Writings about Some Trips in W. Europe
Travels--Intro Berlin, Germany Scotland In Ireland Kiev, Ukraine Barcelona Seville

As the plane drops below the cloud layer, approaching Prestwick airport outside of Glasgow (in Scotland, northern Britain), the majestic and awesome Scottish countryside unfolds below you. Green hills, apparently untouched by human hands, fold themselves across in all directions like an untidy blanket. Thin creeks lie across their tops, draped as silver tinsel; and the creeks lead to streams, and the streams to rivers; and the rivers pour themselves into the lakes that gleam like beaten silver. You feel you could reach down and polish a gleaming 'loch' and make it burn an even white, only if, of course, you were the sort of person who didn't like untidy blankets littered on the landscape.

I stayed in Glasgow for one night, in an absolute pit of a hostel which the owner, speaking with no great sense of irony, referred to as his 'holiday suites'. I felt squeamish sitting anywhere, and nothing in the kitchen had been cleaned since his last birthday, and it seemed a good idea to not be standing in the greasy shower. I'm not sure who moved him into this place, but I'm sure they used a bulldozer to do it. In the evening, after a wonderfully unexpected conversation with Angus, a middle-aged Scot, in a postgraduate program, who was hanging around the hostel, and who, on the way to showing me down the street to a place to eat, began a conversation that wound its way through several pints, Ouspensky, Neuro-linguistic programming, and the fall of the shipping economy in Glasgow, I returned to the hostel, and wondered where I would sleep, as the owner was now worried he had overbooked. He didn't seem to have a 'book' though, so he was trying to remember who had called. I was starting to think, where can I find a phone? so I could call another hostel and get the hell out of there, but when I intimated as much, he affirmed that the city was booked up, and there would be no other place to go.

Scratching his unshaven crag, he looked around hither and yon, and his gaze settled on the kitchen. "Well, I suppose I could throw a sheet in the kitchen. Would you mind sleeping on the floor there?" He sounded very friendly as he said this. Warm Scottish hospitality, and all that.

I was thinking about Scottish cockroaches.

I told him I was not sleeping on the kitchen floor; he suggested one of the bedrooms, but he had already booked three women in there, and he didn't want to force them to share it with me, and there was no bed left; but maybe he could put some cushions on the floor. I told him I couldn't think of paying 13 quid for that (carefully choosing 'quid' over 'pounds' to sound more in tune with things, and strengthen my negotiating position).

"Oh, of course not. I wouldn't be charging you full price for that." Of course. What had I been thinking?

So--cushions it was. Turned out, as expected, he had mistaken one of his phone calls, and the bed next to me, which I expected to be filled sometime in the night by a drunken coed, was left untouched. In the morning, he offered bad coffee and I paid him 6 pounds. Could, I asked, could I leave my bag there till the afternoon while I walked around town. Bruskly, putting on his jacket on his way to sue somebody in court, he said no, he wasn't going to be in, and there was no possibility. Prick.

But as I happily crawled to the rim of the pit and threw myself back into the sunlight, I began an eventful and new stage on my trip. From Glasgow I bused to Edinburgh, and from there caught a bus that runs in a circuit around the Scottish Highlands. You can jump off the bus in any of a dozen villages, stay as long as you like, and catch the next bus further on. It attracted young backpackers who were bumming around Europe and we made a happy crew. Our drivers were all young Scots, invariably wise to any significant date in Scottish history, and to any slight, real or imagined, that the Scots had suffered at the hands of the British (or in some cases, of other Scots).

So I travelled to the Highlands, which is a region north of a fault line that cuts diagonally across southern Scotland. The Highlands are, in fact, full of high things, a number of which are over 2,000 feet, and which qualify as 'Munros'. There are hundreds of these, and when you've scaled a Munro you're said to have 'bagged' it. The people who do this as a life practice are called 'Munro baggers', which one Scots lady told me was a slightly rude term, as it makes the effort seem rather trivial. In fact, if you bag one Munro a weekend, it's said it will take 15 years to bag them all.

For some reasons of regional history I don't quite understand, much of the Highlands is untouched by human development, although apparently it's been heavily logged and sheeped over the centuries. But everywhere along the road you have hills and mountains around you, and for dozens on dozens of miles in every direction. Invariably, there are no roads on any of these, no houses, no power lines. I can't tell you: you look out to your right or left, and as far as your eye can see, for hours of travelling, are huge crags of rock covered almost entirely with low grasses and mosses, green green green; and water everywhere, streams, creeks, waterfalls. Along the rivers, and the lochs, there are villages, many of stone construction popular in the area; and almost no shopping chains or Starbucks or other damned things of the 21st century in our world.

Moreover, you can walk anywhere across the land, as long as you are polite, ask permission in some cases, close all gates; and this includes private farms and land. It's actually law: the right to roam. This means that if you like hill-walking, you can just pick the one that fancies you and head off in that general direction. What a fucking life! Can you believe it!?

Alas, I had not brought proper walking shoes, compass, etc., and so had to limit my walks to fire trails, sheep and cow paths (worn smooth by the kindly Scottish 'haerry coo'), which was, for this trip, fine enough; I still got to walk the Highland Way (a sort of super-sheep foot trail for hill walkers) between Fort William and Kinlochleven, and passed through an entirely quiet, very very dark forest, with moss and lichen on every tree, and reaching as a gentle carpet across the pine needles, and cross small creeks, and by waterfalls, with the Three Sisters and the wonderful crags near Glencoe by my side, over lumpy paths of stone, till I arrived, 6 hours and 14 miles later, in the village of Kinlochleven, and made the bus back.

So, surprisingly, even though the Scots in almost all cases were gregarious, charming, and funny, and would talk from one day to the next, and all the villages were 'twee' (quaint), and the fish and chips, were, as to be expected, moist and tasty and a great relief to hunger, the real surprise of Scotland was that in the Western Highlands, people have been given permission to nest their villages and small homes amongst the great wild lands there, and not the other way around; and that there has been nothing so healing to see in many of my years.

And, the people: Curtis, who has spent years travelling from town to town and living in hostels, and who writes and writes and writes and seems to have no plans for much at all except two weeks here then on to the next town; Johnnie, a songwriter in Glasgow who has just finished his first CD, and has played shows with Suzanne Vega and other songwriter luminaries, but who's really a great guy to have around if you're having a beer at the full bar decked out in the hostel of Corpach; and the many people on the road who have given their life for a few months or years over to travel for awhile.