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Two Miles and Two Hours to Thurso

July 9, 2019

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 train 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.

 

Photos below:

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.

Places

Savoring the Local Hero Vibe in Orkney

July 8, 2019

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.

 

Photos below:

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 fiercesome Viking painted on its hull, so score one for Northlink Ferries.

People Places Things

The Magic of Mythical Inverness

July 5, 2019

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 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.

 

Photos below:

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.

People Places

Dancing My Arse Off in Edinburgh

June 24, 2019

Edinburgh Castle

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.

Then again…

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.

 

Photos below:

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.

Places

The Welcome Quiet of Oxford

June 10, 2019

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.”

 

Below: 

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…

People Places

Where You Hang Your Hat

May 27, 2019

“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.

People Places Things

One Last Pin in the Map

August 12, 2017

New York City at sunrise, from the deck of the Queen Mary 2

It was over.  All of it.  The starting trek across the US.  The weeks of research in New England, filled with Cornelia’s and Emily’s “rapturous plans and lyric anticipation”.  The quick visit to Canada for the “false start” part of the story.  Sailing to England on the Queen Mary 2.  The month in London, followed by the month in France.  And then the last hurrah on the QM2.  It was quickly becoming my past.  My three and a half months of traveling with the girls – my dear friends at this point –  was at an end.  Saturday, August 12, 2017 had arrived and my enchanted summer came to a close as the QM2 pulled dockside in Brooklyn.

On September 9th, less than a month after we arrived in New York, The Greatest Generations Foundation reported that Colonel Douglas Dillard had passed away at the age of 91.  He was very fortunate, really.  To have lived such a long life, and been well enough only weeks before to cross an ocean, speaking to crowds and enjoying a marvelous vacation, was a blessing, for sure.  But even understanding this didn’t stop me from being terribly saddened by the news.  RIP, Colonel.

After stopping in to see my QM2 friends Matt and Marianne in Chicago and New York City, respectively, I would spend the autumn following my enchanted summer in the idyllic New England town of Hudson, New York, living in a converted 1900 schoolhouse which sits between two cemeteries – and in the process, make a new friend in the artist-owner, Laurie.  There I would finish the first draft of my book at 1:28pm EST on November 9, 2017.

In early 2018, I would spend three months in Lake Worth, Florida with Cornelia and Emily – not the girls in the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but the two accomplished women who wrote it.  Doing my best to emulate their wit and style, and occasionally whispering a plea for their help or guidance, I edited and worked through various drafts of my book, trying to sort out what the journey had been about.  That is, I worked on the book in between making good on my promise to Steven the World War II veteran.

I needed to learn the foxtrot.  And so shortly after I arrived in Lake Worth, I signed up for dance lessons with Grigol Kranz, a brilliant pro dancer and teacher, as well as a witty, wonderful, and extremely patient soul, who managed to get me dancing passable versions of every dance I would need for the ballroom on the QM2 – the most important being, of course, the foxtrot.

From him, I even learned the tango, just as Cornelia and Emily had done in 1922, when it was still quite new – and quite scandalous.  They had been taught by a fellow hotel guest, Jacques Ventadour, in the parlor of their Paris pension.  This was symmetry I found extremely pleasing. 

(In addition to somehow teaching me to dance, Grigol worked overtime as therapist on some of my rougher writing days, and his bright spirit would lift mine when I was doubting my work or myself.  He also gave me a marvelous gift:  some of his other students.  They are a phenomenal group of intelligent, charismatic, talented, beautiful women – Jean, Anna, Andrea, Jill, Bimika, Carolyn, Susan and Hannah – who I’m thrilled to have as my friends.  Grigol and my dancer friends, along with pros David and Alexis at Palm Beach Ballroom Dance Studio, would end up turning those three months of work into lots of a brand new kind of fun.)

On March 14, 2018, Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76.  In the summer of 2018, his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey, and one of the last things I did on my return visit to London was stop in and pay my respects.  I whispered to him how sorry I was that I would never get to ask him about the phenomenon of time and space blurring.

But maybe, just maybe, that me from thirty years ago can find a way to ask the him of thirty years ago about it, as we pass each other on the sidewalk in front of King’s College, Cambridge.  Because time is not linear, and everything is happening at once.

In May 2018, I would once again sail to England on the QM2, traveling with some familiar faces, and making new friends along the way, most especially Patrick, Anette and their darling daughter Flora, as well as Kate and Greg (my nomad role models) and their golden doodles Lucy and Gracie.

I would spend a couple of weeks in Oxford (see my post “Home Can Be More Than One Place”) before returning to London, to the same flat I’d lived in the summer before.

The plan had been to finish the book in London, but it seemed that there were too many people to see and too much fun to be had.  In addition, I would continue my dance lessons with the kind, talented group of teachers at the Karen Hardy Studios, as well as attend weekly forro dancing lessons at the Lighthouse Bar in Shoreditch, learning this Brazilian street dance from the brilliant, fun foursome of Chinedu, Graziela, Gala and Jonathan.

My longtime traveling buddy Daron and I would get a week to run around London, a couple of decades after our first “Cornelia and Emily” visit to the UK.  I’d also get an all-too-brief visit with my friend and fellow writer, Betty, who was over from Hawaii to visit with her son and his family.  And I got some – but not enough – hangout time with my ex-pat neighbor Sabrina and her beautiful poodle Tigger.  There were shows and dinners and drinks and, of course, afternoon tea…

As always, it wasn’t easy to leave England, to get back on the ship, when the time came to leave.  But it helped that I had Grigol and Marianne with me, and that I made some amazing new friends, including Matt, Nick, Ciaran, Margaret, Christelle and Andy.  Most happily on this voyage, I discovered I was sailing with some other friends from the past – Amy and her daughter, Hannah; Maite and her daughter, Hannah; and Vicki and Bill, my fellow spa-rats.

It was another magical summer.  Though it meant I would return to the States short of my goal – a completed book – my time had been extremely well-spent.  The stars had aligned, and I had found my next book idea.  All because of that promise I had made.

So here’s how it worked.

Thirty years ago… I dated a guy in Oxford, and through him and his family, I met Tom, who would give me the idea for my first book.  And it would be Tom who, over drinks one night this past June, would implant in my brain the notion that I needed to find an inventive angle for my next book, which was to be about my upcoming travels.

Meanwhile, a year ago…  I make a promise to learn to dance.  Ballroom dancing leads me to social dancing, which leads me to other dances – bachata, then forro – and making a lot of amazing new friends.

Meanwhile, this summer… In reading tributes to the late, great Anthony Bourdain (which he was), I am reminded of how he learned about the world through food, and it made me realize I had my own way to see a place, learn about the culture and meet the people… through their dance.

All those bits and pieces had fused together to become my next book project.  And on May 24, 2019, I shall begin A Twirl Around the World by dancing across the Atlantic on the QM2 with The Greatest Generations Foundation, as they sail to Europe for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day invasions.

But first I have to finish this first book, which I’m calling Enchanted Summer.  In a few weeks I will be stationing myself back in that schoolroom in Hudson, and only emerging when I have a completed manuscript.  If I appear to go missing, check there first.

 

Photos below:

Top Row:  Colonel Douglas Dillard, holding a picture of his WWII self which appeared in Life magazine (photo courtesy of John Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation), with Matthew at Chicago’s Union Station; my room in the old schoolhouse in Hudson – the perfect place to write a book.

Bottom Row:  With Daron at the artist Christo’s installation in Hyde Park; Stephen Hawking’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey; afternoon tea with Grigol at Fortnum and Mason.

People Places

A Momentous Occasion

August 10, 2017

The World War II veterans with QM2 Captain Stephen Howarth (standing, center) and “bellhops”.  Seated:  Stuart Hedley, Joseph Reilly and Michael Ganitch.  Standing:  Steven Melnikoff, Douglas Dillard, Bruce Heilman and James Blane.  – Photo courtesy of Jim Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation

“… we had on our best crepe marocain [dresses] and they always gave us a tendency to feel dangerously alluring.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Time to get back in the fancy clothes.  Go to afternoon tea.  Dress for dinner.  Evening gowns and opera gloves.  On Friday, August 4, 2017, the QM2 would sail from Southampton to New York, and I was to be aboard.

I had taken the boat-train (there I go, using that term again) down from London Waterloo that morning, forcing myself through check-in and onto the ship.  But saying goodbye to my summer with the girls, and to England, had made me sulky.  Standing on the top deck of the ship, looking back at Southampton, I thought to myself about how my story was over, and this voyage back to the States might as well have been a flight from Heathrow, for all that it mattered to the tale.

Even the tantalizing notion of getting to be prissy for nine straight days wasn’t enough to lift the cloud over my head.

At least the pressure was off, I told myself.  I wouldn’t have to “try”.  I could just lounge around and read and not talk to anyone.  That’s one of the beauties of travel:  No one knows who you are, so you get to choose who you want to be each time you are in a new place. 

This time, I would be the quiet, keep-to-myself, person.

That settled, I went to my stateroom to unpack.  There, on the dressing table, was a brochure introducing the seven World War II veterans who were newly-announced featured speakers on my voyage.  And that changed everything.

Suddenly this afterthought of a voyage had become a glittering grand finale, a last chapter that would really top off my enchanted summer.  “A momentous occasion,” as Cornelia and Emily would say.

It started the next morning, when I spotted and barged in on five of the veterans having breakfast.  They were never able to shake me after that.  I was like a stalker, but the men seemed to take it in their stride.  Every morning I made a point of getting some time with them at breakfast.  At noon I would attend their lectures.  And in the evenings, I would dance with them in the ballroom.

These men – Doug, Bruce, Joe, Jim, Mickey, Stuart and Steven – were all charming, charismatic and strong.  They weren’t old men.  They were men, and much more than that.  They were heroes, and they were larger-than-life.  I write extensively about them in the book – from Bruce’s continuing cross-country journeys on his motorcycle, to Colonel Doug quietly telling me about liberating Flossenburg concentration camp – and every moment I got with them meant the world to me.

It was especially poignant for me to meet Joe and Steven, both of whom had been there on June 6th, 1944 – D-Day – in Normandy.  I could only think back to that day in July, when I was at Omaha Beach, walking in the footsteps of the soldiers… I hadn’t known it at the time, but Joe had parachuted from those sunny skies I had enjoyed that day, and on the beach I had walked in Steven’s footsteps.

And it would be Steven – a.k.a. the Foxtrot King – who would inspire me to take up ballroom dancing, which would lead to… well, that’s a story for another post.  But I did take it up, because I made a promise to Steven that the next time we were together, I would be able to dance properly with him.  A year later, I’m pleased to report that I’ve kept that promise, and I’m ready to dance.

Without question, my World War II buddies were the stars of the ship, and the stars of my voyage, but there were other highlights during the crossing, involving amazing friends and wonderful memories I made along the way.

I go on quite a bit about these people in the book, but I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to have rockin’ tablemates at dinner.  They are the ones who will elevate your journey.

One of my favorite memories of the crossing was going up on the top deck with my tablemate Matthew one sunny afternoon, to practice what we’d learned in our beginning waltz class.  There, next to the shuffleboard and paddle tennis courts, we whirled around the deck, working on our steps as a fellow passenger attempted to play something on his guitar that we could keep time to.  Sometimes life is perfect.

There were the many nights on the ballroom floor, when I attempted that waltz, along with the cha cha, foxtrot and rumba, with the encouragement of my tablemate Marianne, who got me over my embarrassment and anxiety about “not doing it right”.  And while I might not have made it all the way to feeling “dangerously alluring”, I certainly became comfortable on the dance floor.  Twirling around in those party dresses of mine, I was able to enjoy myself out there, in spite of the fact that I wasn’t any good.

Two days before we were to dock in New York City, we stopped for a day in the charming port town of Halifax, Nova Scotia.  With Matthew, Marianne and our fellow tablemate, Robert, I made the trek to the deliciously picturesque Peggy’s Cove.  There we climbed on the rocks and visited the lighthouse, which we then followed with seafood delights at The Bicycle Thief restaurant back in town.

(Stopping in Halifax was a bonus – most of the crossing are straight shots from New York to Southampton and back.  But this special Canadian stop gave us a most-welcome extra day on the ship, just to make the voyage all that much more marvelous.)

And there was that one unfortunate late-night incident in the disco involving Long Island Iced Tea, and a bit of a snog with one of the guest piano players.  But it’s okay, as memories go, only because…

“… that conscientious drinker from Princeton brought me a hooker of straight brandy… I also have the distinct recollection of going out on deck with that Pride of Princeton and letting him kiss me.  Girls didn’t kiss much in those days.  Those who did were considered ‘fast’”. – Cornelia Otis Skinner

Symmetry.  It took me until the end of the journey to match that tidbit in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but – for better or for worse – at least I could check it off the list.

The crossing back to the States had turned out to be a glorious end to my travels, thanks to the vets, and to some great new friends I’d made aboard the ship.  What an unexpected, happy surprise, just when I thought it was all over.  I was especially going to miss my breakfasts with the boys, and my evenings dancing with them.  It had become my habit, my daily routine.  How was I ever going to let go of all of that fun?

 

Photos below:

Top row:  A gorgeous day at sea; my single cabin, complete with dressing table and fainting couch; Matthew and I at the Captain’s cocktail party, before the complimentary champagne.

Bottom row:  Dancing with Steven the Foxtrot King; my favorite photo of my friends the vets, courtesy of John Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation; utterly charming Peggy’s Cove.

Places

Where Journeys Begin and End: Southampton

August 4, 2017

The Queen Mary 2 leaving the dock in Southampton.

The story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is all about the magical, crazy, eye-opening, summer that forever changed the lives of Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough.  And yet it came very close to not even happening at all.  The girls’ journey almost ended before it began, right here in the ancient port town of Southampton.

When the Empress of France docked here on June 21st, 1922, Emily and Cornelia were in a real bind.  By the time they reached the English shore, Cornelia was extremely ill with the measles, and the tell-tale spots were starting to form on her skin.  This was a very precarious situation for her, because, in 1922, if the health inspectors got wind of her illness, they would have had her quarantined and sent to a German hospital/camp, where – Cornelia feared – she would “be nursed by a Valkyrie”.

Luckily for Cornelia and Emily, a couple of the conquests they made on the crossing from Canada to England just happened to be those dashing young doctors, Paul Dudley White and Joe Aub.  Risking their budding careers, Paul and Joe pledged to keep the girls’ secret, and had even managed to score some meds from the ship’s doctor without raising suspicion (can you imagine passengers being able to do that with the shipboard medical staff these days?).  Those had helped keep Cornelia’s illness in check, but they couldn’t conceal the truth much longer.

Joe had gotten off the ship in Cherbourg, France, but Paul stayed with the girls and helped Emily slip Cornelia through customs, immigration and the dreaded health inspection, then into the care of Cornelia’s parents, who had come to the dock to meet the girls’ ship.  From there, according to the book, Otis and Maud Skinner, along with Emily and Paul, took Cornelia to a hotel a few blocks away, where they stayed for ten days while Cornelia went through her illness and recovery.

As a nod to their experience, when I arrived in England on the QM2 back in June at the start of my own journey with the girls, I had stayed in Southampton for a night before heading on to London.  I figured it would give me a chance to explore this historically significant port, and also try to retrace the path of my 1922 traveling companions.

I had already booked a room at the White Star Tavern, which was right in the heart of Old Town, close to the piers.  This was a new experience for me, as I had never had the opportunity before to stay in a pub.

It had been a surprise to me how few of these pubs-with-lodgings still exist in the UK.  I thought those charming old tavern inns like the one at the beginning of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” were to be found everywhere.  It’s a true shame that they aren’t.

After getting settled in at the White Star (which happily exceeded my hopes and expectations about staying in a pub), I went for a walk around town.  My first stop was South Western House, a beautiful 1897 building that now housed condos, but had been the hotel where the Skinners and Emily had stayed in 1922.  The girls had given a specific enough description that, even with the passage of ninety-five years, I could work out that I had the right place.

“The hotel was one of those British terminal ones, part caravansary, part ticket office, right on the tracks, the sort that gives the impression of having engines running in and out of the potted palms.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Some internet searching for the place they described had turned up the South Western House (formerly “Hotel”), a six story turn-of-the-century building adorned with white stone Victorian flourishes that resembled frosting on a cake.  It was a hotel through the first half of the twentieth century, playing host to celebrities and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth.  The hotel is also famous for welcoming many of the first class passengers – including Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line – on the night before the Titanic sailed from Southampton.

During the Second World War, the hotel was requisitioned by the military due to its close proximity to the docks and was used as the Headquarters for Combined Operations during the planning for D-Day, which in part was launched from this port.  According to legend, a lot of the plans that went in to effect on June 6th, 1944 were formed in this building, with Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower allegedly meeting here at least once to discuss important invasion matters.

Once again, another piece of the girls’ story is tied to World War II.

On the far side of the building, the railroad tracks which once carried those “boat trains” filled with passengers, were still set in the ground, though a bit unkempt from lack of use, (the main railway station for Southampton is now located about a mile away).  Cornelia and Emily had been right about just how startlingly close the hotel was to the tracks.

I circled back to the front of the building and stepped into the South Western Café.  Though it was clear that things had been altered in the decades between when the girls were here and my visit now, one could still make out the remnants of an elegant showpiece of a restaurant dining room.  On the walls, there were enlargements of vintage photos of the building, some circa 1920s, and I studied them all with delight as I explained to the woman working at the host desk about my project.  At this, she stepped over and unlocked some nearby doors, inviting me to go through into what had been the lobby of the hotel.  Needless to say, I was pleased as punch.

Its furnishings were sparse, but what was now a foyer for the residents of South Western House, had retained the sumptuous marble paneled walls and columns, and high, elaborately carved ceiling mouldings worthy of a grand hotel. I was able to picture a front desk where Otis had checked into their rooms, and a seating area flanked by potted palms where, over a cup of tea, Maud had beguiled and staved off the Empress of France’s doctor, who had come to check out rumors of a sick Cornelia.  I could even imagine Cornelia, in her hat with the red cock feather and big white veil, being whisked through the lobby to the very elevators I was standing in front of.

This had been unexpected, and I was thrilled to have gotten a glimpse at the lobby.  I was very glad on that day in June that I was starting my travels abroad in Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps.

Leaving the South Western Hotel/House, I turned back the other direction and followed along the perimeter of the Roman wall which ran through the oldest part of the city.  A lot of the town had been bombed in World War II and rebuilt, but it was still rich in beautiful architecture, from the Tudor period through the Edwardian.  Set within the paving stones of the sidewalks were brass placards inscribed with bits of Southampton’s history.  While the main tourist draw in Southampton seemed to be the Titanic connection, I was far more intrigued and moved by the placards noting that the Mayflower pilgrims had sailed from here, and how it was from here that many thousands of the D-Day invasion troops had been deployed.

It was staggering to contemplate how much history had been launched from this port town.

Later in the day, I ambled back over to the docks and watched the Queen Mary 2 as she pulled away from the pier, turning into the estuary, heading towards open water.  Already sensing on that first day of my travels how quickly this enchanted summer would pass, I felt a little sad knowing that the next time I saw the QM2, it would mean that my journey was over.

As expected, that next time came way too fast.  Now here we were.  I had blinked, and suddenly it was August 4th, the day the girls and I would board the Queen Mary 2 and head back to America.

Little could I know then what a grand finale that voyage would turn into.

 

Photos below:

Top row: The White Star Tavern; South Western House, formerly the South Western Hotel; the lobby seems almost ghostly, but retains its graceful charm.

Bottom row:  A placard honors the two million American soldiers who passed through Southampton on their way to the D-Day landings; the Empress of France; the lighter which carried Joe Aub into Cherbourg, as noted by Paul Dudley White in his scrapbook.

People Places

Home Can Be More Than One Place

July 29, 2017

Dinner al fresco with Bruce, Francis and Sylvia Corrie (not pictured), some of my favorite people.

This one is a cheat.

And I’m glad of it.

My blog.  It was always supposed to be about the summer of 2017 and my journey with Cornelia and Emily.  As the days of that enchanted summer passed, I fell more and more behind with my blog posts, promising myself that I would do them once my travels were over.

It’s taken me almost a year to finish what I started, telling the tale of my enchanted summer, but as my “follow-up trip” a year later comes to an end, I’m finally in sight of the last post from that journey, just as I’m nearing completion of the book as well.

My first book.  It feels a bit crazy to be typing those words.  Rather a shock to the system.

Anyway…

In theory, this post is supposed to be about a couple of trips I made to the city of dreaming spires last summer.  But as I write this, I find myself reflecting on the two happy weeks I spent in Oxford this time around – my “follow-up visit” in the summer of 2018 – which deserve more than just a mention in a postscript.

When I travel to England, I visit London.  I visit Cambridge and Brighton and wherever my journey leads me.  But when I travel to Oxford, I am not visiting.  I am returning home.

Last summer…

My first trip to Oxford was an overnight stay with Bruce and Sylvia, the parents of a former boyfriend of mine – Alistair – who is still a close friend.  In the book, I write about arriving in town and walking familiar streets, passing old haunts and ghosts from the two years I lived in Oxford in my twenties.  I spent that afternoon catching up with Sylvia and Bruce, with Alistair’s brother Francis joining us for dinner al fresco that evening.  The next morning I would meet up with Francis’ wife, Susie, for coffee and a chat before heading back to London.  Reflecting on that trip in the book, I write about feeling the ease and affection of family, as if it had been just a week or two since we’d last seen each other, and not the fourteen years that had actually passed since my last visit.  And how it meant so much that they still called me, “Girlie”, the nickname Alistair had given me almost thirty years ago.

The other visit came during the last few days before I sailed for the States, when I popped down to have lunch with Francis and Penelope Warner.  It was through them – or, rather, their study abroad program – that I came to England that first time around.  I explain in the book what an opportunity – what a gift – these two wonderful people had given me, along with their friendship.  I also recall three distinct memories of that day.

The first was, when I knocked on their front door, it struck me that the last time I had stood in front of number 27, I had been a young woman.  Where had the time gone?

The second was when I learned that the Warners’ daughter, Miranda, was in the UK, visiting from New Zealand, but that I had missed her by just a day or two – that she had been in Oxford, but was now up in Scotland seeing her brother, Benedict, and his girlfriend.  I have known Miranda since she was four years old, and though I refuse to accept that she could possibly be older than, say, sixteen, I had been very much hoping to see her.  Well, it would just have to wait for another time, possibly in another part of the world.

But my most vivid memory of that visit was, upon seeing me for the first time in twenty years, Francis Warner’s first words to me were, “Welcome home.”  It was one of the best moments of my summer.

I knew from those two brief sojourns to a city I had, indeed, once called home, that I needed to really be in Oxford for a time.  So for my follow-up trip this summer, I AirBnB-ed myself a charming basement flat on the Woodstock Road near Summertown in North Oxford.  Here I was right in the thick of my old stomping grounds, and I would spend two weeks reconnecting with both people and a place I love.

And Oxford delivered.  So many happy moments.

There was the evening when Francis Corrie’s band was playing in the neighboring village of Kidlington, where I got to be with half the family as we listened to Francis and his son Johnny rocking the night.  Sylvia and Bruce introduced me to their myriad friends who had come to enjoy the music.  I caught up with Debbie and her husband, James, both of whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade.  I showed off a few of my newly-learned dance moves from those lessons I’d had in Florida in the spring, as I grooved to Jonny and the Jive Tones.  And I chatted with Johnny, along with Rebecca (Bex) and Alexandra (Zana), members of the next generation in the Corrie clan, who had all been small children the last time I’d been around.

And then there was the afternoon I went to the Warners for tea, where Penelope had outdone herself, serving homemade scones and three kinds of cake to me and the other guests to the party, Francis Warner’s daughter Lucy Warner Stopford and her husband, John.  Being the same age, Lucy and I had become friends during my study abroad year, but we’d lost touch once I went back to the States.  A quarter of a century and a lot of living later, Lucy and I didn’t miss a beat as we filled each other in on our lives.  It was especially wonderful to discover that Lucy is still very much Lucy – always the brightest light in the room.  Over tea, she asked me to sit for her painting class.  Lucy is an award-winning artist, as both a painter and a sculptor, and I considered it a great honor and privilege to be invited to sit for her and her fellow artists.

I spent one wonderful morning “touring” around town with Bruce, starting with tea in Blackwell’s Bookshop, then on to visiting important places in the colleges which make up Oxford University.  There was a quick hello with James’ and Debbie’s son, Tim, as he was studying for his exams, then a visit to the astounding Museum of Natural History where Bruce had worked in his youth, before we headed up for lunch at home with Sylvia.

On another day, Susie and I managed to get squeeze in some time for a good chat over beverages at the coffee house on South Parade.  Her beautiful, ethereal spirit made me wish I lived in Oxford full-time, so that we could have “girlfriend natters” on a regular basis.  That evening, I would find myself a block over at the Dew Drop Inn, having a pint with her husband Francis, and – poor Francis – a girlfriend natter with him as well (that dry cider is stronger than you think).

I even had the good fortune of being in town at the same time as Tom Fremantle, who had returned to Oxford a few months prior, after living for a few years in China.  Think Indiana Jones, only with an English accent.  Tom is a fearless adventurer and brilliant writer, and it is his books which had first inspired me to take my journey with the girls. Over drinks one evening at the Rose and Crown, Tom was able to not only give me some good advice about my book, but his words would also end up pointing me in the right direction for my next project.

There was also an unexpected turn in Oxford – my discovery of Forro, a lively, rather up-close-and-personal Brazilian dance.  While Oxford seems like an odd place to learn Brazilian street dancing, I figured “Why not?”, and went along to the Monday night classes and social dancing at St. Giles Church.  I have warm affection for that lovely little 12th century church, partly because I was once kissed amongst the headstones in the churchyard by a gorgeous Australian (she writes with fatuous modesty).  Later in London, I would continue with Forro, even giving it a go when I visited Birmingham.

And wouldn’t you know, happening upon that Forro poster outside the St. Giles Church, and giving the dance a try, would lead me into my next book project?  It’s a wondrous thing, how the pieces sometimes line up.

Those two weeks in Oxford were also filled with the delicious minutiae of everyday living – shopping errands to the drugstore and grocery store, exchanging pleasantries with the neighbors, walking into town on the same pavement I’d traversed all those years ago.  All of the little everyday, unexciting things that let a person know they are home.  It is those moments which penetrate the most, and last the longest.

If you have managed to read all the way to here, I can only thank you for your patience, and for indulging me as I prattled on with my highly-personal reminiscences.  Not only is this post a cheat, but I suspect it’s of interest only to me.  But I’m okay with that.  I’m giving myself this one.

Still, at least I can leave you with some of the wisest words I’ve ever read, which have resonated with me for almost thirty years.

“Home can be more places than one.  The pity is having to choose.” – C.W. Gusewelle

Photos:

Above, Middle:  Sitting for Lucy’s portrait class, with varying results — from generously young-looking, to Mary Tudor-ish, to still a work in progress.  I dig them all.

Below, Top Row:  Cows in the foreground, dreaming spires in the background of Christ Church Meadow; a game-changing poster; the St. Giles Churchyard.

Below, Bottom Row:  The old Dew Drop Inn has been glammed up; the reassuring blue door of number 27; Tuesday night Forro dancing in London.