Wednesday, April 30, 2008


In July 2003, I finally had a chance to show Scotland to my husband. The country I love so much. I remember feeling it was my duty to show him everything, every sooty building, every piece of shortbread, every drop of smoky, peaty whiskey, every drop of brogue that I could get someone to utter. My husband is my best friend, and as such, you want to share the things you love with your friend. Sharing Scotland was a part of that.

I was so familiar with Scotland by then that when we stepped off the plane, I felt like I had arrived home and half expected a large group of family to be there to greet us. Memories flooded me at every turn.

My first trip had been way back in 1994, when my father was kind enough to give me a graduation present of a month-long writer’s retreat held at the Glasgow School of Art.

Our classes were held in a room designed entirely by Charles Rennie Macintosh. The chairs we flung ourselves into every day cost 10,000 pounds apiece. We met A. L. Kennedy – who had just been nominated for a Booker prize and who read to our class from her latest novel. When I asked for writing advice, she told me pointedly, “If it isn’t fun, stop doing it,” not the advice I expected, but have kept close ever since.

The halls of the Glasgow School of Art were entirely filled with plaster reproductions of great marble masterpieces: Venus, David, The Pieta. They sat in the hall looking like they had been shoved there – placed in storage to make room for better, more modern art. Instead of being placed in an “oh so careful” way, David’s elbow was shoved in Venus’s face. They were crowded into the hallway like mannequins in storage.

We spent our days writing poetry, taking day trips every fourth day or so. In Edinburgh while most of us visited the castle, the rest sat outside, downing Guinness. I had seen the castle the previous weekend, and besides, it was too nice a day to make that particular trek up that particular hill again.

Earlier that day in Edinburgh I stopped into a café and bought their specialty coffee – the “Keith Richards” which was simply four shots of espresso. Genius. Best. Name. Ever.

In New Lanark we visited an 1800’s version of a societal utopia, I suppose. Whole families lived and worked in this community, toiling in the cotton mill to make cloth. They bought their goods from the company store, and the children spent what little free time they had going to the company school. I remember running out of the mill room in a panic – literally running out for air. Inside was heavy with misery. The walls reeked of it. It hung in the air like smoke, so thick I couldn’t breathe. Too many ghosts to count in that place. When the others asked what was wrong, I shrugged and said nothing.

I bought a postcard in the gift shop – a group of children from the time period standing outside that same building. I still have it now, to remind me of what I felt there. To remind me to be grateful.

One day trip was to this crazy artist’s estate somewhere just north of the Campsies mountain range. His name was Ian something, I forget. He had spent the past 30 years creating a sculpture garden – 30 years creating his own version of Eden. You’d walk through these woods and come upon a huge golden head sticking out of the ground. Words like “Listen” carved on a giant rock beside a brook. While there, I watched sheep walk up a hill for two hours as the sun crossed before some clouds, creating a Monet picture before my eyes. It was like watching time pass.

Back then, we spent our nights in Glasgow getting drunk on cheap whiskey in smoke-filled, oak-paneled pubs, pint glass rings on every table, nicotine stains on the ceiling. Afterwards we’d pile into basement dance clubs like Furry Murray’s to drink cider with currant – a drink the color of blood. One of my newfound Scottish friends used to turn up his nose at it, declaring it “too gothic”. We’d stumble out of the clubs at closing to devour chicken pakora takeaway. It was the best of times, it was the drunkest of times.

So began my love affair with Scotland – I trekked back at least once a year from then on, even living there for a time. The list of my Scottish loves has only grown: Milky Earl Grey tea with jammy toast, scones with clotted cream, fish and chips. Rose’s lime marmalade. Thick-cut bacon. Tuna with sweetcorn. The smell of Byers Road on a cold February day, sky the color of steel, a sharp, tinny smell mixed with truck exhaust. The smell of dirty snow. Rolling your own cigarettes with Drum tobacco with newfound friends, huddling by the gas fire. East Enders. Indian takeaway. Well-dressed dark-haired boys with blue eyes up to no good. Rolling, thundering Scottish brogue. McEwans and Scottish ale on draft. Ewan MacGregor. Trainspotting. Robert Carlyle, Begbie, Hamish MacBeth. Even Irn Bru.

And whiskey. Lovely, smoky Islay ones. Sweet ones from the Highlands tasting of heather and honey. Peppery Talisker. All tasting of Scotland. All tasting of home.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008


So my husband and I went to Amsterdam in May 2007, and try as I might, I cannot get some of the images out of my mind. I was prepared for the tulips, the canals, the wooden shoes, but no one prepared me for the bikes.

There are hundreds of bikes, literally everywhere. Bikes chained to bike stands, bikes chained to outdoor tables, chairs, bikes chained to drainpipes and fence posts and even to other bikes. There are bikes chained everywhere. In fact, there are more bikes in Amsterdam than there are people - I read several places that it's because there's a bike stolen like every 10 seconds or something crazy. So having more bikes than people would make sense I suppose. It all evens out.

You'd see the strangest, most eerily beautiful tableaux play out on bikes. Our first night we were enjoying the first of many delicious Indonesian meals while sitting outside (you don't find Indonesian anything in Charlottesville that I know of) and even though the restaurant was in a narrow side alley just off one of the main canals, bikes sped by frequently. I learned to watch where I stepped not only in front of me, but beside and behind me as well whenever we walked anywhere (I won't even go into the clusterfuck that takes place while trying to maneuver yourself across a street filled with bikes and the oncoming #2 tram to the central station).

As we ate, a rickety old bike glided by. Literally glided as if it were floating like an air hockey puck. The guy driving was old, probably 70, with a grey, wispy combover and bad teeth (okay, I didn't see his teeth but I imagine from the rest of him that they might be on the mossy side). He was dressed to the nines in his best suit, you could tell. It was worn, but fashionable - a nice dark bluish-grey. Nice dark tie as well.

This stood out, that on an early Saturday evening some old guy was riding a bike like he hadn't a care in the world - with his front basket filled to brimming, spilling over with bright fuschia-colored tulips. Just beautiful. Watching him glide was like looking at a painting. An old guy, on a bike, with tulips. My brain couldn't compute scene all at once without thinking of oil pastels and turpentine and acrylics.

I wondered where he was headed, what he was thinking, why had he bought the tulips? Were they for his apartment or for someone else? Was he headed to early cocktails and then dinner with someone special? Or had he bought them.....just because. Just because in Amsterdam you buy tulips because they're there and they're plentiful and it's the season for tulips and they're pretty. The whole incident lasted maybe 20 seconds but the scene has stayed in my head ever since. I found Amsterdam to be like that more than any other city I've visited. It's a city of images, little visual moments like that.

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where i've escaped...

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