August 21, 2013

That glorious 12th.

The ides of August for those red feathered bullets of nature. The day when the great moorlands of Scotland resonate with the squelch of the landed gentry, moneyed bankers and the 'me, me too' each anxious to pay as much as £10,000 per day to bag that most treasured of trophies, the Red Grouse.

I, however, headed up to Charles’ place.  I won't lie; I am a terrible townie, I've a tortured relationship with the great outdoors, at times it's just not for me. Whilst everyone is tramping through the sodden heather soaked to the skin I shall be curled up in a reading nook with a book waiting on the chime of the dinner gong.  I will perhaps take a small constitutional round to the paddock and join everyone on the moor.

I have packed my; brown Hunter wellies,  brown cords and a truly ancient Brora sweater, all in muted tones  of course, as  grouse, like most Scots, are easily startled  by an over abundance of colour and pattern. 

Note the expression on Kate's face. That is my normal reaction to an invite to "That Glorious 12th". 

I do hope the sun tips her hat to your end-of-summer plans. xoxo

June 25, 2013

A hanging stillness.

I persuaded Clive to take me on a camel trek.  Apart from our guide, there was no one else.  We slept under the stars. I wanted to experience the emptiness of the desert and hear what it sounded like. It is a sort of hanging stillness unlike any I had ever felt. 

We walked along the crests of the magnificent dunes and looked out over the endless landscapes. I felt as if we had traveled beyond our world.

The Israelites fleeing Pharaoh required forty years for that which our plane accomplished in less than two hours.  If one had spent weary decades wandering through sterile wadis and scalding plains of baking sand and gravel, then the eastern region of the Mediterranean might have seemed an oasis by comparison.  But to the modern traveler it can be a letdown. 

“It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land, with no dreamy blue mist to soften the perspective.  The naked hills appeared to have committed some terrible sin for which they had been stoned to death”, wrote Mark Twain.

A hundredfifty-some years later I saw nothing to amend that assessment.  For thirty centuries, “Cut down all the trees!” was every general’s order at the beginning of every siege.  From the British to the Crusaders, before them Pompey and Josephus told us that Titus axed every remaining tree within ten miles of Jerusalem.  And if any survived the armies, there were the locusts to denude them and goats that climbed into the topmost branches to crop their leaves.

Until you see the region, Charles told me, you cannot truly understand the many passages of the Scripture, Old and New, in which the commonness and troublesomeness of stones are drawn upon for metaphor.  And the Arabs, too, have a legend that explains the stones, Charles continued.  “When Allah made the world, he put all the stones that were to be used across the entire earth into two bags and gave them to an angel to distribute over the land.  While the angel was flying over this region, one bag broke.”

Arabs, Lebanese, Djebel Druses, Syrians, Kurds and Armenians, native-born Jews and European settlers, Turks, Persians and Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Palestianians, a thousand Bedouin tribes, and Colonial interests, all of these, and more, wanted something that usually involved taking land from someone else.

The sad fact is that each war begins in hope: hope of restoring lost honor, hope of redressing injustices and reclaiming tarnished glory, hope of a brave new world.  Each war ends with the black seeds of the next war sown: honor newly lost, injustice freshly inflicted, a world more broken than before. Always someone steps forward, ready to water and weed and harvest those black seeds.  The rationales warp, twist and shift.  The closer war comes, the simpler the choices.  Are you a warrior or a coward?  Are you with us or against us?  I thought that we had learned some enduring lessons from the stupendous carnage of war.  I honestly believed we had finally learned to value peace and progress and prosperity.

I wish I could argue that, but already the twenty-first century does not provide much evidence to deploy.   You can see why God must weep; how sad to grant free will and see it used so poorly.  Observing human history has turned out to be a terrible exercise in monotony. 

April 23, 2013

A model train, clickety-clack.

“What is worn under your kilt, sir?” asked the lassie.
“Why, nothin’s worn under me kilt, lassie.  Everything is in fine working order.”

Ahhhhhhh the anticipation of stepping on board a grand and majestic train and wondering being on board this charming anachronism-a private luxury train-will be like.

Inside, passengers settle in for the evening, enjoying perfect touches of comfort and luxury, echoing that of a romantic, bygone era.  The new journey commences, the heart flutters momentarily and one is not sure what to expect. 

The Royal Scotsman is a touring train that winds its way through the Highlands at a leisurely pace and stops for side trips off the train.  The trip combines the idiosyncrasies of train travel with the pleasures to be found in the Scottish countryside.

Inaugurated in 1985 as a joint venture The Royal Scotsman is a well-heeled train buff’s dream come true.  Originally the day-cars were beautifully restored antiques.  The dining car was the oldest operating in the world and the varnished teak and mahogany saloon car was built as a family car in 1912.  Decorative details-crystal sconces, silver saltcellars, fabrics of tapestry, polished brass fittings and fold-down sinks, framed antique etchings-conveyed a Belle Epoque sense of privilege.  The carriage leases ran for five years and it was a success – the train won the Queen's Award for Export. After the initial five-year period the decision was taken to purchase outright a different set of carriages, designed to the owner’s specifications. Ten Pullman carriages were bought and transformed by a specialist woodworking company in Bournemouth. This second rake of carriages replaced the first in May 1990.

Choose your journey; they all depart from Edinburgh.  The romantic landscapes that appear beyond the windows are soft and lovely-gold and russet moors alive with deer, silvery lakes, pastures of black faced sheep, small farms, rural villages, and patches of bright purple heather everywhere.

The weather is capricious in Scotland which makes for an ever-changing backdrop.  Thick gray clouds that open up to patches of blue sky give way to brilliant sunshine, which turns to a smooth pearl-grey sheet of clouds, which yields to rain, all in a morning.

Enchanting as the countryside is, it would probably not make the days on board engrossing.  What keeps the journey from becoming tedious, if not claustrophobic, and makes the journey so appealing, is the full schedule of off-train excursions to towns, distilleries, and houses of note made interesting by the guide with lilting brogue and an irrepressible enthusiasm for his native land.  He is the motherload of Scottish history, anecdotes, myths, and colloquialisms.  When glancing through the memory book signed by passengers at the end of the trip, it is the crew that is praised again and again.

Though most of the passengers enjoy after-dinner drinks and conversation on the train, be intrepid and venture out onto the country lanes to raise a wee dram or two of single malt whisky-Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas, and Laphroaig-with the locals.  Pubs offer a distinct change from the rarefied atmosphere of the train and a chance to talk to the local Scots, if only about their preferences in malt whisky. Invariably some crew members appear, out of their uniforms and in their blue jeans, and in the spirit of democracy we imbibe or shoot pool side by side until the bartender’s hearty, “Drink oop, drink oop, bar’s closing’.”

By the last night of the trip a sense of camaraderie has developed.  And as the candle burns down, and talk turns to future trips, most feel the happy nostalgia of partners in a shared experience that has lasted just long enough.

April 5, 2013

Case Notes.

Someone asked if I was an expat living in Europe.  Alas no, I'm someone who wishes she was an American. I am, horrors, a wannabe.

I have a theory that all of the optimists sailed off to the Colonies hellbent on the pursuit of life, liberty and the perfect pair of elasticated pants whilst my forbears stood torn-faced on the doc muttering, "Abandon the button at your peril".

I dream of riding the trains across this vast continent, with a dog called “Boomer” by my side, slipping Patsy Cline’s interpretation of "Sweet Dreams" into the CD player, rolling up the sleeves of my checked shirt and swillin' mineral water out of a brown paper bag.  Not big or clever, but I'm dreaming, remember?

So if anyone wants to adopt me I'm fully house trained & don't cost much to feed...