June 2019

Last Friday, cocktail hour on the patio. It’s a rare evening of light and warmth here on the north shore of Long Island, and Top Cat and I were soaking up the golden rays and the zephyr breezes like we were a pair of those swans that mate for life, gliding on the smooth surface of untroubled waters. The weekend has officially begun, and it’s the first day of Summer-like weather. I think,  This was a good time to talk about a touchy subject. I ask Top Cat, “Why do you think we were so off during our [ 10-days of rants and sulks] trip to Scotland?”

He puts down his drink and thinks about it.

“Well, we got off to a bad start and just never recovered,” he says. I notice that his answer is basically just a re-wording of my question, and although I usually find tautologies hilarious, in this instance I want answers so I do not comment on the circularity of his reply.

“I know that,” I say. “But why couldn’t we recover?”

And then he says something that I never expected to hear. He says:

“It was hard for me to say it then, but you were right. So I’m saying it now, that about a lot of things in Scotland, you were right.”

And here is a story about one of the things that I was right about. I was right about Wednesday:

My mind works vertically. So, when I map out a trip, I make a chart like this (above). Each day of our trip gets a column, and I do a lot of research and planning before I enter activities into each column. When I arrange the columns in succession, into a chart like this, I can get a good visual idea of the “flow” of the days.  (BTW, this chart travels with me, attached to all the many receipts and confirmations and supporting docs I’ll need for hotels and planes and cars and trains, so I can keep track of things.)

In the Wednesday  column of our trip to Scotland, I had planned just one thing: We were going to pack a lunch and at 12 noon we were going to take a 32-mile ferry ride north, to Rapness Pier on Westray island, and then walk two and a half miles to a rock formation known as The Castle of Burrian to see PUFFINS.

I had it all figured out.

Now, if you have read last week’s story, you know that Top Cat and I have, the previous day, managed to go a whole day without fighting. So we get up on Wednesday morning and by 10 o’clock we have had a big breakfast without incident and we are walking the mile from our BnB into Kirkwall. And Top Cat announces that he has other ideas about what he wants to do for the day.

For the sake of maintaining our streak (of not fighting) for another day, I do not argue with him. I’m not completely happy about this sudden change of plan, but I’ll go along.

So we tramp to the tourist office, we slog to the car rental office, we google stuff on our phones, we investigate tours and public busses and private car hires to go to other parts of the main island, other neolithic excavations, other villages, other bird-seeing sites, and maybe we’ll even go chase orcas.

After all that, guess what we end up doing.

We end up taking the 12 noon ferry to Westray to go see PUFFINS. Exactly what I had planned a month ago.

The skyline of Kirkwall on the main island of Orkney.

Rapness Pier on Westray island:

We’re on the way to see PUFFINS!

The island of Westray has had human settlements on it since 3500 BCE, and currently has a year-round population of 600. But mostly the island is a home to birds. The spectacular sea cliffs are home to thousands of seabirds including 60,000 common guillemot, 50,000 black-legged kittiwake, 30,000 razorbill, and numerous black guillemot. 

The Castle of Burrian (below) is a colossal sea stack renowned for being the best place on Orkney to see PUFFINS at close range. OH MY GOD, I couldn’t wait to get here!! To see it covered with thousands of PUFFINS!!

PUFFINS only come on shore during their breeding season, from mid-April to mid-August. They dig burrows on steep sea cliffs, and each female PUFFIN lays one egg per year.

As you can see from the photos, we had a lucky break in the weather on this Wednesday when we went to see the PUFFINS! It was still mighty cold, but it wasn’t raining ! PUFFINS!

After a 2 and a half-mile hike from the pier through a few light rain showers, through tall wet grass, on paths at the very edge of the coast (no guardrails!),  we’re here at the Castle of Burin and we search the area for PUFFINS!

And THERE ARE NO PUFFINS!

I learn later that when the weather is fine, the PUFFINS all go fishing. It’s when the weather is lousy with pouring rain, maybe even sleet because that can happen in May on Orkney, that’s when the PUFFINS stay at home and roost upon the Castle of Burrian by the thousands.

Well, I figure there has to be at least one PUFFIN who’s like me, who would like to take advantage of an empty Castle of Burrian and stay home with a good book and a cup of tea.  So I stay and watch, and watch, and watch…and at last I see my totem bird waddle out from her burrow:

Look hard. There’s a PUFFIN in there. I did not expect them to be so small, about half the size of a sea gull.

I am so excited I could plotz.

But where, O Where, is Top Cat?

This is Top Cat, looking at a different cliff.

Top Cat had got bored looking at the place where the PUFFINS were supposed to be so he staked out a different cliff out of sight of the Castle of Burrian. So, because he did his own thing (as he is wont) he never saw a PUFFIN.

PUFFINS, when you get the chance to see them close up (or with a really good zoom lens) look like this:

After tramping 5 – 6 miles to the Castle of Burin and further along the coast back to the starting point, I was cold and wind-blown and soggy of spirit. Top Cat wanted to hike even further out to another side of the island so I left him to his own devices while I, with a lovely graduate student from Manchester that we met on the ferry, went to have a cup of tea at the only cafe within five miles:

It’s the converted car garage of the only house within walking distance to Rapness Pier.

After a bracing cup of tea and a Scottish clootie, we all boarded the last ferry off of Westray at 5:55 (arrive Kirkwall at 7:20).

You only need to make a reservation on the ferry if you are bringing a car with you. If you are a pedestrian, you can buy your ticket on the same day.

Upon landing back at Kirkwall (the capital of Orkney, BTW), we took our grad student to the bar/cafe called The Reel to see the Orkney Accordion and Fiddle Club:

It was the hot spot on that Wednesday night so the place was packed. We ran into practically every tourist and resident that we had come into contact the previous two days. We had wine and beers and a jolly good time. We left a ten pound donation for the musicians and we walked the mile out of town back to our lovely BnB in the 10 o’clock twilight:

So the day went pretty much according to plan (my plan), minus the lack of PUFFINS, with just the right amount of chance encounters and unforeseen blessings that make travel such a serendipitous thing no matter how thoroughly you plan it. Plans are good. We should trust The Plan. Not that I’m bragging…but everybody on this trip should, by now, as the sun sets on Day Four of the Scotland Vacation, Get With The Plan.

Or so I thought.

When we flew to Orkney from Edinburgh, the trip took  50 minutes. Getting off of Orkney and traveling to Glasgow by land and sea, the trip will take 2 days. But don’t worry. I have a plan.

Step one: Thursday morning, leave Orkney by ferry and head southwards to the tip of mainland Scotland.

Thursday morning, the ferry from mainland Scotland arrives with 200 passengers who will climb aboard 8 coaches for their various day tours of the isles of Orkney.

 

That same ferry turns around and heads back to the Scottish mainland. Top Cat and I are the only passengers getting off of Orkney this morning.

 

The ferry pulls into John o’ Groats, a small settlement on the mainland of Scotland, the northernmost settlement on Great Britain.

 

A motorcycle club from Manchester gathers for a souvenir photo at the famous milepost on the northernmost tip of Great Britain:

Step Two: Mosey win John o’ Groats for an hour and five minutes (have a nice cup of tea in one of the half-dozen cafes available to wanderers and motorcyclists in John o’ Groats).  Top Cat and I will then board the bus that takes us to the train station in Thurso.

So far, everything has gone to plan.

Looking back, now, on how the rest of the day went, I have to say that sometimes I don’t know what gets into us.

Step Three: It’s now 12:45 in Thurso, and we decide that we would like to skip sight-seeing in Thurso and hop on the 1 o’clock train to Inverness. Problem is, I have pre-purchased our tickets (at a great savings, a month ago), and they are for the 4:32 train to Inverness. In order to convert our pre-paid tickets from the 4:32 to the 1:00, we would have to pay a penalty that amounts to 37 pounds, or $51.00. Which, taking into account the money I saved from pre-purchasing the tickets a month ago, is really only a net penalty of $38.00.

I don’t know what gets into us.

For some reason, we dither and agonize over paying the penalty. OK, the net penalty of $38 almost doubles the cost of the tickets, but it’s only THIRTY EIGHT DOLLARS and we are really in the mood to not hang around Thurso and we are dying to get, as soon as possible, to Inverness.

Oh, how we dither. We calculate and extrapolate and weigh pros and cons as if we were discussing our last thirty eight dollars in the world. Top Cat especially does not like the idea of paying a $38 penalty AT ALL. And if I do say so myself, he’s acting as if I have blown our entire budget by buying the wrong tickets to Inverness in the first place, and I am resenting that I have to take the blame for this dire, catastrophic THIRTY EIGHT DOLLAR miscalculation.

I really do not know what gets into us. As we stand in the Thurso train station and bicker about $38.00, we have so much cash in our pockets that we will end up coming home with over 300 Scottish pounds that we couldn’t manage to spend. But, as is always the case, conversations about money are never (or almost never) about money.

In the end, we pay the $38 penalty and board the 1 o’clock train to Inverness. The conductor makes one pass through the car, calling for all Thurso tickets, and I hold up our newly-issued premium-priced tickets, and he walks right past me as if I am invisible. I am so taken aback that can’t even holler at him YO!  Get back here and take these damn tickets that cost us so much peace of mind!

The conductor is in his 20s and to him, I know from experience, a middle-aged lady like me is invisible…but that has never happened to me when I’ve had my husband in tow. We never see the conductor again.

And now comes the Fish Incident.

Top Cat had purchased fish — some kind of herring, I think — from The Orkney Fisherman’s Society two days ago. It’s what he will have for lunch on the train to Inverness. (I have a cheese sandwich.)

I can not abide the sight of fish, and I especially can not abide the smell of fish. Also, I can not abide people who eat smelly food, such as fish, on public transportation, such as trains. But, since I am not in charge of the world, I can not kick Top Cat off the train for eating smelly fish, so I eat my cheese sandwich in silent, and begrudging, magnanimity.

Top Cat eats slowly. He is enjoying the train ride, the scenery, the shot of whiskey he got off the drinks trolley, and he is especially enjoying his stinking Orkney fish. The minutes tick by.

AN HOUR LATER I can’t take it any more. “OK,” I hiss, “It’s been a fucking hour. Get that stinking fish out of here!”

Top Cat takes great offense to my tone. I take offense that he’s taken offense, and that it took him a goddamn hour to eat his goddamn stinking fish. So that’s where we are…again.

For some reason, Top Cat then pulls out a map of Scotland and studies it. Tomorrow, we are driving from Inverness to Glasgow, and then on to Wigtown. I already have a plan but Top Cat, looking at the map, wants to go a different way. We debate, and then we argue, but Top Cat is adamant. Because, judging from the map, my way looks boring.

His way will be scenic, judging from the map.

Top Cat’s Scenic Route

So we are, to put it mildly, not on the best of terms when, 90 minutes later, the train pulls into Inverness station, in the pouring rain, and we have to find our way through town and across the Ness River through heavy dinner-time traffic IN THE POURING RAIN. We have different ideas about the best way to navigate our way from here to there, and arguing about it on the sidewalk IN THE POURING RAIN is not the best way to reach consensus.

After a false start, and another one, Top Cat does succeed in getting us to our destination, and that’s a good thing.  But now it’s my fault that I booked us into a B&B that he hates. I concede that he has point. The room is very small, and the bathroom is even smaller, and the shower is ridiculously small. But it’s just one night and shit, we’ve been through harder days and had worse rooms (like a mere four years ago when we walked across England on Hadrian’s Wall for 90 miles and yet always managed to cozy up at the end of a grueling day) so I think to myself, and I’m sure it shows on my face, Suck it up, buttercup.

Top Cat stalks out to find a pub and I stay in the room, watching TV. On a BBC program about Glasgow I learn that there’s an  historically significant subway system in the city, so I eagerly put on our To Do List. (P.S. I later learn, in Glasgow, that its historically significant subway, like the rest of Glasgow, sucks.)

The next morning, sore feelings slightly mended by an evening apart from each other and a good breakfast, Top Cat and I continue discussing travel plans for the day. Top Cat wants to drive down from Inverness to Glasgow on the A82 more than I want to drive down from Inverness to Glasgow on the A9, so I give in. OK, we’ll take the A82.

Here’s a picture of the way I wanted to go, on the A9:

Here’s a picture of the way Top Cat wants to go, on the A82:

You might be reading this and you might be wondering, What’s the big deal about the A82?

Here’s the big deal: Three weeks later, Top Cat and I will be sitting on our patio at our house on the north shore of Long Island, soaking up the golden rays and the zephyr breezes of the first Summer-like day of the year, and we will be like a pair of those swans that mate for life, gliding on the smooth surface of untroubled waters, and he will put down his vodka martini and say to me, “It was hard for me to say it then, but you were right. So I’m saying it now, that about a lot of things in Scotland, you were right.”

He will then look at me with love and say, “We should never have taken the A82 from Inverness to Glasgow.”

And that’s a tale of misery that I will share next week. That will be the final installment of Top Cat and Vivian’s  Battle of Scotland, I promise.

But I also promised you, last week, to a story that isn’t really about Scotland (remember?) So here’s my story that isn’t really about Scotland, and it starts in Scotland:

Let’s go back to when Top Cat discovered the Orkney Fisherman’s Society, where he buys the herring that will cause so much stinkitude on the train to Inverness.

Trust me, the Orkney Fisherman’s Society  is well off the tourist track. It’s about a mile out of the town of Stromness, and Top Cat was in heaven when he found that he could get fresh Scottish fish for lunch (and a herring for later). We bought his fish, and were sitting at a picnic table outside the Orkney Fisherman’s Society, having lunch, when something baby-blue, a small flat rock in the corner of the parking lot, caught my eye:

I pick it up and turn it over; there’s a message on the other side. I take it inside the Orkney Fisherman’s Society and ask the nice Polish girl who works there what it means. She brings her supervisor out of the back office, and it is explained to me that this is a game that is going on in the small town of Stromness on Orkney.

There are a number of painted rocks hidden around the town, and the game is that when you find one of them, you take a photo of it, post it to the Facebook page of Stromness Rocks, and you hide it somewhere for someone else to find, and repeat.

“Can I take this home to New York and hide it there?” I ask.

The two ladies at the Orkney Fisherman’s Society look at each with surprise. “Oh, yeah,” they agree, “That would be different.

So I took the blue rock home, and yesterday Top Cat took it to Times Square in New York City:

Of course Top Cat didn’t hide the rock in Times Square because Top Cat and I are going to Kobiayashi Maru it. We are changing the rules of the game.

So far, this is the only Stromness Rock that has made it off Orkney. What we would like to do for this Stromness Rock is, we would like to send it around the world. Or around America. America’s a pretty big, and scenic, place.

So, Dear Readers, if you have a desire to take a rock from Orkney to your hometown and are willing to photograph it at a memorable landmark for the children of Stromness, please contact me. Let’s make a chain, from me to you to you to you…put out the word.

The Stromness Rock fits easily into a pocket or a purse, so if you are traveling to an exotic locale it would be easy to take it along for the Photo Op.

Everybody who takes the Stromness Rock for an outing will be put on my ChrisHanuKwanSostice list and will receive my hand-painted holiday card this coming December.

And everyone who gets on the list will be entered into a contest to win one of my original watercolors (we haven’t had a give-away in a long time!). I’ll paint the portrait of the cat or dog of your choice.

 

Have a great Pride Weekend, everyone. I have to go break up a fight in the Comments section of this blog now, but I will be back here next Thursday or Friday and I hope you’ll be here too.

Read more

We had one, count ’em: ONE, sunny day this past week here on the north shore of Long Island and Steve made the most of it.

Life is good when you open your front door and there’s a cat on the mat, dreaming in the sunshine. Otherwise, it’s been raining all day, every day, and the house feels damp and dreary and the used book store that I co-manage for our local library has been swamped with abundant useless donations. I have no interesting stories from the world of books this week, so let’s go back to The Trail of Tears AKA My Scotland Adventure.

If you thought that last week’s tale of woe in Edinburgh was the end of the drama let me assure you that that was just the beginning.

When last we saw Vivian and Top Cat, they were arguing while stuck at Security in Edinburgh Airport, watching the seconds vanish as they tried to do 30 minutes of business in 10 minutes’ time. I race to the gate to hold the jet to Orkney while Top Cat tries to persuade officials that his two bottles of duty-free vodka mean no harm to the people and institutions of Scotland. The doors have just been opened for access to the plane to Kirkwall (capital of Orkney) but no one had bothered to actually get on the plane yet.

I scan the concourse for any sign of Top Cat and when at last I see him coming my way I wave to him, almost happy to see him, “Here we are! We made it!” but he avoids eye contact. He stops half-way to the gate and sits down with his back to me. This is classic Silent Treatment shit. Fine. That’s how he wants to do this, fine.

I take my place at the back of the line to board the plane, and as I hand in my boarding pass I tell the man at the desk that my husband — the guy lingering in the waiting area — has to be the last person on the plane.

“Likes to make an entrance, does he?” the man jokes. “No,” I say to myself; “He’s just being a dick.”

I have arranged, via a phone call to LoganAir several weeks ago when I bought our tickets and I asked the lovely Scottish lass at HQ what were the best seats for viewing our flight over Scotland, for us to sit in the back of this 30-seat plane. I take my seat in row #12 and wait for Top Cat to take his,  row #13. But he sits in row #9.

He intends to ignore me even on the plane. But his plan is thwarted when the steward tells Top Cat that he has to move because every seat on the plane is booked, so he reluctantly sits behind me.

He chats with the rugby player across the aisle and we do not speak during the 50-minute flight.

We land in Kirkwall (pop. 9,293), Orkney.

The airport is a very large shed.

Our lovely B&B host picks us up and drives us to his home about a mile outside of city center. We dump the bags and walk out to town.

This is the city center:

It’s rude of me, but I had to get a snap of this young girl walking home with her groceries because she’s holding a huge bottle of Scotland’s famous national drink, IRNBRU. Its orange and tastes like fizzy bubblegum.

We stumble upon a gorgeous Photo-Op when I spot a fat white-and-orange cat comes strolling down the road. I fumble to get my camera out of my pocket, so Top Cat decides to call to the cat PssssPssssPsss and scares the poor thing. She starts to run almost out of my frame, but I manage to catch the moggy just in time (see below, but it’s not the picture I envisioned).  We are being cautiously civil to each other, Top Cat and I, but the truce is very fragile, so I do not bitch at him for not fucking keeping his fucking mouth fucking shut.

The Universe rewards me for my forbearance because I find a 5-pound note on the sidewalk. I’m pretty sure it did not belong to the cat or else I would have returned it.

We take in Saint Magnus Cathedral, but not together. I mean, we are in the cathedral at the same time, but we are never in proximity to one anther.

This is what 9:30 PM looks like in Kirkwall, Orkney in late May:

This is sun set at 10:00 PM from our bedroom window:

I want to settle in and watch the BBC in our little sitting area in the room, but Top Cat says he didn’t come all the way to Orkney to watch TV and he’d rather discuss travel plans for tomorrow. So I graciously turn off the TV and wait.

Top Cat sits and sulks. I am pissed. The B&B is lovely, but it was Top Cat’s choice and it’s a mile out of town and that’s a long way to walk when it’s 45 degrees and raining. I am pissed that we didn’t stay in the charming little place I found right in the center of town but noooooo, Top Cat thought it would be too “busy”. [P. S. Kirkwall is never “busy”.] I am pissed because I had wanted to book a day tour of Orkney’s tourist spots but Top Cat said No, we’ll manage it ourselves, even though he has not done any research into what there is to see until a few hours ago when we hit the Tourist Office in “busy” downtown Kirkwall. I am pissed because  I’ve done a lot of research about Orkney and I’ve turned off the TV and now he’s not even talking to me about what his plan for the day will be. And I am still plenty pissed about what happened in Edinburgh.

I will not bore you with how we never got around to discussing plans for tomorrow and how the fight started and how it escalated, and how really nasty it got. But at 10:00 Top Cat walks out and I sit in my chair. I don’t turn on the TV. I sit in my chair, hating him, Kirkwall, Orkney, and Scotland. But him most of all.

Top Cat comes back after half an hour but we did not speak. I sit in my chair, he goes to bed. I sit until it gets dark, and I sit until it is midnight, and I sit until it is 2AM. Then I wake up in the chair sometime in the middle of the night, which is just before dawn on Orkney in May:

I go to bed, and Top Cat is lucky that I do not stab him in his sleep.

In the morning, something wakens me with a jolt. It is Top Cat. He is kissing me on the cheek, and he’s saying he is sorry that he lost his temper last night. He’s heading into town. “Text me when you’re up,” he says. I fall back to sleep.

Several hours later, I find Top Cat sitting outside the ferry terminal in Kirkwall. I kiss him and I say, “Let’s start over.”

Top Cat says, “So we wont’ talk about what happened last night?”

“Yeah, we will,” I say, “But later, when we’re OK.”

P. S. During this trip, we will add to that future talk (when we are OK) several other topics of conversation, one called That Problem In Thurso Was Your Fault, another one called Only Dickheads Eat Fish on The Train, one that we refer to as  The Rain Wasn’t Your Fault But Everything Else in Inverness Was, and the huge bone of contention that we call The Hideous 265 Miles Before and After Glasgow That You Made Even Worse.

And we take a long, long, healing walk in the countryside of Orkney.

Same photo as above, but this one was taken by a nice lady passing by.

Orkney is a good place to be if you love Standing Stones. Above, in order:

Barnhouse Stone, aligned to the entrance of the net-lithic tomb called Maeshowe (the mound in the background), c. 2800 BCE.

The Stenness Standing Stones, the oldest henge in the British Isles, c. 3100 BCE.

The Stenness Watch Stone, 19 feet high, probably sited as a link between The Steness Standing Stones and

The Ring of Brodar, generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.

We still had plenty of sunlight left so we got on a bus and went to the other large (pop. 2,200) town on the island.

Cruise ships stop in at Stromness, as in Kirkwall, and the cruisers pile out in a horde and nobody in town likes them.

I found a thrift shop for The Cat’s Protection League in Stromness and I bought a wonderful old illustrated copy of Wind in the Willows for 80 pence and I give the sweet girl at the till the 5-pound note I found in Kirkwall. She was very thankful but since a cat helped me find it in the first place, it was the only thing to do.

We continued on to the very southern tip of the island to Saint Margaret’s Hope (pop. 550).

A tree! I saw a tree!

Orkney used to have forests about 10,000 years ago, but in the Bronze Age (about 3,700 years ago) the climate changed, becoming every colder and wetter. Whatever forest did not die out due to the harsh conditions was cut down by the humans to make way for farms in the little land that remained fertile for crops.

We walked around town, saw stuff, and stopped in at Robertson’s General Store. When Top Cat was at the counter ordering our drinks, one of the locals heard his accent and drawled, “The cruise ship must be in town,” which I only understood a little too late to correct him with a kindly, Shut the fuck up do we look like fucking cruisers??

In the UK, you can order a Small, Medium, or Large glass of wine, and the bartender knows exactly — to the milliliter — how much to give you. I don’t like it.

People we met in St. Margaret’s Hope and elsewhere on the island who were delightful include the Scottish woman walking her two dogs that she got from Corfu, where her daughter runs a rescue; the English lady who bought her Orkney house on the phone sight unseen; the lady whose great-great-grandmother was famous in 1850 for eating the most expensive breakfast in Scotland; a group of university students from Edinburgh who play folk music on Orkney which included the one guy had a crush on a girl he kept calling Vivian! Vivian! Vivian!; the ten-year old boy who drinks coffee; the punk/hard rock guy from Sweden who designs kilts; the woman who owns wooly pigs from Korea because they do very well in Orkney climate; the Polish girl who’s lived in Stromness for 6 years and works at the Fish Shop where Top Cat got the fish he ate on the train, etc etc etc. We had a lot of people to talk to, so that kept us out of trouble.

So ends our Good Day in Orkney.

Next week I may, or may not, tell you about the next fight on the agenda, depending on whether or not you, Dear Readers, are fed up already. But next week I definitely have a nice story for you, set in Scotland but not really about Scotland, that we can make inter-active!

See you next Friday, Dear Ones.

Have a great weekend, and don’t eat fish on the train.

XXOO

 

Read more

For over three months we’ve had these nine novels by J. Fenimore Cooper (American novelist, 1781 – 1851) in the  used book store that I co-manage for the local library here on the north shore of Long Island. Nobody ever looked at them because they are by J. Fenimore Cooper (who is neither an especially beloved nor notorious author). I thought we’d be stuck with them forever.

Then I went to Wigtown (Scotland’s national Book Town; see last week’s blog post) and I saw that one of the booksellers there had tied up a stack of red books (matching bindings) with a bit of twine and it looked very handsome. So, naturally, as soon as I got home I stacked our nine novels by J. Fenimore Cooper and tied them up with a purple ribbon (I didn’t have access to twine):

Within an hour, they had sold. $10.00.

I also stole other equally excellent merchandising ideas from Wigtown, and I will show them to you at a later date.

Because this week I have so much to tell you about our worst trip to Scotland that I want to dive right in.

As we packed for our Saturday departure, we checked the weather forecast for Scotland. It was going to be cold and rainy so at the last minute, I shoved a pair of black corduroy pants into the suitcase.

Turned out that I wore those damn corduroy pants every day that I was in Scotland. So, YAY for last minute inspirations.

An hour before our Uber was to pick us up to go to JFK Airport, I found the first Blue Jay feather of the year so I yelled to Top Cat: It’s an omen!! Everything is going to go right on this trip!!

And the universe laughed.

Well, we got to JFK two hours early and immediately checked in yada yada yada, and then we headed to the latest fab attraction in New York City. We had to hang out at the newly refurbished TWA Terminal!!

This rehab of a gorgeous mid-century modern building at JFK has been in the news so here’s the press release::

After years of back-and-forth about construction, permissions and rights, the long-awaited TWA Hotel opens its doors  at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Trans World Airlines (better known as TWA) commissioned groundbreaking Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen to design its JFK terminal in 1962. Following the airline’s closure in 2001, many questions remained about what would happen to the swooping white building.
Now, it has a new and exciting second life as JFK’s only on-site airport hotel, with 512 rooms and some 50,000 feet of meeting and event space.

You get access to the TWA building by an elevator at the Jet Blue concourse in Terminal 4.

Heart. Be. Still. Everything about the place and the excellent re-hab evokes the glory days of air travel, and the mid-century optimism that the future was going to be awesome.

I remember this place from my last visit, in the early 1990s, and it was a bit run down back then but still beautiful. The re-hab makes the place sparkling and exciting.

The cocktail lounge inside the terminal is very cool. You know, of course, that the building is in the shape of a soaring bird of prey, and all the inside lines swoop and glide.

It’s a thrill.

And then you get to go outside to the Lockheed Constellation (in service from 1943 – 1958) . . .

. . . that has been converted into a bar that serves retro cocktails!

See the guy on the left,  (below)?

He reminds me of an observation that David Seders made about American air travelers. David lives in England these days, so when he does a book tour in the land of his birth, he is struck anew by the way Americans comport themselves when it comes to air travel:

“I should be used to the way Americans dress when traveling, yet it still manages to amaze me. It’s as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge saying, “Fuck this. I’m going to Los Angeles!”

The bar, and the TWA Hotel, had been open for 10 days when we stopped by, and were still having opening-day jitters. Meaning that the service was slow and uncertain; I mean the servers were uncertain and slow. It seemed to me that most of the servers had never worked in a bar before, or been to a bar before, and had not come to grips with the concept of taking an order, putting the requisite liquids in a glass, and lastly handing over said liquid refreshment to the person who had ordered it, and not some random person who might look thirsty. Despite all their rushing to and fro, the servers took a long time to get a drink (the one you ordered) and longer to find the person who had requested the drink, and nobody was picking up the used glasses and tid bit plates and napkins throughout the cabin.

Also, I thought the cocktail dress uniforms were ugly . . .

. . . but now I know that they are based upon a vintage flight attendant uniform from the 1970s:

I know an ex-TWA stewardess who flew with the airline in the late 60s and early 70s, and she still goes to reunions with other stews. Once a TWA stew, always a TWA stew.

There is such a vibrant community of former stewardesses that when the TWA Hotel put out a call for vintage uniforms, they got so many women eager to be part of the rebirth of TWA that the hotel had enough material to mount a museum of stewardess fashions and other memorabilia from the 1940s to the 1990s. (Curated by the New-York Historical Society. Serious and fancy!)

Stewardesses were never allowed to gain weight. If you got lax and put on a few pounds, you were grounded until you could fit back into the teeny little uniforms. When these adorable ladies came through the cabin, I sussed that the average stew back then was a size 2:

That’s Top Cat’s $16.00 martini (above). I had a $15 glass of white wine.

Here’s more info about the Balmain uniform seen above:

There is a lot of love for the TWA brand, and a lot of nostalgia for those Jet Set days when air travel was glamorous. If you have the chance to go for a drink or a walk around the TWA Hotel, GO.

I loved our hour in “the Connie”, which put me in a fine mood for jetting off to my favorite foreign land.

And then we boarded our Aer Lingus aircraft.

I am 5’6″ and a size 4, so I usually fit very comfortably  in tourist-class seats. This Aer Lingus tin can had thin, flimsy seats set so close together that I was playing nik nak paddy whack with my shins on the back of the guy in front of me. For 6 hours.

I usually like airline food (It’s so cute! A miniature TV dinner!) but the only non-meat option on the menu was “macaroni and cheese”, which the Irish interpret as a slab of semi-melted dairy product adjacent to a very large noodle.

Hungry and bruised, we landed in Edinburgh and, once again, foreign travel was magical.

If you have my book Gardens of Awe and Folly, you know what this is.

A Paul Weller sighting! Another good omen! My husband in my other life (the one where I lit out for the UK in the 1980s and married a rock star) will be doing a show at Edinburgh Castle on July 11 so I wished him luck:

After walking for hours on a cloudy and chilly afternoon and there is nothing better than warming up at a pub:

Then night came, and we had a heavenly sleep, and then to City Cafe for Eggs Royale (softly poached eggs with smoked salmon in hollandaise space o a toasted muffin) that Top Cat said was the single best breakfast he’s had in his life.

I lingered at a vintage costume Scottish jewelry stand in the Tron Square to buy a brooch. Then it was much too late to be lingering around Edinburgh so Top Cat and I hurried to the hotel to fetch our bags and we began to trot to Waverly Station to catch a bus back to the airport so we could fly to Orkney.

“Trot” is the word I use to denote the average speed between Top Cat, who was (deliberately, it seemed to me) casually strolling down South Bridge Street to Cockburn Street to Market Street, and I (in full panic mode), running ahead of him, my heart and lungs bursting with fear of one mistake in timing over the purchase of a vintage brooch leading to another leading to a missed flight.

I arrive at Waverly Station and oh, joy! The airport bus is there, idling. I turn to find Top Cat, but I can’t see him yet. I get on the bus and pant, to the driver, “My husband is coming!”

The driver says, “Step off the bus, miss. We’re leaving.”

I am almost in tears. “Wait! Please, wait!” And I lean out of the bus and I see Top Cat in the distance.

“Hurry!” I call to him. “HURRY!”

Top Cat, to prove a point, does not break stride.

“HURRY!” I shout. Top Cat does not like to be shouted at, least of all in public. He does will not hurry.

“Step off, miss” the driver says to me; “I’m closing the doors.”

“Oh, please, my husband’s coming!” I plead, but I have to step off. Top Cat is within striking distance, but the driver shuts the door in my face just as T.C. ambles alongside me (proving a point), and the bus pulls out.

The next airport bus is in 20 minutes. These are 20 minutes that we can’t spare. These are 20 minutes that we could have been closing in on the LoganAir desk at Edinburgh airport, 20 minutes that could mean the difference between getting to the airport with a merely uncomfortable allowance of time to get through a rigorous security, and a (now, thanks to Top Cat) impossible one.

For the next 20 minutes, I can not stand the sight of Top Cat. We get on the next bus, and my heart is still pounding and I feel as if my brain is on fire. Were I the kind of girl who cries when vexed, I would be sobbing. Top Cat and I exchange words, tersely at first and then with mounting vehemence.

I won’t give you the back and forth; suffice to say that for the next 12 hours or so, Top Cat and I will have very different, and monstrously strong, and at times loud, ideas about who was being the shithead in taking his sweet old time to prove a point about when it is, and when it isn’t necessary to HURRY, while the other one was trying her best AND WOULD HAVE SUCCEEDED in getting us out of a tight spot. We also have extremely opposed opinions about how much we are entitled to sulk like a two year old if one of us thinks the other one is “yelling” at him.

Edinburgh airport security is no joke. It’s not that there’s a thousand people herded into a space that would be quite jolly as a tea for two parlor; it’s that the officers are as suspicious of everyone as if this was Tel Aviv and all our hand luggage is branded TerroristsRUs.

I inch my way though all the hurdles, but Top Cat has brought two bottles of Duty Free vodka in his carry on (don’t ask) and Security is sure it’s nitroglycerin. He’s searched again, and again. And then again.

I am having a heart attack: it’s 5 minutes until LoganAir flight 19 to Kirkwall, Orkney closes its doors. I yell at Top Cat that I will meet him at the gate and I tear through an absurdly lengthy shopping area to get to Gate 25. I will lay my body down in front of the jet if it tries to leave without Top Cat.

Naturally, it’s the last gate in the terminal. The one furthest away from ANYWHERE.

Yes, we eventually get on the plane. But at this point, neither of us has any desire to go to fucking Orkney. Or to speak to each other. Or to be married.

Jet lag, too many glasses of hooch the night before, anxiety about the itinerary. . . there are a lot of contributing factors to why people are more touchy than usual when in foreign lands.

And that is all for this week’s installment of Fight Club Goes to Scotland. Thank you for letting me use this space to process my vacation. As I write about it, even now, I feel my blood pressure rocket. I will do some deep breathing and try to stop my heart from pounding in my eyeball sockets.

I am sorry that this post is late, because the internet hates me. I have to call my blog host about this “Bad Gateway” situation again. We’ll probably have to chat about caches, and ADSLs, and codecs and jjlodaasl;dfj. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to do it sober.

I’m sorry if the TWA Hotel was boring — next time, I’ll stick to the travelog and all the scintillating ways your spouse can drive you crazy.

Here’s Taffy:

Read more

I’m used to getting weird phone calls from people who want to donate books to the little used book store that I co-manage for our local library here on the north shore of Long Island. But still, when the phone rang last Tuesday evening I was surprised, because it was the first time in about five days that I’d had to answer it .

And it’s a guy, explaining that he and his wife are empty-nesters and down-sizing, so they loaded up her car with all their unwanted books — lots of good adult and children’s fiction, hundreds of books, the car is stuffed full — and she’s been driving around to libraries in the area all day but all those libraries have refused to take their donation, and that’s how he got my number from the people at the library that I sell used books for.

So me, being the helpful and saintly person that I am, I tell the guy: I’m sorry, but fiction does not re-sell, so GOOD NEWS! You can throw it all away without guilt!

But the guy on the phone does not want to hear the GOOD NEWS because he is operating under a common delusion known as the Endowment Effect (it’s a real thing. you can look it up) so he’s thinking that because these are his old books that the mere fact of his ownership makes his old books unlike anybody else’s old books and much much more valuable than other people’s old books. Phone Guy is shocked at my advise to throw his books in the trash and he can explain why his old books are a cut above your average old books that have already been rejected by every library in the land.

Well, Phone Guy says; Two of my children went to Harvard, so they were reading really high quality fiction.

He says: Can’t I drop them off with you anyway, and your people can sort through them and throw out what you don’t want?

In other words: Can’t I make this filthy load of useless old books that everyone else has rejected your problem now?

And what’s with this “your people” shit?

Oh, no, I say; I can’t ask my volunteers to do that kind of dirty work and I can’t do it myself because, actually, I’m in Scotland right now.

I can literally hear the sneer in Phone Guy’s voice as he says, Well dear me, I wouldn’t want to bother you in Scotland, and he hangs up on me.

Yes, Dear Readers, it’s the truth. I went to Scotland for ten days in late May/early June and if you read the headline to this week’s blog post, you already got the gist of it. . . Top Cat and I agree that it was the worst experience that we’ve ever had in our favorite foreign country, and is quite possibly, in general, the worst nine out of ten days we’ve ever had in life.

You’ll have to read all about it next week because I’m here, today, to tell you about the one out of ten days that did not chomp down on our last nerve like a ravenous vulture feeding on a rotting raccoon carcass and then puke it back up all over our hopes and dreams of a nice get-away from the cares and worries of every day der Dumpster’s America.

That’s right, Dear Readers. Top Cat and I drove on Scotland’s narrowest, foggiest, scariest, slowest piddly back roads all the way to the southwestern uplands of Scotland, a part of “the Borders” called Galloway. The area became a popular destination for young lovers after the Marriage Act was passed in 1754 in England, which outlawed marriages without parental consent if either party was under 21, but you were good if you could make it to Scotland because the marriage laws there were much more lenient. Galloway is just over the northern border from England and a cruel, horrible 95 miles south of Glasgow.

I was in Galloway because I wanted to see (as the sign says), Scotland’s National Book Town.

This is Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town (population 982), on a good day:

We were not there on a good day:

We stayed at a BnB and our room was over the Shoots and Leaves Vegetarian cafe:

To get the lay of the land, Top Cat and I climbed the tower of the County Building:

The body of water in the distance is a slice of The Irish Sea:

From our overlook I noticed something interesting in one of the back gardens:

Bunny! Please note the fur on this pet rabbit. It will become almost unbearably too cute at a later point in this story:

I had come to Wigtown, Scotland’s Book Town, because of a book. This book:

Shaun Bythell (it’s pronounced exactly the way it’s spelled) owns and operates the largest used book store in Scotland. I came across his book a few months ago in one of the donations that came in to the used book store that I co-manage for the local library here on the north shore of Long Island. IT IS FABULOUS. Shaun Bythell is cranky, funny, smart, and open-minded about the oddities and peculiarities of people. He observes and records friends, rude customers, incompetent employees, villains (Amazon), and famous writers with the same deadpan amusement. Even if you do not co-manage a used book store, you will adore this reading experience. I guarantee it.

This (above) is the American hard cover version of his book, published by Melville House in Brooklyn in September 2018. It was originally published by Profile Books in Great Britain in 2017, when it became a huge best seller in the UK.

Since I got my copy of the book for free, I felt honor-bound to buy a copy from Shaun’s bookshop and this is the UK  paperback cover:

Look carefully at both covers. They have something crucial in common.

Shaun has a book store cat.

Shaun’s cat is named Captain and his comings and goings are one of the recurring sub-plots in the book and I had to meet this cat.

I stopped in at Shaun’s book shop — it’s called The Bookshop — and I asked about Captain and was told that he’d just been let out for his morning ramble. What a disappointment.

Anyway, I looked around The Bookshop, bought my copy of Diary of a Bookseller, and wandered next door to the children’s book shop, called Curly Tale Books, in search of the vintage illustrated children’s books that I like to cut up and make into castles and miniature golf courses. I rummaged for half an hour.

And then this happened:

Me, in love.

Without a doubt, these were the happiest moments of my Scotland vacation. Captain is huge, by the way, and very cool. He moseys around town and likes to drop in on other booksellers, as you can see, and make himself at home:

Captain, having surveyed his realm and deduced that all was well in Wigtown, departed Curly Tale Books and headed back to Shaun’s place:

There’s a reason for the bench in this picture (above) being painted this way. Although you might not have any idea how to find Galloway on a map of Scotland, I think you might be familiar with one of its most famous namesakes:

The Belted Galloway is a traditional Scottish breed of beef cattle. It derives from the Galloway cattle of the Galloway region of south-western Scotland, and was established as a separate breed in 1921. It is adapted to living on the poor upland pastures and windswept moorlands of the region.

Belted Galloways are primarily raised for their quality marveled beef, although they are often kept for ornament.

Thanks, Wikipedia.

Now, take a quick back track to that bunny rabbit I spied hopping around the back garden. I’ll wait here while you take in that rabbit’s fur.  And now we’ll both go SQUWEEEEEEEE!!!! HOW CUTE IS THAT!!!!

Back to our story: So Captain walks a few feet and then pauses, taking in his options:

These two West Highlanders were soon banished from the streets of southwestern Scotland and here is Captain, doing his mind-meld with whoever is on the other side of the door, to let him in:

Spoiler: It was me.

Now I can give you a quick tour of Shuan’s book shop. It has over a mile of shelving, where 100,000 books hope to one day find their forever homes.

Yes, it was as dark as it looks in these pix. I asked the young girl at the wrap desk about this and she told me that Shuan was away for the weekend and he had left her in charge and she didn’t know where the light switch was. Once you read Shaun’s book, you’ll understand that this is pretty much how The Bookshop usually works.

The wee sign says, The Littlest Antique Shop in the World. It’s in an old fireplace.

This is one of the reading areas and it quotes Terry Pratchett on the mantel: Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.

Doesn’t every book store have a stuffed badger? You can buy reprinted antique maps from the drawers of the bureau. I was in the shop for ten minutes when a neighborhood guy came in and showed the young girl in charge where the light switch was.

People from around the world like to send Shaun postcards with bookish messages:

I had brought my copy of Diary of a Bookseller from the north shore of Long Island in hopes of getting Shaun to autograph it but he was out of town and besides, it was only the second-most important thing on my Wigtown To Do List. I’d met Captain — I’d held Captain — and that love-fest would do fine as my Wigtown Fantasy Fulfilled.

I had a lengthy chat with the neighborhood guy who had bestowed light upon The Bookshop and I learned a lot about what Shuan has been up to since his book was published. He also assured me that Shaun’s “bark is worse than his bite.”

This is the UK hard cover of his book, in which the cat is too small and looks like a dog:

And this is my 11 0’clock at night photo of the same, Scotland’s largest used book store:

In late May and early June the sun sets in Scotland at 10:09 PM but it takes a looooooong time for the last rays of light to fade from the sky. And then, at 4:11 AM it comes blasting in through the window and you think Holy Shit, how do people sleep in these conditions??

It was Saturday night in Wigtown and we were at the pub watching Liverpool beat Top Cat’s Tottenham Hot Spurs for the Champions Cup. In case you don’t know, it’s soccer. And the game was played in Madrid. It was a huge deal over there.

Top Cat (in the green shirt) talking to his new Wigtown friend about driving down on the A82 from Inverness. Oh, the horror.

Half time:

Pink Gin Venom is a good name for a drink but I’ll stick with a glass of Pinot Grigio and bitter memories, please:

One last thing that you must know about about Wigtown is its world-famous Bed and Breakfast called The Open Book:

The Open Book is the brainchild of Shaun Bythell’s ex-girlfriend, an American from LA. Her name is Jessica Fox and she wrote a memoir about taking a vacation in Galloway and falling in love with a tall, red-haired owner of the largest used book store in Scotland. She published her book first, and encouraged Shaun to write his, so we have her to think for Diary of a Bookseller and for this genius BnB.

Jessica Fox’s book is called Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets and it is horrible. I bought it in Wigtown and I hated reading every page of it. Save yourself. Don’t buy it. I don’t have the energy to tell you why it is so very repugnant but when I get my second wind (I’ve only had two days back from the worst nine out of ten days of my life) I might do a full review for you — I noted all the most whiny, dumb, egotistical, self-flattering, and unlikable bits.

But I can’t take away the fact that her idea for The Open Book is wonderful.

The deal is, you rent out the BnB upstairs for a week and you get to operate the book store below, however you want. It’s been an enormous success, and the place is booked up until 2025. You can read a New York Times article about it here.

When I was in Wigtown, one week ago (May 31 and June 1), The Open Book was being “managed” by a nice 9th-grade school teacher from Oklahoma:

She brought paint chips from Muskogee (really):

This was from some Italian “managers” a few weeks ago:

And with that, we must close the shutters on The Open Book and start counting the hours until it’s five o’clock somewhere.

My darling Top Cat is the best husband a co-manager of a used book store could ever have. He took me all the way from the north shore of Long Island to Wigtown, in the remotest far nether regions of Scotland, all because I wanted to meet a cat and he still loves me and I haven’t even told you about dragging him to the opposite end of outer limits yet.

P.S. I was in Scotland when the Friends of the library met to discuss the Odious Wednesday Volunteer’s “issues”, however I got a full report and it was as petty as expected. You and me, Dear Readers, let’s meet here next week and I’ll fill you in on that, as well as why you should never go to Orkney and Wigtown on the same trip, and why you should definitely never go to Glasgow. I fucking hate Glasgow.

Have a great weekend, everyone. 75 years ago the world was united against evil. We will overthrow evil once again in 2020.

Read more