a healthy wait for the one afternoon bus to Portree, the main tourist destination on the island. I wanted to give myself a reasonable amount of time before I had to reverse the process, so I booked myself into the neon yellow hostel just off Portree’s town square for four nights. This funky abode was a far cry from the more modern, sterile hostels I’d stayed in earlier. Run by Pat, a marvelous man who knew all of his guests’ name, this colorful (literally and figuratively) place would serve as the perfect crash pad after long days of hiking in the mists that seemed to forever surround the area.
Skye didn’t appear to be aware we were in the height of summer. The bracing weather pushed folks into long sleeves, boots and rain jackets befitting early Spring, and there was no waiting for a nice day in order to explore this vast, magnificent island.
So early on my first full day on the Isle of Skye, I went off to hike one of the trails just outside of Portree. From the moment I stepped onto the path, I felt as though I had slipped inside the images on the scores of postcards which populate the island’s souvenir shops. It was a heady mixture of emerald grasses, mountainside waterfalls, murmurs of low-tide waves embracing the rocky shoreline and a stroll through a tunnel of trees which led me to a clearing ringed by an ancient stone wall, which offered a view of the bluff I was to climb.
At its summit, a mist was beginning to roll in, and by the time I reached the base of the hill, it had blossomed into a thick grey cloud which rested contentedly on the slope, with no indication that it cared to move along anytime soon. It had a haunting, magical quality – quintessential Scottish Highlands – and I eagerly began my ascent into the mist.
There is something about walking in a cloud that is exhilarating. Everything becomes one color, and feels mysterious and unknown, and as if anything could happen at any moment. Given that the path beneath my feet was slippery, and I couldn’t actually see it, I made the climb at a glacial pace. In the distance below me, I could hear the voices of a party of hikers, exchanging banter and exclaims of wonder at the loveliness of their surroundings. I stopped and stayed silent, hoping they wouldn’t follow me up the hillside. Soon I heard them pass beneath my vantage point and continue along a lower path, completely unaware of my presence. It made me feel as powerful and elusive as those mischievous highland fairies I’d been warned about repeatedly. And just like that, as if those fairies knew I was stealing their thunder, hiding on that hillside, the fog surrounding me lifted, making me mortal again. With that, I continued to the summit where I stood in humble amazement at Skye’s majestic beauty.
On another day during my stay, I did something out of character, and joined a daylong sightseeing tour. Public transport is limited in the Isle of Skye, so this is the best way of hitting all the island’s highlights. I had been told about the tour by my hostel roommate Danielle, a witty, energetic Canadian who had just completed hiking the West Highland Way. She and I joined a group of eight other tourists and our knowledgeable, humorous tour guide Bill from Real Scottish Journeys on a jaunt around Skye in a minibus which fearlessly conquered the steep and sometimes rocky terrain.
It was a great day out, with stops at the island’s most jaw-dropping vistas and wonders, including the Fairy Pools, the Fairy Glen (more of those pesky highland sprites) and a curious rock formation known as the Old Man of Storr. The weather was hit and miss throughout the day – sometimes we traveled in the clouds, at other times we moved in sunshine.
And what I discovered from this was that Scotland is resplendent when the sun is shining… and yet I actually prefer the overcast skies and fog. To me, the highlands are at their most beautiful when they are shrouded in that timeless mist.
It was a captivating, mirth-filled day trekking around Skye in our cozy van, and by the end of it, Danielle and I had made some new friends. At the conclusion of the tour, she suggested to the group that we all go for drinks. Happily, most of them joined us to try some of the famous area whiskys (that would be the Scottish spelling). With help from a few knowledgeable locals we mingled with at the bar, we sampled some of the interesting, “peaty” whiskys which are a specialty of the highlands. It was the perfect, most picturesque ending to our wondrous day.
Travel tip: The charm of an ancient pub filled with the camaraderie of new friends gives a person a sense of warmth which can ward off even the dampest highland chill. The whisky helps, too.
Top Row: The vibrant hostel in Portree; mist rolling in on the highlands; with Danielle on a bracing peak.
Bottom Row: The closest we got to seeing the Old Man of Storr on a foggy morning; finally, sunshine and a glimpse at a broch (the Iron-Age round stone structure — no one can agree what it was used for); amusing anecdotes and warming whisky with new friends.
At the tippy-top, most northern part of Scotland, the first ferry of the day from Stromness on Orkney Island arrives in Scrabster on the mainland at 8am.
I had taken this early morning service, which had given me the option of staying the night before in one of the cabins on the ferry (see my previous post, Savoring the Local Hero Vibe in Orkney), where I got the best sleep I’d had in months.
So I was full of vim and vigor as I strapped on my big backpack and stepped onto the dock at Scrabster. Adding to the spring in my step was the weather: it was a stunner of a day, with sunshine, an occasional wisp of a white cloud, and a hint of a coastal breeze to keep the temperature right at perfect.
My plans were to travel back to Inverness that day on the first available train service – a dainty two-car affair departing around 1pm, a good five hours after my ferry docked. Which, in this remote area of Scotland, is ample for what the populace requires.
The train service itself runs not from Scrabster, but from the neighboring town of Thurso. Three days before, I had taken a bus – the one bus of the afternoon – over from Thurso to Scrabster on my outbound journey to Orkney. From this, I knew the distance between the train station and the ferry port was only two miles, making it possible to walk from one to the other.
It was a sublime day, I had five hours before my train arrived, and the first bus wasn’t due at the Scrabster dock for another hour and twenty minutes. “Why not make the walk?” I thought. Sure, there was a hill to climb, and the weight of my big backpack to consider, but with loads of time on my hands, I could take it as slowly as I needed to. The idea of the hike rather appealed to me, though I wasn’t overly keen on the route – from what I remembered of the bus ride, we had traveled along a main road which may or may not have had a sidewalk for the entire trek.
Before I set off to take the hill with my big backpack, I thought it might be a good idea to check with the locals about the walk. Popping into the dockside café (where, very importantly, I’d had a divine ham and brie panini a few days earlier), I told one of the waitresses what I was thinking of doing, and she informed me that, yes, it’s possible to take that main route, but that it’s much nicer to do the cliff walk, which runs along the coastline. Pointing out the window in the general direction of Thurso, she gave me the name of a road to turn onto, and a description of the entrance to the path I would take from there.
This sounded far more picturesque – and quieter – than the main road, and with that settled, off I started up the hill. As I was nearing the top and beginning my lookout for the road I was to turn onto, a man came towards me from the other direction, walking his dog. I stopped and asked him if I was nearing the road for the coastal walk, and he pointed to a small street just up the hill. He then asked me where I was from, and all of the usual “tourist questions” while I petted his friendly mixed-breed pup. We chatted about the beautiful weather and the joys of living where he does, and pretty soon twenty minutes had passed. I thanked him for his help, and he said that he would be passing along this way later and if he saw me looking lost, he would stop and give me a ride to the station, which I thought was exceptionally kind.
Fortunately, I didn’t lose my way. The coastal path, once I located it, was very straightforward. Following the contour of the coastline, it runs along the top of the cliff above the rocks and beaches, and isn’t nearly as treacherous as it sounds. It is a beautiful walk, completely paved, and is traversed by the residents of both Scrabster and Thurso, who take the path to go to the market or into town for dinner at one of the quaint, tantalizing restaurants.
The waitress at the café had given me a gift, I soon realized, when she told me to go this way. With its stone walls, high grasses and spectacular views of neighboring islands, the cliffside path was utterly enchanting, to the point I completely forgot about the backpack on my back. I was aware of feeling only blessed and grateful to be in the sunshine and the beauty of it all, and I delighted in every step.
But it was the people along the path who put the whole experience over the top for me. Every fifty to a hundred yards or so, I would cross paths with one of the locals and we invariably would stop for a chat. Some were coming back from doing errands in town, others were walking their dogs (naturally, I had to stop and speak with every single one of these folks), while others were simply out to enjoy the gorgeous day.
Though I had been up in the highlands for a while, and was getting accustomed to their captivating, thick Scottish accent, I still caught myself thinking, as I was conversing with one of the locals, how strange it is for us to be speaking the same language, saying the same words, yet we sound so very different from each other. What is really remarkable is that we can actually understand each other’s pronunciations well enough, at least most of the time.
Even stranger than that, I realized I was starting to pick up some of these Scottish pronunciations, when I heard myself talking about biscuits. Naturally, when speaking of the British digestives and shortbreads, one uses their term, “biscuits” instead of the American word “cookies” (just as Oreos and Nutter Butters are always cookies and never biscuits). But saying “biscuits” here in northern Scotland, I was startled to hear it come out of my mouth with a proper Highland brogue, as “BESS-ketz.” When did this language gap start closing?
In the end, it took me over two hours to walk those two brilliant miles. Yet I still had hours left to kill before catching the train. I spent that time sitting in the picturesque little square opposite the church, where my backpack enjoyed resting on the benches, alternating between sunshine and shade, while I had some takeaway lunch and did some reading until it was time to catch the train.
It was such a small moment in my travels – a mere few hours between destinations – but that dazzling day has stayed with me, and promises to be one of my favorite memories of the entire journey.
Top row: The start of the cliffside trail: view to Hoy on a splendid summer day;
Bottom row: Visitors staying in the cliffside campgrounds enjoy a stroll along the path; relaxing in the village square.
Ah, breathing room!
After a month of being in busy cities overrun with tourists, I was feeling ready for some open space and fewer folks. But more than that, I wanted to go remote in Scotland – something which for decades I’ve hoped to do – in large part because of a beautiful little movie called “Local Hero.”
The 1983 film is a comedy-drama starring Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster, and tells the story of Mac, a young oil company executive from Houston who is sent to a secluded village in Scotland to buy up all of the property in order to establish a refinery. It’s not long before the gentle pace and eccentric charm of the town and its inhabitants work their magic on Mac, and he becomes conflicted about seeing the town he’s grown to love be wiped away and replaced by a behemoth oil operation.
The movie is captivating and quirky, and it’s what drew me to travel to Orkney, a large island just off the northern coast of the very top of Scotland. Even though I was nowhere near any of the myriad locations where “Local Hero” was filmed, I soon discovered that art very much imitates life — at least when it comes to the beguiling town of Stromness, where I was staying for the weekend.
From the moment I arrived, I was transported into the movie. As I took my first steps onto the quaint, quiet main street, a lone motorcycle appeared as if out of nowhere and came whizzing past me as I attempted to cross the pavement. Just like it happens in “Local Hero,” where this is a running joke. I was enchanted.
After the motorcyle moment, I searched for any similarities I could find between the real Stromness and the fictional hamlet of Ferness. Like its movie counterpart, there are no chain establishments of any sort in Stromness, just locally-owned businesses run by individuals who decide what hours they choose to be open. And like Ferness, everything is tranquil here, with an off-beat rhythm of its own. The town even manages to deliver a strategically-situated, winsome red phone box (an integral detail in the movie).
Now all that was needed was the Northern Lights to complete the picture.
Unfortunately, those Northern Lights didn’t appear for me. but, in fairness, that would really have been asking too much, considering how close it still is to the summer solstice.
But no matter. Orkney was delivering what I needed most — the bliss of personal space and a respite from noise and chaos and marauding hordes of sightseers.
Besides, there were other delights to be found on the island, which were completely unrelated to the movie. One of my favorite days was my outing to the Skara Brae settlement. Older than the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge, this prehistoric village in Orkney dates back over 5,000 years. Not much is known about the people who lived here, but visiting the site on a cold, blustery day, all I could think was, “Bless their hearts.” No one knows what happened to the people who lived here – no burial grounds or human remains have ever been found. My guess – and it’s a rather grim one – is that the rough climate and hard living finally got to one of the inhabitants and they snapped, going on a killing spree and wiping out the entire village.
I followed up my tour of the settlement with a visit to the Birds of Prey Centre which is adjacent to Skara Brae. There I got to spend some time acting as a perch for Odin, a majestic Eurasian eagle-owl and a real prince of a fellow, with glorious, piercing orange eyes which just happened to match my current hair color almost exactly. I like to think it’s why we got on so well.
Orkney is almost completely devoid of trees or shrubs to buffer the forceful, bone-chilling winds which sweep across it. Those who call the island home have to be made of hearty stock. But the climate is a flaw they seem to accept with good humor in this place of wondrous, striking beauty.
As I had only a scant few days on the island, I wasn’t going to let the weather deter me, either. On a day which, at best, one might call “bracing,” I took a stroll along the coastal walkway. As promised, it was picturesque as all get out, with kilt-wearing locals walking their dogs, and mists enveloping the cliffs of neighboring Hoy Island. The chill was further forgotten and offset as I passed alongside a golf course, where some genial players from the Shetland Islands halted their round to come over and share their whiskey with me.
The smooth stuff left me well fortified against the elements and I cheerfully continued my soggy stroll. Just as I reached the breathtaking, rugged beauty of Warebeth Beach, the sound of bagpipes came rolling down the hillside, carried on the breeze from who knows where.
It was the first time since I had arrived in Scotland that I had heard the pipes played by someone who wasn’t busking for money from tourists. The penetrating, bewitching tones were being played for their own haunting loveliness, and almost as if they were acting as a soundtrack for the “money shot” of my own personal movie. Sometimes life is perfect.
In “Local Hero,” it was the people as much as the place that Mac fell in love with, and it’s easy to see how that could happen here in Stromness. Though the locals weren’t nearly as eccentric as the fictional inhabitants in the movie (or perhaps I just didn’t stay in town long enough to get to really know anyone), the residents of Stromness had the same effortless, affable warmth to them. It was touching to not just witness the intimacy between people who had known each other and lived as neighbors for many years, but to be welcomed in and treated as one of these old friends myself. From Mrs. Brown, in whose B&B I stayed, to the young women working in the café who shared intel on the best places in Orkney to have drinks, breakfast and ice cream, they were the perfect hosts for my weekend away.
And even on the day I was leaving, when I had hours to kill before I boarded the ferry back to the mainland, Thomas, the Northlink Ferries manager very cordially allowed to stay in the company’s travel office for most of the day, even when it was closed and the staff had gone home, so I could work on my laptop and use the internet. What’s more, Thomas occasionally came in and offered to make me coffee or tea, and would give me updates on the Women’s World Cup Final, making sure I knew when it happened that the USA had won. Now that’s hospitality.
Technically, I didn’t leave town that day, but I did leave terra firma and go aboard the ferry which would take me back to the mainland the next day. A marvelous thing about the service to Orkney is that they allow passengers traveling on the first ferry of the day (6:30am from Stromness to Scrabster) to board the boat the evening before and stay overnight in one of its cabins. They offer drinks and snacks in one of the lounges that night, and next morning, there is a complimentary breakfast as well. Sounded like a good deal all around.
The sun was just going down when I boarded the ferry at around 10pm that evening.
As I looked back at the view of Stromness, it was crystal-clear why this town is widely considered one of the loveliest ports in all of the UK, and I was very much wishing I could stay longer. As in weeks longer. Possibly months. Perhaps another time. I could only hope so.
And then sometimes life delivers you a most unexpected treat.
Of the twenty-something cabins on the ferry, I had booked for myself the cheapest, which meant I had an inside stateroom, devoid of any natural light. Inside the cabin was my own en-suite bathroom complete with shower. After more than a month of sharing a bedroom with up to eleven other people, and having to traipse down the hall to co-ed, community bathrooms, having all of this to myself felt as luxurious as a stay at the Ritz.
When it came time to turn in, those weeks of fitful nights in noisy hostel dorm rooms, with people coming and going at all hours, and sunlight coming in at 3:30am, breaking through whatever anemic little curtains were provided, were all about to be made up for. Inside my cabin, there wasn’t a sound to be heard – the ferry sat silent, unmoving in the calm waters – and with the lights off, my bedroom was pitch-dark and still as a tomb. I was out cold as soon as my head hit the pillow, and slept the sleep of the dead until the ship’s engines roared to life at 6:30. I awoke to find that my body felt as rested as my spirit.
I dressed quickly and hurried up on deck to say goodbye to Orkney. As the ferry pulled away from the dock, I felt the same wistfulness as Mac did when he’d had to leave Ferness. For him, the story ends with his return to Houston, broken-hearted and with no promise of ever returning to Scotland.
But I know he did return. Just as I will. Because “Local Hero” may an indie film, but I will always go with the Hollywood ending.
Top row: The ancient village of Skara Brae; with Odin the owl; coastal walk
Middle row: Warebeth Beach and the Isle of Hoy: Stromness harbor
Bottom row: The Queen Mary 2 it’s not, but my ride to and from the island does have one heckuva fearsome Viking painted on its hull, so score one for Northlink Ferries.
The remains of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness.
After the weeks of exuberant fun in beautiful Edinburgh, I’ve come farther north in Scotland, my first stop being Inverness – another city, with another vibe. Smaller, a bit chillier, with the scenery of a river instead of a beach. Though it’s a city, Inverness has the spirit of the highlands and the enormous sky which surround it. There is a crisp, simple certainty to everything – the folks here are warm in spirit, and unflappable.
It’s far enough north now that Gaelic words have begun creeping into conversations, and road signs are printed in two languages, with Gaelic often taking precedence over English.
On the bus ride up from Edinburgh, I hit it off with an engaging, intelligent young woman from Germany named Sophie. She and I were staying in different hostels (for this, I had hostel envy of her, as the one she had chosen was directly across from the bus station, whereas mine was a fifteen minute walk away… up a hill… with my big backpack…). We connected through Instagram and made plans to meet up the next morning to go do some dolphin watching as the high tide came in. Sophie had given herself only one night in Inverness, so she was determined to do as much exploring as she could.
I, on the other hand, had arranged to stay for four nights. For me, at least, one or two nights isn’t long enough to get more than a glimpse at a place, and soon it all becomes a big blur. Of course, I have the luxury at present to take as much time as I like in a place. And I’m finding that I prefer to focus on just a few places over trying to pass through many.
There’s also the element of fatigue which factors into this. As much as I loathe to admit this, I just don’t have the stamina to put my backpack on my back every thirty-six hours and take off for somewhere new. Now, I’m not about to accept that this is due to my age, or that I’m “slowing down.” Rather, I blame it on the fact that both my backpack and I could stand to lose some weight.
Given the amount of daily exertion I’ve been getting, coupled with the slow whittling down of the toiletries and essentials I’m carrying around, I do believe we’re both starting to shed a few ounces.
Back to the other morning…
Sophie and I met with little success in spotting any dolphins, but we had a lovely time sitting on the shoreline talking about life, priorities and courage. We also decided that we caught a glimpse of Nessie (a.k.a. the Loch Ness Monster, though I believe that term has fallen out of favor, at least with the locals, who speak of their most famous resident with great affection).
Then again, it was probably just some seaweed floating in the water. But you never know…
After Sophie and I said our goodbyes and parted ways, I hopped on an afternoon boat tour of Loch Ness which traveled from Inverness to the ruins of Urquhart Castle. It was cloudy and cool, with not even a hint of sun, but there wasn’t any rain and the winds weren’t terribly strong or cold – which, in the Highlands, you have to take as a win, weather-wise.
Cruising the expanse of Loch Ness is a beguiling experience. The slopes are sparsely dotted with homesteads, with more cattle and sheep than humans residing along the shoreline. Occasionally there is a fine stately manor to be seen, dating anywhere from the 18th century to the 21st century. It’s all very quiet and serene, and feels as if it has remain unchanged for untold centuries, that the Vikings and the Highland clans who claimed this place as their own would recognize it today. The only thing missing on the day I visited was a nice, mystical fog rolling in to cover the hillsides.
Once again, no Nessie, but no matter. After all, it’s the possibility of her, of just maybe seeing her, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Leaving the boat tour, I meandered over to an ancient cemetery residing at the base of a sizable hill. At the top of the hill, there were more gravestones and memorials, a few of which could be seen from the boat as we were docking. I was curious to climb up and investigate them, but the boat tour operator had cautioned me about wandering up through the wooded hillside.
“There are mischievous fairies which dwell up there, and if you encounter them, they will be very friendly and invite you to come sing and dance with them at a party in their cave.
“But don’t go,” he warned me. “At the end of the party, the fairies give you a bag of gold and a bag of silver, and you think it’s all been lovely. But when you leave the fairies’ cave, you discover a hundred years have passed, and you have only twelve hours before you turn to fairy dust.”
Armed with this intel, I made my way to the top of the hill without incident, where I had the captivating weathered headstones all to myself, save for two other visitors stationed on a bench at the far end of the cemetery. I grabbed a few pictures, took some time to enjoy the panoramic vistas of Inverness and the Highlands, and then was able to get back down the hill without encountering any fairies.
Walking through the lower cemetery, it occurred to me that I might have ancestors buried here. My family tree is rife with at least a few dozen folks whose surnames begin with “Mc” or “Mac”, not to mention a host of other Scottish names. I hadn’t done my research, though, so I couldn’t be sure who might be here. So I spoke as I walked through the lines of graves, saying who I was and when I was, and that if anyone there shared my DNA, they should know I was here, I was their American descendant — if they knew what that was — and that I wished to say hello to them.
Heading back into town, I decided to take the scenic route through the River Ness’s Five Islands. This is the prettiest walk, along connecting footpaths through a series of small dollops of land in the middle of the river, which are linked together by graceful iron bridges. The ground beneath the covering of trees has been cleared of the undergrowth, giving one the feeling that they have stumbled into a secret glade. The paths are lined with old-fashioned streetlamps, with long chains of string lights running between them. What an enchanting little world this must be in the evenings.
As I was strolling along one of the paths, I came across a man riding/walking bikes with his daughters. We talked about the islands, and they told me how there are events on the islands all year round, including a big Halloween shindig. The daughter explained that the best part was that they have a smoke machine to make the woods look foggy. Ah, a kindred spirit.
Something led me to mention my visit to Tomnahurich Cemetery and the hill, and the dad asked me if I’d run into the fairies, in a tone which implied I had accidentally wandered into a bad neighborhood which was beset with ne’er-do-wells. With this confirmation of the tour guide’s warning, I could only conclude that the fairies story is true.
And to think, at the beginning of this journey, I wondered if there would be any magic along the way. I needn’t have worried.
Top row: Road signs in Gaelic and English; Sophie and I make a quick stop in the marina.
Middle row: Aldourie Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness (there is a terrible story associated with the current owners of this home, which I found too sad to include here); monuments at the top of Tomnahurich Hill.
Bottom row: Oh, no, Nessie?! No, just a petrified fallen tree; charming Inverness.
This isn’t the first time my trusty backpack and I have ventured into Scotland’s beautiful capital city. We were here a few decades ago, during my first time traveling in Europe. My study abroad group had come here for two weeks during the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and I spent a good amount of time dashing between plays, stand-up comedy performances, and authors’ lectures. I spent even more time hanging out with a street band and learning to eat fire from street performers Gareth and Pepe.
Ah, misspent youth…
This time around, it’s a rather different experience, but equally magical, because this time around, I came here to dance.
The whole idea for my travels and the story I hope to get from them is that I go beyond simply being a tourist, and immerse myself in a place’s culture and community by learning its dances. Where better to begin than in Scotland, the home of myriad ancestors of mine? Banking on that highland DNA of mine to carry my through my first dancing attempts, I figured Scotland would be a natural starting point for my journey.
The closest I’d ever come to a highland reel was in elementary school, when we spent a few weeks learning square dancing as part of P.E. class. I remember finding this fun. To me, it was certainly better than playing basketball or kickball or – geez louise! – dodgeball, which we did on a frighteningly regular basis. Even our rudimentary attempts at the Virginia Reel offered the benefits which dancing brings, breaking down the awkward barriers which exist between school boys and girls, allowing us to pair up, hold hands and trust each other. Definitely better than dodgeball.
Upon my arrival in Edinburgh, I booked highland dance lessons at Dance Base, a handsome studio in the Grassmarket area of Old Town. So far, I’ve had two lessons, both of which have been good fun and a good workout. The skill level of the other class participants varies greatly from person to person, and that is absolutely fine by all. It seems everyone in the class is there mainly to enjoy themselves and each other’s company. I couldn’t have asked for a better, warmer welcome to Scotland.
One of the best things about Latin dances like the salsa and bachata* is that they are done all over the world by scores of talented devotees (in some of the larger cities, aficionados take to the dance floors and streets on almost a nightly basis). Having touched on some salsa and bachata basics in Florida with Grigol Kranz, my superstar dance teacher and friend, and having taken what I’d learned for a spin around Havana, Cuba in January, I knew I wanted to do more of the same in my travels around the world.
So, concurrent with my search for some highland dancing, I went looking for some salsa and bachata in Edinburgh. Happily, I didn’t have to look far, for there is a thriving scene here, thanks to Ami Emirato, a rock star teacher whose charismatic, high-energy personality has brought together a strong community of dynamic, engaging, just utterly marevlous individuals, who have all become fantastic dancers under Ami’s tutelage.
From the moment I joined this merry band on the dance floor at Club Cuba, they have taken me in as one of their own, embracing me and my fledgling bachata skills, cheering me on and shoring me up with tips and tales of their own struggles with dance.
For three hours, four nights a week, my fellow students and I share countless good laughs as we take on the sultry, sometimes challenging bachata steps, and I find I’m actually starting to get the hang of it all. What’s more, with Ami’s and the gang’s support, I’ve mustered the courage to stick around after the lessons finish, and join in the social dancing.
This is something I’ve always been too shy and afraid to do in the past, so it’s a sizable accomplishment for me to find myself doing salsa and bachata into the wee hours. Sometimes I just stop and marvel at how I got here. I hardly recognize myself.
(A big thanks to everyone who encouraged me to stay on Saturday night – it was glorious fun. And a special shout out to Piers, who not only was willing to brave the dance floor with me numerous times, but insisted it was a pleasure doing so – a true gentleman.)
So even if it’s not exactly the way I originally envisaged it, my experience in Edinburgh is still in line with what I intended my journey to be, and I find it all quite perfect.
Added to the phenomenal workout I’m getting on the dance floor, there’s lots of cardio and muscle-toning to be had on the stairways of Edinburgh. The old part of town is built on a hill known as The Mound, and is peppered with steep staircases which link together the thoroughfares – a small but significant detail I’d forgotten about this ancient walled city. A person can spend a lot of time huffing and puffing up thirty to sixty or more stairs just to get to the next street. A couple more weeks here, and my quads will be strong enough to crush tree trunks.
But even the steps have their charms. Many of these stairways are located in what are called “closes,” which are utterly beguiling little hidden lanes populated by shops, restaurants and residences. It always feels as if I have stumbled upon a delicious secret anytime I tuck into one of the closes. And I certainly find it immensely satisfying to traipse over for a morning walk on the Salisbury Crags via the Miss Jean Brodie Steps, which just happen to be next to the hostel where I’m staying. After all, what could be more of a treat than starting one’s day with a bit of Dame Maggie Smith when she was “in her prime?”
And speaking of the hostel…
When I first started planning these travels last summer, I wrote about how in my twenties, whenever I stayed in youth hostels, there was always this one weird old woman in there, who was backpacking around for a few months… and how I’d come to realize that, nowadays, I’m that weird old woman.
Happily, as it turns out, I’m not the only one, at least here at the hostel in Edinburgh. In fact, I’m not even sure anyone calls them youth hostels anymore. There seem to be people of all ages here, including many who are older than me. And to a person, those folks I’ve met amidst the bunk beds – both the young and those in their prime – are all pretty darn cool.
With all of this going on, I have been too preoccupied to spend any time reminiscing about my first, youthful visit to this city. Still, the other evening as I was walking home from Club Cuba in the wondrous daylight of 11pm, I caught a glimpse of my twenty-something self as I was crossing Princes Street. I hadn’t seen that girl since last summer when I ran into her in Oxford. This time I kept my distance and let her go on her way. I didn’t feel compelled to catch up with her and speak to her, like I had that day in Oxford. The girl here in Edinburgh didn’t need any reassuring about her experience or what lies ahead for her. She was doing just fine on her own.
Walking away from her, it suddenly dawned on me: Edinburgh doesn’t belong to that twenty-something me, the first time visitor. Edinburgh belongs to the present me and to the happy times of this moment. So when I come back here in the future – whether it’s in a couple months’ time, or a couple of decades – I will be returning to the memories I’m collecting right now.
I have one week left here before it’s time to strap on my backpack and take off for the highlands. I’m hoping to slip away just in time, before it becomes hard to say goodbye. But I’m not sure I will make it. In fact, I’m pretty certain it’s going to sting.
I can live with that. Edinburgh is worth it.
*Bachata is a social dance which began in the Dominican Republic, and could be considered a kissing cousin of salsa.
Top row: My favorite throwback photo, eating fire on the steps of The Royal Scottish Academy; the Miss Jean Brodie Steps
Bottom row: Within the centuries-old confines of Advocates Close; co-ed communal living in the hostel dorm room.
After an eventful week aboard the QM2 and the literal launch of my next book’s journey, I was glad of my choice to begin my time in Europe in my old stomping grounds of Oxford.
The weeks and months leading up to my travels had been focused on finishing my first book, finding the right publishing venue (an ongoing process) and clearing the last vestiges of my homestead out of storage in Marina del Rey, California and into a POD (not knowing where I will land when this journey is over, the only thing I know to do is make my belongings portable, with hopes that answer to the question of where I should put down roots will become clear in a year’s time).
All of this left me no real time to plan these next six months of travels and dancing until I was actually underway. I figured my week in Oxford would give me a chance to “find my feet,” and formulate at least a rough plan for what my European journey would look like.
It has been a good week, a productive one. Happily settled into a studio flat in North Oxford, I have savored the simple comforts of popping over to the Summertown shops or walking into town, stopping in for lunch at the covered market, then weaving through a few quiet, narrow lanes to the banks of the River Cherwell to enjoy the punters and sunshine. Just as I’ve done countless times before. I never tire of it.
Upon completing their exams, students jump in the river to wash off the cake and champagne they’ve been doused with.
It was an added bonus to my week that my writer friend Betty from Hawaii was over in the UK visiting her family. She, along with her daughter-in-law Galya and grandkids David and Katie, came up from Basingstoke for a day of exploring the city. It was a delight to show them a bit of the Oxford I know, as well as join them for a tour of the botanical gardens and a tasty pub lunch.
And I took the morning of June 6 to visit the war memorial at St. Giles, and say a prayer of gratitude and peace for the soldiers who took to the beaches of Normandy seventy-five years ago, including some amazing men I’m proud to call my friends.
The rest of my week has been spent mostly with people I’ve known for decades, whom I’ve written about before. These are folks with whom I share a sort of shorthand — so much is already known and understood between us. There is that easiness in being with them which is vouchsafed only to close friends and loved ones, and it’s always a comfort to come across it, especially when one is moving around the world.
Oh, I needed this week here. I needed to be quiet for a bit. And I needed the terra firma of Oxford before I continued into the uncharted territory and shifting sands of my travels.
But this afternoon, as I strolled along the Woodstock Road to the familiarity of my flat, I felt myself settling in. My senses were telling me I belonged here, that I was home.
The pull to stay is strong, which means it’s time to pack up and go, before I give into temptation. But, as my lovely friend and poet Miranda Warner writes,
“…I can return
And not return
Because I never really left.”
Left: my hat at home in the flat.
Middle: a lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato sandwich, my new favorite — wish it was available all year round and not just for Pride.
Right: my first car — haven’t seen one of these in years, let alone a convertible, let alone in perfect condition, let alone with right-hand drive…
A gathering of heroes.
I write this aboard the Queen Mary 2, as she traverses the North Atlantic on her way from New York City to Southampton, England. It’s always an exhilaration to watch the ship cut through the water as she travels in this direction. Sailing east means the journey is just beginning.
At the start of my last book project, on my first voyage on the QM2, I crossed with the girls, Cornelia and Emily, and we traveled together throughout that summer. Even when I strayed from their path, it was always with the sense that the girls were there waiting to rejoin me and carry on with our adventure.
This past Friday evening, as we sailed out of New York harbor, I was quite cognizant of the fact that it’s different this time, that the girls aren’t here, that I’m going it completely alone. This time around, there is no security blanket of Cornelia and Emily and their book to help me make my sojourn and my story.
I’m also aware that on this journey, I will be traveling exclusively in the present. Two years ago, I traveled in a fusion of 2017 and 1922, often peppered with moments from the World War II years. This I will miss as much as trekking around with Cornelia and Emily, because there was magic to that summer, when the boundaries of time and space would blur, and I would feel myself slipping into the past.
But this journey is all about the here and now. Can there be magic in this?
I find I’m experiencing a disconnection even from my past voyages. When I recall the friends I’ve made aboard the QM2 who aren’t on this crossing, I certainly miss them and picture them here. But there is a surprising, lovely newness to this sailing, in spite of the fact that it is a familiar experience for me.
With this comes the same doubts I remember having when I started my first journey and my first book: What if nothing happens and there is no story? What if I can’t do this? What if it’s all an astoundingly terrible idea? What if…?
I’ve been taking great comfort in sailing with the boys, a.k.a. the veterans of World War II who are the featured speakers on this crossing, as they make their way to Europe for the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Once again, these men are the rock stars of the ship. And I’m fortunate and blessed that they not only gave me a top-drawer ending to my first book, but a brilliant beginning of my second.
These WWII heroes are the same charismatic, strong, dynamic, witty, smart, extraordinary men I remember from when I sailed with them in August 2017. This time around, most wonderfully, there are sixteen World War II veterans traveling with The Greatest Generations Foundation. And like all proper rock stars do, the boys are traveling with an entourage – a posse of Vietnam veterans who look after their big brothers in arms. The Vietnam soldiers are warm, engaging, generous and deliciously funny, and they bring a marvelous new dimension to this already profound experience.
The boys are also flanked by TGGF photographer John Riedy and Denver newsman Jeremy Hubbard — simply stellar men who have done an admirable job in attempting to keep up with the vets, and I thank them for some great laughs and high times during the week.
Just as I did two years ago, I spend my mornings grabbing time with the boys at breakfast, the days taking in their compelling, often heartwrenching stories from the war, and my evenings with them in the ballroom, dancing with ninety-nine-year-old Steven Melnikoff, a.k.a. The Foxtrot King, whenever I can manage to get a turn with him.
(In all the times I’ve made mention of Steven, I’ve never written about his service in WWII. Technical Sergeant Melnikoff served with the 1st Battalion, 175th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. A veteran of D-Day, he was wounded twice – first during the battle of St Lo on “Purple Heart” Hill 108, and in August 1944 he was wounded for a second time during the Breast Campaign. He returned to duty in December of that year and continued fighting until his unit met the Russians on Elbe River. Melnikoff’s unit was responsible for capturing over 10,000 Germans.)
What has been especially touching for me is how much throughout the voyage the vets have shown up for me. They have shared memories of some of their favorite travels as they helped me formulate some ideas of what places I should visit in these next six months. They’ve given me sound advice on where to go looking when I begin researching war records for a future book I plan to write. Navy veteran Donald Cobb, who, at the age of ninety-four, has just published his first book, The Lady With A Shamrock about his World War II experience aboard the USS Murphy, shared tips on the writing and formatting software he used and recommends. And this morning, Sergeant Greg Melikian, age ninety-four – the radio operator who was hand-picked by Dwight D. Eisenhower to broadcast the General’s message of Germany’s surrender – shored me up when I was feeling shaky about how my trip and my writing will go, assuring me I can do this. This was soon followed by a second pep talk from Steven, who understood well and offered sympathy and advice on coping with the emotional fatigue which has hit me hard in the last day or so.
These men saved the world, and — just like two years ago — they’re still saving me now.
It means everything that the end of my first journey is repeating itself in the beginning of my second journey. It makes for a jubilant, rock-solid starting point for my travels, and I’m so thankful for the gift of once again being with the vets. They soften my fears, and I draw from their strength. And Steven, as I hoped, provided me with the first dance in my twirl around the world. He is the one who led me here, so this is nothing less than the perfect beginning to my adventure.
In less than forty-eight hours, we will dock in Southampton and I will have to say goodbye to the boys. More goodbyes. These will be especially hard.
Then it will be time to cut the ropes on the beautiful safety net I’ve enjoyed this week. From the moment I step off the ship onto terra firma, to when I return to board the QM2 to New York in November, the journey will be mine alone to make. Wish me Godspeed.
Top row: Starting the day with the boys at breakfast; ending the evening with the boys in the ballroom.
Bottom row: It’s an extra special pleasure to be sailing with these three once again — Stuart, Steven, and Gentleman Jim (and yes, that would be me sitting in Steven’s lap).
“Home is wherever you hang your hat.”
These are the words I used on the map which chronicled my journey two years ago, when I followed in the footsteps of my favorite book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. You can read all about those travels under the Enchanted Summer heading.
And now here I am again, about to put to the test that adage I find so reassuring. I’m getting ready to take off and see as much of the world as I can manage, now that the nomad spirit has a firm grip on my senses. Two years of living on the road, out of suitcases, in various locales around the US and Europe, I’ve found that it has become my normal. And the idea of settling down in one place is becoming a more remote and less appealing option.
In the past twenty-four months, I have lived in and put down roots in a number of places which now feel like home whenever I return to them. It is a blessing, but it comes at a price: the goodbyes.
When I first started my travels, I read articles and blogs by other nomads, and one word of warning stayed with me, which was that there would be a lot of goodbyes. I’ve found it to be acutely so on a number of occasions, particularly these last few weeks. In the past month, I’ve had to say goodbyes to friends and loved ones in Florida, California, Missouri and New York, all with a vague promise of seeing them again at some unknown point. The partings have come hard and in rapid succession, and truth be told, I’m still reeling a bit from them as I take the first steps of my new journey.
But I know, waiting on the other side of the Atlantic are more friends and loved ones, with hellos and welcome homes. Having that fills me with the greatest excitement and joy.
In a year’s time, I suspect I will start behaving like a grown-up, settle down somewhere and get a proper job. I had been wrestling with this idea for a few months, struggling to decide where my heart will live. But I’ve come to understand that there is no knowing this right now, because I have no idea what the next twelve months will bring into my life. And that’s absolutely, perfectly fine.
These last few years have taught me that “I don’t know” are magical words, because they mean anything is possible.
So now it’s time to go see what’s out there, and probably put down a few more roots here and there along the way. Because home is wherever you hang your hat.