It’s a small world after all
The brusque, heavy-set customs agent at the Dublin Airport peered at me dubiously.
“You flew all this way to visit Ireland for two days?”
“Well no, I just spent the last four in Scotland.”
She rolled her eyes and going forward I’d always identify her as the Irish Margaret Thatcher.
“What are your plans while you’re here?”
“I don’t have any really. I’m going to the Guinness Storehouse, but other than that, I don’t have set plans yet. Just sightseeing, really.”
“You’re not seeing family or friends while in Dublin?”
“No, just sightseeing.”
“Show me your return trip information.”
I dutifully handed over my remaining itinerary.
Margaret scowled at it, whistling under her breath. The hotel I was staying at – Castle Hotel – wasn’t especially expensive nor was it in an ideal location. In fact, leaving its very real charms aside, it suffered from paper thin walls and radiator heating, which meant there were two possible temperatures in the room: Saharan or chilly. In retrospect I’d have preferred to be closer to the River Liffey. Still, it was a short walk to downtown areas.
“You’re not seeing family or friends while in Dublin?” This was becoming dangerously repetitive. She was trying to catch me in a lie I didn’t have. I only had the truth and it bored her.
“None, aside from drinking Guinness.”
She thought about that. “What do you do for a living when you’re not traveling without plans?”
I realized it would be too complicated to explain my current role, which I’m still learning, or try to put my old role into context. I replied that I’m a project manager for Getty Images.
As was the trend with the entire customs interview, she barely looked in my direction. “How’s that working out for you?”
“Well I’d rather win the lottery, but all things being equal I like my job and enjoy working for Getty.”
She muttered something derogatory about the odds of winning a lottery and handed my passport back to me.
“You’re not seeing friends while in Dublin?”
“You will,” she responded.
I picked up my passport and entered Ireland.
Wait, you’re telling this story out of order
It was a grey and drizzly day when I arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to begin my vacation. As it was just a few days before Christmas, the airport was crowded but not overwhelmingly so. The queue at the British Airways counter moved quickly. The security line also moved quickly. I’d done this numerous times before, walking calmly forward as a dog, lead by TSA, trotted alongside all of us. The dog passed me once and took no notice. On the second pass, as I approached the counter to give my travel information, I felt something bump into my camera bag. Did the person behind me walk too fast?
No, the dog had taken an interest. The TSA representatives looked downright gleeful. Two of them approached me. “Please step this way, sir. We’re going to need to run some tests and will talk you through every step of the process.”
I wasn’t concerned since I had nothing to hide, but was relieved I’d gotten to the airport so early. If I had a concern, it was that TSA seemed too eager. “We’ve caught a drug smuggler or terrorist or something. Good for us!”
They asked me to go through both their traditional metal detector and their newer one. They asked if I wanted this done in private. I responded no. Let other passengers see that they’d pulled me aside without cause. I got a pat down. They tested the bottom of my feet. They tested my skin.
They tested my camera and camera bag. As this took place, the most sociable of the agents asked me where I lived, what I liked about Seattle, what I did for a living, even about the local sports teams. “Do you own a dog?” Well, no. But many of my neighbors do have dogs and there’s dog hair all over the condo building.
After what seemed like ten minutes, but was likely much less, they stood next to me quietly talking back and forth. I had done everything they’d asked. Could I put my shoes back on? Could I pack up my camera? Where was my passport?
I looked at them and asked, “Are we done?”
They barely acknowledged me, looking depressed. They’d expected to arrest me for something. Now they realized they had pulled someone out of the line who’d done no wrong, and they were disappointed. Not because their time had been wasted, as was mine, but because they weren’t about to make the national news, hailed as heroes. They responded to me with a grunt. I grabbed my belongings and headed to a terminal bar.
You’ve completely fixated on travel issues, can we skip to the good parts?
If you’re like me, you dread the plane’s safety briefing. If you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. And in most cases I wouldn’t know what to do if there was a real emergency anyway. I typically try to sleep through them or bury myself so deeply in a book that I won’t notice.
Take a moment, though, to appreciate what British Airways has done. Their safety briefing was so enjoyable, I watched it multiple times. Voluntarily! When you watch this, I think you’ll feel the same: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FQ9Xpzi4qkU.
As the sky darkened over North America, I drifted off into a combination of movie-watching and sleep.
People often wonder what drives my travel plans and why I pick some locations, but not others. For a long time I was also unsure, but this trip solidified it for me. Why do I like Prague, Copenhagen, Taxco and now Edinburgh so much while being disinterested in cities like London?
If you’re familiar with my photography, both natural and creative, you’ll notice that I’m not a photojournalist. Many years ago, my father and I were taking pictures in Bisbee, Arizona. He noticed that we’d take pictures of the same thing, but the end results were significantly different. And that was before I applied any post-processing. There was a moment of clarity and he said: I’ve finally got it figured out, I take pictures of exactly what I see, and you take pictures like a mystic, looking for things in the shadows.
It was an abstract concept and yet it made so much sense. I’m not all that interested in what’s obvious. I’m most interested in what’s not. The human body has a number of senses. Those senses translate the world for us, providing the information we need to make ongoing decisions. They also limit the data we get back. There are two quotes I’m reminded of. The first is Shakespeare: there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio. The second is Yoda: trust your feelings.
I am not a particularly emotional person. It could be said I dial my emotions down intentionally. It could also be said that I’m an emotional photographer. I’m interested in subtleties – how a picture makes me feel, how a place makes me feel. Those are traits which are difficult to teach and separate from a purely journalistic mindset.
How does that impact my travel? I look for the same in locations too. I’m less interested in visiting locales which are functional. They don’t drive my imagination. I look for things which are fantastical. They’re designed less to solely meet human needs and more so from a creative impulse. Why does old town Prague need to look like a gothic wonderland? Try walking the streets of Copenhagen and not feel like you’re descending into a hallucinatory dream. Step back from a traditional tourist mindset and drift into the feeling of a place. Once you do so, you’ll see what I mean.
I’m not a Harry Potter fan. I prefer stories that are more complex and adult. I’d trade Harry Potter for The Lord of the Rings, Elric or Johannes Cabal. For the movies I’ve watched, though, one thing I’ve always liked was the look of it. And what’s the look? Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands.
I arrived in Edinburgh after dusk as a large watery moon had risen over the buildings. The taxi driver took me on a course that ran through ramshackle neighborhoods, hotels that looked like fraternities, and by wandering groups of drunken and somewhat predatory-looking adults. To put it simply, it didn’t make a good impression. After being dropped off at the hotel, I looked around and wondered if I’d made a mistake. Filtered through exhaustion and the impact of darkness, Edinburgh looked grimy and broken down. Maybe I was staying in the wrong part of town? I fell into bed in a very functional hotel room and slept soundly.
The next morning as dim light dawned, I realized I was not in the wrong part of town. I can think of few places for which my opinion oscillated so wildly. Maybe Prague was a good example as the course from the airport to old town went through brutalist cold war apartment complexes and buildings before emerging into a Disney-esque fever dream. As I wandered into the grey morning light, the full weight of my completely incorrect first impression hit me.
If you’ve ever read HP Lovecraft, and were able to mentally block out the casual and overt racism, you’ll know that he sometimes described alien civilizations where buildings were narrow and tall, with spires and arched roofs. That’s exactly how Edinburgh looked to me. It was like someone had taken Greek architecture, added more angles, kept the stone, and made it look just generally more northern European. The only thing holding it back from being a Harry Potter carbon copy was the lack of snow cover. I was told that one year earlier, several feet fell at this time and I’d have been unable to get home – to which I commented: that doesn’t sound so bad.
Against all odds, the weather in Scotland turned out to be nearly perfect. A couple days were overcast, with drizzle wandering around. One day was even partly cloudy – a euphemism in Seattle for “partly sunny”. Sometimes you hit the weather jackpot and sometimes you don’t. Thankfully in Scotland, I did.
Did I mention that the hotel was a five minute walk from the Royal Mile? The castle was perhaps 10-15 minutes away. Eaves seemed to descend at unusual angles. Statues lined cobblestone streets. Nothing looked particularly real and that’s just the way I like it. I keep an imaginary list of cities, around the world, that I’d live in. At that moment, I believe Edinburgh, and Scotland overall, rocketed into the top five. Note to self: don’t make first impressions under the combined effects of sleep deprivation and lack of light.
The Empire Strikes Back
My first stop was the Edinburgh Castle. An imposing stone structure at one end of the Royal Mile, on a hilltop looking down on New Town, it introduced what I’ll talk more about later: “the weight of history”. Scotland is centuries removed, unlike Ireland, from many of England’s real or perceived depredations. As a result, some of the pained history is couched in humor.
In this case, the humor is focused largely on Star Wars. There were numerous references to Star Wars around Edinburgh, whether in actual stores or in marketing campaigns. The city, and the Scottish culture, clearly self-identify with the rebel forces. The other pop culture reference is Game of Thrones. The history of Scotland is an obvious historical starting point for the show. At one point when the English retook the castle, a museum display said that the empire had struck back.
For many of us, Braveheart is our entry point into Scottish history. While the movie got a great deal wrong, it also got a great deal right. William Wallace was fishing one day. As he sat along a riverside, English troops walked by. They said they wanted his fish since it was the king’s river. He refused. The English troops became more aggressive and insistent. William Wallace stood up, and unlike Mel Gibson, was nearly seven feet tall. He grabbed his sword and struck all but one of the soldiers down.
The soldier escaped and reported what had happened to the local official. Wallace, meanwhile, was told to run. They went to his fiancee’s house and she rushed him out the back door, and into the country, before he could be caught. The local official then made a pronouncement: Wallace had to give himself in within a week or his fiancee would be killed. This was in the days before faxes, emails, text messages, Facebook, phone calls, and Instagram.
Since Wallace was hiding up in the mountains, he didn’t get the message. The local official kept his word and killed Wallace’s fiancee. That was the starting point for the revolt. Wallace and other like-minded individuals formed what amounted to a couple armies and struck the English, defeating them in at least one battle. Later, the combined armies met an English force and were completely routed. Wallace then fled to Continental Europe to drum up support for a counter-attack. While the local governments were cool on supporting him, he received a message from Scotland that a force was being prepared to go against England.
This was, in hindsight, an obvious English ploy, playing off Wallace’s pride and perhaps arrogance. They captured him upon returning and did kill him in London. He admitted to murder, but not treason as he felt he was being loyal to Scotland. It’s unlikely, though, that he yelled “you can’t take our freedom” at the final moment.
Interestingly, in the movie William Wallace repeatedly tried to push Robert the Bruce into uniting the clans and driving England from the country. While Robert the Bruce and the other clan leaders were embarrased by what happened to Wallace and as a result, decided to organize themselves – during which more bloodshed was entailed – the nickname “Braveheart” was actually Robert the Bruce’s, not William Wallace’s.
Are you still here? What does this historical diversion really mean to us? Well I can tell you there were moments in Scotland I wouldn’t have been completely against painting my face blue. I’d have to forgo the kilt, though.
Arthur’s Seat and the Catholic/Protestant Wars
What does someone do on Christmas Day in a country where nearly everything is closed? Looking for a Chinese restaurant would have been one option. I opted for hiking Arthur’s Seat instead – the 822 foot remnant of an old volcanic complex.
While the day was murky, there was no more than a mist and crowds were walking towards the hilltop. I followed suit. The hike was in no way difficult and is accessible to nearly everyone, although the mud did impose slightly. More than once did I slip down mossy inclines, sliding across mud baths on my knees. The views made it worthwhile, though. Even through the low clouds and persistent drizzle, a wide sweep of Edinburgh and surrounding regions could be seen from the mountain tops. Dirtied jeans couldn’t stand against that.
I did discover my hunger was increasing, with no means to satisfy it. Upon my return to the Royal Mile, there was an increasing realization that neither stores nor restaurants would open. I scrambled back to the hotel, put on clothes that made me look human again and wandered outside. By sheer luck, one corner store was open. While its cuisine was very much “gas station” (i.e. bags of potato chips), I was able to find a tuna fish sandwich. Whether it was made that day or three day’s prior didn’t matter. After having not eaten for the better part of 18 hours, it tasted like the best sandwich I’d ever had.
In a more suitable frame of mind, I surveyed the Christmas Day options. There were few. Now that the noon hour had passed, though, one prospect was becoming more likely: pubs would open. I headed aimlessly towards the castle, scanning for anything storefront with lights on. Sure enough I found one. A sign on the door said their kitchen was closed, but the bar was open. That was sufficient for me. I needed somewhere warm to sit out of the rain, ideally accompanied by some form of regional alcohol.
After claiming a seat at the bar, I felt very much at peace and ordered a pint of something I didn’t recognize, but hoped would increase that feeling of peace. Not unexpectedly, it did. The bar was friendly and while most present were tourists and kept to themselves, it was exactly what I’d hoped for. I sank into a warm pool of silence and watched tv.
It continued to be friendly until perhaps an hour later. Several tourists got up from their table, waved to the woman behind the bar and said goodbye with a cheerful “Merry Christmas”. It certainly didn’t seem offensive to me. After they’d left the bar, though, the bartender looked at the rest of us, drew a throat-cutting gesture, and said “Catholics” dismissively.
I no longer felt quite so warm. If anything, I had become chilled. My brain queued Thin Lizzy’s “Emerald” on its internal jukebox, I finished my pint and walked out.
This is it, woman! Get me my broom! I’m invading England!
“How many of you believe in the Loch Ness monster?” No one on the bus raised their hands. Sure we were going to Loch Ness with the hopes of seeing...something. And sure we were going to say we’d been there. But no one expected to see anything. Perhaps a log in the water. Maybe those mysterious swirling clouds that spun over the surface. Maybe an eerie fog in the distance. Possibly an eagle or two wheeling overhead. But a Cretacean sauropod plucking fish from the waterway? Surely not.
“I used to be a chaplain in the Scottish Royal Force, so I know what I’m talking about,” said the tour guide. The twenty of us remained unmoved. “Who here believes in God?” No one raised their hands. While an agnostic who won’t vouch for the upper case or lower case version of the word, I was surprised by the reticence of others. The tour guide continued, “I understand. Sometimes faith isn’t enough. You need proof. What would constitute proof?” The silence swelled further. “What if I told you that the volume of fish in the loch is lower than one would expect based on the number of known predators? Is that not proof?”
In a thoughtful frame of mind, we continued through the Highlands on an unexpectedly spectacular day. The sun was shining, the mountains were dotted with snow, and the lochs were glazed with ice as the temperature hovered around freezing. “This isn’t cold. Look at me, I’m wearing a kilt. It’s not cold till -20C.” After leaving a whisky distillery (“It’s ok, you can drink whisky at 10am. You’re on vacation”), we meandered up roads that the guide ensured us most Scottish residents had never seen, through expansive and increasingly barren and alien landscapes. After a couple days, I was increasingly well-disposed to the Scottish.
“Does anyone need to use the facilities? If so, go now. Years ago I took a bachelorette group on a tour to the Highlands. The ladies had been drinking a great deal. And the bachelorette insisted she didn’t need to use the restrooms. You see outside?” The guide pointed out the left side of the bus toward a volcanic landscape reminiscent of Iceland. “Special forces train out there. Well on the trip, the bachelorette insisted, so I pulled over and she rushed out to the boulders. A few minutes later she returned in a panic: I’m hearing voices!. I asked: what do you mean? Well I was behind a rock and I heard a voice say: ‘miss, please not here!’” The guide chuckled. “What she encountered was a camouflaged special forces soldier disguised as a rock. Needless to say, she returned to the bus in a somber, quiet mood.”
We pressed on to Glen Coe. Glen Coe was the site of the “Massacre of Glencoe”. In 1692, the Clan MacDonald, who had something of a reputation for lawlessness, was nearly extinguished by a force that included the Campbell clan, chasing MacDonalds into the glaciated and foreboding mountains overhead, slaughtering everyone they could. Our guide simply said: “is anyone a Campbell here? No? Good, keep that a secret. Campbells should stick to making soup.” I peered up towards a photogenic escarpment that, if I didn’t know any better, held a ragged glacier in its clutches and wished I could enjoy the location for its beauty and not its history.
The bus rolled on. Loch Ness was approaching. With the light beginning to dwindle and shadows expanding, it now being around 1:30pm, we arrived in town. I rushed over to the ferry, got a seat in the frosty air and excitedly prepared to set off.
There’s no spoiler alert. I didn’t see a monster. But perhaps I was in the right frame of mind. I felt like I had drifted into a mythical land where every manner of superstition was possible. A kelpie might rise out of the water and pull me into its cold depths. Patches of fog and mist leapt across the face of the loch, darting underneath the sun. Fog crept along the barren trees along the bank from which eagles emerged and circled overhead. The air was crisp and cold.
If I ever I expected to see an ancient sauropod emerge from the deep, it was on this day. That I didn’t wasn’t a concern. Everything felt right. Everything felt like it had a mythological edge. For those familiar with the concept of the “sacred and the profane” – where the “profane” is every day life and the “sacred” is something more, you know that it’s believed we can integrate the sacred into our normal lives and remove ourselves from the grind, the battles, the hardships and small victories of every day life. The concept of the sacred need not even be religious in nature. It’s about taking a step back and being cognizant of the unknown. On the surface of Loch Ness, I felt that I’d fallen into the sacred. It was rejuvenating.
By the time we left, darkness was falling. Soon we were in complete darkness. The guide said: “I won’t talk to you for a bit since I need to concentrate on these dark roads to ensure we don’t drive into a ditch. But in the meantime, I’ll spin my wheels of steel for you.” For the next hour, with overhead Christmas lights blinking like disco club lights, we heard every manner of Scottish music and sometimes non-Scottish. Mariah Carey Christmas songs periodically raised their ugly heads.
As we left the Highlands and emerged onto a highway, he spoke up again. “Here’s what I want you to do. When I say (this), I want you to all sing ‘da da da (da da da)’. And if you don’t sing along, I’ll stop this bus right now! I’m not lying!” We sang along. Actually must of us hummed wordlessly. I didn’t where it was going. “Louder!” he yelled. “I am not kidding! Just ask my kids. I will stop the bus right here.” Suddenly a song played from the speakers. It was the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. We sang happily along.
Afterwards, he asked if we knew the movie Braveheart. Of course most of us did. “It’s not necessarily accurate, but we Scottish watch it every year. In spite of Mel Gibson. Usually I’ll have a dram or two of whisky while watching it and will become so emotional I’ll yell to my wife: ‘This is it, woman! Get me my broom! I’m invading England!’”
“But alas we can only legally kick the snot out of the English during the eight hours of rugby matches a year.” And so we returned to Edinburgh.
We’ve conversed a great deal so far, but have not gotten to Ireland yet. Let’s move along and proceed to Dublin. I had two days there and my primary tourist activity revolved around going to the Guinness Storehouse.
As a believer in the sanctity of Guinness stout, this was very much like traveling to my very own version of Mecca. I had purchased the Guinness “connoisseur” experience in advance. I’d heard that the regular tour was, simply put, awful. It’s self-guided cattle car experience with nothing of interest. Arriving with moments to spare, I rushed to the connoisseur gathering area. If the self-guided tour was poor, this was transcendental.
A dozen of us were ushered into a room with a bar. We each took a seat and the bartender/guide proceeded to tell us stories about Guinness, shared samples of a number of beers they make, and finally let each of us pour our own Guinness behind the bar.
“The company used to give vouchers depending on what department someone worked in and those vouchers would say how many pints each individual could drink each day.” Yep, free Guinness at work! “But sometimes people got vouchers for being helpful. An electrician at one point came up with a plan. He’d periodically unscrew light bulbs, shake them till the filaments broke, then put them back in their sockets. The next day that department would contact him: ‘would you please replace the light bulb?’ And for doing so, he’d receive a courtesy voucher for an additional beer.” What a racket!
The highlight, and perhaps most nerve-wracking part, was learning how to pour our own beer. The bar was divided in half. The women went first and as we completely expected – did much better than us at pouring their own pints. Then the guys did the same. While there were two taps behind the bar, only one person went at a time. That means everyone was watching and making jokes (“you’re taking it seriously!”) while each of us, first and foremost myself, are trying not to make asses of ourselves.
Thankfully very little damage was done and very little beer spilled. Plus it tasted great. I learned about a product called Foreign Extra. It is very smooth and has a much higher alcohol content. It’s primarily brewed in Africa. During a tour some time before, a family from Kenya was present and said to our tour guide: “it’s great to see you serve our beer here!”
Meeting people is easy
You may remember from earlier in the story that the dour Irish customs official said I’d make friends while in Ireland. That turned out to be prophetic.
For reasons I’m still unsure of, I tend to be easier to approach while on vacation. I find that I’m often more social overall. Perhaps the reason is that the weight of work is off my shoulders. Perhaps the thrill of seeing new places plays into it. Whatever the reason, I believe I’m friendlier and more outgoing on the road. That has lent itself to a number of experiences over the years including: having a Scottish couple explain Scottish football to me in Reykjavik, being pulled into a Norwegian bachelorette party in Reykjavik, having the great Danish social programs described to me by a taxi driver in Copenhagen, or having a bartender discuss the difficulty of summer time golfing in Bergen, Norway.
My first stop was the Dublin Castle. The tour was interesting, even as I began finding the Irish “weight of history” somewhat overwhelming, and I prepared to rush over to Guinness – where I was due in 45 minutes. A woman who’d earlier introduced herself as being from Canada wandered over, explained she was taking a long weekend from her English teaching role in Slovakia and asked what I was doing in Dublin. We clicked enough to want to visit a coffee shop, but given the approaching Guinness tour, we decided on the next day instead.
We agreed to meet the next day and take the tourist bus around the city. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on what seemed like a 10-hour date. It’s much more intense than normal dates are. For one, you don’t expect to build emotional bonds with the other person so quickly, but after 10 hours, it’s very much the case. A former coworker of mine back at EMI Music, Cheryl, used to explain why she was such a proponent of this approach. I can now see why. It’s a major investment, not knowing if the time will be worth it, but you learn far more about what makes that person tick than you’d expect.
We wandered around, seeing the famous prison, going for Indian food, photographing the various cathedrals and indoctrinating her to the greatness of Guinness. While I would like to visit her this summer in Slovakia before her teaching contract is complete, it’s unlikely. More likely is a hockey game in Vancouver at some point in the future. But as Joe Strummer might say: the future is unwritten.