Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Adventures and dreams

Rudyard Kipling once saw the Taj Mahal from a train window and it was so beautiful that he vowed never to go closer: nothing could equal that vision.

Since I was a teenager, I've dreamed of the islands off the coast of Scotland:
*the Orkneys as they were described in THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING by TH White (a tall stone tower castle surrounded by sea and wind)

*Iona as it looked in the film CIVILIZATION by Kenneth Clark -- again, a tower, but this one surrounded by wildflowers and wind

*a small island in the Hebrides as John MacPhee described it in the NEW YORKER--he lived there for a year, there was nothing commercial on the island except a combination of Post Office and shop, labeled with a card on the door that said "The Shop"

*another island in the Hebrides as described by Josephine Tey, one of my favorite authors, in THE SINGING SANDS -- it rains, the wind literally knocks the hero down, he comes back to his hotel really hungry and wonders what they'll give him for dinner.

He wouldn't turn up his nose at a piece of grilled sea trout, if it turned out to be that. Grilled with local butter. But he hoped for lobster --the island was famous for its lobsters -- and failing that, some herring fresh from the sea, split, and fried after being dipped in oatmeal.

His first meal in the isles of delight consisted of a couple of bright orange kippers cured and liberally dyed in Aberdeen, bread made in Glasgow...the only local produce was a pallid, haggis-shaped mound of crowdie, a white crumbly byproduct without smell or taste.

Despite the wind, there's no fresh air in his room: the window won't open. And at that the hero lies in his bed and laughs and laughs, for the first time in months. Other things happen; he drinks whisky and dances at a ceildh, great whiskey; the scenery is breathtaking, on the rare moments when he can see it through the rain -- and the trip turns out to be wonderful.

*not an island (though I thought for a long time that it had been filmed on the Isle of Skye) but the village and landscape in the movie LOCAL HERO -- houses huddled by the sea, green fields, no trees, white sandy beaches that go on for miles and miles.

This landscape has dominated my imagination all my life. Almost every day, I've imagined being there, in the Northern light I love and have experienced elsewhere, with the wind and the sea and the grass (I love those open landscapes) and sometimes cliffs or white beaches and whatever else is some places, villages by the sea where every house is a different color, as the houses in New England were until the Greek Revival when everything got painted white.

But I've never been. Once, I had a trip all planned -- and then Blow Out the Moon was accepted and needed rewriting, so I didn't go.

Now, I AM going. At this moment, I'm more scared than excited -- WILL it be as I imagine? Probably not. For one thing, in my imagination, it's sunny-- and I know from reading and other people that it rains almost every day: one island had only 18 days without rain in a year! It may be hard to get to some islands-- there may be long waits at ferry and train stations, missed boats, hotels that are a long walk from where I land (and what I will really object to, more expensive: but it's silly to make reservations because I won't really know when I'll arrive, since when the weather is bad the ferries don't go). But that's not what worries me: I'm like Kipling, except that he saw the Taj Mahal from a train and I've seen these places in my mind's eye and on film.

But it's better to find out what they're really like -- and I hope that even if they're very different from what I'm imagining, they will be wonderful. And (this just occurred to me as I was writing this post!) even if they're not, I will always have my imagined version of them. Maybe I'll even write about that someday, or the new reality the trip gives me.

In the meantime, I'll post what I do see here in August. And these are the islands I'm going to; if anyone has suggestions, please tell me!

maybe Coll
Orkney Mainland
Mainland Shetland

I'm planning to get to the Hebrides by taking the train to Oban and Mallaig, to the Orkneys and Shetlands EITHER by taking the train to Aberdeen and an overnight ferry from there to Lerwick, Shetland, then on to the Orkeys,also by ferry. OR, I could take a train to Scarbster,ferry to Orkney, and then head North by ferry to the Shetlands.

Lastly, it's good to get the burbling out of my system now because I know from experience how much the Brits hate it. Once I was walking in London and came upon the house where Jane Austen had stayed with her brother Henry -- I was just staring, transfixed, when a nice Englishman asked if he could help. Without thinking, I blurted out what I was thinking about (those of you who know me and how much I love Jane Austen can imagine) and could SEE his look of friendliness vanish. He might as well have just said disgustedly,
"Another American nutcase."
But of course, he was far too polite to do that.